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Dissecting Stranger Things 3, Episode 3's Subplots

This article is part of a series meant to review Stranger Things 3 (2019), per episode. Here is my review of episode three: "The Case of the Missing Lifeguard" It's a bit longer, and analyzes season 3's web of subplots and Gothic content thus far. Spoilers!

Before going in, I automatically wondered "Shouldn't 'Lifeguard' be plural?" Bill disappears, but so does the Linda Barrett lookalike (currently anonymous). Both of them were lifeguards.

I digress. The episode starts at Hopper's place, where Max and Eleven are fantasizing about other boys (including a centerfold of the Karate Kid, himself, Ralph Macchio). Max continues to liberate Eleven, encouraging her that Mike will come crawling back (as Lucas often does). Apparently she'd kill to see "their stupid faces," so Eleven blindfolds up.

In this case, the normally unsettling "dark space" is a site for comedy. Eleven peers in on the hare-brained theories of emotionally confused teenage boys: "Women act on emotions, not logic." Granted, this itself is an aging horror trope: "women as Other," as Simone de Beauvoir puts it. In any case, the idea of the female as monstrous, as a kind of site for ancient fears (the Archaic Mother) that threaten the male line of succession—it's a popular masculine nightmare, while also being a place for men to obsess about or desire. Here, it's played for laughs, but the female monster (often phallic) is ubiquitous in horror literature of all kinds.

And if this all seems unflattering, the portrayal of men is hardly any better. Mike and Lucas are left stumped, alienated by the very things they crave. In this obsession, their coping mechanism is to burp and fart "to smell the nacho cheese." It's all a bit silly (and Max and Eleven can scarcely contain themselves). As this scene demonstrates, it also plays out in a variety of ways, the monstrous a medium to express our treatment of others, including how we view them.

This carries over in how Eleven and Max decide to use her powers to spy on boys (the selection method, spinning the bottle, suggests a juvenile, party, sexual element). Looking for him, the "dark space" loses its humor. Ominous music drones while Eleven sees Bill's damaged car, and Bill himself on the floor, talking to someone. Except this time, looking into the void, the void looks back. This is somewhat new to Eleven, and unpleasant.

Elsewhere, a new day brings with it new events. Lucas and Mike  are roused by Will the Wise. Wearing a purple robe as  the "Podling Village" theme from The Dark Crystal (1982) plays in the background, Will envisions for them their destiny—one free of girls, and full of adventure! But Lucas needs a shower, first. Cue the classic, overused Psycho (1960) shot: the looming shower head. It's Hopper. He has a hangover.

Joyce shows up. Hopper's mad, though, and wants to scold her for standing him up. She's worried about magnets. While Hopper is mad, I recall that he really pushed for a date (as "friends") that Joyce wasn't ready for. And when it doesn't work out, he wants her to feel guilty. It's weird to see him acting this way. And like the boys, he's treating the woman he's mad at as nuts. For a guy who doesn't think with his dick, Hopper's doing a lot of it, at the moment—and in a town known for its fair share of weird shit, to boot! (As far as that goes, I'm pretty sure the giant transformer is a replica of the machine, built by the Russians, or Kline collating with them, while he uses the fair as a giant distraction.)

Joyce, already traumatized, gets jumpy. Whereas Hopper just wants to "move on," she wants to dug up the past. Her mind's made up. So is Eleven's (whose mind powers are a little more literal than Joyce's). Eleven's worried, because she heard screams; Max thinks these are "happy screams" (orgasms). The difference between the two groups is largely experience or lack thereof. Trauma and mystery collide inside a single space populated by familiar faces. The compass is their gut, which quickly gets confused by oscillating feelings, themselves tipped by the presence of sex.

This continues for Eleven (the heroine) and Max (the chatty servant) as they walk through the house, lorded over by Bill (a false, dangerous man). His room is peppered with clues, none of them good. The presence of "dirty" sex is rubbed all over the place. There's an ambiguous criminality to the whole ordeal. Meanwhile, they're looking for Bill, not realizing he's a double; and the clues—of the blood-spattered life guard whistle and medicine bag—are more ambiguous still because they could be his, or the girl's, say nothing of the blood.

Nancy is in the middle of her own mystery to solve. So are Robin, Steve and Dustin. Why so many? Well, think of it as a ring of "satellite" mysteries orbiting a bigger mystery they may (or may not) be connected to. During all of this, smaller dramas brought by the individual detectives pervade the story. Just as Matthew Lewis had a multitude of characters and events interacting back and forth amid a larger, not-always-connected-story in The Monk (1796), so too does Stranger Things weave a pretty broad yarn, one with aliens, teenagers, and groovy music.

The efficacy of the whole hinges on the individual pieces working well, while being part of something bigger. Not every second needs to be actual monsters, or even imaginary ones. There can be other things going on. Take Steve and Dustin, for example. It's not exactly a framed narrative when they bicker about their love lives. Think of it instead as a loose confederacy of overlapping events. Steve's reduction to a loveless dork is parallel refreshment.

Likewise, Will, Lucas and Mike are having a D&D game. Does it relate directly to the other events onscreen? No, but it remains a part of these characters' lives; it embodies the same space under alien attack. Sometimes it helps to illustrate what this world is like—before, during and after the invasion. Hawkins has had several, and there's a lot going on, besides. It's a living community, not a graveyard.

And that's a principle part of the drama: the Party is under attack by monsters, but also by life. The lads grow up, and lose interest. And if there are monsters around to test them, so is time; its steady march batters their mettle and scatters them, much in the same sense that the Losers' Club from It (1990, 2017) is a diaspora. Boys forget about monsters and each other in favor of growing up. And sometimes, adulthood sucks in hindsight. So when the real monsters return, the nomads have to reunite.

When Mike learns that Will isn't into girls, he's hard on him. There's this expectation of needing to have a girlfriend, friends be damned. Why not have both? To paraphrase Dustin's advice to Steve, "You're not in high school anymore. Maybe you should focus on being with someone you care about, instead of following some primitive social ritual." Wise words.

The drama and the pathos, here—it affects everyone. When the rain falls on Mike and Will after their fight, it also falls on Max and Eleven. Speaking of which, the two girls learn who the bag belongs to: Heather. Her photo is on the wall. Like many victims, she smiles at the viewer like a ghost. Luckily Eleven's growing powers mean she only needs this picture to find Heather (she's the missing lifeguard as much as Bill is). So Eleven and Max take the picture and get to work.

This is probably the first time the "dark space" has been used in the show where it plays out like Under the Skin (2014). Eleven walks through a red door. A bathtub is on the other side. Heather emerges from the ice, and asks for help, only to be pulled underwater as the tub turns to smoke. A victim, her grisly fate is submerged. In this scene, the clues and images are effectively shown inside Eleven's powerful mind, and who she's actually talking to is less clear than the fact that the whole ordeal is a byproduct—of a teenage girl's stimulated imagination.

Hopper and Joyce have their own mystery to solve. The lab is effectively derelict, but Joyce is convinced something strange is going on. Hopper is the male skeptic—a trope dating back to The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794). In that novel, a castle belonging to a friend of the protagonist is believed to have a single haunted chamber. The heroine thinks something funny is going on; the male servant, Ludovico, volunteers to stay the night in the chamber to prove her wrong. Turns out, both parties are off. Something was going on, but it wasn't ghosts; it was pirates... wanting people to think it was ghosts so they could get on with their sneaky pirate business.

The use of an exotic bandit is, itself, a trope. In Hawkins, it's not pirates or bandits; it's Russians, a people from Elsewhere who use Hawkin's "haunted" elements to further their own plans. Joyce, herself, is visiting an ostensibly derelict ruin that also happens to be traumatic for her. Bob died here, which also plays on her imagination.

Steve and Dustin's imaginations are bothered, as well, but through inverted circumstances. Amid their own, heavily populated work space, they're in pursuit of the same thing Joyce and Hopper are actually after, themselves: Russians. But Hopper and Joyce don't think it's Russians, and Steve and Dustin don't know about the magnets. While they bicker about what to do, Robin is solving their end of the mystery by competently studying the clues. In short, she's this group's Velma. Jinkies!

Tying up the necklace of smaller puzzles is Nancy "Drew." Nancy leans on Jonathan to help her prove that her story isn't bullshit to the skeptical men at the office. Without realizing it, she's on the same basic scent the other groups are, albeit from a different stance. They drive off. A giant thunderbolt illuminates the rain-cloaked lab Hopper and Joyce now explore with dim, ineffective light sources—flashlights, but they might as well be candelabras. All of these are Gothic visual tropes.

Here, things seem sealed. Joyce says she feels like she's losing her mind, but Hopper says he has, too. But he's trying to make her feel safe. As much as this place is haunted, the ghosts and monsters co-reside with so many happy memories. This seems apposite with any home. Except in Gothic stories, the domestic isn't strictly homely. Rather, the uncanny (a common Gothic device) is unhomely—in German, Freud called this unheimlich, meaning "un-homelike." So, amid the concentric mysteries, further oscillation results simply because these character live and experience the mind-bending sensations of the strange, small town that is Hawkins.

It's a common question: If the house is haunted, why don't they leave? In a lot of ways, hauntings aren't black-and-white. The real menace hides behind a wall of sentiment, including pathos. However, Hopper reveals to Joyce (and to us) that he knows about her decision to leave Hawkins. Her house is on the market. He also tells her why he came back, himself—to escape the memories of a past life, elsewhere. Turns out, the past isn't so easy to escape. Then, a noise alerts Hopper and Joyce that someone's near. So Hopper tells her to wait, while he goes to have a look. Already dark, the tunnels are made darker by Hopper's "torch." When a door closes nearby, he unholsters his pistol. All we see is its shadow on the wall.

Facing the past, in Gothic stories, is always traumatic. But Stranger Things illustrates the variety of that trauma in so many ways. Will confronts the past, at Castle Byers. In a rage, he smashes the castle, his "storm of passion" a particular, incensed response to so many markers that have, in the passage of time, suddenly become poisonous to him. Maybe when his mother tells him about the move, he won't be so upset about it.

For Nancy and Jonathan, this trauma is a bit more recent. Revisiting the old lady's house, she doesn't answer the door for them. This time, her storied walls convey a sense of unease. The portraits come alive (eat your heart out, Walpole). Lightning flashes piece the veiled curtains, and thunder booms outside as Nancy and Jonathan descend the staircase into the cellar. There, the old woman awaits, feeding itself with fertilizer like some kind of plant-animal hybrid.

For Robin, Steve and Dustin, the clues lead them to a dangerous situation out in the rain. This kind of swashbuckling adventure with "pirates" might seem disparate, but it's in the same place: Hawkins. And during the storm affecting them all, there's a lot of visual overlap. The dark halls of the Hawkins Mall visually imitate those Hopper's walking through—at the old lab, at the same time.

In Alien, the ship was a derelict, but its mad science graveyard paralleled an overlying issue—one that similarly affected the Nostromo. Same idea in Hawkins. The apophenia, while pareidolic, is not as random as you might think. Hopper and the Russian hit man; the Russians at the mall; Will's ordeal as the other boys grow up—it's all connected, including how these things make the audience feel, when individually viewed. The hit man rides off into the rain; Eleven and Max ride into the storm. And the music plays on...

In similar fashion, this continues as Eleven and Max find Bill. He's with Nancy's boss (another connection); Heather is this man's daughter, and Bill's "girlfriend." However, there's something wrong with Bill; he's too nice. Don McLean's "American Pie" (1971) plays on vinyl, a diegetic part of a uncanny scene versus the ominous, non-diegetic synthesizers from beforehand. The uneasy feelings are transmuted, but remain constant. The scene is part-Body Snatchers (1978), part-Stepford Wives (1972). The symbolism—between Bill's pupil and the Gate—is a nice touch, as well.

Slight cutaway to Will, who tells Mike and Lucas "he's back," akin to Heather O'Rourke's infamous line from Poltergeist (1982). Bill returns to the table, and tells Heather's parents that Max went home. Heather's mother is worried about the girls being out in a storm (a domestic concern similar to Catherine Morland's fate, in Northanger Abbey (1817): being sent out into the elements by the novel's villain, John Thorpe).

The episode ends with Heather's father and mother, accosted by Bill and their daughter. Curiously, the mother is drugged from the wine she drinks. The father is bludgeoned when he goes to investigate. But in the end, both are subdued, and very likely invaded by the same alien menace piloting Heather and Bill. And the family portrait looks on, smiling wickedly.


About me: My name is Nick van der Waard and I'm a Gothic ludologist. I primarily write reviews, Gothic analyses, and interviews. Because my main body of work is relatively vast, I've compiled it into a single compendium where I not only list my favorite works, I also summarize them. Check it out, here!

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