by Sandy DeVito
Episode five, The Flea and the Acrobat (more on that later), starts right where we left off: with Hop being a total badass, and that's what I like to see. This is one of the scenes that really solidifies how cool he is, whilst tossing in a little Reagan-era paranoia for the adults who remember that stuff (or the millennials who've been told about it). We're back at Hawkins Laboratory, and he slips in just as some lab coats are leaving. He finds his way blocked by a hazmat warning zone, does the facial equivalent of a shrug, and busts right through. HOPPPPP. This is, unfortunately, right about the time some security guards who noticed him on the surveillance feed catch up to him. He bluffs for a moment, insisting Brenner is expecting him, and when one of the guards goes to phone it in, Hop lets fly his stony fist once more, managing to also nab his gun and corner the other guy, stealing his security clearance card (did they have pin-pad/card door locks in '83, though?) and getting through a nearby restricted door. Hop is the coolest, hottest 40-something, slightly washed-up cop to ever exist, basically.
Back at the Byers,' Lonnie is exhibiting a paltry attempt to comfort Joyce. It's clear as we get more scenes with him that Lonnie is just a bona-fide piece of shit, who knocked Joyce up a few times, but never had any real intentions of being a loving partner or father (I still have my theory about Hop potentially being the legitimate father of Jonathan, Will, or both of them, but I digress). Dead-beat dad is a hallmark of genre storytelling, like so many other elements of Stranger Things, a show that is often an homage within an homage to the many genre stories of the past, despite it all being of an extremely high quality. He guilts trips Joyce some more, dismissing her about seeing Will in the wall, reiterates how crazy he thinks she's being. But an interesting thing about this bit is I immediately noticed the parallel between Lonnie ("Real Dad")'s disbelief and dismissal, and Hop ("Stepdad"?)'s juxtaposition running through the halls of Hawkins Lab, yelling Will's name. Hop knows that body wasn't Will for sure, and he's the only one who knows right now, but he knows because he gave enough of a damn to try to figure out if it was or not. Hop didn't have to break into the morgue and examine that body, but he DID, and the reason is clear: he cares immensely about Joyce and her sons.
Hop finds a room with a bed bearing a stuffed animal, and on the wall is a childish picture drawn in crayon - we know this picture to be drawn by El, in the room that clearly used to be hers before she escaped, for it depicts two figures (one meant to be El, one Brenner) and a table with a cat: we've been privy to this flashback already. But Hop stares at it with an unreadable expression, and we're not totally sure what he's culling from it. But it's clear to him, at the very least, that this room once held a child.
As the boys try to figure out what exactly Will's voice was saying over the ham radio, an exhausted El lays on the basement couch in a daze, still wearing the wig (why exactly? she wears that wig way longer than she has any reason to - it must be uncomfortable as hell). "Upside down," El murmurs as they remember his words: like home, but dark...empty...cold. Mike reminds the others of the time El flipped the D&D board to the black underside, using the pieces to represent Will and...something else there, with him. When El took them to Will's house before, "What if he was there? What if we just couldn't see him?" He gets out the board again. "What if this is Hawkins," he wonders, on the illustrated side, "and this," flipping the board, " - is where Will is. The Upside Down." "Like the Veil of Shadows," says Dustin. Now, I only ever played Dungeons & Dragons a couple times when I was hanging with some fellow geeks my freshman year at college, and this didn't sound familiar to me in particular, though I assumed it was a D&D reference. After a Google search, it seems the "Veil of Shadows" doesn't actually exist in D&D canon, but the Duffer brothers seem to have invented it with similar D&D settings in mind (one called Shadowfell, another called the Plane of Shadow). Dustin gets out their game binder and reads from a page that looks like it was xeroxed from a book. "The Vale (or Veil) of Shadows is a dimension that is a dark reflection or echo of our world. It is a place of decay and death. A plane out of phase. A place of monsters." As Dustin is reading, this scene is juxtaposed with Hop back in the lab, and he's found the room with the Rift in it. I LOVE this whole sequence, it's shot so incredibly well, with the imagined spookiness in the Wheeler's basement, to the all-too-real crazy shit that Hop has uncovered. Hop yells Will's name, the electricity in the room crackling around the Rift, the strange air with the weird floating dust causing him to cough. The rift itself seems to be organically alive somehow: it moves of its own volition, pulsating and fluttering, groaning. The atmosphere here is so electric it practically reaches out of the scene and grabs you. "An alternate dimension," Mike murmurs. Lucas wonders how one would get to such a place (though we're seeing the way ourselves with Hop), and Dustin mentions something called "shadow walking", clearly something one would do in the fictional world of Dungeons & Dragons. He suggests that even if such a thing isn't possible for a normal person, they have the advantage of a person with very abnormal abilities: El. Right as Hop gets close to the rift, however, a group of men in hazmat suits swarm towards him, and stick him in the neck with some kind of tranquilizer. Cue darkness, and titles.
There's a brief scene here where Jonathan gets home and he fights with Lonnie again - it's somewhat unnecessary, as we already know Jonathan hates him. But the main point of the scene seems to be Jonathan's change of heart: he's starting to believe that something weird is going on, too. Lonnie is closed to it, however, telling him to take down an Evil Dead poster in his room because it's "inappropriate."
The next day the Wheelers and Byers are getting ready for the funeral for Will, the hoax unbeknownst to them. While coffin-side, we get to see Lucas and Dustin's parents for the first time, and Dustin is amused by some of the people who've shown up - he sees a popular female classmate crying and mentions he can't wait to tell Will about it; they still have hope that maybe that body wasn't Will after all, though they can't prove it. As Lonnie accepts condolences, Joyce is far away, in a memory where she was with Will in the kitchen as he drew a wizard shooting green fireballs because he'd lost his red crayon. I was struck by how much Noah Schnapp looks like Winona Ryder in this scene: they really look like mother and son. The dialogue here seems to be light foreshadowing; she asks why the wizard can't just outsmart the "bad guys" without the fireballs, and Will retorts that sometimes "the bad guys are smart, too." After the funeral, Jonathan and Nancy huddle together, mapping out the places they saw the Creature, and deciding they should go search for it. Jonathan's plan is to kill it, and he steals a gun from the glove compartment of Lonnie's car. Nancy thinks this is a bad idea and wants to tell Joyce about the Creature, but Jonathan insists they can't tell her until after the Thing is dead. Nancy goes home to gather supplies, and as she's swinging a baseball bat around, Steve pops up trying to apologize for being callous when she told him about Barb going missing. He suggests they go see a movie (just a chance to set the time and place again - he suggests they go see All the Right Moves, but she says she can't (of course, Steve doesn't know anything about the Creature) and that she'll call him later. Steve is clearly on the back burner for now. It's just as well, because in light of recent events, Steve is far from being the most compelling character in the narrative at this point.
We see some short scenes concerning more shady dealings with the Hawkins Lab folks; some maintenance guys claiming to be from the power company come to examine the ham radio at the school, and Brenner and some coats seem to have picked up part of the transmission El channeled to Will. Brenner hears El's voice on it, and now he knows she's with them.
Hop jolts awake - and he's in his trailer, covered in sweat, laying on the couch. He snatches up his gun and runs outside - but no one is there. He feverishly examines his neck where the hazmats stuck him in the bathroom mirror, and then proceeds to tear the inside of the trailer to pieces, clearly looking for something. And eventually, he finds it: a bugging device hidden in the ceiling light. The strange scientists at Hawkins Laboratory are now attempting to track him, because he saw something he wasn't supposed to see. Later on, Callahan and Powell show up, looking for him. They mention that a lady from town, Bev Mooney, came into the station concerned when her husband and son didn't return from a hunting trip the day before (if you're a Stephen King fan, you'll notice this scene is classic King in the way it uses the ordinary townspeople going a bit paranoid for a plot point). Powell mentions they went hunting near Kerley, the same area the boys call "Mirkwood" where Will went missing. Hop insists he'll check it out himself, telling them to "leave it" - they notice he's acting extremely erratic and seems disheveled. Callahan also mentions that some "Staties" found Barb's car by a bus station; but we know this to be a blatant falsehood, as we saw Nancy discover the car where they'd left it outside of Steve's house. As Callahan and Powell head back to the car, they wonder aloud if he's "off his meds." This is the first time we hear that Hopper is on prescription medication - for what, we're not entirely sure.
Okay, so here we come to perhaps the most important scene in this episode as foreshadowed in the title. It's the funeral reception, and Mr. Clarke, the science teacher, asks how the boys are holding up. They pretend to be grieving (not very well - Dustin mentions the Nilla wafers are the knockoff kind rather than seeming particularly sad), and tell him they have questions. Mike mentions Carl Sagan's COSMOS and its theory of other dimensions. They ask Clarke how they'd travel to such a place. At first he thinks they're asking about parallel dimensions, perhaps a place where Will is safe, and nothing bad happened to him. Dustin corrects him, saying "we were thinking more of an evil dimension, like the Vale of Shadows." In this universe, the Vale of Shadows is apparently D&D canon, and Clarke knows it well; clearly he was a big nerd growing up too, hence their easy friendship with one another. Here, Clarke uses the classic example found in many other space and time travel works to come before (as varied as A Wrinkle in Time, Event Horizon, and Interstellar, with a slight variation. He uses a paper plate, and draws a stick figure on a wire on it, saying the figure is an acrobat, and the tightrope is our dimension. We have rules in our dimension, and can only go forwards or backwards. He theorizes that there's a flea beside the acrobat, however, and the flea can not only go forward and back, but also sideways, and to the "Upside Down," as well. "To get to the upside down," says Clarke, "you have to create a massive amount of energy - more than humans are capable of creating (that's what you think, Clarke!) - to open up some kind of tear in time and space." Here, he uses the classic analogy, folding the paper plate, and using a pen to punch a hole through the two sides that are now touching, signifying an inter-dimensional gate. He says there would be signs if such a gate existed: it would disrupt gravity and magnetic fields, for instance. "It might even swallow us up whole. Science is neat, but I'm afraid it's not very forgiving." This seems like nothing so much as an ominous warning to me.
The boys are back in the basement, and Mike is explaining the flea and acrobat hypothesis to El. Lucas asks if she knows where the gate is, but she shakes her head. He wonders how she knows about the Upside Down at all (I wonder why the hell she's still wearing that wig). Dustin has an idea, spurred by what Mr. Clarke said to them earlier that afternoon, and he asks Lucas and Mike to give him their compasses (apparently they all carry compasses around everywhere; these kids are really fucking geeky). He devises from the directions of the sunrise and sunset that the compasses are pointing the wrong way, and recalls Clarke mentioning that the "tear" between dimensions would affect magnetic fields - so all of the compasses must be pointing to where the gate is, and if they follow the compasses, they'll find it. As they set out in the direction they're being pointed towards, however, El seems frightened and apprehensive. After they've been walking for awhile, Lucas asks how they'll know the gate when they see it. Dustin quips that a gate to another dimension will probably be pretty obvious. El tells Mike she's tired and wants to go home; he brushes her off, asking her to hang on for awhile. But as the sun sets, it becomes clear they've been going in a circle, and they're heading back towards Mike's house. Cue a flashback: El is with Brenner in the room, and he's showing her a picture of a man, telling her they have to go "further than we've ever gone before." "The bath?" she asks, cryptically. The bath turns out to be a giant sensory deprivation tank of some kind, and they force El into it after putting the wires on her head again with a giant oxygen tank of some kind. They slide hidden windows closed, and she's enveloped in darkness: when she opens her eyes, she's somewhere else, in a huge, pitch-black void that immediately reminded me of the void room in Under the Skin (this is the PG version of that). She sees a man dressed in strange clothing speaking a foreign language (it sounds like Russian), but it's as if he's speaking to someone else; he doesn't seem to see her even when she stands right in front of him. She hears an animalistic growl (and apparently, Brenner and the coats hear it too - they are hearing what she hears, akin to the way she could transmit Will over the ham radio) and the man disappears in a wisp of gray smoke. She runs through the void in terror, and in the deprivation tank screams and pounds on the glass. Whatever that dark place is, it's not quite the Upside Down, and not quite the waking world; it's the in-between, a place between our world and the Vale of Shadows. Back in the present, free from the memory, it becomes clear that El is the one making the compasses lead them in circles with her telekinesis. Lucas and Mike start arguing again, while she tearfully tries to explain that it's "not safe." Lucas accuses Mike of having clouded judgement because of his obvious crush on El. Mike tackles him to the ground and they struggle for a moment, before El, screaming for them to stop, accidentally sends Lucas flying into a nearby concrete wall with her powers. He's temporarily knocked unconscious, and when he comes to, he storms off, his pride more wounded than anything.
At the Byers', Joyce finds a life insurance document in Lonnie's clothes while he's in the shower. She confronts him and he bluffs, pretending he was going to use it to pay for Jonathan to go to school, but she sees through his bullshit right away; he doesn't even know that Jonathan's wanted to go to NYU since he was six years old. He belittles and mocks her, calling her crazy again, but Joyce will not be deterred - she's going to do whatever it takes for as long as it takes if it means bringing Will back. She kicks Lonnie out of the house in righteous rage (hopefully that's the last we see of him). Later, she hears an insistent pounding on the door, and believing it to be Lonnie she storms to open it to tell him to get lost, but it's Hopper, and shushes her insistently, holding a sign that says DON'T SAY ANYTHING. After unscrewing nearly every lightbulb in the house, he finally speaks, telling her his place was bugged ("the CIA, the NSA, the Department of Energy, I dunno") after he went to the morgue. He tells Joyce Will's body was a fake and that she was right all along. Heart strings, you guys. Heart strings. Winona Ryder's eyes yank on mine.
The rest of the episode is devoted to Jonathan and Nancy's developing relationship: Jonathan and Nancy practice shooting the gun at some cans in a nearby field, and have some paltry exposition juxtaposing them as a potential couple versus Nancy and Steve (I'd say their scenes worked for me the least in an episode that is otherwise a strong installment in the series). Jonathan mentions a hunting trip when he was 10 being the last time he shot a gun, where Lonnie made him kill a rabbit and he cried for a week. He mentions that he assumes his parents loved each other once, but that he was never around for it; Nancy replies that she's pretty sure her parents never loved each other, and got married because it was expected of them, opting for a traditional nuclear family. "Screw that," they agree, and Nancy bulls-eyes one of the cans, clearly something of a natural at shooting. Later, they get in an argument in the woods when Nancy asks Jonathan to clarify why he was taking pictures of her that night by Steve's house. He says something about seeing in her a girl who was trying to be someone else - Nancy gets angry with him, and rightfully so, for he was in the wrong to take the pictures, and it's obvious he doesn't like Steve though he won't admit it; we can easily devise he doesn't like Steve because he is crazy in love with Nancy, and they throw jabs at one another, Nancy ragging on him for being a "pretentious creep" and Jonathan sneering that she's "just another suburban girl who thinks she's rebelling," who'll end up just like her mother even though she thinks she won't. They continue to search for the Creature, albeit under slightly more strain, and after sunset find a deer that seems to have been badly wounded in the forest. Jonathan is about to shoot it to put it out of its misery, when something suddenly drags it off in the opposite direction - at first it seems to have disappeared into thin air, but as they search the surrounding forest, Nancy finds a tree with a strange hole in it that reminds us (if we're paying attention) of the rift at Hawkins Laboratory. She climbs through - Jonathan is searching in another area - and on the other side everything is dark, the air filled with telltale bits of floating debris, that clues us in to where exactly she's crossed over to. And then, she hears the Creature - and sees it, hunched monstrously over the deer, feeding on it. Here be their monster. She tries to step back, but branches crunch under her feet: it's pitch-dark, but we see it turn and with a grotesquely elongated maw screech horribly at her intrusion. Jonathan hears her scream, but he didn't see her go into the tree - and the opening seems to be trying to close itself.
Side note: the end credits for this episode are played over Echo and the Bunnymen's Nocturnal Me (ugh, I love that fucking band), and even more so than the score by SURVIVE, they've managed to accrue a great mix of hits and lesser known new wave tracks from the early 80's that are a real highlight for me. It's a bang-up job, no doubt. But I can't help but note the show so often feels like a hodge-podge of so many other things I know and love so well: a greatest hits album of nostalgic throw back scenes, rather than a stand-alone narrative. I'll expound when we get to the end, but how I wish that by this point in the story they would have doubled down more on a personal voice.