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Stranger Things 2, episode 8

With the advent of Stranger Things 3 (2019), I wanted to finish reviewing season two's episodes before moving onto season three. Here are my thoughts on episode eight, "The Mind Flayer." Spoilers!

This episode picks up where episode's six and seven ended: Hopper sees the demagorgons are en route; but so is Eleven. Until then, the soldiers have to hold the fort. A bunch of monsters climb out of the earth and begin beating against the glass. It doesn't hold, shattering as the humans shut the containment door. It's steel; it doesn't hold, either. Bedlam ensues.

I feel I should add how weird it is that we're at the penultimate episode and I still have no idea why Dr. Owens is in Hawkins. Is he good, is he bad? I don't know. He seems inoffensive and bland, even under duress. Meanwhile, Mike tells Joyce to sedate her son, on account that he's possessed by "the spy." They do that, if only so the demagorgons can't go straight to them. Then, they take shelter in the comms room—right as the lights go out (the exterior shot looks a little fake, to be honest).

After the credits roll, we cut to Max's home, where her parents show up for the first time in the show. Max is AWOL; Bill is smoking while "The Four Horseman" plays in the background (recorded in 1983, not 1984—a slight change of pace). Then, his dad shows up. As a victim of child abuse, this scene bothered me a lot more than the demagorgons. I'm not saying that monsters can't be effective horror devices, but watching a full-grown man beat on a teenager while the mother watches helplessly—this cuts a little close to the bone.

But it's a show and, here, it has its place. In fact, I welcome it. Horror is all about the everyday infused with the unpleasant and the ghastly. Sometimes, the worst monsters are domestic, not alien. Furthermore, this development with the racist, sexist father explains why Bill is so pissed off. Frankly it works a lot better than Max's explanation from episode six; actions speak louder than words. Also, props to Dacre Montgomery. His performance during this scene carries a lot of weight.

Cut to the railroad tracks (the sort that run through a lot of small American towns). Lucas and Dustin argue about Dart when Steve hears a sound. Ever the brave warrior, he shoulders his nail bat and runs towards danger. If anything, the photography here is perfect. The light cuts through the trees. There's mist, cattails and thick, ominous trees. Meanwhile, the lab is still under attack. Or rather, everyone's dead except Hopper's group and Dr. Owens. The two men go full survival mode, pulling out construction blueprints to figure a way out of this mess. The building is dark, occupied by monsters, and locked down. Somehow, Hopper has to make it to the basement to unlock the doors so they can get the hell out.

"You can't," Bob chimes in. "Not unless you know BASIC."

This made me smile, as I had to learn BASIC in high school. It's kind of a nerd's dream: having to use their dry, boring skills to save the day. In any case, Bob's the one who has to restart the computer system after the power goes back on. So he and Hopper make their way to the basement—a transition accented by an annoying "jump scare" musical stab (this episode has already used two and it's a rookie mistake. I'm not saying there isn't a time and a place for them, but they should be used sparingly. Yet, what is clearly a love letter to Cameron and Carpenter by the Duffer Brothers [who wrote and directed this episode] has some curious faux pas).

This being said, the lighting remains fabulous. Bob makes Hopper promise he'll get the others out before turning to face the camera; the flashlight is perfectly brilliant, blazing into the lens. In the next shot, Jonathan's car pulls up to the toll gate, its headlights caught in the mist. Everything is dark, accented by light and smoke. So again, for the umpteenth time, why the hell aren't the monsters treated with the same visual ambiance? You think the show's makers would be chomping at the bit to break out some practical effects. Did a sadistic/clueless studio head sign an executive order stating "CGI only" for the monsters?

I digress. Jonathan and Nancy rendezvous with Steve and the others. Cut to Bob in the basement, which is dark and flooded. As he makes it through the dimly-lit maze, background lights throb behind the ventilation system and leaky pipes; straight out of a Jacobean play, a string of corpses lie mutilated on the ground of the next room. Bob gasps, trapped inside a haunted house.

I like this scene for two reasons: One, Bob is scared; two the monsters remain out of sight (for now). Bob tiptoes over the bodies, and makes his way over to the breakers. Throwing the switches, we cross-cut to the rooms and hallways of the lab, which light up in sequence; the lights come on, outside. Dustin and Jonathan argue about the toll gate door, which refuses to open for them. Then Bob unlocks the doors. All of them. I have a feeling this will let the monsters out.

Sure enough, a demagorgon comes, looking for Bob. To distract it, Bob activates the sprinkler system (much like Amanda Ripley could, in Alien: Isolation). However, in his excitement, he forgets his pistol, leaving it by the computer. Hopper and company evacuate while Owen stays behind to work the radio—suicidal, but maybe he's feeling penitent. Whatever the case, lucky for Bob, because Owen is his personal Ariadne out of the labyrinth.

Mid-escape, Bob has to hide in a broom closest. The creature passes (even its shadow under the door is CGI—Christ). Exiting it, Bob knocks over a mop; it falls, alerting the creature to his presence (nice use of slow-mo, here). Bob runs. We care because Bob is actually a pretty good character—not a superhero, but a hero nonetheless. Still, he's pretty fucked; the creature is faster, and there's more than one. He makes it to Joyce, only to be slowly killed in front of her. Even if he had the pistol, he's still be dead; Hopper's assault rifle barely injures Bob's killer. Instead, Hopper pulls Joyce away, Aliens-style ("He's gone!").

This scene works as well as it does because it takes its time. This isn't Bob being killed in two seconds. It's a good twenty minutes before he bites the dust. Everyone leaves; the final shot of Bob are his lifeless eyes staring up at the ceiling as the demagorgons feast on his corpse. I love how brutal this is; I also love that Eleven doesn't show up at the last second and miraculously save everyone, including Bob. For now, it seems like Hawkins is on its own.

After their escape, Hopper determines they need to wait it out at Joyce's house. Until then, Joyce mourns Bob; but Mike and the lads remember him, too. However, it's not long before Mike steers things towards a counterattack. Having read Lord of the Rings, his assumption is if they kill the shadow monster, maybe it will destroy his army. To be honest, I'm not a fan of this device; it gets the heroes out of an impossible situation they otherwise cannot win.

I digress (again). Talking about the monster, Dustin calls it the mind flayer. It's an ancient, cephalopodic evil that spreads like a virus; having no home, it enslaves new races from new worlds using its mind powers. Basically it's Cthulhu (or some variant of ancient sea-borne god that Lovecraft ripped off for his own stories); and its powers mirror the reader's piqued imagination (on par with a vampire or the Goths, for that matter). It's the ancient destroyer, and its legend precedes it, like a fog.

Here, the show has progressed from a single foot soldier (from season one) to a general. How militant. This rank and file presumes something earthly about the creature, an alien with strangely human behaviors. War is something even children can understand (largely because their diet is Tolkien-esque fantasy). To explain what this leader is, we get the "Tell him about the Twinkie" scene; the boys explain the shadow demon using their D&D book as an analogy (not a metaphor, Lucas insists).

Sure, it's a little silly, but such legends are in the face of those who confronting them on a regular basis. Hopper teases them for it, and Dustin admits, "It's just a game." So, it's not so simple as throwing a fireball, but the show oscillates: In trying to abandon the rule book, the party remains concerned with putting the monster down. They say it's a mystery to them, but not to the point that they abandon all hope of slaying it, and in doing so, killing its army in the process.

On that note, it's also presumptuous to assume that Will would have any idea how to injure the monster. If it truly is all-powerful, its connection to his mind would be destructive (in the Lovecraftian tradition). The thought of it shooting itself in the foot is the kind of mistake a Great Old One probably wouldn't make. In this sense, the show reduces its villain to something children can not only defeat, but understand. Actually, Dustin was right: It's just a game.

I confess, it could be worse. The Gothic has to regularly deal with such rules undermining its grander pathos. From Scooby Doo (1969) to Northanger Abby (1817), scary stories have conventions; its not always to their detriment to acknowledge them, either, because stories are where the monsters come alive. However you feel about them, the rules of a story are something else to play with when bringing monsters to life.

After their talk about the Flayer, the lads rouse Will, and take him to a creepy-looking shack out back. It's straight out of The Evil Dead, too. I like the editing, here. There's some nice jump cuts while Hopper empties the shack; scenes cut to one another through imitative actions and synced sounds. Then, cue the music montage. After a minute or so, the party waits inside the Byers residence, while the adults (and Mike) interrogate "Will."

I have to admit, despite all the rules, there's a fair amount of tension, here. If the Flayer finds out where they are, he'll send his dogs (of war) to kill everyone. It's not exactly the kind of thing a god would have to bother with—more like a gangster with his cronies on speed-dial. But it is somewhat uncanny given the villain is trapped inside Will's body, much in the same sense Linda Blair once housed Pazuzu.

In an attempt to humanize the conflict, Joyce tells "Will" the story of the rainbow ship. On his eighth birthday she'd bought him 120 crayons, which he drew a spaceship unlike any other. It was his, and she'd hung it up at work, boasting "My son drew this!" (I recall my mother doing something similar with my own artwork.) Jonathan and Mike tell similar stories—a past the demon inside Will has no part of. All it can do is stare, uncomfortable under the piercing lights.

While the creature is inside Will, it's vulnerable; it has a body to ground it. Turns out, Will can communicate to Hopper and the others through Morse code (all the boys know what this is). The attitude during this scene is almost cheerful. They have the upper hand! Will's code spells out "Close the gate." Then, the phone rings, cluing the Flayer to its whereabouts. Now it might know where they're keeping it. With the onset of imminent danger, the party's confidence flags. In a panic, they drug Will, and he falls asleep.

Why doesn't it simply escape his body? What's keeping it inside? When Dana, in Ghostbusters, was possessed, Zuul the terror-dog did so because the Gatekeeper needed a human host for the ritual, later. Does Will serve a purpose beyond that of a spy meant to infiltrate the Hawkins party? What makes these damn kids so special to begin with? Eleven, I can understand, but the others? They're just kids. Besides, the gate's already open, and Eleven's probably the one to close it. On that note, the demagorgons show up, but so does Eleven. The episode ends with her standing in the doorway after chucking a "demo-dog" through the window like a rag doll.

This episode ranks up there with episode seven. That one was largely a character drama; this one was largely about struggle, in terms of action, suspense and intrigue. Here's hoping the final goes for a hat trick.


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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