If Stranger Things was a typical cable television series, this episode would stand as the perfect (read: excruciating) cliffhanger for a midseason finale/hiatus. I have admittedly been cooler on this season than our other reviewers, but “The Sauna Test” truly gave me the goosebumps I have been waiting for. While I felt that much of this season’s first half was dominated by relationship drama and getting us familiar with a very different Hawkins (both in terms of its maturing cast and setting), this fourth episode definitely jumps from breadcrumbs to the breadbasket.
After setting up this season’s teams two episodes ago, “The Sauna Test” catapults each group into its specific missions. The planning and execution of these missions give the season a real sense of danger and stakes that have been missing so far. The Soviet threads still don’t quite feel as compelling as the Mind Flayer storyline, but the trio of Steve (Joe Keery), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), and Robin (Maya Hawke) have such amazing chemistry that I’m willing to forgive the slower pace. Now that the characters are beginning to unravel this year’s mysteries, all of the plots are speeding forward with new momentum.
The real surprises of this episodes, though, are a few standout performances. Dacre Montgomery has truly impressed me in his role as Billy; while Season Two rarely attempted to paint Billy as anything other than Max’s violently unhinged stepbrother, Montgomery has since given the character an odd combination of menace and agony. He deftly juggles the different sides of Billy throughout “The Sauna Test” and thankfully prevents the character from turning into a caricature.
The other star in this outing is Priah Ferguson as Erica. After a fun but fleeting introduction to Lucas’ sassy sister last season, Erica finally shines in the spotlight. Ferguson brings an energy and dry delivery to the role that makes her instantly gif-able.
Halfway through this season, Stranger Things 3 has been dominated by change — changes in setting, changes in dynamics, changes in characters. Before this season started streaming, I wrote that I wanted to see the series forge ahead and creates its own path unrestrained by homages. Though the show clearly draws some inspirations from Invasion of the Body Snatchers and George Romero, I have generally been pleased with how fresh and original this season has felt. Hopefully these changes will continue to pay off in this season’s latter half.
Stranger Things Season 3 Episode 4, ‘The Sauna Test’ is now streaming on Netflix.