It’s been said before — including in a previous season-three recap — that the Duffer Brothers know how to make shows for binge-watchers who can’t wait to find out what happens next. Nothing captures that better than the transition between the previous episode and this one, if the word “transition” even applies. The fourth, er, chapter of Stranger Things 3 ends with Dustin, Robin, Steve, and Erica making a screaming descent into Starcourt Mall’s basement (or sub-sub-sub-sub-basement) via a fast-moving elevator. “Chapter Five: The Flayed” picks up exactly where Chapter Four leaves off, with the mall sleuths screaming on their way down to parts unknown.
They make a soft landing, but there’s not a lot to feel good about when they do figure out where they are. After a long, thirsty morning stuck in the elevator, broken up only by Steve accidentally peeing in the cabin, they make two terrifying discoveries: (1) The vials of green liquid are filled with some pretty toxic stuff, and (2) there’s a vast underground bunker filled with Russian soldiers and scientists working beneath an unwitting Hawkins. This is not good news! Even worse, they discover what the Russians are up to: reopening the portal to the Upside Down.
So, what’s going on here? Apparently the Russians have come all the way to Indiana because of its Upside Down-friendly environment, bribed the odious Mayor Kline, used Starcourt Mall for cover, and are in the process of opening the portal and extracting some kind of toxic substance for an unknown (but presumably not peaceful) purpose. Do they know what they’re doing, or will they soon realize they’re meddling with powers beyond their comprehension? And is there more to the story? We’re only just past the halfway point, so it seems likely more details will emerge. Stay tuned.
While Steve and the gang find a secret hiding place beneath the placid surface of Starcourt, Hopper and Joyce’s investigations take them all the way to another state. But first they have to battle the Russian super-soldier, befriend (sort of) a Russian scientist named Alexei (first seen in the season opener), steal a car, confuse a 7-Eleven clerk, and reconnect with regional conspiracy-theory expert Murray. All that and they have to find time to squabble a lot along the way. It’s a busy day for Hawkins’ favorite not-quite couple!
The season has nicely set up a big showdown between Hopper and the still-unnamed Russian super-soldier (though he’s listed in the credits as “Grigori”), who has a Schwarzenegger-in-The Terminator-like resilience and a Schwarzenegger-in-Red Heat-like confidence that he can squash any Americans who get in his way. He also has a tendency to underestimate Hopper. He assumes, for instance, that Hopper won’t pull the trigger when Hopper is perfectly happy to pull the trigger. He’s just not fast enough for the super-soldier’s enhanced reflexes. In fact, Hopper seems to have nothing but contempt for the law this episode, chugging soda he hasn’t yet paid for and taking off with the slick yellow convertible of an unwitting dupe named Todd. (Who, of course, has a “TDFTHER” vanity plate.) What he doesn’t realize, as he heads to Murray’s compound, is that his Russian foe is on his tail. And as they work with a testy Murray to talk to Alexei about what’s going on, their time might soon run out.
Strange as it might seem, Joyce and Hopper aren’t even the characters in the most trouble by episode’s end. An early-morning phone call from Nancy alerts Jonathan that Will has disappeared. Fortunately, it’s not a season one-style disappearance. Will’s hanging out with Lucas, Mike, Max, and El and trying to figure out what to do following their confrontation with Billy. Joined by Nancy and Jonathan, they form a kind of Stranger Things supergroup and head to the home of Heather, the possessed lifeguard whose now-equally-possessed father, Tom, has been giving Nancy a hard time as her editor at the Hawkins Post. They find a bad situation there: a home filled with discarded chemicals and evidence of some supernatural foul play. Putting two and two together, they decide to head back to the hospital in hopes that Mrs. Driscoll might provide some help in defeating their foes.
While they work on that, Mike and El have some relationship issues to sort through, as do Nancy and Jonathan. The latter couple smooths things over pretty quickly, but the former couple needs a little space to process their first substantial fight after El signals she’s open to a little conversation by using her powers to score a bunch of candy. They start to sort it out with some M&Ms, a well-placed compliment, and a smile.
And not a moment too soon, either, since all hell is breaking loose elsewhere in the hospital. Nancy and Jonathan encounter the Flayer-controlled Tom and Bruce (Jake Busey hasn’t been this scary since Contact), who menace them before dissolving into goop (in what has to be the grossest scene this series has ever done) and merging into a fully operational Mind Flayer. This does not bode well. Who could resist hitting “play next” after that?
We’re at the point in the season when the plot has kicked into high gear, but it’s nice to see Stranger Things finding space for some memorable character moments. The tension between Nancy and Jonathan plays as a bit contrived — perhaps that’s why they resolve it so easily — but Hopper and Joyce’s tension brings a spark to their scenes, and Mike and El’s fumbling attempts to figure out what it means to be boyfriend and girlfriend have been charming. Hopefully, in the rush that’s already starting to take over the show, it won’t abandon those touches.
• Nagging question: Who’s running the Hawkins PD when Hopper’s not around?
• It’s been fun watching Winona Ryder, after two seasons of fretting, get some nice comedic moments. Her attempt to explain what’s going on with magnets to Alexei this episode is especially nice.
• “Bad screams.”
“What’s a good scream?”
“Max said …”
• Tough to decide who has the better outfit: Dustin with his “Roast Beef” shirt or Erica with her Day-Glo, denim, and sports-gear combo.
• Nice to see Brett Gelman making a return. He’s fast becoming a supporting MVP on some of the streaming era’s most beloved shows.
• Steve wins a fight! And not an easy fight either. He takes out an armed guard. Maybe his luck is turning after all?