A shorter, but brilliant, episode brings together adults and children as the season rushes headlong into the finale.
Stranger ThingsCast: Winona Ryder, David Harbour, Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobbie Brown, Caleb McLaughlin
Stranger Things Chapter Seven zips along with a script credited to Justin Doble and co-direction by co-creator/showrunners The Duffer Brothers. The shorter runtime and episodic pacing showcase a penultimate chapter that emphasizes convergence and montage as to ways in which the series fast forwards toward its finale. "The Bathtub" opens with Mike (Finn Wolfhard) brushing dust and blood off of El's (Millie Bobby Brown) face with a damp washcloth, following her rescue of him and Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) from the schoolyard bullies. El looks into the mirror and touches her shaved head, marking the absence of her temporary blonde wig. The soft, quiet moment is interrupted by a brief exchange:
Mike: You don't need it.
El: It's pretty.
Mike: Yeah, it's really pretty.
Their strange exchange ushers along sentiments of childhood innocence and coming-of-age awkwardness. The two young kids move in for a silent kiss when a dramatic interruption spoils the moment. Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) contacts Dustin with news of the Department of Energy goon squad hot on their heels. The boys observe ominous white vans driving down the way, which sends the kids bolting out the back door for their bikes.
The kids play a vintage game of chicken as one of the vans races toward them head on, while two more tail from behind. El draws focus on the van barreling toward them, and in one of the more referential effects moments, the van dents in along the front end as if it smashed into an invisible force. The van launches into the air and overhead. A wide-angle shot details the slow motion car flip as it circles over the children and down onto the pavement behind them, effectively blocking the other vans, a perfectly coincidental cinematic getaway.
The action sequence is cheesy and predictable and still totally awesome and authentic to the series. It works as escapist tactic and narrative convention. The kiddos elude their pursuers and head back to the junkyard, where they hide out of sight in an old school bus, a helicopter circling the parameter like a surveillance drone.
Character Convergence into Narrative Singularity
Two themes draw focus throughout "The Bathtub": character convergence and montage. Just as the kids reunite once again with El and Lucas, Chief Hopper (David Harbour) interviews Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) and Nancy (Natalia Dyer) down at the police station. Their encounter follows Jonathan's arrest for attacking Steve (Joe Keery) in the previous episode. At the same time, an irate mother of one of the bullies brings in her injured son. Both of them spout off angrily, but when the boy describes El in detail (including her special abilities) the wheels begin turning in Hopper's head as he connects the dots. With Joyce (Winona Ryder) also at the station, the communicative paths between teens and adults converge slowly in purpose and intent. Having tapped into the primal frequency individually (see episode five review), their intertwined destinies move toward a collectivist course.
Outside a low-key gas station (bravo, production scouts), Tommy (Chester Rushing) fetches Steve a Coke while he nurses his bruised up face. Tommy's girl Carol (Chelsea Talmadge) won't let up a constant barrage of insults hurled against Nancy and Jonathan. In a turn of events, a softer, more defensive Steve shows redemptive virtue (a kind of anti-Billy Bush?); however, he isolates himself in closed company by defending Nancy and Jonathan. Tommy and Carol further emasculate Steve by bullying him into abandoning them in the gas station parking lot. Vintage Tommy. After zooming off in dad's BMW, Steve's first stop is surprisingly at the local movie to help remove the vulgar graffiti.
Stylistic Homage: Carol’s jacket looks identical to a dirtier one adorned in John Milius's Cold War parable Red Dawn, while Tommy's prep school wardrobe clearly draws influence from a tandem of Tom Cruise features: Risky Business and All the Right Moves.
Putting their heads together (foursomes make for an ideal interpersonal small group), Jonathan thinks to use the walkie-talkie radio from his house to reach out to Mike and company. After establishing contact through low-fi technology Hopper leaves Jonathan, Nancy, and Joyce behind at the Byers residence in order to covertly retrieve the kids. The brief mission involves knocking out a government goon or two, and yelling at the younglings to gain their cooperation. As a soft Cold War pun, Hopper is reborn as "new" dad to unconventional family. Given that El has also been teased as a Cold War weapon, the group's episode seven convergence offers a dimensional twist on American/TV history's televisual trope of the nuclear family.
Mike’s dad Ted (Joe Chrest) continues to offer a subtly brilliant, wryly boring absentee father performance. As an upper-middle class workaholic, he clearly embodies the best of idealist Reaganomics capitalism (providing for the family). Underneath the surface, however, lies its long-form social decay; low relational connection to his wife Karen (Cara Buono) and complete disconnect from the emotional heartbeat of his children.
Karen: They expect us to just sit here like prisoners.
Ted: Honey, we have to trust them. This is our government. They're on our side.
Karen: That man gives me the creeps. Nancy, you don’t think she’s involved in this too, do you?
Ted: Nancy? With Mike? (chuckles dryly) No.
Ted clearly stands in for the mild-mannered Reagan American, naïve to double meaning, unsuspicious of State authority, the last one to "get it". One could speculate Ted won't see the cultural tide turning by decade’s end. He'd also make for an appropriate body snatcher victim in future seasons if his dim-witted absentee persona wasn’t such a comedic tour de force.
As the trio comprising adults-teens-children finally converge at the Byers house (an appropriate location), they brainstorm how El's powers might expand in an effort to track down Will, Barb (nice mention, Nance), and any alternative portals. Once again, El is put in a vulnerable position to be exploited by others. Yet El also represents a salvivic figurehead and a key cog in the narrative momentum. Dustin calls the boys' science professor, who’s busy watching John Carpenter’s The Thing on a stay-at-home date.
In a kind of magical MacGuffin, the group breaks into the high school gym where they build a giant salt pool that can expand the horizon of El's astral projection into the Upside Down alternate dimension. Most of the described narrative action occurs through the strategic placement of montage. The materials-gathering phase, or executing a plan through montage, represents a time-honored trope in cinematic style, particularly with action genre features throughout the '80s.
The entire sequence: forming, brainstorming, norming (or divvying group roles), and performing provide a makeshift sequence that embodies the qualities of the small group work ethic. For the Hawkins group, their plan works. El successfully locates Will (and horrifically encounters Barb). She provides Hopper a location with which to track Will down: The Byers Castle in the woods, of course. The adults head off into battle but logically leave the kids behind. As Nancy plainly explains to Jonathan, "We can't just sit here. I want to finish what we started."
Ultimately, the entirety of "The Bathtub" paves the way for the season one finale. As I first mentioned, the plot isn't so much wasted (typical among many traditional broadcast dramas) so much as heightened by the magnetic convergence of characters who previously functioned along separate narrative journeys. The episode length is intentionally shortened to hit the high notes, weave together narrative continuities, and set the stage for the (you guessed it) longer finale. By offering key character convergences, tight focus, and quick pacing, "The Bathtub" raises its value to rank among the stronger entries in season one, while asking audiences to suspend disbelief even more for the sake of narrative momentum.
Nostalgia Theory, Chapter Nine
I presently teach an experimental media studies course that attempts to incorporate aspects of theory and method spread across a central focus on US media history. The blend of history, theory, and method converge through the strategic lens of the television medium. In effect, the class practices a bit of academic genre mixing by blending together what often works as standalone tiers in any discipline: theory, method, history.
In order for this experimental design to make the most sense to undergraduate students, the course is arranged into six units. Each unit covers a distinct decade of media and television history, from the '60s to present. Coupling strategic course readings, the class samples textual artifacts (eg, TV episodes) from each decade that reflect topical themes of the time. Organized strategic sampling is meant to provide contextual information about each decade for students that would only have lived through the last 20 years or so.
One funny observation about this design is how students gravitate toward certain texts that conjure personal meaning on the individual level. For example, I previewed a very short sampling of a professional wrestling storyline, in which the patriotically coded Hulk Hogan (Terry Bollea) faced off against a turncoat Iraqi sympathizer in Sergeant Slaughter at the height of the first Gulf War tensions in 1991. One student felt a deeper connection to the text because, for them, wrestling represented more than kitschy lowbrow entertainment. The nostalgic viewing experience summoned sensations of watching rasslin' as a kid with their grandfather. The mediated content thus conjured personal reflections out of a text that predates the lifespan/timeline of the user.
This affect is a magical property in the function of mediated nostalgia. The technique of producing such transportational simulacrum is a group effort on the part of any production team. As I noted in previous reviews, nostalgia played an essential role in the design of shows like Mad Men, and now functions in similar yet distinct variations for the Duffer Brothers and company with Stranger Things. This is one way we can explain the transcendent popularity of the text, not only with the core audience demographic of Gen X'ers growing up inundated with '80s Americana, but also with post-Millennial audiences that render their own associations by proxy to the experience of living in the '80s.