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Stranger Things Season Three Episode 5: “The Flayed” Runs in (Thrilling) Circles

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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.

Stranger Things The Flayed

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.

Stranger Things The Flayed

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.

Stranger Things The Flayed

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.

 

Other thoughts/observations:

  • 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).

A TV critic since the pre-Peak TV days of 2011, Randy is a critic and editor formerly of Sound on Sight, Processed Media, TVOvermind, Pop Optiq, and many, many others.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. carl

    July 27, 2019 at 7:25 am

    You say it runs in circles and didn’t progress but I guess taking your time to do something good isn’t allowed? Fairly sure those things did happen unless my eyes don’t work but they do so take that as you will.

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‘Mr. Robot’ Just Changed Everything with a Shocking Reveal

There have been a lot of moving parts put into place over the course of Mr. Robot’s fourth season. Several of them just came together, in devastating fashion.

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Mr Robot

There have been a lot of moving parts put into place over the course of Mr. Robot‘s fourth, and final, season. On Sunday night, however, several of those pieces came together for one of the best episodes of the entire series in “Proxy Authentication Required”.

The reveal of a trauma so intense and horrific allows the character of Elliot to make so much more sense – so much so it almost warrants an entire series rewatch, to search for other hints.

Staged like a five act play, and utilizing a cinematic aspect ratio, “Proxy Authentication Required” immediately lets viewers know that it’s doing something a little different. While this may not be a huge surprise for fans (Mr. Robot just did a dialogue-free episode two weeks ago, among other experimental efforts throughout the series) the reason for it is fitting.

Essentially a bottle episode, “Proxy Authentication Required” takes place entirely in the apartment of Elliot’s former therapist, Krista. As such, the five act structure makes it even more like a play than it already is. Moreover, the episode is very dialog heavy, with almost no action.

Mr Robot
Still, with a meaty chess match between Elliot/Mr. Robot and drug dealer Fernando Vera making up the majority of the episode, the dialogue is weighty enough to justify this structure. The first round goes to Vera, who obviously has Elliot over a barrel, having kidnapped both he and Krista. However, Mr. Robot turns the tables in the second round, pointing out the lack of originality or planning in Vera’s drug-fueled, mystically-advised bid to take over New York City.

Finally, the third round comes: the tie breaker. As Fernando orders Krista to have an impromptu therapy session with Elliot, the most shocking reveal in the series is laid bare. After a tense build-up, and against the protests of both Krista and Mr. Robot, Elliot finally digs up the truth behind his alter ego. Mr. Robot wasn’t created after Elliot had an accident, he was created to protect Elliot from a series of traumas that came before it.

In an emotional moment sold gloriously by Rami Malek, Elliot accepts the truth: his father molested him throughout his childhood. In one fell swoop, so much of what we know about Elliot suddenly makes sense – and the fact that Mr. Robot looks like his dad is just the beginning. There’s also the details of the trauma that we’ve had up until now: that Elliot told Darlene to hide when he heard his dad coming; that he grabbed a bat to defend himself – and, finally, that he threw himself from the window when he feared he couldn’t best his father in the altercation.


The reveal of a trauma so intense and horrific allows the character of Elliot to make so much more sense – so much so it almost warrants an entire series rewatch, to search for other hints. Certainly it’s more logical that Mr. Robot was created out of these terrible memories rather than materializing after the injuries sustained during Elliot’s fall. It also lets the viewer know that Mr. Robot had a history of altering Elliot’s perception and memories long before the events of the series.

Even more disturbing is that the creation of false narratives and fake memories is actually a real-life coping mechanism used by survivors of sexual abuse, especially children. As such, the reveal fits naturally into the character of Elliot – but it’s a huge shock to drop on the audience a mere three episodes before the end of the show.

Of course, the reveal will no doubt ignite debates as to whether Mr. Robot creator and showrunner Sam Esmail planned this backstory from the start, or whether it was concocted as a wrench to throw in the gears at the last minute. Either way, questions remain as to how this new information will affect the remainder of the series.

Will Mr. Robot be back or is he gone for good, now that his job of protecting Elliot from the truth has become obsolete? Did/does Darlene know? Will this affect the plan to hack the Dark Army that has been building all season? All of these questions and more will be answered in the next three weeks but in the meantime, we’ll be waiting with baited breath.

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Watchmen

Watchmen Podcast: Breaking Down “Little Fear of Lightning”

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Watchmen Podcast Episode 5

This week, Watchmen delves into Looking Glass’s past and revisits one of the biggest events from the comic: the “interdimensional” squid attack on New York that kills over three million people and psychologically damages millions more. “Little Fear of Lightning” the finest hour yet, a focused character study that connects past and present in fascinating ways. And as always, there’s a lot to digest.

Our Watchmen podcast will see Simon Howell and an assortment of guests tackle the entire series (or at least the first season). In this fifth episode, Simon Howell, Sean Colletti, and Randy Dankievitch, take a deep dive into “Little Fear of Lightning” and note some of the more astonishing facts of the episode you might have missed.

And for those of you wondering, in order to keep things simple, we’ve decided to upload each episode to the same feed as our other podcast, Before the Internet.

Listen here on iTunes or listen here on Stitcher. 

You can also catch our show on Pocketcast and on Spotify, or simply listen via the player embedded below.

Before_The_Internet_Podcast-2-1024x1024

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Wrestling

The Career of Seth Rollins: From Face to Heel at Lightning Speed

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It wasn’t that long ago that The Shield debuted on Survivor Series, setting the main event careers of three talented wrestlers in motion. Dean Ambrose, Roman Reigns, and Seth Rollins all came to the WWE through NXT. In and out of The Shield, each man has held multiple championships and has had great success.

Seth Rollins
The Shield stands together.

These days, look a lot different for the former Shield members. Dean Ambrose left the WWE for AEW to wrestle again as Jon Moxley and Roman Reigns took a step back from the spotlight after warring with cancer. Meanwhile, the career of Seth Rollins has taken a turn of its own.

Becoming Seth Rollins

Colby Lopez joined the WWE in 2010 as part of Florida Championship Wrestling under the name Seth Rollins. He was there when it was re-branded in 2012 as NXT and became their inaugural champion. Seth Rollins turned heel in epic fashion by betraying The Shield and embarking on a huge singles career after his main roster debut.

Seth Rollins heel
Rollins turns heel and betrays The Shield.

Rollins hitting his Shield brothers with a steel chair still rates as one of the most shocking turns in WWE history.

More recently, Rollins had two wars against Brock Lesnar over the Universal Championship. Rollins won the Royal Rumble, using the title shot he earned to beat Lesnar at WrestleMania. Then, Lesnar somehow won a Money in the Bank match he wasn’t technically involved in. He used that shot to get his belt back. Rollins would then reclaim the title at SummerSlam.

Rollins defeats Lesnar at WrestleMania.

It was a repetitive feud.

Rollins vs. Lesnar Into Infinity

The back and forth between Rollins and Lesnar became exhausting to fans. Not shockingly, WWE viewers were already sick of Lesnar being an absentee champion by the point that Reigns finally took him down. When he reclaimed the belt after Roman’s cancer announcement, the focus turned to Rollins hunting Lesnar.

Even when someone else like AJ Styles or Baron Corbin got in the mix, fans knew they wouldn’t win. It was always going to be about Lesnar and Rollins so fans started to turn on Rollins. His Hell in a Cell match against ‘The Fiend’ Bray Wyatt was the final nail.

Top Face or Top Heel?

There was a time long ago that fans over the age of eight cheered for John Cena when he came out to the ring. At some point, it became cooler to boo him. The same is true of Roman Reigns, who had to go through a traumatic personal experience to get fans to ease up on him. In both cases, they were the corporate champions chosen to lead the brand.

In reality, fans didn’t really care if they were good wrestlers or not. It’s just something they chafe against.

The boos echoing through the arena are growing louder and louder for Seth Rollins for similar reasons. That’s due in no small part to the long, tedious promos he’s sent out to give to personally connect with the audience. Play that card too often and the opposite becomes true. WWE was frequently guilty of the same thing with both Cena and Reigns.

Rollins cuts another promo.

Watch the video from the night when Reigns made the announcement of his hiatus to fight cancer. Fans were reflexively booing him because they figured they were in for another long promo. The mood changed quickly when Roman started talking about leukemia.

Things Go Wrong at Hell in a Cell

All of this was already building to a head when Hell in a Cell came along.

Rollins faces The Fiend.

Universal Champion Seth Rollins was set to defend his title against ‘The Fiend’ Bray Wyatt in the titular main event. Unfortunately, WWE had painted themselves into a corner. They wanted Seth to retain, which he did, but couldn’t use the traditional DQ or count out to do it. Instead, WWE went for some weird finish where Seth hurt Wyatt so much so the ref stopped the match.

Essentially, a DQ in a no DQ match.

Rollins became the focus of much of the rage for the bad finish but the feud between him and Wyatt would continue. Wyatt finally won the Universal Championship and took it back to SmackDown. The side effect of this would be Lesnar returning to Raw with the WWE Championship.

It’s inevitable that Rollins and Lesnar will cross paths for the WWE Championship. Unfortunately, fans will have to choose between the two. They’ll end up cheering Rollins on as the lesser of two evils from their perspective.

The main miscalculation that WWE made at Hell in a Cell is the same one they made with Reigns and Cena. They assumed that being the top face in a match makes you the fan-favorite. Bray Wyatt is, by far, the most over wrestler in the company. People love Firefly Fun House and they love ‘The Fiend.’ Rollins simply couldn’t compete as any ending that wasn’t Wyatt with a belt would not be satisfactory to fans.

Seth Rollins’ Next Phase

Now, Rollins is stuck in a weird limbo. The top face on Raw for management that’s morphing into a heel based on fan opinion. His heel run alongside Triple H was some of his best work and he is still a superb in-ring performer. WWE should let what’s going to happen by letting Rollins perform to his strengths.

Let Rollins burn it down as a heel one more time.

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