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Stranger Things Season Three Episode 3: “The Case of the Missing Lifeguard” Loses the Thread



“The Case of the Missing Lifeguard” follows the same exact blueprint of “The Mall Rats,” to the point where numerous scenes feel like they’re repeating themselves: Robin solves a mystery while Steve and Dustin stare at girls, Nancy stays persistent in the face of cartoonish sexism, and Will laments the days of his lost childhood to extreme emotional effect. But save for a couple individual highlights, the third chapter of Stranger Things 3 flails where “The Mall Rats” soars; a second time around the narrative merry-go-round leads to diminishing returns, presenting a number of troubling signs as the season inches towards its halfway mark.

“The Case of the Missing Lifeguard” feels like a pale imitation of the two previous episodes, unable to conjure the emotional power of “Suzie, Do You Copy?” or the aesthetic joys of “The Mall Rats” and its evocative montages.

The most obvious of these issues is just how little has happened in these three episodes: save for Billy’s possession and Joyce’s magnet investigation, “The Case of the Missing Lifeguard” feels stuck in the season’s opening act, utterly refusing to dispense with any meaningful bits of story across the span of 50 minutes. Sure, Robin figures out the secret Russian code, but that discovery is but a vague, tiny piece of what’s potentially quite a large puzzle – one completely isolated from the other minuscule advancements of plot in this episode, no less, rendering it even less meaningful to the arc of the hour.

I’m sure there’s some cogent connection between Billy’s possession and Nancy discovering Mrs. Driscoll eating fertilizer; but Stranger Things 3 is trying to be too clever for its own good, which reduce these evocative moments to check points on a mostly incoherent list of events. Add in an utter lack of thematic connective tissue between these disparate threads, and “The Case of the Missing Lifeguard” feels like a pale imitation of the two previous episodes, unable to conjure the emotional power of “Suzie, Do You Copy?” or the aesthetic joys of “The Mall Rats” and its evocative montages.

These issues with pacing, while forgivable in the first two hours, utterly drag down the strongest moments of the episode – and in the lesser moments, are unsettling inauthentic, like Mike and Hopper’s sudden turn to the Dick Side this season. Some of Mike’s arrogance can be chalked up to childish ignorance (though that doesn’t forgive his shitty approach to being a boyfriend); but the parallels that are being unintentionally drawn between Mike and Hopper’s “good intentions” are really disturbing, undercutting two of the show’s more emotionally resonant characters with some truly reductive character traits.

Hopper’s behavior is easily the most disturbing of the two, as the internet’s rightfully seized upon over the past couple days: between his boorish drunkenness, ignorant persistence of Joyce, and the awful emotional manipulation he pulls to push Mike and El apart, Hopper’s quickly become the most annoyingly self indulgent character of Stranger Things 3 – a dubious honor that can be chalked up to writing and performance alike. The ignorant writing might be tolerable if David Harbour’s performance hadn’t transformed into a caricature, which does absolutely no favors to the show’s abysmal transformation of his character, seemingly only to introduce some more grounded (aka human) drama into El’s life.

There are a few other attempts to ground some of the season’s drama in its characters: mostly, though, this amounts to Will throwing a huge tantrum about the end of his Dungeons & Dragons group, all because his friends are really into girls and he’s apparently gay. Mike’s “you don’t even like girls” comment is clearly not referencing Will’s immaturity, given how much weight and space it is given between every other line in the scene: and it’s like a slap in the face, a random trait slapped onto him to further isolate him as “different” from the group. Not only does it betray Will’s character, but it posits his awkward D&D campaign as a rather fitting metaphor for the season so far: loud and desperate, attempting to recapture old magic using familiar tricks.

I mean, the kid has a supernatural ability to sense the presence of the Mind Flayer, which he was kidnapped and possessed by multiple times; if Stranger Things 3 wants to present his character as queer, that’s great – but employing that reveal as a plot device is a poor way to do it, rendering it a moment that only serves a superficial importance (and one that’s hinted to, not explicitly defined, no less), and not one to be explored as a meaningful component of one of its most important characters (both narratively and emotionally speaking). And it’s not the first time, either: there was reference to his father calling him a “fag” back in season one, furthering the point that this bit of character is only included to present Will as fundamentally different from the rest of the crew, without really challenging itself with what that means on a meaningful level.

“The Case of the Missing Lifeguard” isn’t a total waste of time: watching Robin decipher the Russian code is the kind of teen detective work this show does so well (remember Dustin’s amphibious-themed research last season?), and there’s no denying the joy of watching Hopper get the shit kicked out of him by the random shady-looking dude we briefly saw in “Suzie, Do You Copy?”. But those pockets of joy are obfuscated by the foggy storytelling and lack of emotional fulcrum: with only eight episodes in the season, one might think it would behoove Stranger Things 3 to not repeat itself.

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what “The Case of the Missing Lifeguard” feels like: a random collection of puzzle pieces lacking the necessary context to have any sort of real weight. This hour thoroughly refuses to answer the most simple dramatic questions: and the longer we wonder why any of this matters and where it’s all going, the less time Stranger Things 3 has to transform potential energy into something kinetic, delivering the explosive, evocative summer adventure it is fumbling to build.

Other thoughts/observations:

  • Did Will really think the wizard suit was going to win him any favors?
  • For a supposedly modern series, Stranger Things 3 often has a very… let’s say, disappointingly traditional, view of storytelling for non-male, non-white characters.
  • Although Steve is becoming one of my favorite characters, there are still moments he acts like a douche bag to the people around him, giving him the aura of lovable asshole the show has absolutely lost with Hopper.
  • wait, why does Max suddenly care about her brother? He was such an abusive asshole to her last season, one would think she’d just chalk his behavior up to his normal horrible ways.
  • I’ll take Robin the Code Cracker and Nancy the Persistent over Mike the Dumbass and Will the Whiny as my protagonists any day.
  • Love how Joyce walks out on Hopper while he’s going on about how she’s making up the magnet theories because she’s just afraid to “move on” and go out with him.
  • A common theme of this season appears to be burns on Mr. Wheeler; El and Max thoroughly reject the idea of spying on him, because he’s “so boring.”
  • Speaking of Will the Whiny, I really hope Stranger Things 3 finds a way to explore the core idea of this story in a different way. The idea of one friend being left behind as the wants and needs of his friends changes is a potent idea to play with, but the introduction of it in the previous two episodes is… not finding its rhythm, to put it kindly.
  • Does anyone give a shit about where their kids are at night, or their safety? These kids are riding bikes and running electricity during a fucking thunderstorm.
  • Heather’s father is Nancy’s dismissive boss at the paper, a narrative detail that betrays its purpose the moment it appears on screen (his disappearance/potential changed behavior if he sticks around will further Nancy’s mission to Challenge the Patriarchy through Strong Journalism).

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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  1. Dacaria

    July 10, 2019 at 10:36 pm

    You wrote the name Mike a few times, when you really meant Will.

  2. sgorrn

    July 27, 2019 at 7:22 am

    It “briefly loses the thread”, the people who dislike this season didn’t understand it. Then again a couple morons like The Critical Drinker and somebody else who asked “what went wrong” and what happened again didn’t seem to understand the season at all, probably because thinking is hard.

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