STRANGER THINGS, S1E5: “The Flea and the Acrobat” (2016) dir. Matt and Ross Duffer

Directors: Matt and Ross Duffer
Producers: Matt and Ross Duffer, Dan Cohen, Karl Gajdusek, Cindy Holland, Shawn Levy, Matt Thunell, Brian Wright
Writer: Alison Tatlock
Stars: Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobby Brown, Winona Ryder

STRANGER THINGS Cover Image

SPOILER ALERT: THE FOLLOWING REVIEW INCLUDES SPOILERS FOR THIS EPISODE OF STRANGER THINGS.

A heightened sense of suspense sets apart Chapter 5 of STRANGER THINGS, “The Flea and the Acrobat.” You’ll recall that in Chapter 4, Joyce was convinced that her son’s recovered corpse was a fake and Hopper discovered that she was right. The boys are still fervently searching for Will, having been convinced by a radio transition supported by Eleven’s telekinesis. Nancy and Steve, if you happen to care, are fighting.

Hopper (David Harbour), undeterred by any form of authority, continues to search for Will, beating bloody anyone who stands in his way. Joyce (Winona Ryder), no further in convincing others that Will is alive, is more desperate than ever, now resorting to confiding in her ex-husband, Lonnie (Ross Partridge). It is the day before Will’s funeral. They drink Kamchatka which, we can only assume, makes things worse.

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Lonnie (Ross Partridge) comforts Joyce (Winona Ryder) with … Kamchatka? I don’t know about you, but a shitty ex and cheap liquor don’t exactly scream “reassurance.” (Image courtesy of the Duffer Brothers and Tim Ives.)

Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) is still lacking in words to explain where Will is to Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin). They gaze at the flipped Dungeons & Dragons game-board in puzzlement. Eleven gives the realm a name: the Upside Down. Suddenly, the boys understand. Why? The Upside Down has a parallel in Dungeons & Dragons, of course! “The Vale of Shadows,” they murmur in unison. The Vale of Shadows—according to the Dungeons & Dragons wiki—is a mysterious hidden valley among the mountains, with mythological features like a pool that grants wishes and a secret path that no one has dared tread. The wiki reads: “Does it lead to a place that can make all [name]’s dreams come true, or will the journey be a nightmare?” In this case, we could plug in Will’s name, except that we’re already pretty sure this experience is closer to nightmare than anything else. The boys investigate further after Will’s sham funeral—a somber affair beautifully rendered by cinematographer Tim Ives—running into Mr. Clarke (Randy Havens), a comedic bright spot in the series and the boys’ fellow nerd and teacher-friend. Hilariously, Mike barely utters “Vale of Shadows” before Mr. Clarke says “Of course!” and rattles off the facts that Dungeons & Dragons provides on the fictional locale. The boys nod. Then, they ask him how (theoretically) they could reach the Vale of Shadows.

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A stunning wide shot of Will’s funeral. (Image courtesy of the Duffer Brothers and Tim Ives.)

Mr. Clarke is more than happy to dive into an explanation of parallel universes. On a paper plate, he draws a tightrope, then an acrobat, then a flea. The acrobat, he explains, can only walk left and right—whereas the flea can crawl around all sides. In this case, humans are as limited as the acrobat on a tightrope. The boys have hit another dead end. They go home to return to the drawing board—or, in their case, a flipped Dungeons & Dragons board.

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The acrobat and the flea, sketched out by Mr. Clarke (Randy Havens). (Image courtesy of the Duffer Brothers and Tim Ives.)

It is then that Dustin cracks open another clue: his compass is not pointing to “true north.” The boys are nonplussed. Exasperated, Dustin—adorably, I might add—explains how a compass works. Eventually, the relevance hits home: a site with a strong magnetic draw could be an entry to the Upside Down/Vale of Shadows. They set off to find it. Eleven is noticeably grim, hanging back.

Joyce and Hopper are two parts of a whole, if jagged, if deeply flawed. Their similarities, of course, are clear: they have both lost a child—Joyce to a monster, Hopper to cancer—struggle with regret and, perhaps most vitally, are willing to extend their belief beyond what others can conceive of. Joyce may have been the first to float the theory that Will is present but out of reach, but Hopper is convinced enough to put his police skills to work and seriously investigate. One after the other, in Chapter 5, they have to face their demons once more, in seemingly minor scenes that speak volumes. Hopper calls his ex-wife, Diane (Jerri Tubbs), to apologize for whatever mistakes he might have made during their daughter’s decline, but is crushed when she hurries him off the phone, assuming he has called her because he’s drunk and sentimental. Joyce is forced to recognize Lonnie for who he is when she finds an advertisement for a lawyer who could pursue a monetary settlement. Their fight is a knock-down, drag-out screaming match that vividly demonstrates Winona Ryder’s ability to become a character remarkably wholly—there is real rage in her eyes, real panic in her voice. Joyce is three-dimensional, flesh and blood, unlike some characters …

Nancy:

She continues to be a shithole. Examples:

  1. When Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) confides in her about his parents’ brutal, violent divorce, Nancy (Natalia Dyer) once more must restore herself to the center of attention and does so by complaining about her parents. Why? Because they … grew up in a small town and married young? Because they might not love each other? Her reasons are unclear, but her wavering angst is unfortunately quite present.
  2. As you might recall from Chapter 4, Nancy had asked Jonathan “what [she] was saying” in the photograph he took of her. She continues to badger him about this in Chapter 5, seeming to overlook his clear reluctance to answer. When he does, honestly—telling her that he saw a girl working to become something different—she flies off the handle. Clearly, she wanted him to say something more along the lines of “You said Pure Beauty” or “You said Perfection” to affirm her monstrous ego. He did not. Like I said: it was honest. She gets mad and huffs off.

The kids, who walk straight down the railroad in a perfect echo of the small protagonists of STAND BY ME (1986), begin to sense that something is amiss with Eleven. Of course, they are certainly not concerned about her—aside from, as usual, Mike—but suspicious that she is jeopardizing their mission. In fact, she is—as Lucas finds out by catching a glimpse of her wiping blood away from her nose—by redirecting the magnetic draw away from the lab in an effort to protect the boys. A fight ensues and Eleven, panicked, telepathically hurls Lucas away from Mike, nearly injuring him. In the ruckus that follows, she disappears.

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The kids troop to what they hope will be a portal to the Vale of Shadows … I mean, the Upside Down. (Left to right: Lucas [Caleb McLaughlin] and Dustin [Gaten Matarazzo], behind them, Eleven [Millie Bobby Brown] and Mike [Finn Wolfhard].) (Image courtesy of the Duffer Brothers and Tim Ives.)

Eleven is gone and Nancy—and, soon after, Jonathan—come face-to-face with evil. What could be next?

Gore: N/A

Horror: ★★★★

Suspense: ★★★★

Terror: ★★★

Quality: ★★★★★

Overall: ★★★★

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Eleven, alone in a strange place. (Image courtesy of the Duffer Brothers and Tim Ives.)

POTENTIAL TRIGGERS:

  • Harmed animals
  • Blood
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