“E Pluribus Unum,” despite its dramatic first act and ominous final moments, is a rather formless episode of Stranger Things 3, stuck in narrative purgatory between the beginning and end of its story. Smartly, “E Pluribus Unum” tries to bide its time by digging into the various relationships and conflicts its built underneath the external dramas of Russian scientists and the Mind Flayer’s (second) return: however, its execution of this idea is surprisingly unremarkable, an uneven script ultimately limiting its own dramatic and emotional impact.
There are moments of “E Pluribus Unum” that are exciting, hilarious, and dangerous: but those moments are frequently undercut by Stranger Things 3‘s continued issues with pacing and character.
It’s a major disappointment, because there are a number of moments in “E Pluribus Unum” that offer a sense of tension much of Stranger Things 3 has lacked: especially with characters like Nancy and Steve, who are pushed to their absolute limits at various points in the episode, their reactions helping reiterate their defining traits. Sure, much of this is retreading old water – Steve is a lovable doofus, and Nancy’s persistence is her power – but how Stranger Things incorporates these moments into its larger, more dramatic scenes is wildly satisfying (particularly with Steve, whose transformation from dickhead to lovable dumb ass has proved to be a surprisingly rewarding character arc).
Steve sacrificing himself to make sure Erica and Dustin can escape is a profoundly familiar dramatic moment – but in the context of Stranger Things 3, seeing Steve make a logical decision to protect his friends takes on powerful weight about the shared responsibility of friendship and community. Stranger Things 3 has struggled to convey a lot of things – emotional maturity, a sense of progression, a nostalgic sensibility not completely fueled by advertising dollars – but as a conduit to explore more fundamental ideas about the power of shared experience, “E Pluribus Unum” finds fertile ground with a character like Steve.
However, this idea strangely isn’t applied evenly across the episode: look no farther than the arcs of Robin and Erica, to see the chasm in how Stranger Things struggles to find consistency in this realm. On one side is Robin, who’s quickly grown into one of the show’s richest, most rewarding characters: she spits in the face of the angry Russians, and breaks into laughter when she realizes she might die with the very same asshole she had a crush on back in high school. Maya Hawke’s been an absolute boon for Stranger Things, one of the few concrete examples of the show’s growth over the years – both in how it develops its female characters, and by proxy, to Steve’s transformative arc across three seasons.
(Of course, Stranger Things 3 can’t have a good moment without shoving its foot in its mouth at some point – it’s not long before Robin is telling Steve she just wanted to be a popular kid, like all the “loser” kids want to be, a laughably inauthentic moment for a character we all know would see Original Steve, and laugh at what a superficial asshole he was.)
Erica unfortunately represents the other side of this very coin: treated more as an intrusion on the group dynamics than an integration, Erica’s presence is a working counterpoint to everything this show’s done well this season. Her only definitive traits are her brash arrogance, and her relation to the only other black character on the show: the former of which feels poorly constructed in the presence of someone like Robin, and the latter of which is embarrassingly revealing of Stranger Things and its clumsy, occasionally damaging whiteness.
This inconsistent approach to theme plays out all across “E Pluribus Unum,” and leads to some seriously strange dynamics, led by the kitchen conversation between Nancy, Jonathan, and our gang of adolescent protagonists. While Eleven searches through the Water Zone (official name change) for any signs of Billy or the other Flayed in Hawkins, Mike is getting into an argument with Max over a number of Eleven-related subjects: her autonomy over her powers, the forming of her “new” identity, and Mike’s over-protective instincts to protect the first girl he ever loves. In a single breath’s worth of dialogue, Mike is an asshole, an empath, and a disgruntled, horny teenager: while it is easily forgotten in the mix of the larger dramatic beats of the scene, it only amplifies the struggles of Stranger Things 3 to keep its plot in sync with its characters at times.
The low light, of course, comes when El steps into Billy’s mind in an attempt to find the source of all the mind flaying and body melting in Hawkins. Billy’s been an enigma Stranger Things cannot seem to figure out: their attempts to built out a more intimidating, cool version of Daniel Desario have been flat and uninspired, too focused on the abuse-fueled sense of masculinity he is defined by. “E Pluribus Unum” offers a hint of something more emotionally ripe – he was abandoned by his mother to live with his abusive father – but the brief series of tritely-written flashbacks El sees don’t really give voice to Billy’s character in an evocative way. It feels desperate and pandering, in a way that exploring Eleven or Will’s major life traumas never felt: the emotional space those occupied were vast and powerful, while Billy’s struggles are reduced to a single sympathetic bullet point in a scene with other priorities.
The other major component of “E Pluribus Unum,” is remarkable in both its pointlessness, and its strange presence as a comedy sequence in an otherwise dramatic, ominous hour: Joyce and Hopper spend nearly the entire episode trying to get information we already know – and more importantly, information Joyce would learn if she fucking checked in on her children once in awhile! Though Mike turning into a douchebag has been a relatively weird flip (teenagers are often dickheads, after all), seeing Joyce suddenly drop the protective barrier she keeps around her children’s been wildly disconcerting.
On one hand, it’s great to see Joyce released from her constant anxiety around Will’s mental state: but that space has just been occupied by an obsession with magnets, a detail whose lack of importance is revealed during Murray’s translations (… of information we’ve already had explained to us twice, begging the question of why the writers just didn’t find ONE SCENE for these two groups of people to communicate in the past four episodes). Isolated in their little corner of Murray’s makeshift apartment, Stranger Things has completely unmoored Joyce from the main narrative of the show, frustratingly pairing her with the increasingly obnoxious Hopper (whose behavior is somehow fucking justified in this hour when Alexei doesn’t run away and disappear, “Pine Barrens” style).
There are moments of “E Pluribus Unum” that are exciting, hilarious, and dangerous: but those moments are frequently undercut by the season’s continued issues with pacing and character, culminating in the odd amalgamation of images conveying El’s trip into Billy’s head. As Stranger Things moves into its home stretch, it may be too late for it to deliver on the more enticing elements of early episodes – but with the various groups around Hawkins finally set to collide with each other in the final two hours, there’s still hope for this season to finish gracefully.
- there’s also a scene where Grigoli threatens the mayor inside a festival ride. Does anybody care about this plot? The show certainly doesn’t seem to, given how there was one (1) riot about the mall before everybody forgot.
- I’m sorry, but even though “E Pluribus Unum” is a solid nod to the Flayer’s newly formed body, it is a bad Stranger Things episode title.
- Yes, bring in the US government to shut down the secret Russian facility! That’s going to go well!
- I really want to like Max as a character, but it feels like Stranger Things has no idea who she is (especially now that she’s not skateboarding anywhere).
- I’ll ask again: where the fuck are Curtis and Erica’s parents???
- why do the Russians have A) a cattle prod, and B) a torture doctor who looks like a knockoff Batman villain?