At the halfway point through the second season, our protagonists find themselves more scattered than ever before, performing their own version of the Meereenese knot (thanks GRRM for that one) of scattering the heroes across only to begin to draw them back in as the finale carefully approaches.
Hopper finds himself the most alone and isolated for this hour, taking centre stage for the horror this time around, as he awakens deep in the tunnels under the rotting pumpkin patches and finding that the Upside Down has begun encroaching upon our world. Discovering the creatures’ distaste for fire and heat, he tries to battle his way through but soon succumbs to the environment.
Back in the Byers home, a struggling Will discovers that Hopper is in danger, causing Joyce, Will, and Mike to try and solve the map that sprouts up their walls and across their floors. In a neat twist, it’s the sweet and dorky Bob who, armed with a trove of board games for Will, instantly works out that it’s a series of underground tunnels under Hawkins, deducing Hopper’s location.
The quarter then hurry out to the location, Joyce showing more of her recent action heroine prowess and descending into the tunnel with a more befuddled Bob, to find and cut free Hopper. The trio are then further rescued by the intervention of a government team (most likely sent by Dr Owens) and escape seemingly unharmed. However, the episode ends on a brilliant beat as the government team begin to incinerate the vine creatures plaguing the tunnels; this causes Will to scream in agony, sending him into a pulsating, possessed seizure that is as horrific as it is perversely thrilling to watch, particularly as Will and a shocked Mike are encircled by the white-clad G-men before the cut to black.
Eleven herself goes through a harrowing journey of her own, tracking down her biological mother Terry, and managing to engage her in a psychic-induced trip down memory lane, uncovering what happened to Terry. The cuts are bright and horrific, showing Terry giving birth to Eleven/Jane, then her attempts to reclaim her kidnapped daughter which end with ECT-induced brain damage that seemingly cannot be fixed, and a lost chance at a normal family. Also: baby Eleven was seen playing with a fellow youngster who seemed strikingly similar to baby Kali/Eight from the first episode this season. A hint at their shared past? Or their future?
The kids back in Hawkins aren’t having much easier either – Dustin is still busy dealing with the fallout from Dart’s slaughter of his family cat (#JusticeForMews), forcing him to skillfully manipulate his mother into searching for Mews away from the family home and then baiting and trapping Dart in a storm cellar. It’s a genuine shame as we could easily have seen Dart as akin to The Good Demogorgon, and his little cry of pain and fear as Dustin sweeps him away is a little heartbreaking, feline murder notwithstanding. Later on, Dustin tries to get the others to help him but receives no contact, eventually connecting with Steve outside the Wheeler home (the latter with roses in an attempt to apologise to Nancy), bringing about an odd-couple dynamic I personally can’t wait to watch an entire season of.
Lucas, meanwhile, decides to gather his courage and bring Max into the inner circle himself, following a nice moment with his family (bratty sister Erica included). Once the subterfuge at the Palace has been completed, Lucas tells Max everything about the last year. Max refuses to take it seriously, until Lucas begs her to stop mocking it in public places; she doesn’t have longer to consider it before she’s whisked away by abusive Billy who warns her again to stay away from Lucas.
Finally Nancy and Jonathan check into a motel, complete with Rick & Lucy beds, in time to bond about childhood scars, their inability to socialise outside of apocalyptic scenarios, and then ignore each other when Steve is brought up, dampening their sexual tension. When they do eventually get to meet Murray, the investigator-slash-conspiracy-theorist hired by the Hollands to uncover what happened to Barb, the pair spill all. Murray then helps them (with the aid of jazz records and a vodka soda analogy) to water down the truth a little to make it more palatable and acceptable to the wider American public if they truly want justice for Barb.
The episode, helmed by Pixar guru Andrew Stanton, has some wonderful themes running throughout, with the role of games playing a stronger role than ever before, from the episode’s title (referencing a digging and tunnel game in the Palace arcade that Max is the champion in) as a literal cue to Hopper’s struggle this episode, to the games that Bob brings round to help an ill Will, before he finds himself the key to solving Will’s unconscious map. There’s even a more obscure nod in Jane’s unused bedroom with a picture of the March Hare from ‘Alice in Wonderland’ (a book filled with riddles and perverse games), which is especially fitting for a girl who descended into an astonishing underworld and yet managed to escape back to the surface.
More though, the episode is about isolation and distance. The main four kids are scattered to their own stories, with only Will and Mike together for the episode, and the others aren’t much better, concerned with their own storylines (Nancy and Jonathan’s arc seems only tangentially related to the main threat so far and I hope that changes for one). However, as new connections are made (Eleven and Terry, Steve and Dustin), it seems all but certain that the ties that bind our heroes will inexorably begin to pull them back together…