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HBO’s ‘Euphoria’ is Equally Evocative and Embarrassing

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There are a few moments in HBO’s new series Euphoria that are profound in their emotional rawness, subtle ruminations on the familiar themes of identity and sexuality seen in all scripted teen-focused narratives. And yet, Euphoria‘s sixty-minute pilot can’t seem to spin those beautiful seconds of clarity into something cohesive, and moving: though beautifully directed by Augustine Frizzell, “Pilot” spends so much of its time trying to convince the audience just how evocative and casually revolutionary it is; like most teen fiction, Sam Levinson’s script feels like an imitation of Gen Z culture, more often offering superficial commentary on their place in history, rather than the nuanced, intense character piece it wants to be.

Euphoria really, really likes to express how smart and provocative it thinks it is.

Euphoria centers on Rue Bennett (Zendaya, in an eye-opening performance), a teenager and recovering addict returning home for her junior year of high school. But it is really telling a much larger story of a town and its people, which are mostly a collection of teenage archetypes; the Mean Girls, the aggressive Young Jock (or as I’ll now forever refer to them, The Kavanaugh), the Adult Male with Repressed Sexuality, the Divorced Kid… you get the jist here: Euphoria‘s first hour takes great lengths in its first hour to give ‘spins’ on these traditional stories, through the less-than-graceful deployment of “shocking” images, which include an erect penis (soft focused, though, so it’s just a bit blurry)and a young trans woman taking hormones.

Euphoria

The problem is Euphoria never gives these moments any room, or depth: though it does raise some interesting questions about sexuality, consent, and drug experimentation, Euphoria‘s first hour treats these mostly as exclamation points to scenes, never able to humble itself long enough to let a moment speak. When it does, it can lead to some seriously powerful, if emotionally stunted moments: observing the arc of Jules (Hunter Schafer, in the show’s other powerful lead performance)

Filtering all of its commentary through Rue’s constant narration doesn’t help – and not because she notes herself as an unreliable narrator, a fact that should be blatantly obvious as inherent to the genre (again, Euphoria really, really likes to express how smart and provocative it is). The problem is it makes the show feel extremely myopic, in its most important moments: with Rue providing all the emotional context for the many flashbacks, dream-like sequences, and graphic sexual moments, there’s no room for the events and characters in these scenes to define themselves, which just makes everything feel a bit… exploitative for the sake of having very little to say at all.

Euphoria

Everything with Jules is beautifully handled, the one instance of Euphoria not purporting its own importance and letting a story breathe just a bit. Honestly, it’s strange Euphoria doesn’t make her the main character, rather than Rue, a well-established entity with little original material to drive her story. Despite Zendaya’s masterful portrayal of the character, Rue is never the most interesting person in any room she’s in: she’s just a touch too cool, lacking the transparency between character and author it needs to feel convincing.

Instead, much of it just rings a false note, using its provocative moments as distractions from its lack of understanding for the complexity of being a teenager in the age of Social Media: “Pilot” features lines like “I was born three days after 9/11” and “nudes are our currency of love,” and pairs them with images of a baby crying to an image of George Bush, and a room full of randomly shirtless teenage men watching a classmate’s sex tape.

Unlike Gregg Araki’s Now Apocalypse, which understandably takes on the tribulations of slightly older characters, Euphoria doesn’t use its hyper sexualization for anything particularly revelatory. There are moments where it raises some interesting questions about consent – a scene between Jules and Nate’s father is a well-crafted entry into this complex conversation – but besides that, much of Euphoria feels like an imitation of Araki’s work, like it was filtered through Zach Snyder’s DC universe (albeit a younger, much hornier version).

Euphoria

Unfortunately, most of Euphoria‘s opening hour is too enamored with its ability to manufacture provocative images to make these moments resonate as much as they should -and again, the show’s focus on Rue robs its from having some more layered perspectives on its many characters. But when it does step aside and just lets its characters exist for a bit, it’s easy to see the potential it holds: there’s a scene near the end of the pilot with Jules and Rue that’s so quiet, so beautifully absent of blaring popular music and incessant monologues, it feels like a window into a different show, something a bit less jagged and cynical than what Euphoria‘s first episode offers.

Though teenage stories are fertile grounds for storytelling – the potential offered by the combination of hormones and emotional immaturity is obvious – it’s easy to fall into the trap of early-aughts Gossip Girl and Skins clones, which all feel like a bunch of adults (mostly males, of course) trying to live vicariously through fictional teenage versions of themselves. Euphoria‘s first hour is the epitome of that, the definition of a “try hard” teen drama – and despite that, I’m still interested to see where this story goes. There is just enough to this pilot to be intrigued, in spite of a terrible opening act and some equally awful dialogue choices – if Euphoria can figure out its voice as it builds out its world and story, it could stumble onto something special.

A TV critic since the pre-Peak TV days of 2011, Randy is a critic and editor formerly of Sound on Sight, Processed Media, TVOvermind, Pop Optiq, and many, many others.

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Stranger Things Season Three Episode 8: “The Battle of Starcourt” Is Loud, Heartwarming, and Hollow

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“The Battle of Starcourt” is not just the end of Stranger Things 3‘s wildly uneven third season: it intentionally marks the end of an era for the series: with the Russians cemented as part of the larger narrative, and the Joyce family moving out of Hawkins, it feels like the end of the small town, suburbia-in-a-snow-globe storytelling the very show it built on. The mall is destroyed, the mayor disgraced, and Dustin gave up the group’s Dungeons & Dragons books to Erica – and yet, on the precipice of great change, the end of Stranger Things 3 feels like an underwhelming conclusion of the story so far, and a less-than-intriguing tease of where the series may head.

For all its loud, dramatic moments and expensive special effects, “The Battle of Starcourt” feels like a lumpy, undercooked conclusion to Stranger Things 3.

Part of the problem is the inconsistent crescendo to Stranger Things 3: many of the stories teased in early episodes – the slow dissolution of the group, Mike and Hopper’s emotional maturity, the effect of the mall on Hawkins – are simply waved away as the season continues on, and begins to drill down on the Mind Flayer 2.0 Meets Vague Russian Subplot that compromises the central story. Though it only takes place across the space of a week, many of these beats are completely forgotten by the end – especially when it comes to non-El females, like Nancy’s interest in journalism, Max’s familial conflicts, or Karen Wheeler’s mid-life crisis.

Stranger Things The Battle of Starcourt

It also didn’t help that so many of these stories felt undeniably familiar: El struggling to find her identity outside of her powers, Joyce chasing threads down rabbit holes, and the Mind Flayer hanging on the edges of the narrative all felt like repeats of what came before: which would be interesting, if there was some sign Stranger Things 3 really wanted to push its characters.

What becomes clear across “The Battle of Starcourt” is that Stranger Things 3 is not really a definitive season of the series: taken as a whole, it feels more like an intermission, barely able to register any of its external dramas as something meaningful. The closing montage about Hawkins and its changed identity is the most potent of these: a series of newspaper stories (not written by Nancy, of course) detailing the fallout of the Flayer/Russian presence are about as close as Stranger Things 3 gets to offering something intriguing (a brief shot of Paul Reiser reprising his role from last season is another, but fades when it means the oppressive American institutes from early on are bound to return in a big way next season).

Stranger Things The Battle of Starcourt

All of this makes “The Battle of Starcourt,” for its loud, dramatic moments and expensive special effects, feel like a lumpy, undercooked conclusion to this third season. Save from the (obviously fake) “death” of Hopper and the Joyce family leaving Hawkins, Stranger Things 3 carries no weight in its final episode, hoping the adrenaline rush from the very busy scenes of its titular setting can obfuscate the absolute lack of depth at the heart of its story.

Look at characters like Max and Jonathan, who leave season three as husks of the people they once were: Max is seemingly unaffected by her brother’s death, and Jonathan mopes from scene to scene, his only speaking dialogue coming when he needs to tell Nancy that everything’s going to be ok (I could probably count the number of lines he spoke to non-Nancy characters this season on one hand). These characters existed in this season as empty vessels of plot – for a story that really goes nowhere, strangely refusing to sit in the aftermath of the big event it spent all season building to.

That’s not to say “The Battle of Starcourt” is a completely empty 75 minutes: be it Curtis’s latest heroic moment, Joyce’s strength under pressure, or the resilience displayed by everyone when Eleven’s life was on the line, “The Battle of Starcourt” utilizes its grand showdown well, as an effective barometer for how much these characters mean to the audience. But it is clearly running on fumes by the time it gets there, only able to repeat itself (Will rubs his neck, El fights through pain, Curtis saves the day, Hopper survives a fight, etc.) rather than deliver something exciting, and different.

Stranger Things The Battle of Starcourt

Stranger Things 3 posited itself as a story of maturity, of diving into the complications of personal, professional, and societal evolution: and it effectively delivered on none of those promises. It’s really a deft little trick it pulls: it introduces ideas it never intends to develop, pushing characters away from each other until the very last minute, when it’s too loud and too late for anyone to notice the rug’s being pulled from underneath them.

That may be a slightly incendiary phrase to use for a perfectly competent season of television: but that fear or disinterest in engaging with the most powerful moments of conflict it presented – those that would come after the dust settles from the monster’s attack and Billy’s death – it completely skips over, in favor of setting up the next set of extremely-familiar mysteries, the most interesting of which (El with no powers) is easily the most predictable move Stranger Things could’ve made.

Admittedly, I’d held out hope Stranger Things would finally be able to take its insanely gorgeous production values, and marry them with some developed storytelling and character work: but Stranger Things 3 just wants to be popcorn entertainment, which makes its suggestions of being something more nuanced (and ultimately rewarding) even more disappointing, in a way. The miscalculation of my expectations aside, it’s hard to see how anyone could find “The Battle of Starcourt” a satisfying conclusion to this season – or more importantly, as a culmination of the entire Hawkins arc across 25 episodes, which effectively comes to an end when the Joyce family leaves town, and the post-credits scene moves to a prison in Russia.

Stranger Things The Battle of Starcourt

Where Stranger Things goes in its already-confirmed fourth season is an absolute mystery: but as its eyes get larger, “The Battle of Starcourt” proves that its stomach is not necessarily up to the task. While I’d love to see this show morph into a Steve/Robin buddy comedy, that’s just not what Stranger Things is, or wants to be: unfortunately, what it reveals itself to be in its season finale is much smaller, and more superficial.

Stranger Things 3 is a classic case of story first, character second: on a series that took such painstaking care in early episodes to reverse this formula, it makes these eight episodes particularly disappointing. Especially because the building blocks are right there: look beyond the thin plotting and annoying brand synergy (hey, New Coke again!), and there are hints of a really strong coming-of-age series.

Those threads, unfortunately, feel lost by the end of “The Battle of Starcourt,” which plays a Paul Simon cover while the gang says goodbye to the Joyce family, and we get a particularly empty, self-serving monologue of Hopper reading a speech he never delivered (more about him in the observations below). It pulls at the heart strings, yes – but for characters and friendships we’ve seen backgrounded in season three, with its multiple mysteries chasing down Russian translations, electromagnetic manuals, and Starcourt blueprints. Somewhere along the way, Stranger Things lost a bit of its soul in “The Battle of Starcourt” – and I’m not sure whether it’ll be able to find it again, in the rubble left behind from this explosive finale.

Other thoughts/observations:

  • Ok, so Hopper’s disappearance is obviously being played, and an obvious thread for season four to pull. To which I say: who fucking cares. I don’t believe Joyce really wanted to go on a date with him at the end of the season, and the whole “I’m just a rugged guy out of touch with my feelings” letter we heard the text from was pandering, at best. I’m just about over Hopper’s self-destructive tendencies, and his incessant asshole-ishness.
  • Boy, Billy’s character really didn’t pay off in any way possible (and his death feels so utterly weightless by the time the credits roll). Such a waste of an enigmatic personality, and easily the most affecting introduction of a character into the narrative.
  • Mike can’t express his feelings to El: he does not deserve the sendoff he gets.
  • My hot take on the whole Neverending Story thing? It is Stranger Things in a nutshell: drama undercut by the need to poke the audience to say “HOLY SHIT – REMEMBER THIS?”
  • Nancy and Jonathan should be the show’s most important couple: but their characters were both completely wasted this season.
  • that’s a wrap on Stranger Things 3! Thanks to everyone who watched, read along, complimented, and complained.

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Life on Mars: Breaking Down the SDCC ‘Watchmen’ Trailer

The latest trailer for HBO’s Watchmen has premiered at SDCC, but it offers as many new questions as those it appears to answer.

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HBO Watchmen

It’s that time of year again gang, and with the arrival of San Diego Comic Con comes, of course, a bevy of announcements and trailers. One such trailer was the second for HBO’s upcoming Watchmen series. Helmed by Damon Lindelof, of Lost and The Leftovers, the series is already set to begin with a talented hand on the prow, and with the further pedigree of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ seminal graphic novel to draw from, Watchmen is shaping up to be the must-watch event of the fall.

While the fantastic teaser released earlier this summer already got fans motors revving, the latest trailer reveals even more about the world of Watchmen, and how Lindelof intends to adapt one of the most beloved and iconic comic book stories of all time into a TV series for HBO. As Lindelof has stated explicitly in interviews, he has no interest in retreading the story of the original comic series, calling the original run “sacred”.

Doubling down on this notion, the latest trailer seems to further confirm what many suspected from the first teaser: that this will instead be a sequel series, taking place after the events of the original comic. There were many elements in the initial teaser, from the establishment of the Rorschach group (seemingly in lieu of the original character, who dies in the final issue of the comic) to an older, more esteemed version of Ozymandias, to be played by Jeremy Irons.

Watchmen HBO

A calculated attack by the Rorschach vigilante group seems to be the impetus for the masked police officers on patrol in HBO’s Watchmen adaptation.

While some sources are suggesting that the new series will take place 10 years after the original story, it could extend even as far as modern times. Either way, the new Watchmen trailer answers many questions fans had after the original teaser, including why the police are masked and whether other characters from the comic series would be present on top of the confirmed Ozymandias. For example, we see Night Owl’s Archimedes ship flying through the sky, and taking down a plane later in the trailer, as well as a couple of quick looks at Dr. Manhattan.

While the first bit of Dr. Manhattan shows him living in isolation on Mars, where he spends much of the original comic series, the second snippet of footage appears to show him returning to Earth, something that has huge implications for the story. Dr. Manhattan’s ability to control the molecular structure of himself and others gave him god-like powers in the original run, including the ability to see all of time and space like an open book. His inclusion in the new Watchmen will complicate things extensively, not just for those who oppose him, but for the writers of this story. There’s a reason, after all, that such a powerful character spends much of Moore and Gibbons’ series separated from the conflict on Earth.

On top of these reveals, the SDCC trailer offers elaboration on some of the newcomers to this story, including Regina King’s vigilante character, who appears to be the central protagonist of the series (and who worked with Lindelof on The Leftovers), and a middle-aged FBI agent who seems to be as suspicious of the police as she is of the vigilantes who threaten them. As she states in the trailer: there’s very little difference between a masked vigilante and a masked cop. One of the things that makes the police force work, in so much as it does, is the notion of accountability. If no one knows who the police are anymore, they’ve essentially got carte blanche to operate as they see fit, with little to no repercussions for their actions.

Watchmen Regina King

Regina King’s vigilante character seems to be at the center of the events of this new series.

This will no doubt be one of the key conflicts of the new series, and it feels right at home with Lindelof’s existing body of work. After all, both Lost and The Leftovers dealt extensively with doomsday cults and secret organizations, as well as those who opposed them and their influence. Of course, this conflict ties in even deeper to the story of the original Watchmen run. Fans will remember that Watchmen ended with the revelation that Ozymandias had manufactured the entire conflict, and killed millions, in hopes of averting nuclear catastrophe and saving the world from itself. The remaining characters agree to begrudgingly keep the secret at the end, meaning they are probably still keeping that secret in the current timeline.

This is likely the “vast and insidious conspiracy” that a character describes in the trailer, and if the Watchmen are protecting that secret, could some of their members find themselves added to Ozymandias’ rogue’s gallery as villains of the series? At best they will find themselves morally challenged by this new world, but then the grey nature of right and wrong was one of the key themes of the original work. The Comedian, for example, was certainly as much a villain as he was a hero. Still, with the stakes as high as they seemingly are, the many moral quandaries that the heroes and villains of the series will undoubtedly face will make navigating them all the more perilous.

Finally, we can’t analyze the new material without mentioning that the trailer begins with Hooded Justice foiling an attempted robbery. A deep cut character, Hooded Justice was one of the original Minutemen who operated in the 1950s, along with the original Night Owl, original Silk Spectre and The Comedian. His inclusion suggests that the scope of Watchmen could extend back in time as well as forward, opening up entire new realms of storytelling, ones that might even allow for the return of dead characters like Rorschach and The Comedian in some fashion.

Could this be a quick look at Night Owl’s new costume, or is this a new character entirely?

Either way, with 2-3 months remaining before the series will likely premiere, we’ve got plenty more time to speculate, and possibly enough time for one more trailer or so. What questions do you have about the new series? Feel free to let us know in the comments below.

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‘Star Trek: Picard” – Ready, Engage

If there was to be a new series starring one of the former captains, it would stand to reason that Picard would be the obvious choice.

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Star Trek: Picard

Many Star Trek fans will have a favorite captain, whether that’s the stubborn charm of Captain Kirk, the antagonistic brutality of Captain Sisko, or the contradictory nature of Captain Janeway. But one captain’s popularity seems to never provoke debate, eternally admired for his charisma and adaptability in diplomacy, and that is no other than Jean-Luc Picard.

If there was to be a new series starring one of these older famed captains, it would stand to reason that Captain Picard would be the obvious choice. Captain Kirk has been portrayed by both William Shatner and Chris Pine in different timelines, already the most recognizable captain in the series with an already saturated demand. While both Captain Sisko and Captain Janeway perhaps don’t command the same popularity as Picard or Kirk, with both not nearly as recognizable to the wide audience.

Captain Picard

The trailer unveiled at the 2019 Comic-Con International: San Diego shows a retired Picard returning to action after a currently unnamed girl sought his assistance. The stage is set nearly twenty years after Data (Brent Spiner) was destroyed in Star Trek: Nemesis, the fourth and final film to star the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation. It seems to show a rather morose Picard, still in remorse over the death of his much-loved android friend, who sacrificed his life to save his.

A new younger cast is shown, with a Vulcan who in the trailer doesn’t seem to have many Vulcan personality traits, but that could well just be the editing. The only cast to be shown from Star Trek: The Next Generation are Picard and Data, with Will Riker and Deanna Troi peculiar omissions. It would be odd not to find out which direction the other crew members had taken, including the ever insufferable Wesley Crusher, who was promised to be some kind of gift to God.

Rather than focusing on what has been excluded, however, it’s far more exciting to see what was included. Perhaps the strangest reveal was Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan), who was first introduced in Star Trek: Voyager, and has never been portrayed alongside Picard before. The merging of several series is certainly a clever idea, particularly as The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager all existed in the same timeline. Indeed, Picard was seen in the first episode of Deep Space Nine, unveiling an awkward confrontation between him and Sisko.

However, there is something much more unsettling that links these three series together, and it was unveiled near the end of the trailer: the Borg. This is why Seven of Nine is such a clever addition as she and Picard are intrinsically linked to each other like no other human can be as they’ve both previously been assimilated by the Borg. This is perhaps where the young woman that approached Picard for help is intrinsically linked too.

Captain Picard

The Borg are without a doubt the most merciless antagonist that the Star Trek universe has created. While the Romulans were cunning and the Klingons were brutal, the empty shell that a Borg drone inhibits without a distinct individual identity, just a hivemind that assimulates other worlds to its collective, is by far the most terrifying.

And this is the hopeful direction of the upcoming Star Trek: Picard series. It’s no secret that the Borg left a permanent scar on Picard’s mind, a fragile wound that had been exposed many times after, particularly his guilt towards Captain Sisko, who lost his wife because of his actions while assimulated. In many ways, the Borg remained unfinished business for Picard. The only question left to ask is whether the Federation is ready for the Borg this time?

They’ve had nearly twenty years, can they resist assimilation one last time? Quite frankly, I’m ready to be assimilated into another Captain Picard adventure. Engage.

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Stranger Things Season Three Episode 7: “The Bite” Is A Blur of Exciting and Disappointment Moments

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Stranger Things The Bite

With a Russian assassin and an enormous monster running amok around Hawkins, “The Bite” smartly posits itself as a Stranger Things episode about movement, confidentially stating its presence when Mayor Kline yells “are you ready for some fireworks?” To its credit, “The Bite” largely delivers on that promise – but in a surprising twist, it is the quietest scenes of the hour that leave the greatest impact.

On a minute by minute basis, “The Bite” is a pretty thrilling endeavor; examined as a component of a larger whole, it sells the promise of Stranger Things 3 a bit short.

Though Robin and Steve’s extended drug trip becomes a bit cumbersome during the early scenes of “The Bite,” their scene in the mall’s bathroom is the best scene of the season, hands down. While many of Stranger Things 3‘s more outlandish plot notes have drowned out characters like Will and Nancy, the Russian subplot’s provided an avenue to build out a powerful friendship between Steve (once the show’s thinnest character) and Robin (a complete wild card), in easily the most well-crafted arc of the season.

Stranger Things The Bite

It’s rather impressive how much weight “The Bite” is able to give their conversation: though they spent “E Pluribus Unum” being beaten and drugged by Russians, this scene feels like the true climactic moment of their arc, Steve confessing his love for Robin, and her confiding in Steve that she’s a lesbian. Robin’s vulnerability in that moment is so powerfully captured, in a welcome reversal in tone from Mike’s “You don’t even like girls!” comment earlier this season.

Unlike Mike dismissively chiding his younger brother, Robin confiding her truth in Steve serves a powerful moment of character for both her and Steve. For Robin, it is a blossoming of her true self, something she’s finally able to express around someone she truly trusts: how much care is put into her dialogue in this scene is commendable, completely re-engineering what I previously considered one of the season’s more disappointing elements.

Robin wasn’t staring at Steve in class: she was staring past him to a girl in their class, an expression of desire and lust she’s never been able to express, much less even talk about. Her realizing she can confide this information in Steve – right after he confesses his feelings for her, no less – builds a powerful bond between them, supplementing Steve’s moral transformation, while still using the moment to serve her character first.

Stranger Things The Bite

That scene stands in stark contrast to the other relationship scenes of the hour: both Mike’s stammering apology and Murray’s wink, wink monologue (repeating his creepy speech to Nancy and Jonathan from last season – lest we forget, he encouraged them to fuck in his house) lean too much into the awkwardness of their moments, without considering that the underlying stories behind these moments are underdeveloped.

I can believe Hopper’s desperately in love with Joyce, just as I can believe Mike truly loves Eleven: but the legwork needed to establish these relationships as meaningful, dynamic components of Stranger Things 3 hasn’t been done. Mike and El’s conflict immediately dissipates when Mike realizes he loves El (which… he probably already knew?), and there’s never been any inclination Joyce has any interest in Hopper; Stranger Things is asking us to invest in these romances, but they’re built on much flimsier foundations than the Steve/Robin friendship in the very same episode – to say it is emotionally dissonant is an understatement.

When “The Bite” turns its attention away from these less-engaging subplots, and focuses on the dual terrors of Flayer Monster 2.0 and Grigoli, it finally feels like the stakes are being raised, for perhaps the first time in the season. At least, it feels a lot more concrete than in previous hours: Eleven gets infected by a Flayer bite (whatever the hell that means), and poor Alexei’s American dream dies when he realizes the game was rigged against him after all.

Stranger Things The Bite

El’s latest fight with the Flayer is a moment of unification for Stranger Things 3, reforming her relationship as protector of her friends, when they instead have to save her from the monster and tend to her injuries. Unfortunately, there’s just not a lot to cling onto: Mike’s not-decleration of love falls flat, and as often is the case, El’s character gets a bit lost amongst the exposition dumps and sci-fi flavor text she’s so closely entwined with.

Does El feel she’s in mortal danger? How does this threat inform her character? These fundamental questions – questions earlier seasons painstakingly depicted through flashbacks and emotional swellings of music – are all but ignored here, instead her dilemmas giving voice to the other characters of the show (except Nancy and Jonathan; Stranger Things 3‘s completely lost the thread on those two at this point), rather than continuing to inform her journey of growth. Sure, she’s learned a sense of fashion and the word “bitchin'”, but it feels somewhere in the last few episodes Stranger Things 3 ditched the arc of maturation and self-discovery it hinted towards.

Ultimately, that renders the more exciting moments of her story, eventually leading them to the mall where Steve, Dustin, Robin, and Suzie seemingly haven’t left all season, less effective than say, poor Alexei’s brief Americana experience, which stands alongside the bathroom scene as the season’s highlights. While the foreshadowing is obvious (Murray explaining the rigged economics of fairs is a neon sign of danger for our communist friend), it’s still heartbreaking to see Alexei murdered at Griogli’s hands, reducing the character to a Russian version of Bob, a character sketched out just long enough to serve their plot purpose, then ripped out from under the audience as an emotional device.

Stranger Things The Bite

It’s effective, but oddly familiar to the broader strokes of Bob Newby last season: once again engaging the theory Stranger Things 3 is remixing the first two seasons to lesser effect. We’ve got a final showdown with the monster looming, Joyce and Hopper dealing with shady government shit, and all meaningful human conflict erased from the narrative just in time for the finale: on a minute by minute basis, “The Bite” is a pretty thrilling endeavor. Examined as a component of a larger whole, “The Bite” sells the promise of Stranger Things 3 a bit short as it neatly arranges its pieces on the board for the (apparently extended-length) finale.

It’s a tale of yin and yang: where Stranger Things 3 has soared with characters like Robin and Alexei, it’s completely failed with Jonathan, Will – and even Eleven at times, whose character development’s been completely forgotten in recent episodes, as Hopper went off on her own adventures and she became a delivery device for the show’s more showy, supernatural moments. I’m sure the finale has a few tricks up its sleeve, but I left “The Bite” feeling underwhelmed Stranger Things will achieve any of the emotional resonance found in its first two season finales.

Other thoughts/observations:

  • RIP Alexei – we’ll pour out a Slushee for you.
  • The Hall of Mirrors scene with Grigoli and Hopper is like so much of Stranger Things: evocative of films that have done the very same thing, just better. plus: how do you not shoot him in the head?
  • It is 37 and a half minutes into episode 7 before Joyce finally wonders what her kids are up to.
  • Poor Mr. Wheeler – poor guy is a good father, and this show chastises him for being a nerd, a wimp, and apparently a big sexual nothing.
  • Remember New Coke? Because Curtis has a long fucking monologue explaining the product placement for you.

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Stranger Things Season Three Episode 6: “E Pluribus Unum” Can’t Find Its Rhythm

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Stranger Things E Pluribus Unum

“E Pluribus Unum,” despite its dramatic first act and ominous final moments, is a rather formless episode of Stranger Things 3, stuck in narrative purgatory between the beginning and end of its story. Smartly, “E Pluribus Unum” tries to bide its time by digging into the various relationships and conflicts its built underneath the external dramas of Russian scientists and the Mind Flayer’s (second) return: however, its execution of this idea is surprisingly unremarkable, an uneven script ultimately limiting its own dramatic and emotional impact.

There are moments of “E Pluribus Unum” that are exciting, hilarious, and dangerous: but those moments are frequently undercut by Stranger Things 3‘s continued issues with pacing and character.

It’s a major disappointment, because there are a number of moments in “E Pluribus Unum” that offer a sense of tension much of Stranger Things 3 has lacked: especially with characters like Nancy and Steve, who are pushed to their absolute limits at various points in the episode, their reactions helping reiterate their defining traits. Sure, much of this is retreading old water – Steve is a lovable doofus, and Nancy’s persistence is her power – but how Stranger Things incorporates these moments into its larger, more dramatic scenes is wildly satisfying (particularly with Steve, whose transformation from dickhead to lovable dumb ass has proved to be a surprisingly rewarding character arc).

Stranger Things E Pluribus Unum

Steve sacrificing himself to make sure Erica and Dustin can escape is a profoundly familiar dramatic moment – but in the context of Stranger Things 3, seeing Steve make a logical decision to protect his friends takes on powerful weight about the shared responsibility of friendship and community. Stranger Things 3 has struggled to convey a lot of things – emotional maturity, a sense of progression, a nostalgic sensibility not completely fueled by advertising dollars – but as a conduit to explore more fundamental ideas about the power of shared experience, “E Pluribus Unum” finds fertile ground with a character like Steve.

However, this idea strangely isn’t applied evenly across the episode: look no farther than the arcs of Robin and Erica, to see the chasm in how Stranger Things struggles to find consistency in this realm. On one side is Robin, who’s quickly grown into one of the show’s richest, most rewarding characters: she spits in the face of the angry Russians, and breaks into laughter when she realizes she might die with the very same asshole she had a crush on back in high school. Maya Hawke’s been an absolute boon for Stranger Things, one of the few concrete examples of the show’s growth over the years – both in how it develops its female characters, and by proxy, to Steve’s transformative arc across three seasons.

(Of course, Stranger Things 3 can’t have a good moment without shoving its foot in its mouth at some point – it’s not long before Robin is telling Steve she just wanted to be a popular kid, like all the “loser” kids want to be, a laughably inauthentic moment for a character we all know would see Original Steve, and laugh at what a superficial asshole he was.)

Stranger Things E Pluribus Unum

Erica unfortunately represents the other side of this very coin: treated more as an intrusion on the group dynamics than an integration, Erica’s presence is a working counterpoint to everything this show’s done well this season. Her only definitive traits are her brash arrogance, and her relation to the only other black character on the show: the former of which feels poorly constructed in the presence of someone like Robin, and the latter of which is embarrassingly revealing of Stranger Things and its clumsy, occasionally damaging whiteness.

This inconsistent approach to theme plays out all across “E Pluribus Unum,” and leads to some seriously strange dynamics, led by the kitchen conversation between Nancy, Jonathan, and our gang of adolescent protagonists. While Eleven searches through the Water Zone (official name change) for any signs of Billy or the other Flayed in Hawkins, Mike is getting into an argument with Max over a number of Eleven-related subjects: her autonomy over her powers, the forming of her “new” identity, and Mike’s over-protective instincts to protect the first girl he ever loves. In a single breath’s worth of dialogue, Mike is an asshole, an empath, and a disgruntled, horny teenager: while it is easily forgotten in the mix of the larger dramatic beats of the scene, it only amplifies the struggles of Stranger Things 3 to keep its plot in sync with its characters at times.

The low light, of course, comes when El steps into Billy’s mind in an attempt to find the source of all the mind flaying and body melting in Hawkins. Billy’s been an enigma Stranger Things cannot seem to figure out: their attempts to built out a more intimidating, cool version of Daniel Desario have been flat and uninspired, too focused on the abuse-fueled sense of masculinity he is defined by. “E Pluribus Unum” offers a hint of something more emotionally ripe – he was abandoned by his mother to live with his abusive father – but the brief series of tritely-written flashbacks El sees don’t really give voice to Billy’s character in an evocative way. It feels desperate and pandering, in a way that exploring Eleven or Will’s major life traumas never felt:  the emotional space those occupied were vast and powerful, while Billy’s struggles are reduced to a single sympathetic bullet point in a scene with other priorities.

Stranger Things E Pluribus Unum

The other major component of “E Pluribus Unum,” is remarkable in both its pointlessness, and its strange presence as a comedy sequence in an otherwise dramatic, ominous hour: Joyce and Hopper spend nearly the entire episode trying to get information we already know – and more importantly, information Joyce would learn if she fucking checked in on her children once in awhile! Though Mike turning into a douchebag has been a relatively weird flip (teenagers are often dickheads, after all), seeing Joyce suddenly drop the protective barrier she keeps around her children’s been wildly disconcerting.

On one hand, it’s great to see Joyce released from her constant anxiety around Will’s mental state: but that space has just been occupied by an obsession with magnets, a detail whose lack of importance is revealed during Murray’s translations (… of information we’ve already had explained to us twice, begging the question of why the writers just didn’t find ONE SCENE for these two groups of people to communicate in the past four episodes). Isolated in their little corner of Murray’s makeshift apartment, Stranger Things has completely unmoored Joyce from the main narrative of the show, frustratingly pairing her with the increasingly obnoxious Hopper (whose behavior is somehow fucking justified in this hour when Alexei doesn’t run away and disappear, “Pine Barrens” style).

There are moments of “E Pluribus Unum” that are exciting, hilarious, and dangerous: but those moments are frequently undercut by the season’s continued issues with pacing and character, culminating in the odd amalgamation of images conveying El’s trip into Billy’s head. As Stranger Things moves into its home stretch, it may be too late for it to deliver on the more enticing elements of early episodes – but with the various groups around Hawkins finally set to collide with each other in the final two hours, there’s still hope for this season to finish gracefully.

 

Other thoughts/observations:

  • there’s also a scene where Grigoli threatens the mayor inside a festival ride. Does anybody care about this plot? The show certainly doesn’t seem to, given how there was one (1) riot about the mall before everybody forgot.
  • I’m sorry, but even though “E Pluribus Unum” is a solid nod to the Flayer’s newly formed body, it is a bad Stranger Things episode title.
  • Yes, bring in the US government to shut down the secret Russian facility! That’s going to go well!
  • I really want to like Max as a character, but it feels like Stranger Things has no idea who she is (especially now that she’s not skateboarding anywhere).
  • I’ll ask again: where the fuck are Curtis and Erica’s parents???
  • why do the Russians have A) a cattle prod, and B) a torture doctor who looks like a knockoff Batman villain?
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Goomba Stomp is the joint effort of a team of like-minded writers from across the globe. We provide smart readers with sharp, entertaining writing on a wide range of topics in pop culture, offering an escape from the usual hype and gossip.

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