“The Sauna Test” upped the stakes, putting all the characters in peril and exposing a much bigger threat.
This recap of Stranger Things Season 3, Episode 4, “The Sauna Test”, contains spoilers. You can check out our thoughts on the previous episode by clicking these words.
I, for one, didn’t think that Stranger Things Season 3, Episode 4 would attempt to go bigger and bolder than the previous episode. But I was wrong. And “The Sauna Test” might have been the best installment of the season yet; tense, intriguing, full of character, and promising bigger, more dangerous developments to come.
But it began low-key, with Max and Eleven still chilling out (remember when these two didn’t like each other?) after finding Billy and Heather alive. Little do they know that Billy and Heather have fed her parents to the big tentacly monster that’s living in the decrepit warehouse and mind-controlling them into doing its sinister bidding. Mrs. Driscoll also gets rushed to the hospital, presumably one of the creatures thralls too.
We’ll puzzle through all this in a moment. Meanwhile in “The Sauna Test”, Joyce has the partial license plate of the goon who attacked Hopper, but it won’t do them much good. However, when she mentions that he was riding a motorcycle rather than driving a car, Hopper has a brainwave; he saw that guy leaving the mayor’s office.
A grapevine is extended from the boys to the girls in Stranger Things Season 3, Episode 4. Will has declared a Code Red; he can feel the presence of the Mind Flayer. Now, I’m not exactly an expert on Stranger Things lore, so maybe someone in the comments can help me out here. But to my knowledge, the Mind Flayer is the 50-story-tall gangly big bad spider monster that towers over the town and summons red lightning, right? Which means that the creature in the warehouse is… what? A shrunken version? An extension of it? Part of its hivemind? I don’t know, and neither do the kids, really. But Will can sense its presence, and he surmises that maybe it’s trapped somewhere and looking for a “host” to do its bidding. Now, doesn’t that sound familiar?
While the kids plan to figure out if Billy is indeed that host, Nancy and Jonathan get fired. Apparently, Mrs. Driscoll is a paranoid schizophrenic, and her family is seeking legal action on the grounds of her distress. This leads to a big argument between Nancy and Jonathan, much of which revolves around privilege. They both have a point. What she doesn’t understand is that a summer job isn’t just a summer job for him; money is tight, the mortgage needs paying, and she has everything provided for her by her wealthy family. But what he doesn’t understand is that what she experienced at the Hawkins Post was discriminatory in a way that he’ll never have to understand or live with. Just because someone is giving you an opportunity doesn’t give them the right to treat you however they please.
Later in “The Sauna Test”, Nancy turns to her mother for support after being fired, and her mother is proud that she stuck up for herself, telling her to continue pursuing the story if it’s something she believes in. This was a surprisingly touching scene. Natalia Dyer is a really interesting-looking actress and can emote when she needs to. And I’m always impressed by how well Stranger Things balances tone. It can do sentimentality and introspection just as well as nostalgia, broad slapstick and horror. It doesn’t get enough credit for its versatility.
Anyway, Hopper goes to the mayor’s office and mentions to Kline that he had seen the goon there. There are some vague attempts at blackmail thrown back and forth, but the Mayor takes things a step too far by mentioning Hopper’s daughter, so rather than continuing to beat around the bush Hopper breaks his nose and threatens to cut off his finger, which loosens his lips a little. The goon works for Starcourt, the company who owns the mall, and who have been purchasing land all over the place. The Mayor doesn’t know why; he was just asked to lean on people who wouldn’t sell. He keeps the land deeds in his home safe, and all the land happens to be near the power plant. Joyce surmises that the theoretical giant machine that requires an absurd amount of power and that caused the blackout and her fridge magnets to demagnetize is probably at one of them.
These revelations give the subplot with the Russians at the mall a lot more significance in Stranger Things Season 3, Episode 4. Robin is able to acquire the mall’s blueprints, and figures out that they can sneak into the secret, guarded room using the air ducts. The problem is they’re too small for everyone, even Dustin, who tries to cram himself inside in a very funny scene with Steve. But Erica, the mall rat who is always on the hunt for ice cream samples, is just the right size; and after being placated with treats, she agrees to do it — provided she gets free ice cream for life as a result. It’s for America, after all. And “you can’t spell America without Erica.”
Erica is able to get through the ducts and open the doors. The boxes contain secure containers of a weird-looking green chemical. But out of nowhere the doors lock again, and the room begins to move, plummeting downwards.
Now for the sauna test itself. It’s a plan devised by Mike based on the Mind Flayer’s aversion to heat; they need to trick Billy into the sauna, turn up the temperature, and see what happens. The preparation is funny and full of character, as the kids have to try to get along despite their recent differences. Mike tries to apologize to Eleven; Lucas tries to apologize to Will. But right now there are bigger fish to fry. The kids are able to get Billy into the sauna, and as it starts to heat up, he begins to break down. He starts sobbing and admitting to Max that he has done bad things, that “the shadow” made him do them, that he tried to fight against it but couldn’t. Will can sense the Mind Flayer’s presence more and more, as Billy’s skin starts to show the tell-tale black striations of the Mind Flayer’s possession. (Elsewhere, Mrs. Driscoll, whom Nancy visits in the hospital, begins to exhibit the same thing.)
With the Mind Flayer having revealed itself within Billy, he’s able to escape and gets into a fight with Eleven, whom he almost kills after overwhelming her telekinetic abilities. Mike is able to distract him, and Eleven throws him right through a wall. This whole sequence is remarkably tense, and I was genuinely unsure of what the outcome might be. Stranger Things Season 3, Episode 4 felt ready and willing to kill a major cast member on the spot, and you have to imagine the rest of the season will feel much the same way. Everyone survived the encounter this time, but how they’ll fare in the next one remains to be seen.
“The Sauna Test” ends with Billy, his pride wounded, returning to the warehouse. As the camera pulls away, an army of possessed thralls reveals themselves, ready to do the Mind Flayer’s bidding.