After the genre-hopping delights of “Chapter Six: The Spy” and the dead-end detour of “Chapter Seven: The Lost Sister,” “Chapter Eight: The Mind Flayer” plunges Stranger Things right back into pure horror. This isn’t slow-build atmospheric horror, though the settings are rich in dreadful atmosphere. This is viciously tense action horror, beginning as Hopper, Owens, and the team in the lowest level of Hawkins Lab watch a half-grown Demogorgon ascend from the chasm under the basement and creep toward their shatterproof polycarbonate observation window.
At least, it’s supposed to be shatterproof. When a whole herd follows the first monster out of the abyss, all roaring and ready to fling their bodies at that window, Hawkins Lab goes full Cabin In The Woods. Owens hits the panic button, researchers and soldiers alike start to scatter, and Demogorgons are suddenly everywhere, tearing down stragglers and filling the air with their infernal screeches. This is Jurassic Park in hell.
Mike, ever the Dungeon Master, is the first one to see the whole board of the monstrous game the shadow monster is playing. At the end of “The Spy,” Mike realized Will—following the logic of Mr. Clarke’s lesson about the friends of the unlucky Phineas Gage, who called him “No Longer Gage” after an iron rod penetrated his brain, we might call this entity “Not Will”—was setting a trap for the lab’s soldiers. As “The Mind Flayer” begins, Mike is still ahead of the game. “We’re under attack,” he realizes as soon as the alarm goes off.
“We need to make Will sleep,” Mike tells the adults. “If he knows where we are, so does the shadow monster.” His insight and quick contingency planning make Mike the first hero of “The Mind Flayer.” But this isn’t just a crisis, it’s a disaster. And disasters need a lot of heroes.
With the power out at Hawkins Lab, no one can get in or out, which means Joyce, Will, Mike, Hopper, and Owens are trapped in a small observation room while Demo-dogs (as Dustin has dubbed the juvenile form of the Demogorgon) stalk the halls. Everyone else is narratively disposed of with a few economical shots of staff members running toward escape or lying slaughtered in the corridors.
Bob’s dead-center in the group and on the screen as they dash into their bolthole and assess the situation on the monitors, which subliminally sets him up to be the center of this story segment, too. Looking over the maze of the building on Owens’ map, Hopper’s ready to swagger out in danger, but Bob stops him. The Chief might be able to restore power, but he can’t reboot the system to open the gates. “Not unless you know BASIC.”
Enter Bob Newby, superhero. “I don’t like scary movies,” he reminded Joyce in his first appearance, but now Bob is starring in the scariest movie of his life, with the rest of the group watching every excruciating move on the bank of emergency-powered monitors.
As unlikely a hero as he makes, Bob steps into the role without hesitation. “I got this,” he assures Hopper before anyone else can consider their options. Privately, he adds, “Don’t wait for me,” and both men know what he means. Bob’s action-hero brevity doesn’t disguise the fear in his eyes, and that fear—mortal terror overwhelmed only by the knowledge that he’s their only hope—makes him more of a hero, not less.
My skin prickled with fear as Dr. Owens stayed behind to guide Bob from behind the bank of monitors. With no one to watch him, I wondered if this was the moment when the newly trustworthy character reverted to company man or just plain turned villain, maybe sending Bob into danger to create a diversion for his own escape. But no, Dr. Owens becomes Bob’s Dungeon Master for a few minutes, leading him through the vast maze of the building he knows so well.
In his last scenes, Bob is not only clear-headed and courageous, but winningly game. It’s a testament to the momentum of “The Mind Flayer” (written and directed by the Duffer brothers) that for just a moment I believed just maybe he’d make it—that maybe, just maybe, this dauntless character newly emerging from a red herring of a man would survive long enough to be appreciated. And it’s a testament to Sean Astin’s portrayal that the death of this former cipher could make me cry real tears.
Hopper going into action-hero mode—shooting monsters, carrying a child, leading his team to safety—is more in character, and “The Mind Flayer” wisely plays those moment for their action, not their heroism, letting Bob’s valor and smarts steal the scene. In this episode, nerds save the day. Drawing on the metaphor (“analogy,” Lucas corrects Dustin) of The Mind Flayer, an ancient hive-mind manipulator from an unknown dimension, the D&D players cobble together a plan to use Will’s knowledge of the enemy without letting the enemy use him right back.
Here’s where Joyce’s heroism shines. After a season spent wincing sympathetically at other characters’ predicaments, Winona Ryder has a chance to shine, too. Right from the cold open, Joyce’s emotional range swings wildly but plausibly. She’s terrified for her child but remorseless in confronting the parasitic entity living within him. “Hold him down,” she says with flinty certainty as she decides to sedate Will; “We have to kill it,” she announces as the rest of the group squabbles, “I want to kill it.”
Though it’s obvious they’re disguising the shed with found materials, there’s a pleasing build to the preparation montage, and the final effect is weirdly sinister. It’s just a room shrouded in cardboard and duct tape, but seeing Will’s narrow frame strapped to a chair in the merciless brightness of the utility lights is chilling. The interrogation is both taut and emotional as Will’s family and friends take turn sharing memories, evoking the true Will out from under Not-Will’s power. And what could be more heroic than a child fighting to divulge a massive monster’s secret even as it occupies his body?
Noah Schnapp’s performance (and especially his scream, a deafening mixture of fury and shrill, desperate panic) is so tensely entertaining and effective, it’s easy to miss how unnecessary the interrogation is. Isolating Will so the spy within him can’t divine their location is smart. Will tapping out Morse code while the monster rages is smart. Hinging the scene on the revelation that they have to close the gate under the lab is less smart. The gate opens to the Upside Down. As far as they (and we) know, the horrors come from the Upside Down. If the gate is open, horrors come through. If the gate is closed, not so much. The viewer might need this pointed out; the characters shouldn’t.
But there’s one crucial purpose Will’s message serves. It gives our plucky band of heroes an impossible task. The gate is a rift between dimensions. It wasn’t opened by mortal powers and it can’t be closed by them. These unlikely heroes need a much more likely hero. A literal superhero.
And everything else has to wait until the finale.
- “We stay here and we wait for help,” Hopper tells the kids. But wouldn’t the police station, with its cells and its armory, be easier to defend than the Byers house?
- Billy’s dad probably thinks himself a hero, driving badly needed lessons into his derelict son’s head. But the abusive Mr. Hargrove isn’t instilling his son with a sense of “respect and responsibility.” He’s turning Billy into a bully and a bigot (and, if my instincts are right, one with some deep secrets to unearth).
- Nancy snatching Hopper’s gun out of the air is bad-ass, but it’s Lucas standing determined with his Wrist Rocket (once again) that made me gasp in admiration.
- When the Demo-dog smashed through the window, I was sure it was Dart coming to the rescue, rewarding Dustin’s kindness Androcles And The Lion-style.
- Steve: “What is that?” Every other person in the room: “Morse code.”