Stranger Things Chapter Five: “The Flea and The Acrobat”
What if there are other spaces? They exist all around us, but remain inaccessible. Dimensions of lost socks and wrong turns, spaces where there is a wittier, richer more attractive version of you, or maybe places where that special loved one never turned up dead in the quarry. What if those other places are colder, darker, and empty? And what if the only way to see that loved one again was to enter that realm, the one just underneath us, and face the great beast that calls it home?
That’s what’s at stake in Chapter Five of Stranger Things, “The Flea and the Acrobat.” Get ready for some top tier sci-fi fantasy.
Riddles In The Dark
Susan: “The Flea and The Acrobat” opens with a shot of the night sky filled with the faint points of light serving as evidence of the stars and planets the lay millions of miles away. Scientists and philosophers alike have posited what lays beyond our world: multiple universes, life on other planets, various dimensions. However, these great minds merely deal within the vaguely possible, and for the eleven-year-olds in Hawkins, Indiana, the theoretical prospect of multiple universes has some very real and practical purposes and applications.
Peter: The basement boys and the weirdo sit around the basement in the wake of confirming Will’s continued existence. Their grief now replaced with Dustin quoting Lord of the Rings and collaborative theorizing on where their friend could be hiding. All they know is that he said the place he’s in is a darker, colder version of “here.” The hypothesis they land on stands to change the lives of every nerd who has ever rolled a twenty sided die — D&D is real, you guys! (Well, not exactly real, but close enough).
They put the pieces together. Eleven’s cryptic board-flipping clue, Will’s eerie description, it really sounds like The Veil of Shadows — an alternate, dark dimension that exists just underneath the one we call real life. Reading from the D&D handbook, Dustin describes it as, “right next to you and you don’t even see it.” The only way to access the Veil of Shadows is to have the Shadow Walk ability, which none of them have, unless it’s one El’s tallents. Thankfully, as we learn from Hop’s night time field trip to Emerald City, there also seems to be a front door.
Veil Of Shadows
Susan: Hop takes the MacGyver tour of Hawkins Labs and makes his way past security by way of his fists. He makes it into the underbelly of the operation just after entering a room, obviously that of a child, with a stick figure drawing on the wall. The picture is similar to the kind he keeps at home–a relic of his dead daughter. This composite isn’t of a nuclear family, but rather than of a child child, a man (labelled “PAPA”), and a cat. It’s a family portrait of Eleven, her capture, and the feline he wanted her to murder with her brain.
Peter: This whole section is intercut with the D&D theorizing, with Dustin’s reading of the Veil of Shadows lore acting as a spine chilling voice over.
Susan: Our Chief hops to it, and gets a ride on the fancy two door elevator that scientist got attacked in the cold open to the series. Hop finds the gooey portal to horror in the wall that ate Sheppard. Looks like Hop’s about to venture into the pulsing void, or be consumed by whatever the hell is disappearing people, but before he can enter the orifice hazmat suits descend upon him and the next thing we know, he’s back at home.
Peter: Waking up in his trailer, Hop searches his throat for an injection site. He was drugged and brought back to his own bed, given a none-too-subtle suggestion from the town’s shadow syndicate to shrug off the whole trans-dimensional portal thing as a fucked up dream. But Hop is a heroic investigator and he’s on to something big, dammit. Of course, if they know where he lives, and they let him live, there’s a very good chance he’s being monitored. Cue the search for tiny surveillance microphones.
Hop’s paranoia, confirmed by the discovery that someone is listening, feels straight out of The X-Files, specifically the wonderfully suspenseful season one episode “E.B.E.” The idea that the chief is being monitored is a natural addition to the show at this point, which seems determined to hit every creepy trope on its way to the pantheon of paranormal mystery television. It also puts Hop one step closer to fully empathizing with Joyce Byers.
Susan: You know who doesn’t sympathize with Joyce? Dirt bag Lonnie, that’s who. He’s back for his son’s funeral and is like, WTF Joyce? He gets her drunk and snuggles up on the couch. Jonathan’s none to happy to have his daddy back in town and tells him as much. But Lonnie’s gonna make sure Joyce doesn’t go off the deep end like crazy aunt Darling. He also tells Jonathan to take down his Evil Dead poster while he’s at it, “It’s inappropriate.”
Susan: One of the things I enjoy most about Stranger Things is it’s unwavering love for the nerd. Science, although cruel, can be super fun and useful. Dustin sure thinks on his feet when he consults his compass and realizes that the entire magnetic field of Hawkins has been turned upside down.
Peter: The magnetic anomaly was predicted by the pop-string theory lesson the boys eked out of Scott Clark at Will’s preemptive funeral reception. I am also a huge fan for the show’s nerd love, and never has it been more on display than when Mr. Clark uses a paper plate and a pen to explain how a Veil of Shadows style nega-dimension can potentially exists. Bless his soul for thinking the kids are theorizing about alternate realities where Will never died, and bless his geeky brain for being exactly right.
When the faux-mourning friends ask if there is a way to traverse dimensions, Mr. Clark proposes a trans-dimensional tear created by a massive source of electromagnetic energy. He’s talking about the wall-scab, which is what’s making the compases go wonky and compelling our heroes to search out the Demogorgon’s front door.
Susan: After realizing something’s out there in the woods that may or may not have a face, Jonathan and Nancy join forces to go kill it.
Before they go on their quest, Steve drops by to apologize to Nancy for acting like a dick and breaking Jonathan’s camera (he doesn’t apologize to Jonathan though, even though like, you know his brother just died), and wants to have an escapist night at the talkies. Nancy can’t go out tonight because she’s monster hunting and gives Steve a peck goodbye.
Jonathan practices with his dad’s handgun and manages to hit all the spaces in between the cans. The two teens get in a convo about the love loss between their parents and that nuclear families are like, so lame, right? Nancy handles a gun for the first time in her life and hits the target perfectly, a little too perfectly. Listen, I’m all for the badass girls, but there’s no fucking way the recoil wouldn’t at the very least have her Q-Tip sized arms jerked back a few inches. That goes for Jonathan too.
Peter: Maybe a little time-space tear opened up in the can and pulled the bullet out if the gun? Preventing the recoil and fixing the bullseye. I’m just saying, we’re through the looking glass here, Susan, anything goes.
Susan: Sure. I mean, it’s more plausible than an 80 pound teenager having perfect marksmanship with no prior experience.
The novices Jonathan and Nancy set out into the forest to get a monster, but halfway through they end up turning on one another. Nancy asks what Jonathan meant when he said she was thinking something in the, “Yonder Window Breaks” photoshoot, and he tells her she was being “herself”, you know, ‘cause most of the time she’s trying to be someone else. Nancy is a teenaged girl and she does not want to be told what and who she is and gets all mad at the “pretentious creep” Jonathan. And then he reads the fuck outta that bitch by explaining how her rebellion is neither original nor effective in changing her destiny to become a bored housewife just like her mom. Ouch.
They stop bickering when they come across a mortally wounded deer, probably hit by a car and ran into the woods to die. It’s whimpers implore them to mercy kill it, and Jonathan readies himself to shoot it just like the Thumper he blew away when he was nine. Before the shot can be fired, Bambi’s dragged off into the woods with a trail of blood that ends abruptly as if it vanished into thin air.
For some reason the two decide to separate in the middle of the dark woods and Nancy finds a hole at the base of a tree trunk. The mysterious tendrils and ominous monster growls are very, very similar to that at Hawkins Lab. Instead of waiting for her buddy, Nancy takes off her backpack, leaves her baseball bat (after practicing and everything!) and crawls through.
Every single bone in my body screamed, “N’mygawd Nancy, don’t go in there!”
Peter: As it should have. Readers: if you find a fleshy hole into another reality don’t crawl into it unless you bring a buddy.
Peter: Speaking of buddies and portals, the search for the electromagnetic anomaly proves to be fruitless, but not for lack of trying. Eleven, motivated by her first hand experience with the horrors inside Hawkins Labs, uses her telekinesis to take her companions in one big circle.
We see her experience in what she calls “the bath”— a vertical sensory deprivation tank that seems to amplify her powers like some kind of wet cerebro device. In the tube, we see her focus sharpen, the aspect ratio of the screen narrowing, squeezing out reality until Eleven is alone in the void. The stylistic change comes at a perfect time in the series for maximum effect, introducing a shocking variation to the show’s visual vocabulary. Enveloped by silent blackness, El finds her Russian mark and transmits his conversation through the Emerald City PA system. But mid-broadcast, she finds something else. She finds something stranger.
Peter: Lucas, the most skeptical and practical of the party, suspected El was leading them astray. His theory is confirmed with the discovery of psychic blood on her sleeve, wiped away from her nose. Mike comes to El’s defense and when a minor tussle breaks out between the friends, the weirdo issues a paranormal blast that launches Lucas into some debris, briefly knocking him unconscious. When he comes to, he leaves despite Mike and Dustin’s pleas, and when he’s gone, it turns out, so is El.
And so we’re left again in a sticky situation. The band has broken up, a powerful shadow organization is bugging enlightened residents, Nancy crawled through a tree portal which is closing on her, and the Wheeler parents are still none the wiser about any of this. Maybe in another world, similar to this but far away and better, everything turned out fine.
The Winona Problem
Susan: Is Winona Ryder good in this show? Like, she’s not terrible, right? However, “good” seems like a strong word to describe her performance considering when she’s played opposite any other actor in this show, clusters of light included, she’s paled in comparison. Even in her flashback scene with Will, where she talks about buying him new “Cray-yuns” I just don’t believe she’s his mom. Weird Ativan popping aunt, maybe.
When it’s not a flashback to her trying to play “Mommy” to Will, she hits one note of crazy half-crying, wide-eyed, hunched-shouldered, vessel of worry. It it no way spoils the show for me, but it’s just so odd to see such a talented actress be kind of “not good.”
Peter: You know what? I think she’s doing alright. I have read and heard a lot of criticism of Ryder’s performance, but I think it says a lot that I can know all of the paranormal shit she’s seeing and screaming about is real and still end up siding with the townies when they look at her with that get away you crazy-pants expression.
Susan: Like I mentioned above, I so love that science came in as a clue in the plot line of the show. However, I do have one tiny scientific query: if the magnetic North was askew in Hawkins, wouldn’t there be someone else who notices it? Like for example, any planes that flew over the city, wouldn’t they get turned around, and then; therefore, there would be some kind of investigation? Just a question, maybe there’s a professional reading this that can weigh in?
Peter: Yeah, that’s a good point. Electromagnetic anomalies are pretty commonplace in alternate-reality sci-fi, and the answer to it remaining hidden is often either chalked up to magic or the intervention of a powerful government body. My bet is that in this case, since the CIA has sanctioned the labs, there is some sort of general bureaucratic fix that comes from however deep the conspiracy goes. Unless Pappa and his goons are the only ones who know about the portal. Oh man… Susan, you have opened up a theory vortex of your own.
Susan: As I am prone to do, Peter.
Susan: I know we’ve harped on Mike’s Dad, but the show offers some more terrible fathers: Papa’s a dick who uses Eleven as a means to some nefarious end; Lonnie doesn’t even notice that his son took his handgun (and extra bullets) from his glove compartment because he’s too busy trying to capitalize on his young son’s death from some lawsuit money; Hopper, we don’t know what kind of a father he was, but we do know that his ex-wife is pissed when he calls her to chat, and he shuts down when he hears the crying of supposedly her new baby on the other end. All around, dads in Hawkins are apathetic, evil, selfish, or grieving.
Peter: And don’t forget absent. Where are Dustin and Lucas’ papas? Do they live on their own? Are they actually both 60 years old and in some kind of Benjamin Button retirement phase of their lives?