The show and the characters in it were once defined by his absence. How they dealt with it. How they let it eat at them. How they ultimately solved for X and brought him back. Zombie Boy’s resurrection is now the main focus of the story heading into the third episode, “The Pollywog,” because two pieces of the Upside Down have stayed inside Will. We saw the first at the end of last season when he spit up a sluglike mass that scuttled quickly down the drain, and we’ve met it again as D’Artagnan (Dart for short, thanks), a squirmy, living proof that Will’s waking nightmares aren’t the hyperrealistic hallucinations common with PTSD, but real events he’s flashing in and out of.
The second piece of the Upside Down is harder to pin down (although Dart is pretty quick on its feet). It’s an essence. Something invisible that draws him back in and holds him there. Maybe because he was already locked into it? Maybe because his mother Joyce ( Winona Ryder) ripping that intubating alien mass out of his throat couldn’t fully remove him from a system that had already been feeding off of him? Maybe because part of him, too, now belongs there?
More than anything, this episode showed that Bob’s ( Sean Astin) dancing hope that Joyce could build a normal life for herself and the boys is futile–at least it’s impossible as long as the Upside Down has a way into Hawkins and into Will. Zombie Boy is suffering from post-traumatic stress, but he isn’t post-trauma. It’s still out there, but Basic Bob sees it only as a non-sci-fi outsider can: a kid with nightmares, like he once was, who needs to shout “Go away!” at the dark things in his mind. Easy peasy, right?
In the end, we see how poorly that works when a nightmare is real, and when your bully is a cloud-sized spider mass whose tentacles are ash tornadoes searching for your throat.
Will’s situation is a mirror image of his mother’s last season, when she strung up lights and burned out phones while everyone else in town believed her son was dead. Doctor Owens ( Paul Reiser) thinks of this as normal PTSD. So does Bob. So does Sheriff “We’re all on edge” Hopper ( David Harbour). So does Joyce, until she does her protective detective work with the camera. Will disappears without his control to a barren waste where he’s all alone, and in some ways, he returns to that exact situation when he flashes back into the real world.
He’s been separated from the group, and we all know how dangerous that is because we all remember what happened on the Bloodstone Pass.
The other character bullied by transdimensional beings is Dart. It’s just a baby trying to stay out of the heat and learning to grow more legs, but Mike ( Finn Wolfhard)–like the fire-wielding scientists of Hawkins Laboratory–wants to bash anything from the Upside Down. That leaves Dustin ( Gaten Matarazzo) to safeguard it from the group, because their intentions may be to leave Dart as a slime trail on the bathroom floor. This is another example of what the show does best. These boys are drawn together by a shared outsider status, but their personality differences can send them careening into opposite corners.
Dustin is just following his curiosity, not nearly as profoundly affected by the events of last year as Mike, who is experiencing his own kind of remorse, fragility, and distrust of anything from that place that took his friend El ( Millie Bobby Brown) from him. Now she’s found a new home with Hopper, but she’s stuck in isolated limbo. In trading a cell for a cabin, it was a only a matter of time until she had to break free, stupid or not.
The Upside Down still controls her life because she’s a prisoner to secrecy and safety. The Upside Down still controls Mike’s life because his jealousy and emptiness stem from losing his friend. The Upside Down still controls Hawkins because it’s poisoning the town (turning neighbor against neighbor). The Upside Still controls Nancy (Natalia Dyer) because she’s unable to pretend that life is normal, that Barb is still out there somewhere for her poor, desperate parents to find, and that her high school romance is somehow still her largest psychological priority.
They’re all still deeply connected to the Upside Down, and this season has done a solid job of transforming that metaphorical concept into literal danger.
What do you do when your first love blows up a nine-foot tall monster with her mind and disappears into a cloud of black smoke? What do you do when the pet your mom probably won’t approve of isn’t from this plane of existence? How do you stand up to a bully from another reality?
Stranger Things 2 is tackling stock coming-of-age problems with an extra layer of sci-fi goo, and while it’s been slightly slow in scrambling back to its feet, it’s still strong where it counts.