Cold open: Fresh from their triumph over the boys outside the Starcourt Mall, Max (Sadie Sink) and Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) are back at the House of Hopper, listening to Madonna's "Angel" and talking about hot boys like Ralph Macchio. (No, Eleven hasn't seen The Karate Kid yet.) Soon, their conversation turns to Mike (Finn Wolfhard) and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin). What could they be up to right now, post "I dump your ass"? Eleven decides to enter The Void to investigate — superpowers are no fun, after all, if you can't use them to spy on an ex-boyfriend. But what Eleven finds is as horrifying as any encounter with the Mind Flayer: Mike and Lucas are sitting around espousing tired alpha-male platitudes about girls being a different species while unleashing bodily functions. Let's pause here to appreciate the Netflix subtitles as Lucas rips one: [fart echoes].
Bored with the boys, Max and Eleven decide to take Eleven's Void skills and combine it with Spin the Bottle. Who will Eleven spy on next? Billy (Dacre Montgomery), it turns out. Good news for the narrative, bad news for Eleven: As the music turns spooky, Eleven sees his idling car and hears Heather the lifeguard (Francesca Reale) whimpering. "Don't be afraid. It'll be over soon. Just stay very still," Billy says as he crouches over her. As Eleven gets closer, the unthinkable happens: Billy whips around and looks right at her. He knows she's there!
Mike and Lucas and Will: Before we get back to that, however, it's time to cue the sound of destiny. It's the next morning and Will the Wise (Noah Schnapp), in full Dungeons & Dragons cosplay, is ready to play with his pals for a day "free of girls." Unfortunately, that's basically Mike and Lucas' nightmare. Bored and combative, they ruin the game and Will storms out into the rain — but not before Mike stops him. "You guys are never in the mood anymore. You're ruining our party. Where's Dustin right now? You don't know and you don't care — and he doesn't either and I don't blame him," Will says to Mike, accurately pointing out that this formerly tight-knit group of friends has kind of broken beyond repair. (Shouldn't they care more about Dustin's whereabouts?) "You're ruining everything so you can swap spit with a stupid girl," Will adds. Mike, stung, comes back with a haymaker that shakes Will to his core: "It's not my fault you don't like girls. I'm not trying to be a jerk but we're not kids anymore. What did you think, really, that we were never going to get girlfriends?" Will's sexuality has been a discussion point for fans since the first season, and this is really the first time anyone in his circle of friends has even addressed the possibility that Will is gay. Whether the show will come back to this, however, is unclear.
It's evening now, and Lucas and Mike go to Will's house to apologize for their earlier fight, but Will's not home — he's at Castle Byers looking through old photos. The show flashes back to the earlier seasons when the kids were even younger and everyone looked so innocent. It's actually heartbreaking — time! — and, buoyed by a powerful bit of musical accompaniment from composers from Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein, this becomes one of the more emotional parts of the season so far. Will proceeds to destroy Castle Byers. The kids are not all right.
Dustin and Steve and Robin: Not that Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) is aware of any of this. Our favorite Stranger Thing and hair icon Steve (Joe Keery) are on the lookout for Russian spies at Starcourt Mall when their stakeout conversation turns to Robin. Dustin thinks she's perfect for Steve; Steve's not convinced — or is he?
Speaking of Robin (Maya Hawke), she's back at Scoops Ahoy, continuing to carry the translation water. More of the code has been cracked: "A trip to China sounds nice if you tread lightly." Robin's espionage is interrupted briefly by a delivery guy from Lynx Transportation — and that's when it suddenly clicks into place. Lynx = Silver Cat, a trip to China = the Imperial Panda at the food court, etc.. The code is inside Starcourt itself!
After the mall closes, Robin, Steve, and Dustin head to the roof and watch as a bunch of heavily armed men guard the storage room by the loading dock. Charlie from Lost voice: What kind of mall is this?
Hopper and Joyce: One day after standing Hopper (David Harbour) up, Joyce (Winona Ryder) comes barging into his house with talk of magnets and speculation that the Hawkins National Laboratory from Seasons 1 and 2 is back in business. Jack from Lost voice: She wants to go back. They bicker, but Joyce is unrelenting, and Hopper takes her to the scene of the past seasons' crimes. (It must take them all day to get there, though, because it's nighttime when they arrive, nbd.) Being back inside the building gives Joyce a bout of PTSD — she flashes to Bob's gruesome death. It's something Hopper feels too — he says he almost shot a dog recently because it reminded him of a demo-dog. Jopper Heads who love this relationship will enjoy this bit of sweetness — and it's the first time all season Stranger Things has actually sold this burgeoning romance in any kind of effective fashion. Also important: We learn Joyce is looking to sell her home and leave Hawkins, a possibility that could push future seasons of Stranger Things to new locations — and take three key characters, Joyce, Will, and Jonathan, off the board.
But before we have time to think about all that, someone's there. Hopper goes to investigate and is promptly beaten up. It's Darth Drago, and he pummels Hopper with his super strength before driving away on his motorcycle. (Why didn't Darth Drago just kill Hopper? Discuss.)
Nancy and Jonathan: When we last saw Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), they had just left Mrs. Driscoll's house with evidence of a very sick rat. Excited, Nancy presents the photos and shoe-leather reporting about missing chemicals around town to the room full of Hawkins Post writers and editors. Their response, per the Netflix subtitles: [men laugh].
Things get worse later when Bruce (Jake Busey) continues to torment Nancy with a rubber rat. But the prank leads to an epiphany: She wants to take the real rat from Mrs. Driscoll's house and get proof. (Too bad that fella turned to goo and the goo left the premises, but hey; good idea, Nancy!)
Nancy and Jonathan head back to Mrs. Driscoll's home. Remember that It: Chapter 2 reference from the last recap? That is back tenfold here — and this time it pays off. The kids find Mrs. Driscoll in her basement, face deep in a bag of fertilizer.
Max and Eleven: Following their game of Spin the Void, Max and Eleven head to Max's house to see what Billy is really doing. Before the mystery, let's pause for a great exchange where Max tries to explain to Eleven that the screams she heard from Heather could have been "happy screams." Eleven doesn't understand. "I'm just going to lend you my mom's Cosmo," Max says, giving up.
Inside Max's house, they find Billy's porn stash and, more concerning, a tub filled with melted bags of ice, a trace of blood, and a blood-covered lifeguard whistle.
The girls go to the pool in search of Heather. No dice: She never came to work. Undeterred, Eleven goes back into The Void to search for the missing girl. She finds her, in the bathtub at Billy's house: "Help me," Heather screams before getting sucked under. YIKES!
Still sleuthing, Max and Eleven go to Heather's house. A new reveal: Heather's dad is Tom (Michael Park), Hawkins Post's dickhead editor-in-chief. Billy's there having dinner with the family, Heather included, and it all feels positively Lynchian. Max and Eleven are confused; Billy asks Eleven her name before they leave and watches them go...
Billy: ...as The Mind Flayer remembers when Eleven closed the gate. Whatever identity secrecy she had hoped to have is over.
Back at the dinner table, Heather's mom, Janet, isn't feeling well and soon passes out. Tom is upset and runs to her, but it turns out that Heather and Billy have other plans. Heather slams a bottle of wine into her dad's head as "American Pie" adds a creepy discord to the proceedings: "I'm really sorry about this, daddy, but it'll all be over soon." This is some Manson Family ish.
Burning Question: Why are the infected ingesting chemicals?
Movie of the Episode: In Mike's basement is a very prominently displayed poster for John Carpenter's The Thing. To say that this season is influenced by the classic horror thriller, which focuses on what happens when a group of researchers in a remote location encounter an alien lifeform that can assimilate and impersonate humans, is an understatement. (The Thing is streaming on numerous digital platforms, including Vudu.)
Quote of the Episode: Here's how Steve explains why he isn't interested in Robin: "For your information, she's still in school. She's weird. She's a weirdo. And she's hyper. I don't like that she's hyper. And she did drama. That's a bad look. And she's in band? No."
TV Guide Episode Rating: 3 out of 5
Stranger Things is streaming now on Netflix
Up next: Episode 4, The Sauna Test