[Warning: The below contains MAJOR spoilers for the Stranger Things Season 3 "Chapter Seven: The Bite"]
It’s the Fourth of July in Stranger Things, and all the characters are back in Hawkins, Indiana for an explosive episode of Independence Day celebrations and action-heavy confrontations.
“Who here wants to see some fireworks?” Mayor Kline (Cary Elwes) asks the folk at the local county fair. The firework display is as much of a distraction than it is an attraction. Let's not forget that Kline is in cahoots with the Russians and selling off property under the noses of the Hawkins residents, crumpling blue-collar businesses in the process. But for tonight, the corrupt town mayor has turned the attention away from the dirty underbelly of Eighties America with the promise of illuminations, amusement rides, and cotton candy.
It’s easy to buy into the “illusion” of happy-fun-time America. Alexei (Alec Utgoff), for example, is enchanted by the sights, sounds, and smells of the fair. From the flashy Ferris wheel to the deep-fried corn dogs to the carnival games promising oversized stuffed-toys as prizes. The excited Russian scientist wants a part of it, and so, he promises to help Hopper (David Harbour) and Joyce (Winona Ryder) destroy the laser, “and I become an American citizen and join in the fun, yes?” Alexei’s fun is short-lived, however.
Murray (Brett Gelman) tries to warn Alexei that the carnival isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. The games are rigged, Murray tells him, designed to put money in the rich man’s pocket. They just have the “illusion” of fairness. “That is America,” he states. But while Hopper and Joyce are trying to find the kids, and fending off Russian thugs, Alexei and Murray get momentarily swept up in the illusion. Murray goes to buy corn dogs, and Alexei wins a darts game, bagging himself a jumbo-sized Woody Woodpecker. But his victory is fleeting, as Russian Terminator arrives and fires a bullet through the stuffed toy and into Alexei’s chest. There are no winners at the fair.
There had to be a casualty sooner or later, and it was always going to be a peripheral character. But despite his minor role, Alexei's death was still affecting. In just a couple of episodes, he really grew into a likable member of the Stranger Things collective, and a large part of that is down to Utgoff’s spirited performance. He conveyed so much without speaking a word of English; the highlight of which was him and Murray in the back of the car laughing at Hopper and Joyce’s "sexless" relationship. RIP Alexei; may the afterlife be full of cherry Slurpees and Looney Tunes.
The Fourth of July fireworks are also a distraction from the monster cutting its way through the forest towards Hopper’s cabin where Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) and the gang are hiding out. The setting provides some great “cabin in the woods” horror and another brilliant action sequence as the Mind Flayer brandishes its tentacles like weapons, smashing through windows and slinging people into walls.
The party works together to protect one another; each of them has a role to play. Will (Noah Schnapp) senses when the Flayer is near (though the constant touching of the neck is becoming a tired trope). Mike (Finn Wolfhard) jumps into the line of fire to save El. Nancy (Natalia Dyer) blasts the beast in the face with a shotgun (if you can call that thing a face). Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) chops at its limbs with an axe. Later, Max (Sadie Sink) tends to El's wound, and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) comes up with a nifty plan of attack involving fireworks. But it’s Eleven who once again holds the creature at bay; using her powers to tear off tentacles and rip the monster in half. But amidst the chaos, the Flayer takes a bite out of her leg.
While seeking refuge in a convenience store, Mike takes a moment to apologize to Eleven for his behavior. He admits to being “selfish” and “unfair,” but is unable to tell her that he loves her; instead, he awkwardly skirts around the word. “They do say it makes you crazy,” he stutters. “Girlfriends?” El guesses. “No... old people say it to each other sometimes,” he continues, not helping make things any clearer. “Old people?!” exclaims El. Before he can spit the actual word out, he’s distracted by an incoming Code Red from Dustin (Gaten Mattarazzo) on the walkie-talkie.
The Scoops Troop have made it out of the Russian bunker alive, somehow, but remain trapped in the heavily guarded Starcourt mall. Also, Dustin and Erica (Priah Ferguson) are having a hard time keeping control of Steve (Joe Keery) and Robin (Maya Hawke), who are both still loopy off the serum. However, their drug-induced state isn’t just played for laughs, though it is funny hearing them try to make sense of Back To The Future ("I’m pretty sure that mom was trying to bang her son”). It also allows the characters to open up emotionally.
Steve confesses that he's fallen for the "funny and smart" girl that made him laugh more this summer than he's ever laughed before. He beats himself up for ignoring her at school all because he was too concerned with damaging his street-cred or losing his Prom King crown. Robin cuts him off: "You don't even know me... like really know me." Then, in a moment which for Robin is even tenser than the Russian interrogation, she comes out. The reason she was obsessed with Steve in school wasn't because she had a crush on him. It was because the girl she liked didn't care about her and only paid attention to "Steve The Hair Harrington," who was a douche towards her.
“But… Tammy Thompson’s a girl?” says Steve, taking half a second to catch up. "Oh." There's a brief pause. Then, with a click of the fingers, the pair are back bantering again, with Steve mocking Robin's crush in the way that friends do. He doesn't downplay her coming out, nor does he linger on it. In a matter of seconds, Steve shows that they're still friends, and their relationship isn't going to change regardless of Robin's sexuality.
The guards eventually catch up to the Scoops Troop, but the rest of the party arrive just in the nick of time. Eleven flings a display car across the mall, taking out the armed Russians. But there is no time for a happy reunion just yet, though, as we see that El has part of the Flayer moving inside her leg.
All the pieces are now in place for the grand finale, where I expect even more fireworks, and not just the ones exploding in the Hawkins night sky.
-Hopper using the hall of mirrors to outmaneuver the Russian guards in the carnival funhouse is the kind of playful action sequence I'm here for.
-What I'm not here for is the constant New Coke pushing. Lucas' commercial-style pitch is nauseous.
-"The bickering is getting stale. So get past the horses**t and admit your sexual feelings for each other," Murray tells Hopper and Joyce. Hard to argue with him.
Stranger Things, Streaming, Netflix