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Five episodes in, Stranger Things 3 has a classic sequel problem

Joe Keery, Gaten Matarazzo, Maya Hawke, Priah Ferguson
Screenshot: Netflix
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“Chapter Five: The Flayed” opens with a thrill ride, there’s no denying it. As Starcourt’s “secret room” plunges (as Steve poetically puts it) “halfway to hell,” our heroes’ screams rise over the screeching of metal on metal as their elevator car drops. (Dustin’s scream alone is bloodcurdling; hats off to Gaten Matarazzo and his inimitable pipes.) Joyce and Hopper’s adventure is quieter but just as suspenseful, as they arrive at the old Hess farm in search of a massive government conspiracy—and not even their own government this time!

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But however ghastly or intense the show gets, thrills have never been the heart of Stranger Things. The characters, with all their messy, complicated relationships, are the show’s heart. “The Flayed” intersperses its action with character beats, but it rarely integrates character and action as previous seasons have routinely done.

 For better or worse, Stranger Things has embraced the traditional, even hackneyed, logic of the three-part film franchise. The original, the most beloved chapter, is a scrappy, lean work that balances style and substance, and relies on its core characters and the viewer’s fascination more than any special effect or showcase scene. The second expands the universe, bringing in new, often broader characters and wider settings, creating more complex systems of interpersonal drama and bigger action. The third blows up the whole dang thing in an extravaganza of violence and over-the-top characters. (Sure, sure, my example of film franchise is a tetralogy, but as my colleague Clayton Purdom puts it, “films think in triplicate.”)

There’s one big in-universe problem with these folks acting like action heroes: They’re terrible at this! Joyce and Hopper go out to search the suspicious properties on Kline’s list, not bothering to tell anyone where they’ve gone or why. Steve, Dustin, and Robin are trapped in the “secret room,” now deep underground, and they brought a child, also without leaving a clue of their whereabouts.

They make wild leaps of logic, like Nancy announcing, “That proves it!”—it being every single thing she’s speculated about—after learning that two odd events took place “around 9:00” last night. (She’s right; as Mike said earlier, “This can’t be a coincidence!,” because most fiction allows little room for coincidence.) They announce their presence everywhere they go, like Steve splashing urine on two separate levels of their confined space, or Hopper barreling his Blazer right up the driveways of the secret buildings they’re secretly scouting.

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Screenshot: Netflix

But, entertainingly, they’re also great at this. Hopper jauntily commandeers a bystander’s airboat convertible as casually as he might hail a cab. Winona Ryder continues her unexpected detour into quiet comic genius as Joyce shifts her body language from flustered mom to seen-it-all cop after hearing Hopper introduce her as “Detective Byers.” Will’s plan to let Doris Driscoll lead them back to “the source” is solid; though they’re too late to put it in action, and their arrival at the hospital does lead them to Tom and Bruce, and to the slithering entity that their bodies unite to form.

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They’re great at this and they’re terrible at this, and that’s where all the entertainment in “The Flayed” arises, and—despite the noise and violence of prolonged fights—much of its tension. Even Erica, the unlikely key to entering Starcourt’s secret elevator, has her head on a swivel and her spy patter down pat: “First door, northwest,” she tells the others with the assurance of a Mission Impossible agent. “The comms room.”

Gaten Matarazzo, Priah Ferguson, Maya Hawke: “You won a fight!”
Screenshot: Netflix
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Joe Keery showcases what works best in these action scenes, hustling his team to what passes for safety with a characteristic combination of audacity and anxiety. In the middle of the clear, coherent, but otherwise uninspired fight between legend-in-his-own-mind Steve Harrington and a hapless Russian soldier (in what does appear to be the comms room! Good work, Erica!), Steve grabs an instrument from its cradle, flips it in the air as casually as he flips his Scoops Ahoy ice cream scoop, and bashes his opponent with it. It’s a needless flourish, but it’s also a moment of pure Steve Harrington in an otherwise generic fight scene.

We have to talk about Bruce. What is the point of Bruce? What, one might ask, use is Bruce? He has no personality beyond “loud, crude, and insulting,” and now that he’s in the command of the Mind Flayer, he need never have a personality again. So why does he exist? Why bother to have Jake Busey play this braying, empty husk?

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Jake Busey
Photo: Netflix

On any other show, I would expect future development of this character to justify the casting, but any other show didn’t let Cara Buono melt into the background for two seasons before she had a chance to shine, and any other show didn’t introduce Billy Hargrove as a mysterious new resident with a seething temper and an even more sinister, slippery charm, only to reveal his entire dark secret of that season was… an abusive father.

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Stranger Things can be lovingly attentive to its core characters, but those on the sidelines sometimes feel like props or puppets, their behavior exactly as ominous or innocuous as the script demands. With her unflappable confidence and unstoppable wisecracks, Priah Ferguson plays Erica as a classic action-movie sidekick. It’s not her fault the character is written as a cliché, never given fear, or anything but admirable self-interest and smart backtalk.

Erica’s costume goes farther even than her dialogue to camouflage the sight of a little girl in grave danger; with two flashlights taped to her helmet, with her pads and backpack adding odd angles to her silhouette, Erica is reduced almost to a robotic sidekick/instigator in the style of Short Circuit’s Johnny 5. But for me, that facial silhouette will always conjure up images of Roberto, ha HA!

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Priah Ferguson
Screenshot: Netflix

Stranger Things has always had its share of under-served or overblown characters. But “The Flayed” also lets its central characters lapse into lazy gender stereotypes. (It’s not the first time, or the second, or the third, and some on-set dynamics demanded scrutiny as well. Many of those potential problems, on-screen and off, have been resolved, but not all of them.) In earlier seasons, those slanted, even sexist portrayals are incidental and presumably unintentional; in “The Flayed,” writer Paul Dichter (Stranger Things staff writer, and credited with the eerily effective “Will The Wise”) hangs a lampshade on the show’s simplistic gender dynamics.

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It’s more than Mike and Lucas moaning about girls being “a totally different species” of creatures who “act on emotion and not logic.” It’s more than this episode’s action grinding to a halt while Max and El giggle into a mirror together, or Lucas informing his friends wearily that “girls just like hanging out in bathrooms.” It’s Mike assuming that two girls laughing means “they’re conspiring against me!” It’s Hopper insisting that Joyce’s fears are a way of avoiding what really matters, which is him. It’s Jonathan, hearing Nancy’s urgent, near-panicked voice on the phone at dawn and being surprised that she wants to talk about anything but their breakup.

It’s the female characters accepting that they are seen either as incorrigible fabulists or as infallible. Like Robin before her, Max gleefully asks the boys, “You do still realize we can hear everything you’re saying, right?” Nancy apologizes to Jonathan and accepts his apology, then gloats, “I just look forward to you never doubting me again.” Listening to Joyce’s story, Hopper scoffs that she should “stick to sales” (a particularly sharp jibe considering the going out of business vibe Melvald’s gives off these day); when he sees evidence mount, he beams, telling her with a twinkle to come work for him at Hawkins P.D.

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Most emblematic of all, it’s Mike, who has twice now tried to make up with El without quite apologizing. Gathering supplies at the pool, he tried to charm her into a smile and explain “the context” of his lies; in the hospital waiting room, he offers to share his candy, asking, “Does your species like M&Ms?” He doesn’t make amends; he doesn’t promise to behave better. In this episode, Mike Wheeler and the writers and showrunners of Stranger Things have this in common: They’re trying to entertain and charm their way past their mistakes instead of addressing them.

Putting a lampshade on the thing you’re doing wrong isn’t the same as doing it right. And maybe that’s the core problem with this season, the reason it hasn’t quite hit its stride. Going big and broad with its cast, its world, its characters, and especially its new embrace of the loud, slick style of ’80s action flicks, Stranger Things is doing something that doesn’t quite work, and winking at us about its failings. Stranger Things has successfully navigated the perils of being moony, blunt, and unabashedly earnest. What it’s not great at is winking.

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Stray observations

  • “You did it! You won a fight!” Hey, if you’re going to win one fight, make it the one against the lone armed guard whose station you’ve infiltrated.
  • “I’ll take those odds,” Robin says, and if I were trapped in an underground bunker full of nervous scientists and heavily armed guards, one out of a hundred odds of escape would sound pretty good to me, too.
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About the author

Emily L. Stephens

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Emily L. Stephens writes about film, television, entertaining, gender, and cake. A lot about cake, really.