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Stranger Things turns expectations upside-down and sideways

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In “Chapter Four,” Stranger Things seems to be putting its pieces together as neatly as Nancy puts together Jonathan’s last photo of Barb, taping torn fragments so their edges almost line up. Nancy knows at least one other person has seen the faceless thing that came after her. Jonathan accepts Joyce’s wild-sounding stories, and even has a photo to back them up. Hopper proves that’s not Will’s body lying in the morgue. Dustin, Lucas, and Mike listen in on Will speaking from some other, darker place. If everyone does the sensible, predictable thing in “Chapter Five: The Flea And The Acrobat,” they’ll soon join together to see the whole picture.


Almost no one does the sensible thing.

That’s not a complaint.

Hopper sneaks into Hawkins Lab with no plan except to walk around calling, “Will! Will?” Joyce’s unreliable ex comes home and tells her she’s losing her mind, just like her Aunt Darlene; she welcomes him with open arms and starts speaking about Will in the past tense. Instead of showing his photo of the monster to his mother and the police, Jonathan keeps it to himself and goes on a monster hunt. Wandering around a dark wood looking for the faceless monster that she believes snatched her friend away, Nancy finds a strange hollow in a tree trunk lined with slippery mucus and emitting clicking gurgles, and she crawls into it.

In my previous review, I noted Stranger Things’ tendency to have adults pay attention exactly as the plot demands, not bothering to justify their inconsistencies. I stand by that criticism, because an impossible story needs to anchor itself in incidental realism or everything becomes flatly unbelievable. But when it’s executed well, there’s a thematic resonance to the disconnect between adults and children, between family members, between friends or lovers. At times, these characters seem to be walking around on separate planes, barely able to see or hear each other.

Instead of following “Chapter Four”’s trajectories and bringing all the characters together, “Chapter Five: The Flea And The Acrobat” (written by Alison Tatlock) spins the needles on their compasses and sends them off in every direction. Like the gateway Mr. Clarke (Randy Havens) describes to the boys, something is consuming a massive amount of energy in all these people, disrupting their emotional gravity. They can’t walk in a straight line because larger forces—grief, jealousy, guilt, shock—are distorting their inner sense of direction.

(Randy Havens) (Photo: Netflix)

Few people express themselves clearly as Mr. Clarke drawing a model of an alternate dimension on a paper plate you could reach if you could just turn yourself upside-down, like a flea on a tightrope. Few people are as brutally honest as Jonathan and Nancy when they stand side by side, staring ahead at their targets and talking about their parents. But in “Chapter Five,” too many people keep quiet about something crucial, so their skewed emotions also distort the narrative, leading them away from the expected story beats.


That’s also not a complaint.

Jonathan starts to confide in his mother, but he shrinks back under his father’s gaze. Instead of telling the boys she’s terrified of the portal, and of Hawkins Lab, El misleads them, misdirecting their compass needles. Hopper should tell Joyce–or anyone–what he’s found at the morgue, but instead he heads out to Hawkins Lab without a word, without back-up, and without an exit strategy. Even Joyce, who’s resisted the incredulity of everyone around her, lets Lonnie spin her emotional compass. No one knows which way to turn because everyone’s magnetic fields are all out of whack, and have been for a lot longer than Will Byers has been missing.


When the writers nail the everyday interactions, that sense of disconnect gives fresh depth to a story about trying to communicate with someone stranded in another dimension. “I’m on your side, I’m here to help,” Lonnie tells Jonathan. But few people here are acting like they’re on the same side, even when they’re helping each other. It’s no accident this episode (directed by the Duffer brothers) cuts from Jonathan facing off against his dismissive, hostile father—the man introduced throttling his son, the man Jonathan thought might have Will stashed in the trunk of his car—to Mike complaining, “Dad, you’re choking me” as his father helps him dress for Will’s funeral. “It’s supposed to be a little tight,” Ted Wheeler (Joe Chrest) says, yanking harder at his son’s collar and tie as Mike braces for what’s probably the most devastating day of his young life. Even Hopper’s lie to cut short his call to his ex, and the last look he gives before walking away from the still-ringing phone, underscore how hard it is for any of these people to make a connection.


Nancy calls Jonathan out for not telling his mother the truth, for not asking for help—even for leaving Joyce to question her sanity. “She deserves to know,” Nancy tells him. Jonathan’s excuses—“She’s been through enough” and “I’ll tell her when this thing is dead”—sound as weak as they are, but for the purposes of the story, they’re plenty. Fiction needs to justify its characters’ actions, but those actions don’t have to be practical or smart or even defensible. They just need to be emotionally plausible. Jonathan shutting down in the presence of his long-resented father and withholding information from his mother until his father’s influence passes is perfectly plausible, even if it’s not smart or kind.


Hopper’s lack of plan is laughable, but the writing and performances address that problem instead of ignoring it. At the intimidating plastic barrier, Hopper tilts his head in resignation before he commits to entering the biohazard zone. Hawkins Lab’s head of security asking, “Forgot all the cameras, bub?” is a great laugh line, but it’s also the question I was hollering at my screen. Having a character voice it goes a long way to rebuilding trust in the writing. If you can’t justify a character’s foolishness, at least acknowledge it. With those details backing him up, David Harbour’s combination of tough-guy smarts and gruff ease sells even this half-baked caper.

“Sometimes the bad guys are smart, too,” Will tells Joyce in flashback. They sure are. The reveal that Brenner’s team left Hopper to wake up sweaty and disoriented on his own couch amid a scatter of empties and pills made me laugh unexpectedly hard. They know the death or disappearance of Hawkins’ police chief would raise a lot of questions. Leaving Hopper’s sweaty panic (and his deputies’ assumptions: “Is he off his meds again?”) to undermine his credibility and scare him off is a smart move… or it would be if he were almost anyone else. Instead, Hopper finally sits down to tell Joyce what he knows.


From a D&D book, Dustin reads, “‘The Vale of Shadows is a dimension that is a dark reflection or echo of our world.’” Together, the three boys try to recall what Will said over the Heathkit: “Like home. Like home but dark.” “And empty.” “Empty and cold.” That’s his description of the place where he’s trapped, the place El calls The Upside Down.

It’s also a haunting description of everyday life turned upside-down by loss, by fear, by catastrophe, by betrayal. It’s how Joyce and Jonathan feel with Will missing. It’s how Hopper feels with his daughter dead and her mother gone. It’s how Mike and Lucas feel when a fight threatens their friendship, and how Dustin feels watching them. Instead of bringing all its stories together as expected, Stranger Things lets its fifth chapter underscore the dangers of isolation, and the ease of falling into it. “It’s a plane out of phase, a world of monsters. It is right next to you and you don’t even see it.” That’s the scariest thing about Stranger Things’ monster, about the dreadful dim world where Will is stranded, and about any mundane disaster that can befall any of us. It’s right here, ready to cross over into existence at any moment.


Stray observations

  • El’s trip in the sensory deprivation tank (“the bath”) is a riff on Under The Skin.
  • The kids’ trip down the railroad tracks is another homage to Stephen King’s The Body and to Stand By Me.
  • The score as Hopper finally tells Joyce, “You were right. This whole time, you were right” sounds (again) like Angelo Badalamenti, but this time it’s Mulholland Dr. it conjures up.
  • The music playing over the funeral montage is New Order’s “Elegia,” which you may remember from Pretty In Pink.
  • The gurgling water of the sensory deprivation tank (with its hints of Altered States) sounds like the guttural, liquid roars of the creature from beyond.
  • Of course these three kids carry around seven compasses between them. I love these little nerds.
  • Lucas, dissembling: “We’re mourning.” Dustin, telling the truth: “Man, these aren’t real Nilla Wafers.” Dustin, you’re my favorite.
  • Dustin: “You know The Vale Of Shadows?” Mr. Clarke: “An echo of the material plane where necrotic and shadow magic—” Mr. Clarke, you’re also my favorite.

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