Noah Schnapp, Paul Reiser (Photo: Netflix)

Stranger Things has proven itself adept at crafting scenes of dread rich in horror and sci-fi allusions without letting its inspirations overwhelm the show’s own distinctive style. It’s managed to turn initially sketched-out characters into a portrait of early-’80s small-town life that’s believable even when unbelievable things start to happen. The show’s greatest strength is its consistent gift for spinning unreal horrors into emotionally rich, thematically strong expressions of feelings and experiences that are very, very real.

Well into the second season, Stranger Things still manages to surprise me.“The Spy,” written by Kate Trefry and (like “Dig Dug”) directed by Andrew Stanton, reaches beyond the show’s core repertoire of references to create what almost amounts to a genre-jumping anthology of interwoven mini-episodes.

Gaten Matarazzo, Joe Keery (Screenshot: Stranger Things)

The strongest—and that’s saying something—is Dustin and Steve’s buddy-movie-meets-creature-feature. (Let’s call it half Lethal Weapon and half The Thing, which averages out to, what, Alien Nation?) Dustin’s dialogue sets the tone, from his reason for believing Dart not “just a lizard”—a poker-faced “Because his face opened up and he ate my cat”—to his description of Dart’s growth. “First he was like that,” he says, holding up a hand, “now he’s like this,” and his hands widen, bringing Steve and the episode up to speed with admirable economy.

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As in all unlikely-buddy flicks, their grudging tolerance blossoms into mutual admiration as each proves his mettle. When Steve sees Dustin’s chosen battlefield, the old junkyard littered with rusted out chassis, he nods, saying with satisfaction, “Yeah, this will do. This will do just fine.” (If only he knew to give Dustin credit for consistently gearing up with more sense than the chief of police ever thinks to do. Hopper went to excavate a giant hole into the poisonous, sticky, slithery Upside Down without even a pair of work gloves.) When Steve strides into battle, Max says “He’s insane!” Dustin just breathes out, “He’s awesome.”

Joe Keery (Screenshot: Stranger Things)

Unexpectedly, he is awesome. (Thank you, Erik Adams, for writing the ode to Steve Harrington that the world deserves.) As he throws open the doors to the Hendersons’ root cellar, Steve gets a classic action-hero pose and the thrumming, thrilling theme to go with it, and his courage at the school bus shows how much he deserves that heroic framing. There’s one big clue that Steve’s transformation didn’t come out of nowhere. He tries to act like he’s put the horrors of the past year behind him, but he’s still got that baseball bat with the spikes driven into it. Some part of him was braced for this, and Dustin brings that part to the surface, along with some detailed hair-care advice.

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While this mismatched pair is meeting up with Lucas and Max to face off against a pack of monsters, other characters are occupying their own genre niches, each crafted with devastating precision. Nancy and Jonathan, holed up with the (deservedly) paranoid Murray Bauman and sending out their half-fictionalized exposé, might seem to have stumbled into The Conversation or Three Days Of The Condor. But Bauman’s laser-precise scrutiny twists their taut ’70s thriller into “a mini-screwball comedy.”

Charlie Heaton, Natalia Dyer (Screenshot: Stranger Things)

Their scenes are even set to a pair of screwball period-appropriate (if not genre-appropriate) Billie Holiday songs. Later, Nancy and Jonathan’s frustrated muttering and pacing could be lifted straight from 1930’s-set Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom. (That’s another Indy touch for those who didn’t get enough in “Dig Dug” when Hopper reached back in the face of mortal danger to grab his hat.)

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Lucas and Max’s is the weakest chapter, picking up only when they’re drawn into the danger Dustin and Steve set in motion. Through no fault of Sadie Sink, who gives the Generic Cool Girl a much-needed spark, in “The Spy,” Max exists to play the love interest and to get shouldered aside during Steve’s heroic moment.

Oh, and to spill information about her brother, as unenlightening as it is. Whatever each viewer sees in him—Billy owes something to Rob Lowe’s “lost frat boy,” something to the alluring menace of Kiefer Sutherland’s ultimate lost boy, and something to Jason Patric’s boy looking to get lost—Billy has accumulated an air of seedy mystery as thick as the fog that blankets much of “The Spy.” In a few words, Max undercuts that mystique. If Billy’s character synopsis turns out to be is just that he’s a frustrated stepbrother and, in Max’s words, “a dick,” that would be more than disappointing. It would be confounding.

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Friends, I have a whole folder of weirdly charged Billy moments. There has to be a bigger reason than “he’s always been a dick” for his posturing and his naked hostility, and his drive (pun intended) to keep Max isolated. I need Billy to be more than just a run-of-the-mill teenage bully if I’m going to continue to trust this show.

Will, Joyce, and Hopper are caught up in various stages of the Alien franchise, that Stranger Things stalwart. (Oh, sure, Bob’s there too. “Hey, Bob.” “Hi, Jim.”) This segment of the episode layers genre upon genre without ever diluting its impact. Along with ample nods to Alien, Aliens, and Alien 3, the laboratory-set scenes pack a heavy dose of medical thriller à la Coma or Contagion. There’s even a Silkwood shower for Hopper, and I wonder how much conversation it took to decide against a less frantic, more deliberate Andromeda Strain-style decontamination procedure. In the junkyard and the tunnels, there’s also a touch of Jurassic Park as the beasts work together to corner their prey.

Screenshot: Stranger Things

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Hopper and Owens’ descent into the nightmare landscape below the lab gives a terrible sense of the scale of the decay under Hawkins. (Did anyone else think of Portal 2's background music as the score played over that shot? I got the same sense of yawning, empty space full of undefined hazards.) It’s a strong companion, and a strange counterpart, to the discouraging sense of territory to be covered in Dustin and Steve’s adventure when the camera zooms down the dark, winding Dart has dug, up above the forest canopy, and then higher still to take in the whole night sky.

What’s most striking about these genre diversions is how well they add up as a whole. The intersections of story and tone are exquisitely balanced, especially considering how little the stories intersect for the characters. Even that disconnect is meaningful. Jonathan returns from two nights’ absence to find the house empty and plastered with scrawled drawings; he’s silhouetted in the hall, a shadow in his own home. It’s the flip side of Hopper, finally ready to parent El properly, pouring out his heart to an empty cabin.

Most chilling, though, is the genre twist that closes the episode, and that’s telegraphed in its title. “The Spy” takes its name from Mike’s attempt to see the bright side of Will’s connection to the Upside Down. “Maybe that’s good,” Mike tells Will in “Dig Dug.” “You’re like a spy now, a superspy spying on the shadow monster.”

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Is this the face of Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) greeting “my friend”? (Screenshot: Stranger Things)

Will’s a spy. But, as he predicted, he’s become a double agent. He can give information about the Upside Down, but it—or the unspecified he Will speaks of—can use him as a mole, drawing enemies into its killing chute. It’s the threat that lurks in every espionage thriller, intensified by putting the weight of murderous betrayal on the shoulders of a sick little boy.

Noah Schnapp’s performance, already sensitive, ascends to a new level here as he flicks between the gentle tones and glances that characterize Will at his most natural and the level gaze and unyielding gvoice of the entity brooding inside him. It’s a testament to Schnapp’s ability to flip between the two that the intended twist of “The Spy” lands with any energy, because it’s hard to believe anyone could hear that voice and see those eyes and still believe it’s just Will in there.

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Screenshot: Stranger Things

“The Spy” is jam-packed with film references. But most surprising and surprisingly apt is the one in Will’s examination, where staff and companions alike gather around his bed in a heartbreaking inversion of The Wizard of Oz. “What about me, kid? You remember me?” asks Hopper, echoing Dorothy Gale’s farmhand friends Huck and Hickory. But unlike Dorothy, Will doesn’t remember Hopper, whom he’s known all his life. Will didn’t get a bump on the head or have a bad dream, and he certainly didn’t visit a colorful world full of wonders. Dorothy had the power to return from her strange and often scary trip the whole time. Will has come home, but he’s more a part of the Upside Down than ever.

Stray observations

  • “Our parents—” “Would be proud if they knew what you were up to.” Bauman really does know how to get people to swallow a convenient lie.
  • “Jonathan, how was the pull-out?” Bauman does amuse himself.
  • Bauman likes Billie Holiday, but he’s got more modern tastes, too—impossibly modern, even. In the background of the breakfast scene, he has a Space Knife LP prominently displayed.
  • Bauman also drinks “Slotichnaya.” That’s not a typo, it’s a fake brand seen in Minority Report.
  • Dr. Owens is called by his first name for the first time just as he reveals to the audience that he won’t sacrifice Will for his own purposes.
  • “Bob Newby, Superhero.” Uh-oh. I hope Bob doesn’t pull a Mews.

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