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Stranger Things 3 - Episode 8: The Battle of Starcourt

August 3, 2019

 

     Joyce, Hopper and Murray drive to the mall as quickly as possible. At the food court, Eleven is in agony as something wriggles beneath her skin. It LOOKS painful. Jonathan of all people gets an idea. He runs to one of the restaurants, grabs a knife and heats it up using the stove. He returns with a wooden spoon for El to bite down on as he cuts into her leg; we see blood and puss, but that's not the worst part. No, the worst part is him sticking his fingers in to try and remove whatever is in her leg (don't worry, he has gloves on). The other characters actually wince. El screams for him to stop and uses her powers to draw the creature out of her leg. She throws it several yards and Hopper steps on it. Cue credits.

     The Party catch Joyce, Hopper and Murray up to speed on what's going on. They go over the blueprints of the underground facility. Dustin offers to navigate for Hopper, Hopper only agrees to do so over the walkie-talkies. However, for the walkie-talkies to reach them, Dustin informs them he needs to be next to his radio tower, so the signal is strong enough. Steve and Robin drive Dustin and Erica to the top of the hill Dustin calls "Weathertop." Joyce, Hopper and Murray will assault the facility, while the party will leave, having done more than enough already. Hopper and Eleven have a father/daughter heart-to-heart. Hopper tells Mike to "be careful," seemingly as a peace offering.

     The party hops into the Station Wagon, but it won't start. Jonathan pops the hood and realizes the ignition cable is gone. Which is, of course, when Billy starts revving his vehicle. The party races back into the mall.

     In the Elevator, the adults go over the plan one last time. The doors open, and they come face to face with Russian guards holding them at gunpoint. Hopper shoots all four of the guards and they each grab a uniform.

     The Scoops Troop drives off-road and makes it part way up the hill. They get out and walk up the rest of the way. Mike is on the walkie-talkie trying to reach them to let them know Billy has found them. Nancy takes a gun off of one of the dead security guards. They notice the car that Eleven threw earlier and realize if they can get the ignition cable they can leave. They try to push it over but can't. El tries, but ultimately proves too drained to move it.

     Dressed as guards, Murray manages to bluff their way past the guard and into the facility. Murray, using the call sign bald eagle (clearly given to him by Dustin), contacts Scoops Troop on the hill and crawls into the air vents.

     At the food court, the gang manages to flip the car over using physics. Mike seems to be the one who came up with the plan. Eleven finds a can of new coke in the trash and tries to crush it with her mind (like in season 1), she can't. For the moment, her powers seem to be gone. As Jonathan looks for the ignition cable, Mike feels the presence of the Mind Flayer. Max and Mike see the creature above them on the glass roof. The gangs runs before it can break in. It does, lands in the food court and roars.

     Russian Terminator and company arrive underneath the mall, only to find the dead men left by Hopper. Joyce and Hopper are bickering again, and Joyce does an impression of Hopper that had me in stitches. I love Winona Ryder. Even funnier is that the Soviet uniform she's wearing is way too big for her. Hopper says he thinks they make a pretty good team. They plan on a date, and Joyce says she might stay if this thing works. Which is the point where we know at least one of them is screwed, probably Hopper.

     Murray crawls through the vents, reaches an intersection and calls the Scoops Troop for directions. They tell him to go right. On the top of the hill, they notice something is going very wrong at the mall. Dustin tries to make contact, referring to them as "Griswold Family." The Monster destroys the walkie-talkie Dustin's voice is coming out of. The "Griswold Family" is hiding in a manner reminiscent of Jurassic Park. Will, Jonathan, Joyce and Lucas are behind the car, and it brings to mind the scene in the kitchen where Tim and Lexie are hiding from the raptors. A scene I first saw when I was about 7, and to this day gives me the chills. Max, Eleven and Mike are hiding underneath a desk similar how the Hobbits hide from the Nazgul in The Fellowship of the Ring.

     Steve, being Steve, can't sit by while the others are in trouble and runs to the car to get them the hell out of there. Dustin contacts the adults to inform them "we have a problem."

     While the Monster has its head turned, Max, Mike and El try to escape through the Gap store. Unfortunately, they have to run over broken glass, making noise and El knocks something over, grabbing the monster's attention. It sends its tendrils into the store, searching for the kids.

     Murray arrives at the power generator and starts pulling wires, screwing with the machine, the alarm begins to sound.

Just as the monster is about to find the kids in the Gap, Lucas fires his wrist rocket at a balloon, distracting the monster long enough for everyone to escape out the back.

     Hopper and Joyce arrive at the safe holding the keys, only to find that the code Murray gave them doesn't work. Dustin hears them arguing about it over the walkie-talkies. He doesn't know Planck's constant by heart, but he knows someone who does.

The Party arrives at the car and tries to start it, even with the ignition key it won't work. Billy speeds towards them and Nancy shoots, none hit Billy. Just as Billy is about to hit her, Steve slams into him, saving the group, because Steve is a fucking boss. Up on the roof, the monster appears, and Steve and Robin see it for the first time. Jonathan has gotten the Station Wagon working and the gang takes off after picking up Steve and Robin. The monster chases them. What comes next is one of the most unexpected things in the entire season. 

     In what might be the ultimate brick joke, we cut to a white house and the words: Salt Lake City, Utah appear on-screen. A teenage girl is reading A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin (a great book by the way) when Dustin's voice comes over the radio. Its Suzie, Dustin's girlfriend, he was telling the truth the whole time. She answers, it's so sweet that it's almost disgusting. He gets her to change frequencies to whichever one Hopper is using. He asks her for Planck's constant, but Suzie is a little annoyed that she hasn't heard from him in a week, and that he doesn't know Planck's constant. She only agrees to do it if Dustin sings her the theme to The Neverending Story. I swear I'm not making this up. Dustin reluctantly complies. The looks on the faces of everyone who can hear it over the Walkies is absolutely priceless. Hopper in particular. But she gives up the number and it opens the door.

     Billy emerges from his car, just as Mike, Max and Eleven emerge from the mall. Separated from the others and moving slowly because of Eleven's injury, they catch sight of Billy and run back into the mall. Billy goes after them, calling the monster back to him. The group in the car turn around and race back towards the mall.

     Underneath the mall the generator is going nuts. Joyce and Hopper enter the control room and Hopper intimidates the scientists into leaving by firing his AK into the ceiling.

     Billy attacks Max, Mike and El, knocking Max and Mike out with little effort. To his credit, Mike does immediately put himself between Billy and El, trying to stop Billy, but Billy easily overpowers him. Billy then knocks out El and carries her off.

     Joyce and Hopper enter the keys and are about to turn them when Russian Terminator arrives and begins to fight Hopper.

     Billy takes El back to the food court where he offers her up to the Mind Flayer monster made of human goo. The creature opens its maw, showing its teeth. Its prehensile tongue comes out. Suddenly, an explosion hits the creature from above. The gang from the station wagon are on the second floor and throwing fireworks at the creature (go Lucas) before it can hurt El.

     Hopper and Russian Terminator continue to fight, leaving the control room and ending up in front of the generator. It's a tad contrived, but I'll allow it. As the party throws fireworks at the monster, it appears to actually hurt Billy. We cut back and forth between the two battles going on at Starcourt. El tries to escape but Billy drags her back. With Hopper still fighting, Joyce does some quick thinking and ties her belt around one of the keys, so she can turn them simultaneously.

     Max and Mike wake up

     Using whatever little bit of her powers are left, Eleven reaches into Billy's mind and manages to reach him, buried underneath the Mind Flayer and the bad memories. Billy is able to regain control of his body.

     Hopper finally gets the upper hand and throws Russian Terminator into the generator. Of course, now energy is shooting out of it and blocking him from the control room.

     The party runs out of fireworks and the monster opens its maw to eat El just as Max and Mike arrive. Billy, back in control, steps in front of El and grabs the tongue, blocking it with his own body which is punctured several times while Max watches helplessly. He screams defiantly as it pierces his chest for a final blow. Hopper, knowing he can't escape, looks at Joyce and nods his head, smiling. Joyce closes her eyes and turns the keys. The screen goes black, then it explodes. Now when I first watched this I was pretty sure Hopper was dead. But watching it a second time we get a pretty good look at the platform as the generator explodes, Hopper is not there (we'll discuss this later). The gate to the Upside Down is closed and the goo creature dies. Somber music plays as the gang looks on. Mike and El embrace. Before he passes, Billy's final words to Max are "I'm sorry." Eleven holds Max as she completely breaks down. Joyce barely holds it together long enough for her and Murray to escape the facility.

     On the hill Dustin and Erica watch as several helicopters land at Starcourt Mall. Dr. Owens has arrived and brought the cavalry with him. Inside the mall the U.S. military finds the Russian base. Dr. Owens looks at the closed gate with concern. It brings back to mind when he warned Nancy and Jonathan what could happen if the Soviets ever found out about the gate back in Season 2. Turns out he was right.

     The kids meet up with Joyce, the look on her face tells Eleven that Hopper didn't make it. Cut to black.

     Three Months Later: A news report on TV releases a version of events. Thirty people are dead including the heroic police chief, we can assume these people were the flayed. We get mentions of a government cover up, other deaths (Bob and Barb are shown), a mysterious chemical leak (what Barb's death was blamed on). Mayor Kline is arrested. The narrator says "some believe a rise in Satanism is to blame" while the camera hovers over D&D books, a nice nod to the Satanic Panic regarding roleplaying games in the 80s. It was a real thing, and it's just as stupid as it sounds.

     Steve and Robin interview at a Family Video for jobs where we see Keith, the guy who runs the arcade in Season 2. He gives Robin a job but not Steve, until Robin is able to convince him otherwise. I grew up in Michigan; Family Video is still around in the Midwest. On the windows we see posters for Firestarter, Pretty in Pink and Scarface.

     The Breyers are loading up the U-Haul for the move, and the gang is helping out. Max and Lucas relentlessly mock Dustin for The Neverending Story theme. Will puts his D&D book in the donation box. Jonathan and Nancy have heart-to-heart in Jonathan's old room. They're very much still in love, and neither wants to leave the other. Nancy jokes about hiding him in the basement like Eleven. They're both close to tears as they embrace.

     Eleven tries to reach a Teddy Bear on a shelf with her powers, but they don't work. Mike grabs the bear for her and assures her they'll come back. He asks if she's packed her walkie-talkie, so he can call her every day, which is where we learn that Eleven is moving with the Breyers. Mike promises to come visit her for Thanksgiving, and he asks her to come back for Christmas. Mike starts to stumble a bit, and Eleven brings up what he said that day in the cabin. Mike still can't spit it out, so Eleven reveals that she overheard him  and that she loves him too. She gives him a kiss. The song that plays at this moment is called "The First I Love You," which I'm 90% certain is a callback to the song title "The First Kiss," which plays during Episode 8 of Season 1 when Mike tries to tell Eleven how he feels and steals a kiss because he can't spit it out. Mike looks like he's been hit by a truck.

     Joyce finds a letter from Hopper for El and gives it to her. It was the speech he meant to give Eleven and Mike. Eleven reads it and we get a voice over from Hopper, and it will punch you in all of the feels. As terrible as he acted this season, underneath it all Hopper was still a good person. Everyone gives final hugs and many tears are shed. The Byers family drives away with Eleven in tow. Cue credits.

     The Stinger: At a facility in Kamchatka, Russia, a pair of guards arrive to get a prisoner. The translation given onscreen is "No. Not the American," when one goes to open a door. But the guard says Americans, plural. Another prisoner is instead dragged out and thrown into a room where a grown Demogorgon emerges, indicating the Russians have their own gate.

     What a season, and the finale was a doozy. As sad as Hopper's "death" was, the worst thing was watching the Party breakup, particularly because it breaks up two major relationships. Now I don't mean broken-up, broken-up. It's made explicit that Mike and Eleven are going to have a long-distance relationship, and I think it's safe to say Jonathan and Nancy will too. If Dustin can pull it off, so can they. And as other have pointed out, Mike and Eleven didn't let Hawkins Lab, a government conspiracy, 353 days of separation, Hopper, the Mind Flayer or The Soviet Union come between them. I sincerely doubt living in different towns will. I do wonder about The Byers taking in Eleven. On the one hand, I get it: Joyce is probably the only adult that Eleven trusts. But on the other hand, we know the Breyers struggle financially, which is one of the reasons they're moving, so I don't know how they take on a new family member. It would probably make more sense for Eleven to stay with another family. Useless dip that he is, Ted Wheeler apparently makes six figures, and Dustin and Lucas both seem to also be upper-middle class. The real reason to have Eleven leave with the Byers is of course, story reasons, and to punch viewers in the gut repeatedly by separating her from Mike. Writers love to torment their audience, trust me on this. I know because when writing my own novel, I often wondered to myself "what's the absolute worst thing I can do to these characters?" And then I'd do something worse than that. 

     So, thoughts on this season overall, great. At the moment, Stranger Things is my favorite show currently on television, and it's a great palette cleanser after the disappointing final season of Game of Thrones. Smart, funny, scary and heartfelt at the same time, this show somehow continues to juggle a genuinely interesting Sci-Fi premise with intriguing characters that we care about filtered through a lens of 80s pop-culture that makes it even more fun. I've seen some critics complain that the nostalgia is "played out," or that it's the "only thing the show is running on." Both are complete bullshit. The show celebrates its nostalgia, no question, but it's not what drives it. The driving force on this show is the characters and their relationships to each other. One could argue that at its core, Stranger Things is primarily a love story between Mike and Eleven. For whatever reason, critics seem to hate the 1980s, and I don't get it. But I also don't care. I've found myself disagreeing with critics more and more lately. Stranger Things 3 is a fantastic piece of escapist fiction that lets us not worry about the real world for just a little bit. I don't know about the rest of you, but the way things are going, that's something that I cherish.

 

     Highlights of this season: Hooboy, where to start, there were so many. Maya Hawke as the new girl, Robin, was fantastic. She had great chemistry with Joe Keery, and her introduction felt natural. Oftentimes a show will have a new character that everyone already knows, the excuse being they were off-screen or something, but Robin as Steve's former classmate made sense. They're close in age in a small town, of course they went to the same high school.

     Dacre Montgomery as Billy. Dacre Montgomery was the MVP of this season, what he pulled off was an incredible bit of acting. He had to put a human face on a faceless inhuman monster, and he had to make us feel sympathetic for him despite being a complete bastard last season, and even worse this season. He also had to be evil and menacing while letting just a tiny bit of humanity shine through so that we felt bad for him. Somehow, he did despite being the villain. His self-sacrifice and death still managed to be heartbreaking. That's what was so great, he made someone inhuman still human, and his sacrifice allowed him to earn a bit of redemption. I'm not willing to go so far as to say that deep down he was a good person, or that this last act completely absolves him. But I do think it showed that Billy wasn't evil, he wasn't a complete monster. What he was, was a very damaged young man in a lot of emotional pain. In my experience, emotional pain is worse than physical pain, and I say that as someone who had to relearn how to walk.

     Everything with Mike and Eleven. These two have been through so much, it's nice to see them so happy at the start of the season. Which of course just makes their separation even more heartbreaking at the end. It mirrors the end of Season 1. Whether this show ends with Season 4 or Season 5, I hope Mike and Eleven finally get their happily ever after. They've earned it.

     Soviet Scientist Alexei. His back and forth with Murray is hilarious, his joy at winning a giant Woody Woodpecker stuffed toy is adorable, and his death is heartbreaking.

     The absolutely boss soundtrack, both of them. Stranger Things really has two soundtracks. There's the official soundtrack, which is a fantastic retro-synthwave, all three seasons of which have officially made it onto my personal list of best soundtracks ever. And then there's the pop-rock soundtrack, all the songs from the era that appear in the show. "R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A." "Can't Fight This Feeling," and "My Bologna" are all highlights. 80s music is my happy place, and once again this show does not disappoint with some of the best tracks from the era.

 

     Dislikes: Erica. I know I'm in the minority here, but she annoys the absolute crap out of me, even though her inner-capitalist shining through was funny.

     Hopper. Hopper's character took a downturn this season, and it's the only place writing wise where I keep wondering what the hell the Duffer Brothers were thinking. Maybe they were going for the 80s sitcom Dad, but it just didn't work for me. Especially as society is becoming more away of abusive behavior. It felt like he devolved as a character, and its really the only blemish on an otherwise superb season. 

     Cary Elwes: Don't hit me yet, I'm not complaining that he was in it or that his performance was bad. My issue is I think he was under-utilized. Mayor Kline is there, but doesn't have a lot to do besides get beat up and act sleazy. Cary Elwes is a talented actor and I wish they'd given him more to do. Still, as I've said earlier, I'm always happy to see him in anything. 

 

     What's Next: A long wait for starters. As of this writing, Netflix hasn't officially renewed Stranger Things for a fourth season, but I'll be legitimately stunned if they don't. Let's start with the obvious. Hopper isn't dead, it's almost too obvious. I'm actually against most of the fan base and hope he is dead, because him surviving undermines his sacrifice and redemption. But we saw no body, and he's clearly not on the platform when then generator explodes, so I don't believe for a minute that he's actually dead. He's either in the Upside Down, or that cell in Russia. If it's not him in the cell, I'm saying its Brenner, whom we were told was alive in Season 2, although that could be a lie.

     When will it take place? 1986, every season has had a one-year time skip, I think it's a safe bet that trend will continue. As for when, I'm going to say either around Thanksgiving or Christmas since that's when the gang is planning on meeting up again in '85.

     What happened to Eleven's powers? I see two likely scenarios. One is she overexerted herself using them so much in a short period of time. When she's looking for Billy in episode 6 we see a lot of bloody tissues, with the implication that she's been in there for a couple of hours at least. If that is the case, then it turns out Mike was right to be concerned about her overdoing it. The other possibility is that it was the Mind Flayer. Other than reaching Billy, Eleven fails to use her powers after she pulls the flesh-thing out of her leg. I have no doubt her powers will come back, but I think when depends on whether there's one or two more seasons.

     What's the threat? At the end of the Stinger, we see that the Russians have their own Demogorgon. I think this means that they also have another gate open. Which harkens back to season 2. Dr. Owens warned Jonathan and Nancy about the dangers of the Soviets learning about it, and he was proven correct.

     How long do we have to wait? Too long.

     As for whether we get one or two more seasons? I honestly can't say. For as much as I love this show, I want it to go for five seasons. However, if the Duffer Brothers have a story that really should end with season four, I'd rather have one more great season with a satisfying conclusion than two drawn out mediocre seasons. I'm not saying two more seasons would necessarily hurt the quality, I'm just saying I'd prefer to let it end where the Duffers want it to rather than something mandated by Netflix Executives. Stranger Things is unique in that it consists entirely of interesting characters. Everyone is fleshed out and has grown and changed along the way, and when you have something that special, you don't want it to end, you want to spend as much time with these characters as possible. But it's better to go out on a high note than to continue sputtering like The Walking Dead. I felt that the end of Season 3 mirrored the end of Season 1 more than Season 2. All three seasons have had bittersweet endings, but 1 was more bitter, and 2 was sweeter. Season 3 definitely ended more bitter than sweet, and I think Season 4 will mirror 2. Or even better, let these characters have a happy ending. I realize happy endings are frowned upon nowadays since it doesn't feel as "mature;" but that doesn't have to be the case. In fiction there's a trope called "Earn Your Happy Ending." If ANYONE has earned a happy ending, it's the gang from Hawkins. 

 

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