Cold Open: Loud noises! We start with Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), Steve (Joe Keery), Robin (Maya Hawke), and Erica (Priah Ferguson) screaming as the storage room-turned-elevator falls into the depths of Starcourt Mall. (I love picturing the actors getting direction during a scene like this: "Just, um, yell really aggressively and we'll shake the camera.") When it stops, the foursome realizes they're stuck inside. Dustin suggests climbing out — which would work if they weren't thousands of feet underground.
At sea level, Hopper (David Harbour) and Joyce (Winona Ryder) arrive at the Hess farm, the last piece of property Starcourt purchased from the town that they haven't investigated. It's abandoned except for a loud electrical hum coming from under the floorboards. Sure enough, what lies beneath is a secret Russian lab staffed with two people, one of whom should look familiar to viewers. It's the younger Russian scientist from the cold open of the season premiere who was put in charge of Operation Upside Down when the previous project leader was choked to death by Darth Drago. Hopper and Joyce try to communicate with the Russians to no avail, and before this devolves into sitcom shenanigans, Darth Drago arrives to do some murder. This time, however, Hopper is ready and gets the jump on Darth. They battle again and our heroes have just enough time to leave the premises with the scientist in tow as their unwitting hostage. Darth Drago storms out to give chase — firing a machine gun at their speeding car. Darth'll be back. Cue the credits!
Hopper and Joyce: Following their late-night escape from Darth Drago, Hopper and Joyce and the Russian scientist, whose name is Alexei (though Hopper calls him Smirnoff), find themselves stranded in the Indiana woods. Hopper's car broke down and, thanks to his poor mechanical work, exploded. They walk on foot to find an old friend of Hopper's who lives in Illinois — with Darth Drago in pursuit. As Hopper and Joyce bicker about Scott Clarke and their sexual tension reaches red levels, Alexei makes a break for it. He's escaping ... to 7-Eleven. Pause here for a bit of product placement, including a pretty remarkable ad for Coke.
The commercial over, Hopper uses Alexei and "Detective Byers" (great idea, do a spin-off buddy cop show!) to commandeer the convertible of Indiana's biggest Miami Vice fan (the "TODFTHR," per a perfectly '80s-y vanity license plate). They drive to Illinois and Murray Bauman (Brett Gelman), private investigator, professional conspiracy theorist, and the guy whom Fleabag rightfully punched right in the goddamn face. (Martin sucks!) But, most relevant to our interests, Murray is also fluent in Russian because of course he would be.
Dustin and Steve and Robin and Erica: Inside the elevator, only a few hours have seemingly passed, but things have deteriorated: Steve is peeing off the roof of the elevator; Erica is worried about dying of dehydration and ready to drink the green MacGuffin liquid. But before it comes apart, Robin hears something outside the door: a pair of Russians drive up to the elevator in a small transport vehicle and grab a couple of boxes. The Scoops Ahoy crew hides on the roof of the elevator and then makes a dashing escape before the door closes again — with Steve using the MacGuffin cylinder to keep the door open. Just as everyone gets outside, the cylinder gives way — and the green liquid contained within starts to melt the floor. Good thing Erica didn't drink it!
As they walk down the very, very, very long hallway to nowhere, Dustin, Steve, Robin, and Erica discuss Russian politics (Erica, not a fan of communism!), nerd culture (don't lump Steve in with the nerds), and just what exactly the Russians want. Lightbulb time for Steve and Dustin: Maybe the Russians are after the Upside Down! Just as they're about to explain what that even means to Robin and Erica, their walkie talkie goes off. It's the secret message Dustin picked up back in Episode 1, meaning its source is close — and, sure enough, they soon find a bustling hallway filled with Russian operatives and the locked communications room. The group waits for the door to open and runs through, avoiding detection (so far, this might be the most outlandish part of the season) — until they run smack into another Russian soldier. He knows something's up and isn't fooled by Robin's rudimentary Russian ("The silver cat..."), so Steve springs to action and beats him in a quick fist fight. Dustin's thrilled — a runner that didn't totally work about Steve always losing fights (is that really a thing fans care about?) has paid off.
With a moment of calm and a keycard procured from the unconscious Russian, Dustin readies the group for escape — but Robin walks up to a nearby staircase to investigate a glowing blue light, and we soon realize this communications room is actually the entry point to the Russians' attempt to open the gate to the Upside Down. Quote Dustin: Holy sh--.
Nancy and Jonathan and Mike and Eleven and Lucas and Max and Will: The morning after watching Mrs. Driscoll flay out, Nancy (Natalia Dyer) calls Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) in a panic. She wants to make sure Will (Noah Schnapp) is safe. But where is Will?
Well, he's in Mike's (Finn Wolfhard) basement. Following their run-in with Billy (Dacre Montgomery), Mike, Will, Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), Max (Sadie Sink), and Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) recuperate and slowly begin to realize the fate of the free world might rest solely with them: Eleven spies Hopper in the woods with Joyce heading to Illinois, and no one can get in touch with Dustin. So, it's time to stop the Mind Flayer together! But first, Mike's got a "sub concern": El and Max are spending a lot of time in the bathroom, potentially conspiring against him. Or not, as Will is happy to remind his pal: "She said she dumped your ass."
The boys and girls bicker until there's a knock at the basement door: Nancy and Jonathan have arrived, and what were two separate storylines for the first half of this season have become one! Which is great news for information sharing (which, dear reader, you know I love!): Nancy and Jonathan compare notes with the fearless fivesome, and they realize the Mind Flayer has possessed numerous Hawkins residents already, including Heather (Francesca Reale) — who Nancy realizes is connected to Tom (Michael Park), the Hawkins Post editor she hates! [Hopper dance gif here]
A trip to Tom's home confirms he's part of the flayed now too. Nancy takes charge and accurately points out that their next step should be to find the Mind Flayer's home base. But how? By using Mrs. Driscoll, suggests Will, since she so desperately wanted to go home that she almost broke out of a speeding ambulance.
At the hospital, Nancy and Jonathan head up to see Mrs. Driscoll, leaving the kids downstairs, where Mike and El share a moment. True love? No time to decide, because when Nancy and Jonathan arrive on Mrs. Driscoll's floor, things are immediately off — the halls are empty and the elderly woman is missing. That's when Tom, full flayed, surprises them. He's not alone either, as Bruce (Jake Busey), freshly flayed, is there too. These two seem to even share a connection, with Bruce feeling the effects of Jonathan's hit to Tom's head as he and Nancy escape Mrs. Driscoll's room.
A chase ensues, and after Jonathan and Nancy find themselves cornered, Bruce arrives to thoroughly pummel the Hawkins Post's former photographer. (After this scene is over, you may wonder if Jonathan himself is possessed because how else could his body survive this kind of brutal attack. But, nope, he's fine!)
Nancy distracts Bruce long enough to get him away from Jonathan, but Jonathan's break doesn't last very long: Tom arrives to continue his attack. A masterwork of parallel editing commences, with Nancy and Jonathan fighting off their flayed former co-workers in different parts of the hospital. And as Nancy smashes Bruce's head with a fire extinguisher, Jonathan stabs Tom through the throat with a pair of surgical scissors. Remember two paragraphs earlier, when I mentioned their shared physical connection? Yeah, that pays off here: Tom and Bruce are both dead, with Bruce's injuries mirroring Tom's and vice versa. Phew, everyone's safe, right?
Hah, wrong! Free from the matter of human life, the Mind Flayer melts his hosts into human goo (R.I.P. Tom and Bruce) and brings them together to form a giant, goopy, screaming monster.
Burning Questions: We hadn't seen the flayed actually commit murders, but that stopped here — numerous hospital staffers are shown dead at the episode's climax. Why now?
Movie of the Episode: A vast Russian infiltration of an American city should have viewers remembering Red Dawn, the 1984 fear-based thriller about a communist takeover of America and the small band of survivors who try to stop it. (Red Dawn is streaming on numerous digital platforms, including Amazon Prime Video.)
Quote of the Episode: Setting Nancy up as a quasi Final Girl in this episode was a real win for her character — so let's give this one to Natalia Dyer for her line reading of "go to hell" as she smashes Bruce's face to Hadestown.
TV Guide Episode Rating: 4 out of 5
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Up Next: Episode 6, E Pluribus Unum