Natalia Dyer (Screenshot: Stranger Things)

I didn’t trust Bob Newby, a.k.a. “Bob The Brain,” until “Chapter Five: Dig Dug.” Something about his aw shucks optimism and gratitude doesn’t quite ring true. Bob’s speech to Will about Mr. Baldo is set up as a bonding moment. But that pep talk draws Will deeper into the shadow monster’s thrall, and Bob’s finger-snapping “Just like that” reminds me of nothing so much as Verbal Kint describing Keyser Soze’s vanishing act.

Flashing back to Bob’s finger snap as the terrible shadow thrusts its creepers into Will seems intended to cement our suspicion that Bob isn’t the hapless good guy Joyce thinks he is. It suggests Bob is instead working with the baddest of bad guys, and that his geniality is of the same brand as Dr. Owens’, an easy-peasy glibness to be discarded the second it doesn’t serve him.

Winona Ryder, Noah Schnapp, Sean Astin, Finn Wolfhard (Photo: Netflix)

“Dig Dug” changed my mind about Bob, though not in the best way.

It’s not Sean Astin’s fault that Bob doesn’t pack much punch, any more than it’s Winona Ryder’s fault that Joyce has spent most of season two grimacing sympathetically to various men and boys. Astin plays Bob’s jovial good nature to the hilt, doing all he can to make him engaging despite the futility of such a vacant character standing between Joyce and Hopper. I trust Bob now, because Joyce has trusted him enough to let him glimpse the Byers’ family’s secret. I believe in Bob now. And this episode is all about trust, and about belief that comes too late.

Written by Jessie Nickson-Lopez and directed by Andrew Stanton, “Dig Dug” mixes up a bracing cocktail of eerily effective tension and character-informed comic beats. Stranger Things staff writer Nickson-Lopez also wrote season one’s outstanding “Chapter 6: The Monster,” in which the conspiracy behind El’s powers, and behind the Demogorgon, comes into the open. As in “The Monster,” the action escalates exponentially; as in “The Monster,” moments of levity cleverly foil the suspense instead of undercutting it.

“Dig Dug” only mismeasures by making a brew that goes down a little too easy. “You know the rule, no questions!” Joyce reminds Bob as he tries to puzzle out the sprawl of Will’s drawings. True to his word, Bob asks surprisingly few questions, even as they barrel into the pumpkin patch, even as Joyce scrambles into the vast hole Hopper excavated, even as she severs splattering tentacles and jumps into the Upside Down.

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Natalia Dyer, Charlie Heaton (Screenshot: Stranger Things)

Nancy and Jonathan disappear from Hawkins overnight without leaving a ripple of concern behind them. Nancy set up an alibi, but Jonathan’s absence should cause Joyce at least a flicker of doubt. Stranger Things is deft at showing Jonathan’s isolation in silent images; the wordless scene from “Will The Wise” of Jonathan hesitantly walking up the dark hall, only to find his mother and little brother cuddled together for comfort, is genuinely affecting. But Joyce’s lack of attention to Jonathan seems to be driven by the needs of the plot, not the core of the characters.

Brett Gelman (Screenshot: Stranger Things)

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Murray Bauman swallows Nancy and Jonathan’s story a little too easily, too. His digging has turned up some bizarre leads, but it’s Nancy’s tape that makes him believe their story. What does Owens actually say on that tape? Not much. He confirms Hawkins Lab’s complicity in Barb’s death and Will’s disappearance, and his implied threat testifies to the gravity of the secret. But he never mentions monsters or portals or psionic powers. He couches his admissions in vague language, talking about “abundant mistakes” and burning back “weeds.”

Why does Bauman drink down their story so eagerly? Because the plot demands it. Brett Gelman plays Bauman’s mercurial temper with such precise pitch that this implausible credulity from a justifiably paranoid investigator almost disappears. Giving what could be a mere cog an irrepressible core of personality, Gelman injects a pleasantly acerbic note into the cocktail that is Stranger Things, like the squeeze of lime in a gin and tonic.

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The image of Nancy and Jonathan looking up at Bauman’s surveillance camera parallels him to the villains at Hawkins Lab. Bauman sneers at “the man,” but his understanding of how to tailor a message for “Them, with a capital T” pegs him as just another member of The Establishment—with a capital E. He’s disenfranchised and disenchanted, but he’s as savvy about the misinformation machine as any Hawkins Lab executive. Let’s look at his long speech about “those people”:

You’re being naive, Nancy! Those people, they’re not wired like me and you, okay? They don’t spend their lives trying to get a look at what’s behind the curtain. They like the curtain. It provides them stability, comfort, definition. This… this would open the curtain, and open the curtain behind that curtain. So the minute someone with an ounce of authority calls bullshit, everyone will nod their heads and say, ‘See? Ha! I knew it, it was bullshit.’ That is, if you even get their attention at all.

He starts out angry and ends bitter, but in between, Gelman tempers his tone much as Bauman tempers his drink. He speaks not with contempt, but with empathy, even curious sympathy, for people who can’t stomach the undiluted truth. He believes the world is populated by willfully blinkered people, but he’s not above using a trail of baloney to lead them where he wants them. Dustin would understand that strategy.

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Brett Gelman, Natalia Dyer (Screenshot: Stranger Things)

Bauman and Nancy’s mutual understanding is mirrored in the staging: Jonathan walks away from Bauman’s cocktail-tinkering ramble, leaving the reporter and Nancy to make the cognitive leap together. “We water it down,” Nancy realizes. “Exactly!” Bauman says, eyes gleaming at her acumen (and his own brilliance), before explaining it to Jonathan. “Your story. We moderate it. Just like this drink here, we make it more tolerable.” Together, he and Nancy improvise a story of a toxic leak “like Three Mile Island” to hang on Hawkins Lab. “Something scary but familiar,” Bauman concludes.

Bauman fuels Nancy’s righteous anger, letting her take the lead as she did in “The Monster.” It’s a welcome development in a second season that’s mostly sidelined its female characters. Joyce is tending the needs of various male characters; Max is a mysterious outsider looking in; until this episode, El has been largely confined to a tiny cabin, making futile efforts to reach out with her mind.

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In “Dig Dug,” El finally starts her own Curiosity Voyage, seeking out Terry Ives (Aimee Mullins), whom she believes to be her mother. Becky Ives’ (Amy Seimetz) remark that “a policeman and a woman came looking for you last year” suggests El is right about that. Even as she leaves Hopper’s protection, El takes some of his lessons with her. When the truck driver giving her a lift confirms the address (“Five-one-five Larrabee?”), she corrects him, as Hopper corrected her: “Yes, five 15.”

Millie Bobby Brown (Screenshot: Stranger Things)

Taking another lesson from her furious destruction of Hopper’s cabin, she’s gentler as she enters Terry’s home. With her powers, it would be easy to smash the glass from the door frame or blow the door open. Instead, El eases the security chain from its channel and breezes the door open.

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Terry “always hoped that you’d come home one day,” El’s maybe-aunt tells her, and as proof of that belief, Jane’s nursery is just as it was, with framed prints of storybook bunnies and shelves of children’s books. Becky herself doesn’t seem to have believed this, or much of what her sister told her before she was rendered incapable of telling anyone anything. “If you talk to Terry,” she asks as El puts on her blindfold, “would you tell her that I love her very much… and that I’m sorry I didn’t believe?”

“Stop talking” is all El says in response. Sometimes belief comes too late. There are too many stories in the spotlight right now to require any one example of how harmful it is to anticipate that your truth will be discounted, diluted, or just plain plastered over both by loved ones and by people in power. Most people aren’t Bob Newby. Most people can’t see the pattern laid out before them and fill in the blanks for themselves. Most people like the blanks, because those empty spaces can be filled with comfortable denial.

Stray observations

  • This episode names many of the bodies of water in the Hawkins area: Loch Nora, Lover’s Lake, Lake Jordan, Satler’s Quarry, the Eno River, Tippecanoe, Danford Creek. Wanna bet the Upside Down’s Kryptonite is lifted straight from The Wizard Of Oz? (Or, sure, a more recent film.)
  • “Something scary but familiar,” Bauman’s plan for a palatable lie to mask the truth, sounds like a complaint commonly leveled at Stranger Things.
  • So does Max’s dismissal of Lucas’ story. “I just felt it was a little derivative in parts” is her gentlest reply… until Caleb McLaughlin’s expression shows how serious Lucas is.
  • I’m not usually a fan of the trope of Hilarious Swearing From Children, but I’m also not a fan of Mr. Wheeler, so after the day Dustin’s had, his blatant exasperation cracked me up. “Son of a bitch. You know, you’re really no help at all.”
  • In the Upside Down, Hopper and Joyce cling, gazing deeply into each other’s eyes, until Hopper pulls away and mutters, “Hey, Bob.” “Hi, Jim.”
  • Mrs. Butterworth’s has really locked up the Hawkins syrup market.
  • “What’s the X, pirate treasure?” As Goonies references go, it’s good enough for me.

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