Body Horror and Belly Laughs in ‘Stranger Things 3’ Episode 5 (RECAP)
[Warning: The below contains MAJOR spoilers for the Stranger Things Season 3 Episode 5, “Chapter Five: The Flayed”]
Stranger Things Season 3 hits a series high point in an absolute gut-buster of an episode, and when I say gut-buster, I mean that both literally and figuratively.
Paul Dichter’s script beautifully balances horror and humor with big scares and even bigger laughs. Honestly, if there is any episode that gets down to the core essence of what makes Stranger Things work, it’s this one right here. Ignoring the blatant New Coke shilling, “The Flayed” is easily the best outing of the third season so far. It has a bit of everything. Genuinely gruesome body horror. Fun riffs on Eighties action movies. Buddy cop banter and sitcom-style capers. And even though it might seem like too much going on at once, it somehow all hangs together effortlessly.
I think a key reason why this season is working so well is that it has succeeded in splitting its core cast into separate ragtag groups in a way that feels surprisingly natural. Each grouping makes sense. And not only is each group’s story compelling in its own right, but each has its own tone and aesthetic. This episode, in particular, really highlights that mix of styles.
Let’s start with the horror because this might be the most grotesque Stranger Things has ever been. Nancy (Natalia Dyer) calls Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) to let him know about demonic Doris and warns him that Will (Noah Schnapp) might be in danger. The pair meet up with Will, Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Lucas (Caleb McGlaughlin), Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) and Max (Sadie Sink) to share info, and they soon figure out that the Mind Flayer is building an army. The plan is to find where the “flaying” is happening, and so, Will suggests setting Doris free and following her to see if she takes them to the source.
What follows is a brilliant bit of hospital horror-show. It’s all flickering lights and bloody surgical equipment. Doris has disappeared, but in her place are the recently flayed news editors, Tom (Michael Park) and Bruce (Jake Busey), who stalk the corridors like zombies. While the kids hang in the waiting area, where Mike and Eleven extend the olive branch over a packet of M&Ms, Nancy and Jonathan take care of their old bosses in a violent showdown.
The real stomach-turner is what happens to Tom and Bruce’s bodies once they’ve been killed. The skin melts from their faces as they dissolve into that now familiar goo. These two lumps of sentient slime then crawl their way through the hospital like slugs and meld together to create what I can only describe as a sharp-fanged blob monster.
On the lighter side of things, Winona Ryder and David Harbour are starring in the best 80s buddy cop movie you never knew you needed. After discovering a hidden laboratory at one of the abandoned properties, Joyce and Hopper have another run-in with the machine gun toting Terminator. Hopper fights him off and manages to kidnap a nerdy Russian scientist called Alexei (Alec Utgoff) in the process. There is a definite Sopranos “Pine Barrens” vibe to the sequence of Joyce and Hopper trudging through the woods with their handcuffed captor in tow, amusingly bickering every step of the way. Hopper is extra surly this season, but Joyce is giving as good as she gets.
The funniest sequence takes place outside of a 7-Eleven gas station when Hopper commandeers a man’s convertible (license plate: Todfather) by pretending that Alexie is a deranged criminal who “murdered many children.” It only gets funnier when Joyce arrives seconds later posing as Hopper’s partner: Detective Byers. “Yes, this man is a very dangerous forger,” she improvises. “Child murderer,” Hopper corrects her.
The laughs continue when the trio visits Murray Bauman (Brett Gelman making his return to the series), who is apparently the only person in the area who can translate Russian. As he did last season, Murray once again senses sexual tension between his guests and doesn’t mind letting them know. But Joyce doesn’t tolerate the Dr. Freud routine, and in her standout moment of the series so far, she interrupts Murray’s patronizing putdowns to give him a piece of her mind. “Stop behaving like a JACKASS and ask [Alexei] what he’s doing that’s making my magnets fall off my damn fridge! Please!” she yells. Hopper’s surliness is definitely rubbing off on her.
Insults, yelling, and Russian bad guys are all the rage with the Scoops Troop too, who have spent the night together trapped in an elevator surrounded by boxes of green acid. After making their escape, the gang ends up in a seemingly endless corridor that eventually leads to a sort of Dr. No style underground lab. They sneak into a control room, where Steve (Joe Keery) knocks out an armed guard. “You did it! You won a fight!” Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) exclaims. It’s then when they notice the testing room which contains the nuclear weapon-sized laser trying to rip open the portal to the Upside Down. Yes, that Soviet Union lab was under Hawkins all along!
If Stranger Things can keep up this pace and the right balance of frights, funnies, and thrills, then it could be the best season so far.
Stranger Things, Streaming, Netflix