Director: Shawn Levy
Producers: Matt and Ross Duffer, Dan Cohen, Karl Gajdusek, Cindy Holland, Shawn Levy, Matt Thunell, Brian Wright
Writer: Jessica Mecklenburg
Stars: Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobby Brown, Winona Ryder
I won’t lie: this is a tough episode to watch, from start to finish. The triggers are minimal, yet the content is disturbing—emotionally wrought. “Holly Jolly” includes a fresh visual of the monster, Eleven’s heartrending exploration of the Wheeler house, an alarming discovery dragged up from the depths of a local lake, and the instantly iconic painted and lit alphabet that Joyce creates as a method of communication with her son … wherever he might be.
SPOILER ALERT: THE FOLLOWING REVIEW INCLUDES SPOILERS FOR THIS EPISODE OF STRANGER THINGS.
Chapter 3 kicks off with two unpleasant scenes intercut, which serve as an introduction to the episode. One is a tedious extended scene of Nancy (Natalia Dyer) losing her virginity to Steve (Joe Keery). (Whoop-dee-doo.) The other is a grotesque depiction of what Barb (Shannon Purser) is suffering somewhere else, in the clutches of a monster that no one can seem to find. This all-around-horrifying pre-credits sequence seems to last forever, rather than a few seconds.Meanwhile, Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) struggle to accept Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), unable to reconcile the ways in which she is vastly different with her personhood. They still seem to largely view her as an entity that exists to assist them. Lucas continues to refer to her as “the freak”; Dustin tries to get to the bottom of Eleven’s powers. “Focus,” he tells her, holding up a toy spaceship. He lets go, assuming that she will jump to action and suspend it in midair using telepathy. In a rare, comic moment, Eleven just stares at him. The spaceship crashes to the ground. “Idiot,” mutters Mike (Finn Wolfhard). “She’s not a dog!” Mike is beginning to detect the strain that Eleven’s powers have on her, whereas the other two are oblivious, unable to see past their pursuit of Will to the girl before them.
Hopper (David Harbour), for his part, begins to connect the dots. Rather than dismissing Joyce’s insistence that Will is not dead, he heads to the library, where he begins to peruse old newspapers. Phrases like “mind control,” “baby stolen,” and, of course, “Project MKUltra” slide by before him. The viewer, too, in this way discovers what the mysterious powers that be are up to—a much eerier way for the writer (Jessica Mecklenburg) to divulge a major piece of information than hearing a character announce it point-blank. Needing no further convincing, Hopper begins the thrilling, suspenseful investigation that will play out in the rest of the season.
Joyce (Winona Ryder), confused and desperate, struggles to hone in on the scraps of communication with Will that she has experienced thus far. She hangs dozens of strings of lights from her ceiling, which echo the fantastic nature of the scenario, dousing the rooms in a dizzying mix of colors. When they flicker, she senses that Will is near. In a moment of inspiration, she realizes that, with a code—one blink for “yes,” two blinks for “no”—and a string of lights, she can receive information from Will. He answers a few questions—“Are you alive?” One blink. “Are you safe?” Two blinks—before they reach the limit of what they can discuss with this crude system.
By far the most moving scenes in Chapter 3 are the scenes of Eleven passing the time in the Wheelers’ house while Mike is at school. She opens a ballerina music box in Nancy’s room, gazing at it with undisguised longing, and surveys pictures of Nancy and her friends with a tinge of envy. Moments like this highlight all that Eleven has missed in her childhood because of her upbringing in a laboratory. Other moments—like when she turns on the TV and a Coke commercial is on, sending her reeling into a flashback of an experiment in the lab—emphasize the role of Eleven’s traumatic past in her present, as well as its inescapability.
As usual, the quality is top-notch. Shots that stand out include a close-up of Carol (Chelsea Talmadge)—the cool girl who is a part of Steve’s crowd along with her boyfriend, Troy (Peyton Wich)—popping her gum cynically and brief but gorgeous shots depicting the bleakness of Joyce’s surroundings, all bare trees and faded paint. The music, too, seems to emerge in this episode in a way that it previously hasn’t.
At the episode’s end, the boys make a nasty discovery: Will’s body has been discovered in the local lake. They watch surreptitiously as the police haul the body out and recognize him. And then they turn on Eleven. They have realized that their most sophisticated tool for locating Will has not delivered and are enraged. Mike, in particular, feels betrayed, accusing Eleven of lying. One can’t help but think that his outrage has less to do with the ups and downs of his friendship with Eleven and more to do with Eleven’s failure to give him what he wants. In this way, the audience is reminded that even Mike has not progressed much in taking the time to know and understand Eleven, in contrast to the viewer, who has just spectated some of her most vulnerable and achingly transparent moments. In essence, however, Mike sees her still as less than human. Speaking of humans …
Bad segue, I know. But what can you do? In this episode, Nancy mainly hangs out with Steve and debates whether or not to try to do anything about Barb’s disappearance. She finds out that Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) took a creepy picture of her naked back through Steve’s bedroom window (yikes) and, understandably, is horrified. She also, to her terror, encounters the monster (Mark Steger). For the most part, she reacts like a normal person without much deviation. There are only a few major Nancyish Moments:
- She delays alerting Barb’s mother (Cynthia Barrett) and the authorities of Barb’s disappearance, because she doesn’t want her mom to get mad at her for going out without permission. When the investigation begins … she lies her way around getting in trouble, effectively marring the investigation and letting Barb down one last time. What’s hilarious is that in the next episode, she’ll be furious with Steve for doing the exact same thing.
- When she does contact Barb’s mother, she asks where Barb is, but then, when Mrs. Holland starts to catch on to their illicit activities the previous night, Nancy blurts out that Barb is at the library, further delaying an investigation.
Some references to light up a dark, dark episode: