This review contains spoilers up to episode five.
“The Flea and the Acrobat” revs up character action in a way the starts the relatively quick build-up toward season one’s narrative climax. Chapter Five is one of the more exciting episodes, in large part because it splinters from the first half of season one in unique and interesting ways. While still paying homage to the recurring tropes of ’80s sci-fi and horror — the tropes and conventions that formalize into Stranger Things‘ mise en scène genre admixture — “The Flea and the Acrobat” forces it into an alternative dimension direction all its own.
Character shifts feel earned despite their abruptness, as primal frequency shifts toward fight over flight. A well-paced script by Alison Tatlock resets the playing board in tight fashion, with the Duffer Brothers directing again. While binge watching form might offer audiences fluid continuation (I’m not saying it doesn’t), I think the prophetic tease here is the Raiders of the Lost Ark poster now viewable in Mike’s basement, a sign post tip off to the roguish nature our heroes embody as they rush toward danger with newfound strength of purpose and will.
Tonal Shifts for Characters = Theoretical Shifts for Reviewer
“The Flea and the Acrobat” continues a trend using metaphors and opposites to create a mirroring effect that slices between the front and the back halves of season one. The mirroring effect is observable in binge-watching form, but I hope to demonstrate the virtues offered when slowing down the viewing or consumption process of individual episodic installments. For this review, particularities of the text have brought to mind many useful theoretical terms coming out of structuralism; the area of analytic discourse often in conversation with semiotics (ie, the study of signs and symbols and their relational values and persuasive power), particularly around the work of Levi-Strauss. Among the most evident examples, the Duffer Brothers rely upon binary opposition not only for world-building purposes, but also to establish mythic resonance within their small town setting.
For those less familiar with Lévi-Strauss’s The Raw & the Cooked (Pion, 1964) or Mythologiques: Book 1 (University of Chicago, 1983), but nonetheless interested in understanding his linguistic theorization, the crux of his and fellow structural linguist Ferdinand de Saussure’s theorizations are rendered perfectly for contemporary American consumer culture in Judith Williamson’s seminal masterwork Decoding Advertisements: Ideology and Meaning in Advertising (Marion Boyers, 1978).
My intent isn’t to confuse readers so much as explain through theoretical language how the text borrows from popular culture as well as cultural theory when establishing the rules of its game. Ultimately, understanding the binary nature between ’80s pop consumerism references (what we could identify as low culture) in contrast to the undergirding theories of binary opposition and how ideology works (to be sporting, let’s consider this high culture) presents a useful way to (re)conceptualize with tonal shifts present in Chapters Five through Eight along with the dichotomous alternate or mirrored universe canonized by Stranger Things as “The Upside Down”.
Before I get into analyzing episode itself, it’ll help to distinguish a cleaner understanding of the theoretical formula I intend to unpack. Drawing from Williamson’s Decoding Advertisements — and in the interest of rendering Levi-Strauss, Saussure, Althusser, and others more reader-accessible — the core concepts are as follows: the way ideology works in advertising is that it misrepresents real things and the real world, replacing the natural world and authentic experience with what Lévi-Strauss and Williamson call “the Natural”. In the case of Stranger Things, “the Natural” is represented on an overt level by the metaphor of the Upside Down and the Demogorgon that snatches people against their free will.
The covert or real undercurrent is that “The Natural” can be read as ’80s materialism, operating as a subversive commentary. If you read (or decode) the text in terms of its overarching meta-themes: absentee parenthood, salvation by vintage material possessions, the use of ’80s cinema as Easter egg genre conventions, and the sublime aesthetic affect of nostalgia experienced by audiences, then Stranger Things starts to morph into a different kind of mythological mechanism altogether.
In short, here is a flash-fried explanation for Lévi-Strauss’s theoretical formula on how contemporary ideology works (via capitalism in the form of entertainment): the “Raw” materials of “Nature” are “Cooked” into what we consider culture. Culture over time produces “Science” in the form of technology and progress, which inevitably “reveals ‘The Natural'” in how we’re able to artificially manufacture our world (ie, the replication of human experience through signs and symbol systems — language, technology, cinema, and so on — including materialism in general (Williamson, 135, 1978). However, nature and “The Natural” are at odds in terms of their binary opposition to one another. In terms of dualistic uses, binary opposition offers a useful tool not only for structuralism, but also because the terms lend and extend understanding to and enjoyment of the encoded mythology The Duffer Brothers (et al.) serve up in Stranger Things.
Mulder Meets Kolchak: Finding the Primal Frequency
Chapter Five’s cold open features Chief Hopper (David Harbour) reborn as anti-government right-winger. He sneaks through the shadows and into the Department of Energy, and assaults the head of security while robbing a guard of his access badge at gunpoint. No directions, just instinct, he wades through the bowels of the labyrinthine facility. Hopper stumbles upon El’s (Millie Bobby Brown) former prison chamber. A desire for justice in the form of information drives his vigilance.
Chapter Five’s Hopper-focused opening kicks off a series of mirrored transformations that characters undergo throughout the back half of season one. Whereas Hopper’s (amazing!) introduction highlights a smoking, drinking, self-loathing bean counter sleepwalking through his profession — presumably due to the loss of his own daughter — Hopper’s mid-season awakening coincides the moment he follows his intuition and stabs into the phony Will (Noah Schnapp) corpse with his pocket knife at the end of Chapter Four.
As I noted in my episode four review, the mortuary scene is rich in Abrahamic symbolism, with Hopper’s conflicted act (desecrating Will’s “corpse”) weighing heavily against his moral burden to leave the past settled and the dead in peace. He must rely on faith in intuition (or spirit), with no going back from the moral consequences. Hopper, willed by his soul’s intuition, crosses over.
Hopper’s transformation is also marked by physical change. No longer hindered by the codes and conduct of the “Natural” world, Hopper’s wardrobe becomes darker and disheveled: plaid shirt, brown coat, and jeans. Like a contemporary woodsman (or at least one in a Levi Jeans section of a Christmas catalogue), his wardrobe visually approximates the wilderness (or in keeping with Levi-Strauss and Williamson, perhaps we should call it “wilderness”.).
Like Joyce, the necessary transformation is mythic whereby characters must be tuned into what I would call nature’s primal frequency. Reborn Hopper foregoes societal boundaries (eg, law enforcement) at all cost. He breaks into the government facility, holds several personnel at gunpoint, and in a reckless (if not fearless) journey into the belly of the beast, fate seemingly draws Hopper down into the otherworldly bowels of the basement.
By contrast, Joyce (Winona Ryder) is temporarily drawn away from her primal frequency with Will. At the Byers residence, ex-husband and Will’s dad Lonnie (Ross Partridge) joins Joyce for a night on the couch. He talks her down from her kooky position, drowning (t)he(i)r sorrows in alcohol. Having abandoned his family for a younger woman up in Indianapolis, Lonnie returns for the burial of his (alleged) son. His post-funeral instinct is to get drunk as an emotional response to their loss; his actions suggest why the Byers might be better off without “dad”.
Also, it’s an interesting mixed-metaphor to read Lonnie’s boozing up of Joyce as an antagonistic gesture that creates a stimulant sensory barrier whereby Joyce could no longer be open or tapped into hearing or communicating with Will (unnatural opposition?). Amidst Lonnie’s unnatural opposition, there’s an opportunity for a D.A.R.E. bumper sticker placement somewhere, a program founded in, you guessed it, 1983.
Narrative Synchronicity of Mind/Body/Soul
In academia, there’s a term for when a scholar, theorist, or student reaches the crossroads of epiphany: the “Ah-ha! moment”. In terms of previous foreshadowing payoffs (aka pet theory confirmation), the suburban kiddos reach an epiphany just as the overarching narrative pivots. In the basement headquarters, Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) rack their brains to comprehend the situation and Will’s whereabouts. Having accessed Will’s voice through radio, El reminds them that Will’s on the “other side”. Mike then turns again to the D& D board, flipping it upside down and theorizing Will’s possible pan-dimensional status.
El, in her limited speech capacity, has of course already pushed them in this direction. Much like the prophetic Seer, however, El’s “magical” (or perhaps miraculous) demonstrations cannot convert the skeptical mind. The boys must come to this decision of their own free will; faith must function in rhythm with the mind and the body of the physical world. Mike tells Dustin and Lucas with full conviction, “This is where Will is,” pointing to the black underneath side of the board, to which Dustin responds (in D&D terms), “The Vale of Shadows”. Herein an existential understanding of the situation finally makes “sense” for Mike, as he’s able to trust his instincts and put his faith that Will remains alive into forward action.
As the synthetic score builds, the scene crosscuts to Hopper, now reaching the lower realm of the government building. Already audiences know this space holds the otherworldly residue and hellmouth gateway, representative artifacts of the liminoid plane. Hopper ventures down the hall amidst Dustin’s voiceover reading of “The Vale of Shadows”. As I first suspected of from Chapter One’s early emphasis on role-playing games, the continued D&D references overlap the grand narrative in a meta-textual signifier to alternate dimension(s) paralleling our world.
Yet as the climactic journey beneath builds, Hopper’s ephemeral revelation cuts short as Hazmat suits swarm and puncture his neck with a needle. He later wakes up in his rough-looking trailer home. Dressed differently and passed out on the couch, Hop frantically tosses the trailer, unplugging light bulbs and cutting open all his cushions. Finally, Hopper uncovers a small monitoring bug in his ceiling light fixture. Vindication. As a visual signpost from this point onward, Hopper’s streetwise apparel matches the tone of his off the grid investigative persona.
“Are you two seriously this dense?” – Dustin
Dustin — because he’s smart and geeky and due an “ah-ha!” moment — deduces that their compasses are collectively thrown off by a magnetic presence. Long story short (better we not overthink these things, ya know? Better to go with kid logic, which is closer in tune with “Nature”), by tracking down the source of the magnetic disturbance, the younglings might locate a “gate” or source to “the underneath”. This ignites yet another bricolage of E.T./The Goonies/Stand by Me-inspired quests on bikes across railroad tracks in woods. As much as the mileau continually rips off these iconic predecessors, the exterior cinematography, Carpenterian synthesizer score, and retro wardrobes hold such rich transportational qualities that such liberal borrowing can be easily forgiven if viewed through a flexible lens.
Lonnie is “Cooked”, Joyce’s maternal instincts are “Raw”
Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) comes home to find Joyce and Lonnie sitting together on the couch. His father frames Joyce’s actions as a mental breakdown, putting character and gender into opposition from his rationalist position and the “Natural” world. Lonnie tells Jonathan to take down an “offensive” The Evil Dead poster on the wall (so much there, but we’ll move on) and later hammers up boards concealing the hole Joyce chopped out with the wood axe in the previous episode. Perhaps worst of all, Lonnie takes down all of Joyce’s Christmas lights (deconstructing communiqué, talk about a saboteur!). In these physical gestures — the alcohol, the poster, the board hammering, the “cleaning” — dad who is not dad tries to “fix” the family’s scarred emotional psyche by physical or visual means, in this case rearranging the “Raw” materials of the “Natural” world.
Soon enough, Joyce sobers enough to recognize that Lonnie’s here to rip off the family for Will’s insurance money. A shouting fight between Joyce and Lonnie displays how toxic their marriage might have been, and thus underscores how better off the Byers family is now, despite being broke and (now) broken.
Celluloid Alienation: Jonathan’s Case of Camera Obscura
Jonathan is also at odds with the “Natural” world, observable even as he struggles to tie a tie (another signifier of paternal absence). He wants to make sense of his world, but his only reprieve is the photographic lens he had and lost. Photography and film geeks may have caught on to this metaphor early on, as the camera obscura captures light reflection of images upside down. Lévi-Strauss relies upon the term “totemism” to describe the material objects that come to signify our social presence (Totemism, 149-150, 1973).
Indeed, Jonathan feels lost in the absence of his physical totem, the camera. Structuralists identify this transference process as “alienation”; products alienate our presence in the wake of their material absence. Theorists contend that real objects become a substitute for reality and real emotion (Williamson, 47, 1978). Thus, the camera functions as a stand-in or signifier for Jonathan’s absence of father (Lonnie) and brother (Will), which manifests into a kind of twice-removed remorse upon Steve (Joe Keery) and Tommy’s (Chester Rushing) destruction of the technological totem in episode three.
Despite the growing presumption that Will may still be alive, characters struggle to make sense of their circumstances and surroundings. While this story is steeped in wily doses of science fiction and horror and over-the-top performances, Stranger Things still feels authentic, because irrational emotional responses between characters and situations play within a kind of grief logic. Just as absentee parenthood creates a void inevitably filled by fantasy (D&D being the central material through-line here), grief creates emotional presence in the event of physical absence. Understood this way, the (inter)dimensional qualities of Stranger Things work because the show plays with binary opposition and mirroring with recurring doses.
Midseason Transformations, or Dark Matter Mirrored Selves
Chapter Five marks the beginning of the end in terms of countdown episodes blocking the back half of season one. “The Flea and the Acrobat” uses Will’s public funeral as a wardrobe transition, with all characters appropriately adorned in black. Despite those skeptical of Will’s death (Joyce, the children, and now Hopper), they must present themselves as social norms dictate. Perhaps this could be identified as the “Natural” state of grief? Whether actually grieving, playing the grief card to increase agency (or exacerbate childhood escapism), or some sub/conscious combination of the two, we see how Will’s absence plays out among those present for public memorial.
Also totally worthy of a feminist counter-critique, Will’s public funeral brings to mind a plot gap in the town narrative: broader reaction to Barb’s (Shannon Purser) disappearance. In terms of audience reaction, the critical fandom zeitgeist has performed a rally cry on Barb’s behalf in three distinct waves: 1) Upon hailing her as the “It factor” of Stranger Things in early episodes; 2) complaining the town lacks context when concern for Will overshadows her disappearance (although technically she hasn’t been gone as long); and 3) well…we better save the last wave for a later review.
The one person who hasn’t forgotten Barb is guilt-ridden Nancy (Natalia Dyer). Steve drops by Nance’s (we’re switching name pronunciations mid-season, if you catch my drift) to plan some narrow-focused smoochy time. Nance brushes Steve off politely; the stoic look on her face communicates a sobering mood. She swings a baseball bat repetitiously, correcting her posture and weight in a kind of quick training montage. With her game face set to serious, Nance is doomsday prepping for a Barb-snatcher showdown. While Nance technically has no idea what she’s in for (the bat swinging is equal parts sincere and naïve), the “Raw” honesty of the moment finds her ignoring impulse behavior in favor of gut instinct. Batter up; Nance’s tapping into “the primal frequency”.
A later scene follows Nance into the woods, where she comes upon Jonathan getting in some target practice with a pistol. Jonathan is blasting cans off wooden posts as Nance joins him; both are sporting similar darker colored maroon winter coat with wool collar, jeans, and mittens with the fingertips cut out (talk about the cat’s meow!). Both characters signify wilderness transformation (a la Woodsman Hopper), and thus view their reconciled reality through new eyes: rebirth and renewal in an attempted return to “Nature”. Furthermore, both teens bond over fractured families, the gun ejections punctuating the aesthetic ambiance and character catharsis (because you know, teens and guns and symbolism).
Meta-Textual Film History: Stand By Me
Across the same woods, Mike, Dustin, Lucas, and El walk down the railroad tracks in a visual reference to another Stephen King adaptation, Rob Reiner’s Stand by Me (1986). The boys realize El is the magnetic disturbance distorting the compasses, and the emotional strain of grief mixed with paranoia fracture the foursome. They fight over loyalty, and in the heat of the moment El accidentally uses her telekinesis, tossing Lucas across a junkyard. The accident knocks him unconscious, a scary reminder of physical and psychological vulnerability among children.
If audiences miss the meta-visualization of the railroad mise-en-scène (how could they?), then the junkyard follow-up scene furthers the filmic references and visual expression of material abandonment and childhood endangerment captured so poetically in Reiner’s film.
In a third reference, the proximity of the railroad scene makes the previous target practice scene between Nance and Jonathan a visual pun, since they literally stand by each other. …That’s funny, and not in an eye rolling way but in a kind of media literacy Easter egg way that suggests I’ve strayed from the tracks and am far too immersed in the minutiae of each episode.
TV Studies/Film School Crossover Assignment: Forego the Foreground!
The movie posters clearly bring the background into the foreground in any given scene. Cut to night and Nance/Jonathan roam through the forest together in the dark. First of all, “What are you doing and why and absolutely not?!” Second, I think we knew it was heading in this direction the moment Lonnie told Jonathan to take down that “offensive” The Evil Dead poster. Come to think of it, background posters have played quite the foreboding role in this series. If I weren’t already over my word count (and this is a tip for board Internet bloggers or savvy under/grad students studying film), go ahead and revisit the vintage movie posters snuck into the backgrounds of each episode and cross-connect those movies to the overarching themes concerning each individual chapter’s narrative. As with the lyrics to those famous songs in the epic mixtape soundtrack, I’ll double down my bet that you will find answers to questions you didn’t know existed.
Meta-Cult Film History
The “primal frequency” (as I’ve dubbed it) comes into full narrative context with Chapter Five’s latest El flashback. The emotional (and scary!) scene goes full sci-fi in a deliberate callback to a cult movie with its own tumultuous history, director Ken Russell’s Altered States (1981). An absentee parent to Stranger Things (the “Lonnie” perhaps, since so few people have anything to do with it?), Altered States genre mixes horror, sci-fi, and thriller conventions to a similar degree. It features a young William Hurt as Eddie Jessup, a Harvard scientist (more academic synergy) who, in the Faustian tradition, foregoes morality in the ultimate search for scientific and experiential enlightenment. The plot pivots around a deprivation tank and the questions of scientific exploration, moral boundaries, and the primal Id that lurks beneath the surface of humanity.
In relation to “The Flea and the Acrobat”, I feel quite empowered to have picked up on (or did I tap into?) the primal frequency narrative beats prior to El’s unmistakably inspirational Altered States flashback. Perhaps I too have been spending too much time in the televisual isolation chamber.
Nostalgia Theory, Chapter Five
In many ways, the central role of nostalgia works as both the most resonant strength of Stranger Things and its most apparent weakness. I’ve noted in previous reviews that part of my process in working through each episode was to avoid reading the abundance of alternative reviews, recaps, think pieces, and smaller click bait designed to ride the wave of popularity that swelled around this unique text. This was a strategic decision in order to process the text with as little outside influence as possible (deprivation tank metaphors abound!), to maximize my creative efforts and minimize outside ideas that may pivot my thinking in one direction or another.
This doesn’t mean that I haven’t seen the many stories and headlines or reaction pieces to the series that pop up almost daily since its release. I have, and I’ve archived a great many in the process in ways that later readings will inform future approaches I may undertake. All of this review is contextual in noting that among the negative responses — and these are far outweighed by positive momentum — the excitement of the series does seem to have a disconnect with some audiences outside the periphery of Gen X’ers or those closest to the decade the text deliberates revisits. I’ve read comment sections where critical scholars buy into the text’s craft in one thread and dismantle its masculine identification in another. No text meets all audience standards, and the choice of text is a creative decision made by producers and consumers alike.
In that some disconnection generates from outside the window of ’80s as a nostalgic beacon, this might provide stronger insight into the role nostalgia plays for the viewer as well as the text. For the viewer, I would argue Stranger Things works at conjuring the experience of experiencing texts of the ’80s. With this experience of experiencing former texts, there also exists this space of unconscious aesthetic remembrance of the past that, like Stranger Things, filters out many of the mundane aspects of the past and memory in general in favor of the refined iconicities — however small — that sparked the creative influence of the Duffer Brothers, their writing team, and the production staff.
The rules of genre rely on the interconnectedness between not only conventions, tropes, and various established and elastic rules, but also audiences to recognize the connections and add to the existence of the text through their enjoyment and subsequent reflection upon it. The substance of these rules and reactions become public discourse and ultimately culture itself; both digital and material, or from “reel” to “real” (or “Real”, if we want to combine rules of structuralism with Lacanian psychoanalytics). Thus, for audiences outside the ‘80s mediascape, there are perhaps limits or boundaries to the aesthetic exceptionalism to be found in Stranger Things. For everyone else enjoying it, perhaps we’re simply living in close enough proximity to tap into the synergistic upside down.