The Mind Flayer is back, Hawkins has a shiny new mall, and the kids have to confront puberty: Stranger Things has never been scarier. Throughout the Fourth of July weekend, The Ringer will be covering all the happenings in Stranger Things’ third season with episodic breakdowns highlighting the biggest scenes, themes, and character moments. Below, we dive into Season 3’s fifth episode, “The Flayed.”
As one would expect of a supernatural series loaded with intrigue, the closer that characters arrive to answers, the more dangerous things become. Jim Hopper and Joyce Byers find Russian Taron Egerton bunkered down in an abandoned farmhouse in “The Flayed,” but they’ve also stumbled into a couple of major obstacles. One, the captured scientist doesn’t speak a lick of English; more importantly, they’re now being pursued by the Russian Terminator, who’s already beaten the crap out of Hopper once this season at Hawkins Lab. After the villain unloads an automatic weapon on Hopper’s car as the trio narrowly escape, it’s tempting to imagine the Russian scientist saying that his comrade doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear, and absolutely will not stop until they are dead—all while Stranger Things drops the Terminator theme to add to its library of savvy ’80s musical cues.
Of course, that’s not in the cards—even Stranger Things has limits to how openly it will riff on ’80s-era pop culture. But the kinetic thrills of The Terminator is one of the most transparent cultural artifacts the show has borrowed from this season. The antagonist—whom to the best of my knowledge hasn’t been addressed by name, hence “Russian Terminator”—combines the cold, unstoppable, calculated nature of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s killer android with the Cold War paranoia evoked by films like Red Dawn. And along with the Mind Flayer this season, which has taken to zombifying some of Hawkins’s citizens while composing its own corporeal form primarily from [holds back vomit] rat flesh, Stranger Things has leaned more toward action-oriented beats from the ’80s. This is no longer a series that’s looking at movies such as E.T. and The Goonies for its chief source of inspiration—instead, it’s pointed toward things like The Terminator, The Thing, the aforementioned Red Dawn, and Day of the Dead.
This approach, obviously more indebted to James Cameron and John Carpenter than Amblin-era Steven Spielberg, feels like a natural evolution for a series that depicts a group of protagonists as they age. These are the pieces of pop culture from the ’80s—bigger, louder, meaner, grosser, scarier—that are meant to cater to teens. It’s the type of stuff the characters would be consuming during their rapidly approaching adolescence. (There’s a reason that, in the premiere, Mike, Lucas, and Will sneaked into a screening of Day of the Dead, and not a more PG-oriented affair.)
Just as the kids (besides poor, alienated Will) are no longer content playing Dungeons & Dragons in basements, Stranger Things has reconsidered its scope. After the unsuccessful narrative move of diverting Eleven to Chicago last season, Stranger Things remains in Hawkins, but has embraced evil Russians, a glitzy new mall, and a gnarly mind-controlling rat-monster. While this version of Stranger Things doesn’t have the quieter and unexpected charms of the Emmy-nominated first season—back when the show had little fanfare heading into its release—if the series was going to justify its existence beyond the appeal of familiar ’80s throwbacks, it needed to evolve along with its characters. The Russians and Mind Flayer 2.0 aren’t just worthy extensions of the show’s themes, they’re entertaining ones that—if you’ll permit a ’90s reference here—smell more like teen spirit.
This season also has more gore, which reaches its grossest point in perhaps the entire series during “The Flayed.” If the Mind Flayer’s new form weren’t disgusting enough, and you (somehow) weren’t unnerved by an old lady chowing down on fertilizer like it’s a bunch of crumbled up Oreos, then perhaps Nancy and Jonathan’s zombified (or “Flayed”) superiors at The Hawkins Post turning into piles of fleshy goo will do it for you. The Netflix subtitles, often dependable, describe their sticky transformation as “squelching sounds.” Thanks for that—I think I’ll skip lunch!
It’s a gruesome sight, and it also sets a disgusting precedent: Any “Flayed” human under the Mind Flayer’s control can presumably be molded into a vicious, fleshy monster. (Also: If the bodies of two people can combine, what’s to stop the Mind Flayer’s entire army from fusing together in an unholy union?) Much like the titular subject of The Thing—may we never forget the chest defibrillation scene—the Mind Flayer has very few weaknesses, one of which is heat, which is how Will was freed from its control last season.
But given how poorly last episode’s “sauna test” went for the mind-controlled Billy, there might be no saving the currently flayed from a grisly fate. That’s a tough break for some of Hawkins’s citizens, including its hunky, mullet-sporting thirst trap of a lifeguard. But if the series is going to embrace the visceral thrills of gory, action-heavy ’80s programming, racking up a bigger body count is, tragically, par for the course. All that remains to be seen is how many bodies Russian Terminator and the Mind Flayer will claim before they’re vanquished.