When Dustin walks in the door on Halloween night, pillowcase full of loot in one hand and ghost trap containing an unknown reptilian creature in the other, his hairsprayed mother corners him, wondering how “the greatest night of the year” went. Rattled and anxious to get to the privacy of his room, “Dusty” isn’t as smooth as usual, and his mother resorts to a string of questions to determine what’s wrong, finally ending with “Are you constipated again?” It’s high-quality parlay between Catherine Curtin (Orange Is the New Black and Insecure), who replaces the uncredited actress who played Claudia Henderson in season one and can really sell a midwestern vowel, and Gaten Matarazzo, whose comic timing and physicality are uncanny for a prepubescent boy who had one filmed acting credit under his belt prior to Stranger Things.
This episode, even more than the first two of this season, does a particularly good job demonstrating the huge range of the young Stranger Things cast. It’s all on display here: Eleven’s deep, wrenching loneliness and despair at her lack of parentage; Will’s flaring jealousy over the presence of another girl in the group; and Dustin’s desire to have something of his own, even if it’s an otherworldly reptile.
One thing is for sure: The critter — named D’Artagnan, or Dart for short — definitely isn’t a pollywog. The other boys know it, and Dustin knows it, too, but to believe that Dart is anything more than an escapee from a local science experiment means admitting that the demogorgon trauma they so firmly tucked into the recesses of their minds might not have been isolated. As it is, the boys have to confront the age-old question of what to do about a secret that could be dangerous: Should they alert adults and have it taken from them, or try to be adults and handle it themselves? When Dustin finally catches Dart after he’s run loose through the school, hiding him under his hat from the other boys, he makes the decision for all of them — and probably risks their lives over it. In the span of a day, Dart has already at least tripled in size and grown some new legs. Surely he’ll keep getting bigger.Meanwhile, Will’s “visions” have been increasing in frequency and intensity. Bob, in his well-meaning way, encourages Will to simply face the monster in his head and tell it to go away. “Easy peasy,” he promises. If the monster were merely a figment of Will’s imagination, that tactic would probably work, or at least help boost Will’s confidence. Instead, when Dart’s shrieks send Will running from the Hawkins Middle School bathroom and he flashes into the Upside Down again — an experience the boys have presciently determined is like the Dungeons & Dragons skill Truesight, or “the ability to see into the ethereal plane” — what Will sees isn’t in his head. It’s stalking the sky above him, hidden behind a shadow of sorts, which occasionally lifts to reveal its true horrific form. In the last seconds of the episode, the many-limbed monster catches up to Will after he follows Bob’s advice, and then starts to pour its tentacles into the boy’s mouth, nose, and ears …