Cold Open: We start with screams of... joy. Mayor Kline's (Cary Elwes) Fourth of July "Fun Fair" is in full bloom and the facade of American patriotism runs high! Mr. and Mrs. Wheeler and daughter Holly take a ride on the Ferris wheel — but, twist, Mrs. Wheeler paid the carny running it to stop them at the top for a better view the forthcoming fireworks. Indeed, they're about to get a view of something. As Holly soon notices, the trees are alive with an unnatural movement. The camera swoops down from the lighted sky to the trouble below, and Stranger Things 3 goes full smoke monster. Roar! Smash cut to credits.
Nancy and Jonathan and Mike and Eleven and Lucas and Max and Will: In the House of Hopper, Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) debriefs her friends about what happened when she entered the Void. (To recall from the last recap, Billy told her the Mind Flayer is here to kill her and everyone she loves, and then end the world itself. Cool.) Fortunately, there's not a whole lot of time for the kids to contemplate their mortality: The Mind Flayer is en route. The kids stock up on a variety of weapons — shout out here again to Nancy (Natalia Dyer), who has embraced her role as a Final-ish Girl with gusto over these last few episodes and pulls out a pump-action shotgun like she's goddamn Sarah Connor. Nancy rules.
It doesn't take long for the Mind Flayer to attack — and he blasts his tentacles into the cabin. Eleven hold him off until she can't. The Mind Flayer grabs her by the leg and tries to pull her out of what used to be House of Hopper's roof. As the kids hold her back, Nancy unloads a shotgun into the Mind Flayer's mouth and Lucas hacks at its tentacle with an ax until it detaches. Eleven falls to the floor, injured, but stable enough to use her mind powers to split the Mind Flayer's entire effing head in half. This entire sequence is fully awesome and Millie Bobby Brown should absolutely play a gender-flipped Magneto when Disney decides to reboot the X-Men for the Marvel Cinematic Universe!! 200 stars out of 10!
At the general store, Eleven's injuries are revealed to be pretty significant: She has a giant gash in her leg from the Mind Flayer. As the kids look for supplies, Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) stumbles onto a display of fireworks, including something called Satan's Baby, which is basically like a kid-approved bomb? The '80s were wild. Anyway, look for these fireworks to play a major part before the season ends.
With a break in the action, Mike (Finn Wolfhard) and El attempt to talk about their feelings again — and just as it seems like Mike is about to IRL tell El that he looooooooves her ("it's something old people say to each other sometimes" :skull:), his walkie talkie crackles. It's Dustin!! This is like when Ben Affleck comes back after he's feared dead in Armageddon! I readily admit to fully cheering at this moment.
Unfortunately, Mike and Dustin can't really understand each other — Dustin's battery is low, typical — meaning Mike never got to hear Dustin say this iconic line: "The goddamn Russians have infiltrated Hawkins." P.S., this thrilling sequence is scored with music from Back to the Future (it'll make sense in a moment) because the Duffers were apparently given a total blank check for this season.
Or maybe the check wasn't without strings. In the next scene at the general store, as Eleven tries to locate Dustin, Lucas drinks a can of New Coke and goes on an extended soliloquy about its virtues. "It's delicious. It's like Carpenter's The Thing. The original is classic, no question about it. But the remake? Sweeter, bolder, better." Brands!
Anyway, Eleven finds out Dustin is at the movies, which strikes everyone as weird. As they leave for Starcourt, we linger on the blood from Eleven's wound that's still smeared on the floor... and it starts to move. After they're gone, Billy comes into the store and goes right for the goo. Not great, blob!
Hopper and Joyce: Jopper heads back to Hawkins with Alexei and Murray (Brett Gelman) in tow, seeking to save their kids (who are rightly presumed to be in danger) from the Upside Down. Important information abounds as they drive: Alexei explains that there are two failsafe keys to turn off the machine that's opening the gate, and the "keys" are locked in a vault coded with Planck's Constant, "a physical constant that is the quantum of electromagnetic action." (Thanks, Wikipedia!) Joyce (Winona Ryder) and Hopper (David Harbour) bicker about the best way to attack their latest problem until Murray can't take it anymore, basically doing the rant version of "get a room." These two!
They arrive at the Fun Fair, where Joyce and Hopper go looking for the kids — and are immediately marked by Mayor Kline, who calls Darth Drago. Murray and Alexei are left in the car alone, but that doesn't last very long either. To give his Russian comrade a taste of real American subterfuge, Murray takes Alexei on a tour of the carnival, its rides, rigged games, and fried food in full glory. You get the feeling Murray doesn't have many friends — which makes what happens next pretty heartbreaking. After winning a giant Woody Woodpecker stuffed animal from a dart game, Alexei is thrilled to see Murray across the crowd — which means he doesn't notice Darth Drago walking toward him. Bang. Alexei is shot in the chest. Murray goes to get Joyce and Hopper, but it's too late. Alexei is dead and Darth Drago and his thugs are now in hot pursuit of Hopper.
Cue fight scene! Hopper beats up a Russian thug and shoots Darth Drago in the chest — which would be great if the villain didn't have on a bulletproof vest. Still, he slows the Russian Terminator down just enough to escape with Joyce and Murray. In the melee, Hopper swiped one of the bad guys' walkie talkies — again, a full John McClane move years before John McClane — and as they drive away, Murray is about to translate what we just read in subtitles: "We've found the children."
Dustin and Steve and Robin and Erica: Jopper doesn't know, but it's these children. Having escaped the underground Russian lair, Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), Steve (Joe Keery), Robin (Maya Hawke), and Erica (Priah Ferguson) run into more goons at Starcourt Mall. Flustered, Dustin has an idea — and that's how we end up with the four heroes sneaking into a screening of Back to the Future. (That there are four seats to be had on the blockbuster film's opening weekend is more fantastical than a monster from another dimension made of human goo, but I digress.) For Dustin, the plan is perfect; they can lie low like Lee Harvey Oswald did until the Russian heat dissipates and he can procure them a ride out of Starcourt. As Erica helpfully reminds him, however, Oswald was captured at the movie theater.
With Dustin away trying to contact his friends, Steve and Robin leave the theater, discuss Back to the Future in a hilarious fashion that will surely pop up later in the Quote of the Episode section of this recap, and promptly throw up from the truth serum drugs they were given by the Russians. In the bathroom, Robin asks if Steve had ever been in love before — and he was, once, with Nancy. But now, he explains, someone else has come into his life. Robin is stunned, silent. Steve comes into her stall. This is the moment 'shippers have been waiting for all season — and it resolves itself in a truly unexpected and tender way. See, Robin wasn't obsessed with Steve when they shared the same history class in sophomore year; she was obsessed with one of the girls who kept looking at Steve. The former King of Hawkins High is taken aback, at first, by the revelation that Robin is gay — but he quickly slips back into friend mode and the two share a hearty laugh about Robin's former crush. It's a full heart-clutch sequence that paid off this relationship is the best way possible — with true friendship.
After the movie lets out, Dustin, Steve, Robin, and Erica try to sneak out the crowd, but the Russians are stopping people as they leave the mall. Their plan foiled, Dustin and Co. hide, poorly, in the Starcourt Mall's main area — right near one of those car displays that malls frequently have. Four Russian soldiers close in and are about to execute our faves when the conveniently placed car's alarm starts to sound off. Eleven, Mike, Lucas, Will, Max, Nancy, and Jonathan have arrived! El tosses the car at the Russians, killing them. Reunions are had, plot threads are discussed and tied off. Everything is great...
...until El, sweating, passes out. Her leg injury is ... alive!
Burning Questions: Are there literally any other cops in Hawkins?
Movie of the Episode: How could it be anything other than Back to the Future? Fun fact: The classic sci-fi comedy actually opened on July 5, 1985, so maybe this was an advance screening. Another fun fact: Back to the Future still rules. (Back to the Future is streaming on numerous digital platforms, including Amazon Prime Video.)
Quote of the Episode: As promised, here's how Robin and Steve describe the plot of Back to the Future.
Robin: "So I wasn't totally focused in there or anything but I'm pretty sure that mom was trying to bang her son."
Steve: "Wait, the hot chick was Alex P. Keaton's mom?"
TV Guide Episode Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Stranger Things is now streaming on Netflix.
Up Next: Episode 8, The Battle of Starcourt