For all the characters, plot lines, and dramatic moments of Stranger Things 3‘s first four episodes, the actual story of the season hasn’t progressed since the first episode, a fact that becomes more prescient the longer its fifth entry, “The Flayed,” draws on. After all, the very first and last scenes of the season premiere give up all the mystery: Russians are conducting experiments to open the Upside Down in Hawkins, and Billy is the latest person to be possessed by the Mind Flayer – everything we’ve learned since then’s just been window dressing, perfunctory facts designed to satiate audiences and waste time until it was time to kick into the climax.
There’s an overwhelming feeling “The Flayed” is using the same narrative blueprint as seasons past: in that context, Stranger Things 3‘s turning point feels like a briefly thrilling ride on a very familiar attraction.
Remove the teen histrionics and Hopper’s an Asshole subplot, and the only real development of the season, to this point, is the Mind Flayer building its army in Hawkins (which begs the question: why wasn’t it doing this so much earlier?) – and of course, Nancy’s crusade to take down sexism in journalism, in what’s been the most underwhelming, disconnected element of this third season.
That context makes “The Flayed” an even more fascinating episode to dissect: though it feels like the most driven, moving hour of the season, each scene is essentially designed to reset the stakes of the story – but mostly, it feels like the Duffer brothers unlocking some arbitrarily-placed obstacles for our characters to bypass, and finally kick the season into high gear. Just look at where the various plots of Stranger Things 3 are by the end of “The Flayed”; the Ice Cream Team learns of the lab we saw in “Suzie, Do You Copy?,” Nancy and Jonathan see the flesh blobs from “The Mall Rats” and members of the Flayed army revealed in “The Sauna Test” – everything in “The Flayed” is about our main characters discovering facts we’ve already been privy to as an audience.
That doesn’t make “The Flayed” an individual failure in storytelling (though its heightened aura of ‘mystery’ feels as artificial as the sweetener in New Coke); if there’s going to be an arbitrary hour pushing all the obvious threads of the season together, it could’ve led to a thoroughly disappointing, and boring, episode of television. Instead, “The Flayed” survives on atmosphere and personality, injecting some much-needed humor and pathos into scenes that otherwise, might feel like a major waste of time (case in point: we learn nothing new about the Russian lab under the mall, but we do get Robin yelling at Steve when he accidentally pisses in the elevator cabin). No, there’s still not a lot of coherent movement to the story in “The Flayed,” but thankfully, it has other elements to rely on, besides the underwhelming sense of discovery at the heart of the episode.
Ultimately, where this story go doesn’t really matter: Stranger Things 3 is a show about friendship, maturity, and nostalgia – it is never going to be a satisfying science fiction drama, and “The Flayed” importantly remembers that most of these facts don’t actually matter (as much as I want to know why the Flayer just didn’t do all this last season, I can respect Stranger Things for not giving a fuck about the answer). Like LOST or The Expanse, what Stranger Things does in the genres of horror and science fiction are less important than its ambitions as an ensemble drama: in the end, we’ll remember these relationships and moments more than its overarching plot of aliens, Russians, and Joyce’s failing magnets.
In that sense, “The Flayed” is much like the rest of Stranger Things 3: a mixed bag of the great (Steve/Robin), the underwhelming (Mike/Eleven), and the strangely intriguing (Hopper and Alexei might be the most fun pairing of this season, if only because it stops Hopper’s boner for Joyce for a few consecutive scenes). It’s certainly a thrilling hour, able to deliver punch lines and exciting moments: but observed from a more fundamental level, “The Flayed” suggests Stranger Things 3‘s early problems may end up being its defining elements: an aimless story full of nostalgia porn and a decidedly pro-capitalist bent, just able to coast on its strong foundation of character and atmosphere to survive.
But the overwhelming feeling that Stranger Things 3 is a bit of an empty imitation of itself is hard to escape; with such thin connections to the season’s supposed larger themes of maturity, “The Flayed” feels like a big spectacle designed to distract from the fact Stranger Things 3 is caught in the loop of its predecessors, the narrative circle only resetting itself for a brief moment, before winding up for another lap around the Vague Mysteries of Hawkins.
If there was a more coherent feeling this season was building to something different – be it narratively, emotionally, or thematically – it might be easier to ignore these warning signs. But there’s an overwhelming feeling “The Flayed” is using the same narrative blueprint as seasons past: in that context, Stranger Things 3‘s turning point is a briefly thrilling ride on a very familiar attraction, a feeling the rest of the season might not be able to shake, lest these next three episodes propel the various Hawkins groups forward in any meaningful way.
- I’m getting off the Erica train rather quickly: after displaying some shrewd business sense in “The Sauna Test,” her character is just an endless cypher of annoying side comments in “The Flayed.” Also, who the fuck would see a jar of green slime and think drinking it is a good idea?
- “I just look forward to you ever doubting me again.” Nancy, coming through with the wicked burns.”
- “Lookin’ at you, Roast Beef” is yet another casual, semi-disturbing reminder that Steve’s arc of growth is a bit more stunted than Stranger Things thinks it is.
- by god is the Grigoli character an obvious, terrible waste of time. With all the film homages and references, why do we also need a bad version of Terminator?
- ummm… it seems like an awful lot of people in Hawkins are going to die this season, huh?
- has there ever been a teenager who used the word “groin” un-ironically?
- “The Flayed” also marks the return of Brett Gelman’s Murray Bauman, a character that only seems to exist so Brett Gelman can be in the fold. Which is fine, but boy, his character feels so extraneous to the series (considering how unceremoniously he stopped appearing in season two, only to reappear here).