The Mind Flayer is back, Hawkins has a shiny new mall, and the kids have to confront puberty: Stranger Things has never been scarier. Throughout the Fourth of July weekend, The Ringer will be covering all the happenings in Stranger Things’ third season with episodic breakdowns highlighting the biggest scenes, themes, and character moments. Below, we dive into Season 3’s fourth episode, “The Sauna Test.”
As a series reliant on happy nostalgia about the ’80s, of course it isn’t beyond Stranger Things to embrace a lovable bit that works. After Steve Harrington became a fan favorite, he was taken from clichéd jock to surprisingly capable and empathetic babysitter. (And this season has already delivered on the promise of more Dad Steve.) After Billy’s flirtation with Mike’s mom, Karen, became a memeable moment in Season 2, promos heading into the third season fixated even more on the characters’ sensual, if not wildly inappropriate, interactions. And after fans were delighted by the brief but sassy cameo from Lucas’s little sister Erica last season—brimming with the kind of shade only a sibling can provide—the series bumped young actress Priah Ferguson up into a recurring role.
Giving Erica an elevated role this season was a risk in and of itself. Kids on TV shows are often hit-and-miss, and while Stranger Things works because of its roster of young, lovable characters—and the capable actors who portray them—not every series has such a high batting average. (Looking at you, Carl Grimes.) Also, the problem with leaning too much into a bit—like the sassy-younger-sister trope—is the risk of killing the joke. Just because fans thought Erica was funny when she poured an unconscionable amount of syrup onto her breakfast while chiding Lucas doesn’t mean the character deserves to have her screen time multiplied tenfold.
Through the first three episodes of Season 3, it was hard to justify Erica’s continued presence on the fringes of the narrative. Hanging out at Starcourt Mall—mostly inhaling free ice cream samples from Steve and Robin—is a worthy pursuit for a 10-year-old, but not terribly compelling in a show that’s dealing with secret Russian experiments, a monster made of rat flesh taking over the mind of the town bully, and the perpetually awkward trials of puberty. Thankfully, “The Sauna Test” offers not just a roadmap for how Erica can have a significant role in the rest of the season, but a platform for her many precocious and quotable one-liners. In another TV universe, she’d fit right at home with the profound second-graders on Big Little Lies.
With Dustin, Steve, and Robin having discovered that the Russians are up to something at Starcourt—hinted by a mysterious entrance at the mall’s loading dock with armed guards at the door—they try to devise a plan to sneak into the place. The good news: Robin finds a way to get past security. The bad news: It’s through an extremely tight air vent that even Dustin can’t squeeze into. Enter Erica, who responds to this perilous mission with understandable trepidation. “You know what this half-baked plan of yours sounds like to me?” she tells them over a giant ice cream sundae, as the parent in me worries about her absurd sugar intake. “Child endangerment.”
This doesn’t mean Erica isn’t game. But, little businesswoman that she apparently is, she understands what a massive favor this would be, that she deserves to be compensated for her risky efforts—and most importantly, that she holds all the leverage. “Know what I love most about this country?” Erica tells them. “Capitalism.” For a lifetime of free ice cream from Scoops Ahoy, Erica agrees to climb through the ventilation shaft and find a way inside the loading dock. The allure of free ice cream trumps child endangerment. (Though I do question how binding this agreement is if and when Robin and Steve find work somewhere else; Erica’s negotiating skills still need some work.)
It’s a convenient way to write Erica into the main narrative, but the Duffer brothers have a simple justification: she’s an entertaining side character, so long as she doesn’t overstay her welcome. In a show featuring a preteen with telekinetic powers and a bunch of gooey monsters from an alternate dimension trying to take over the world, I’m willing to accept that a 10-year-old has a cursory understanding of capitalism, and more than willing to accept that her quasi-economics degree is being used only to acquire a never-ending supply of free ice cream. As far as TV kids go, Erica’s not as great as the O.G. Stranger Things cast, but she’s certainly no A.J. Soprano. Her expanded role is a win—so far, at least.
The only question that remains is how much more Erica we’ll get this season. She made it to the loading dock and opened the door so that Dustin, Steve, and Robin can investigate further—unfortunately, the contraption closes, trapping all of them in a secret elevator that’s rapidly descending underground. (To another lab intended to open a portal to the Upside Down, perhaps?) Whether the four of them can make it out alive remains to be seen—that image from the first trailer of Steve getting injected with a dangerous and disconcertingly large syringe hangs over this story line. Regardless of what happens, though, Erica was absolutely right: This is child endangerment. If they survive, give her a minority stake in Ben & Jerry’s.