In “Chapter Three: The Case of the Missing Lifeguard,” Stranger Things literally brings the thunder as the diverse groups of amateur (and professional) detectives start clicking into gear pursuing different pieces of what will inevitably turn out to be the same puzzle.
Mike having been overtly dumped by Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) and Lucas having been dumped by association by Max (Sadie Sink), the boys are set up for an old fashioned sleepover with Dungeons & Dragons. Mike and Lucas keep opting out of the game to ruminate about the female species, and when Will finally gets them to the table they’re only going through the motions. Finally, Will is so fed up that he takes off on his bike… into the dark of the afternoon thunderstorm that has driven all sensible Hawkins residents indoors.
Mike and Lucas get their coats and follow him, but he isn’t in his house when they arrive, prompting a heart-stopping moment of reflexive worry that Will has disappeared again. Good news: he hasn’t fallen into the Upside Down. He is, however, hiding out in the fort that was his place of refuge there.
Driven by his anger about having been apparently left behind by his best friends as they transition out of boyhood, Will rips his decorations from the walls and attacks the structure with a bat. Lucas and Mike find him outside the ruined fort in the rain, moments after the gooseflesh has erupted on Will’s neck again. His anger is gone in an instant, and he tells his friends that it’s back.
Group Two: The Girls. Max and Elle are having a sleepover, too.
Max is coaching Elle through how to ride out a temporary break up (by lusting after Ralph Macchio pics in teen magazines and singing along with Madonna, obvi.), when she wishes aloud that they could hear what the boys were saying right then. Elle tells Max that she can make that happen, and using the static on her pink boom box for white noise, Elle reenters the psychic space that allows her to find people.
When she finds the boys in the basement, instead of discovering them sobbing over the loss of their girlfriends, she hears Lucas expounding on the emotional nature of women before he and Mike take turns expressing gas from different orifices.
Max is so delighted by the trick that the girls devise a new take on “spin the bottle.” They place names of people they’d like to spy on in a circle and spin a bottle to determine whom Elle should find next. After a disappointing first result, they spin again and land on Billy (Dacre Montgomery).
Elle finds Billy crouching over a screaming woman on the ground, and he stands to face her as though he can see her there. She jolts out of the vision and insists that they go to Max’s house to try to find him.
At Max and Billy’s house, there’s no sign of the human hair mop. Instead they find a tub full of melted ice and a fanny pack and whistle hidden in the trash.
The girls go to the public pool to see if they can find the fanny pack’s owner, and the disinterested lifeguards on duty tell them it’s Heather’s (Francesca Reale)– and that Heather didn’t show up for work that day.
Elle finds Heather’s picture on the bulletin board, and since everyone’s left the pool to wait out the storm, they sneak into the showers to look for her. Max turns on all of the showers to create white noise, and Elle goes within to seek Heather. She sees an address on a mailbox, then a red door and through the door is a bathtub. When Elle looks into the tub, it is full of ice and Heather reaches out of it to beg for help.
The girls rush to Heather’s house, where they find a disturbingly friendly Billy dining placidly with Heather’s parents. Heather, apparently unharmed, emerges from the kitchen with fresh cookies. Elle can sense that something is amiss, and Max definitely knows her brother is off somehow, but with no evidence of a crime, the girls have no choice but to leave.
As soon as they’re gone, Heather’s drugged mother collapses on the floor and Heather knocks her father (who is also Nancy’s (Natalia Dyer) boss) to the ground by bashing him over the head with a bottle of wine. She finishes him off with a cloth soaked in chloroform that Billy provides, assuring him that it will all be over soon.
Group Three: The Mall Codebreakers. While Steve (Joe Keery) and Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) hide behind potted plants, using binoculars to scan the Starcourt crowd for evil Russians, Robin (Maya Hawke) cracks the code.
Robin is translating more of the transmission when Scoops Ahoy receives a delivery at the back door that connects to the mall’s service corridor. As the deliveryman walks away, she notices that the name of his company is Lynx, and that there’s a silver cat on his jacket. She runs from the shop and stands in the mall’s hub with the coded message. In addition to “the week is long; the silver cat feeds when blue meets yellow in the west,” she now has a few other clues.
Surveying the stores around her, she identifies shops that correspond to almost every line– and then sees that the minute and hour hands on the giant clock above her are blue and yellow.
Working from her guesses about the code’s meaning, the trio moves into surveillance positions on the rooftop that overlooks the mall’s loading dock to see what happens when the minute and hour hands meet at 8:45 p.m.
Sure enough, armed Russians appear on the loading dock at the appointed time, and a suspicious deliveryman moves boxes marked to match Robin’s translation into a room full of boxes. Unfortunately, the boys make enough noise while bickering over the binoculars that they draw the attention of the guards and have to sneak away before they see more.
Group Four: The Big Kids. Nancy gets laughed out of the conference room again when she presents her big story about rabid rats linked to fertilizer and cleaning chemicals disappearing from businesses around town. Motivated by the disdain of her colleagues, she grabs Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) and convinces him to return to the old lady’s house to collect the caged rat and take it for some blood tests.
When they knock and she doesn’t answer, Nancy leads them into the house to see if she’s maybe slipped and fallen. Instead of finding her harmlessly on the floor, though, they follow weird noises into the basement, where the old lady is frantically eating fertilizer like the rat before her!
Group Five: The Grown-Ups. Hopper (David Harbour) wakes up with a wicked hangover. When he arrived home drunk after being stood up by Joyce (Winona Ryder), he found Elle and Max where once he would have found Elle and Mike. His satisfaction over having expelled the succubus boy from his home lulled him into a calm that allowed him to crash in front of the TV.
As he’s getting himself together in the morning, Joyce appears with no apologies and a wild theory that the lab is back in action and responsible for demagnetizing all the magnets in Hawkins. Hopper doesn’t want to get sucked into her crazy, but of course he does.
Under duress, he takes Joyce to the lab. Amidst the darkness and atmosphere of the raging storm, they revisit the scene of their greatest traumas aided by extremely insufficient flashlights. Aside from troubling memories, they don’t see anything there… including the surveillance camera that sees them.
They’re just about to pack it in, satisfied that the gateway to the Upside Down is closed for good, when they hear a noise. Hopper leaves Joyce to investigate and finds himself on the receiving end of a beat-down from a giant thug who rides off on a motorcycle as soon as Hopper is subdued.
Joyce finds Hopper lying prostrate on the ground as his assailant speeds off into the darkness.