Disenchantment began with a two-episode story about Bean’s doomed marriage ceremony and the beginning of new friendships. Similarly, “Stairway to Hell” functions as the second part of a story about…well, a lot of things. There’s the journey in and out of Hell, bringing Elfo back to life, and even Zøg rediscovering his battle mojo. Disenchantment covers a lot of story ground even in a stand-alone episode, but credited writer, and inventor of the word “cromulent,” David X. Cohen keeps the action fluid and seamless, even as it spans three different realms.
Cohen accomplishes this by making sure every character’s behavior propels the action forward. Elfo has to get to Hell, so he has to find a way to blaspheme, but the benevolent, understanding God can’t take Elfo’s mild invective seriously. (“Your noble intent far outweighs your benign, choir-boy swearing,” He boasts. “No one belongs in Heaven more than you!”) Cursing, depicting His likeness, and worshipping false idols doesn’t inspire God’s ire, but calling Jerry a dum-dum grants him a one-way ticket straight to the netherworld. Never mind that Jerry openly and pointedly criticizes God at every turn.
With Elfo having made it to Hell, now it’s Bean and Luci’s job to figure out where he’s located. They maneuver their way into the Infernal Stronghold, described as “like if a normal castle lived a hard, drug-fueled life,” which contains the Book of the Dead, the key to the location of every single person in Hell. Unfortunately, Asmodium, Lord of Darkness catches them in the act, and though Bean’s improvised name of Juanita Demonheimer initially throws him off the scent, Luci eventually sells out Bean and Elfo so he can receive his wings. Now, Bean and Elfo are reunited, but not under circumstances that either would prefer.
Though “Stairway” features plenty of forward momentum, Cohen and director Dwayne Carey-Hill also take the time to have fun with the design of Hell, particularly the Rube Goldberg-esque delivery system that brings Elfo from Heaven and the MC Escher-style moving platform transport network that gets Bean and Luci lost almost immediately. Disenchantment excels with clever production design, and everything from the personal Hell chamber to the Infernal Stronghold door embodies their considerable imagination. It’s a classical Boschian portrait mixed with the right amount of Aleister Crowley.
Meanwhile, Zøg discovers that Merkimer has survived the mass stonification by being off in the countryside romancing a fetching young sow (“Whatever went on here was nearly as disturbing!” he notes) just as the Bozaks invade and pillage Dreamland. Zøg’s plan was to cower away because, you know, he’s old and fat and diabetic and anemic and arthritic and he has that thing with his knee where it gets kinda stuck. But he’s eventually cajoled into action by the smell of bacon after the Bozaks capture and try to cook Merkimer over an open flame. It’s a minor story but it’s all worth it to hear John DiMaggio channel the catchphrase of the once renowned Mr. Bender Bending Rodriguez.
But the emotional crux of “Stairway” lies in the moment when Bean and Elfo realize that they’re forced to relive the same worst moment together: when Bean chose to revive Dagmar over Elfo. Given that Elfo has had this all-consuming crush on Bean for the first half of the season, his considerable hurt and anger towards her when they finally meet again carries weight, even if it’s a little petty. It’s understandable that Bean chose her mother over Elfo, but it’s also fair that Elfo isn’t exactly thrilled to learn that he was left for dead and that he booted himself out of Heaven to watch the scene over and over. They only land on the same emotional page when their anger redirects towards Luci, who betrayed them both for a new set of wings.
Of course Luci doesn’t actually betray them, but Eric Andre sells the cruelty of the betrayal well enough both in the Stronghold and on their way out of Hell that the moment works. Bean, Luci, and Elfo’s soul escape out of Hell through a volcano, but since Luci’s wings evaporate as soon as they return to Earth, they tumble out of the sky from a far enough height that the jar containing Elfo’s soul breaks. Bean inhales the soul vapor and quickly finds Elfo’s lifeless corpse on the beach. She breathes it back into him and…it doesn’t work. The screen cuts to black as Bean sobs and Luci looks on somberly. Is Elfo really dead? Is Nat Faxon no longer on the Netflix payroll? Again, of course not.
The transparent fake-out isn’t as effective as Luci’s betrayal, but it’s mostly worth it for the moment when Elfo lets go of his anger and embraces Bean back. It’s a small moment of recognition that friends might occasionally let you down, but the best ones will go to Hell and back to make up for it.
- On Disenchantment Signage: Any Food You Want (Except Raisins); Last Rest Sto Before Hell
- According to Luci, Bean looks like a “chipmunk in a discount bat costume,” but has to confirm that that was a “passive-aggressive insult.”
- Groening and co.’s signature religious satire sometimes feels too easy or unearned, but it works well when it manifests in the banter between Jerry and God. God tries to convince Jerry of his magnanimity but all Jerry can see are His horrible creations: “Jerry, what if I told you all of that [pain and suffering] was to make you stronger?” “I’d say you’re a sick bastard.”
- In Hell, Bean and Luci find Hansel and Gretel, who they murdered back in “Faster, Princess! Kill! Kill!” They’re forced to watch their own deaths over and over again, which offends their eyes. “But you cooked and ate children,” Bean counters. “Yeah, but we didn’t look in the mirror while we were doing it!”
- The bag of popcorn lying just out of reach during the personal Hell scene is an excellent background touch.
- “I was brutally murdered and I can’t stop smiling!”
- “We get promoted for being jerks. It’s kinda like the music industry.”
- “The Zøg I know doesn’t give up just because it’s the smart, correct thing to do!”
- “Surprisingly large numbers of popes.”
- “I’ve eaten nothing but baby birds for a week. The crunch is nice but it doesn’t fill you up.”
- “Goodbye Bean! Now that I’m a ghost, I can help you make pottery.”
- “I work. I make stuff.” “Oh yeah, what’s the last thing you made?” “I made mosquitos.” “Mosquitos. Yeah, and malaria! Did you create cancer?” “Well, yes.” “Oh, man. You ought to be ashamed.” “It came with tobacco. People liked that!”
- “Bite my shiny metal axe!”