By the time we arrive at episode 5, “The Flayed,” the Duffer Brothers (with help from director Uta Briesewitz and writer Paul Dichter) have collectively decided to pull out all of the stops. This episode has more action, horror, comedy, and teen romance moments than you can shake a stick at. Honestly, it had me wondering how all of it was crammed into just 51 minutes.
Jumping straight into the action, the episode opens as Team Scoops Ahoy (Steve, Robin, Dustin, and Erica) is plummeting downwards in a shady Starcourt elevator. They find themselves locked inside with boxes of Russian contraband, a keycard for the electronic lock their only hope of escape.
Hopper and Joyce have followed a lead that brought them to an abandoned property with — you guessed it — a secret Russian lab hidden in the basement. Raise your hand if you just found your favorite new buddy cop movie, because I know that I have. Also, say hello to a familiar face. If you have been paying attention, that bespectacled Russian scientist is the very same one from the first episode this season who was involved with “Operation UpsideDown.” Before Hopper and Joyce can even begin to think about traversing the language barrier, they are tracked down by a very Terminator-like Russian (last seen leaving the Mayor’s office on a motorcycle) who challenges Hopper on his moral code, with a gun to his head, no less. A struggle ensues, complete with gun fire, before our heroes snatch themselves a Russian scientist hostage and take off, fleeing in a flurry of bullets. And all of this before the beginning credits roll.
After escaping Russian Terminator (credited on IMDb.com as Grigori, FYI), we find Hopper and Joyce out in the woods with a police-issued vehicle that has definitely seen better days and a hostage they cannot communicate with. There is an absolutely delightful scene here of Joyce attempting to talk about magnets with Alexei (formerly known as Russian scientist), who Hopper insists on calling Smirnoff. After losing their source of transportation entirely, they begin a trek through the woods with the ultimate goal of finding a specialist in Illinois who speaks Russian.
Team Scoops Ahoy is beginning to get antsy in the Russian elevator. Dustin risks the battery life of their walkie talkie in an attempt to reach someone above them in the mall, while Erica — always the pragmatist — notes that humans can only survive so long without water and she would rather risk drinking the strange neon green liquid they found than die of dehydration. Which brings up a point: what exactly is this substance that looks like it’s about to make us some Ninja Turtles?
When Robin hears an approaching vehicle outside of the elevator, the timing really couldn’t be better; after all, we know that if she needed to deal with Steve relieving himself over the side of the elevator shaft much longer, she would be likely to end his life. Two Russians open the door to remove some boxes while they lie in wait. As the door begins to close, Steve slides the container of ooze to prop it open so they can all slide Indiana Jones-style out of the elevator. The canister holds just long enough before shattering, and the green liquid instantly proves to be corrosive and eats through the floor.
Meanwhile, Nancy and Jonathan have arrived at Mike’s house to tell the rest of our heroes about their experiences with Mrs. Driscoll; they quickly draw comparisons between her current symptoms and what happened to Will last year. Even more pieces begin to fall together when they realize that Mrs. Driscoll and Billy were both experiencing reactions to the kids’ “Sauna Test” at the exact same time — 9 p.m. This is their proof that they are both “flayed” by the Mind Flayer. El proposes that Heather (a lifeguard at the pool) must also be flayed, based on what she saw in an earlier vision. Nancy and Jonathan instantly make the connection between Heather and her father, Tom Holloway, the editor-in-chief at the Hawkins Post.
Back in the woods, Hopper and Joyce are a far cry from the perfect partnership. They bicker and soon begin to snipe at each other about their missed date; that is, until Alexei takes off for the closest place of haven he can find: a 7/11. They quickly quench their thirst and provide us with a lovely bit of 1980s product placement before a car pulls up and a guy who screams every negative 80s stereotype hops out to gas up. It’s really quite the image: huge aviator sunglasses, oversized blazer, popped collar on his polo shirt, and white linen pants. Oh, and his license plate reads: “TODFTHR”. I hate Todd already. It’s just as well, because Hopper convinces good ol’ Todd that he is transporting a dangerous child murderer and he needs to commandeer his vehicle right now (without stating what station he is from or how Todd can reclaim his convertible).
The whole crew arrives at the Holloway house, only to realize that they have stumbled right into CSI: Hawkins. The home has reached freezing temperatures, cleaning chemicals are thrown around like Danny Tanner decided to throw a wild frat party, and Nancy finds what looks to be evidence of an attack with a wine bottle. The group theorizes that Billy and an already flayed Heather must have tied up the Holloway parents and dragged them off somewhere to be flayed. But where? Mrs. Driscoll had ranted about needing to “go back,” Billy had hidden his whereabouts from El in her vision. So how were they to find this source? Will, in one of the few moments so far that he hasn’t simply been rubbing his neck or appearing annoyed with his friends, suggests simply letting Mrs. Driscoll go if she wants to go back so badly. They can follow her back to the source.
Hopper, Joyce, and Alexei/Smirnoff finally arrive in Illinois to meet with their Russian specialist, who Hopper insists was a journalist. Say hello to another familiar face, our favorite conspiracy theorist, Murray Bauman. Because if anyone was going to be fluent in Russian, of course it would be this guy. What follows is a humorous scene made up of Murray performing a thorough search of this “enemy of the state” while Hopper steadily loses his patience. The pure gold in this scene, however, is Joyce losing every ounce of her cool and demanding that Murray find out what the Russians are doing “that’s making my magnets fall off my damn fridge! Please.”
When we return to Team Scoops Ahoy, they realize that the hallways beneath Starcourt do not, in fact, simply go on forever, as they walk right into the heart of the Death Star, so to speak. They break into what they assume is the communications room (good eyes, Erica) only to come face-to-face with a Russian guard, who Robin attempts to stall by reciting the overheard Russian code at him. Cue Big Damn Action Hero™ Steve who manages to take out the guard and impress Dustin with his ability to actually win a fight. They don’t have long to celebrate their victory, however, as they creep to a window to see a large machine (powered by the green fluid-filled canisters) shooting lasers at a very familiar rift.
For a bit of a reprieve from the action flick we have found ourselves in, the next scene with the kids is set in the hospital waiting room, as the receptionist will only let Nancy and Jonathan in to see Mrs. Driscoll. Mike and Lucas have a bit of a tiff with the candy vending machine and are helped out with a nudge from El. When Lucas suggests that this could be the olive branch that he had been waiting for, Mike takes the opportunity and offers El some M&Ms and compliments her new choice of style, proving that giving a girl chocolate and saying that she is pretty can get you pretty far in life.
Nancy and Jonathan, despite having a lovely muzak-accompanied elevator ride to make up, do not have the same time to bask in the glow of their reconciliation. They arrive in Mrs. Driscoll’s room to find the woman missing and are met instead with the menacing presence of a flayed Tom Holloway. Jonathan strikes Tom in the head with a nearby vase, allowing them to escape the hospital room. Their safety is extremely short-lived, and they are stopped by another flayed, this time the journalist Bruce from the Hawkins Post, who is showing the exact same injury that was just dealt out to Tom. What follows is a chase right out of a slasher film with Nancy and Jonathan unable to get in contact with the hospital receptionist due to her tying up the phone line with a personal call. We even get a shot of Bruce that is right out of The Shining as he breaks through the door to attack the two teens. The flayed seem to be incredibly difficult to take down, as Bruce is hardly affected by Nancy spiking him in the back with a rather large pair of scissors.
Jonathan is left to try and defend himself against Tom when Nancy leads Bruce away to another room. Things are definitely not looking good for Jonathan but, luckily, Nancy gets the upper hand and strikes Bruce with a fire extinguisher, which causes Tom to be equally taken aback. Nancy and Jonathan deliver killing blows with the fire extinguisher and scissors, respectively, leaving the flayed prone on the floor.
Now, here is where Stranger Things ups its strange quotient. Buckle up, because things are about to get disgusting. Remember the exploding rats from earlier in the season? Flayed Bruce and Tom break down into puddles of vaguely organ-colored, amorphous goo that begin to creep their way down the hall. The gelatinous remains come together and rise to create the form of a sentient creature: a screeching monster with sharp fangs.
Catch tomorrow’s recap of episode six “E Pluribus Unum,” and watch the latest season of Stranger Things on Netflix now!