In Netflix’s ‘Boy Swallows Universe,’ we find a young boy named Eli trying to make it through the most difficult times of his life, which has never been fair to him or his family. One challenge after another is thrown in their way, and sometimes, these challenges become life-threatening. Still, no matter what the situation, Eli and his brother, Gus, hold on to each other and survive. In between all the real problems they face, they also receive a touch of the mystical when they receive phone calls from a mysterious source. Who was calling them, and what did those conversations mean for the boys? SPOILERS AHEAD
The Red Phone Represents Eli and Gus Processing Their Trauma
For someone so young, Eli and Gus had seen a fair share of trouble. At the beginning of the story, Eli is barely 13, and Gus is also in his teens. By this time, they have already witnessed their father’s alcoholism, almost killed in an accident, seen their parents separate, and helped their mother get clean, among other things. All of this is what is shown or talked about, but as their school guidance counselor rightly guesses, there is a lot that they are not talking about with anyone.
One of the things that Eli and Gus realize is that the adults are no better off than them. They are not as wise or careful about their life decisions as one would expect them to be, and they are not infallible or faultless or incapable of making the wrong choices and the wrong decisions even when they know the consequences. Even though they love their mother and their stepfather, the boys have seen their worst sides and, hence, in a way, don’t have someone to turn to when it comes to getting sage advice to help them through a situation.
In the face of all the real dangers and difficulties they have to wade through in their young life, they also know that impossible things can happen. The biggest example of this is Gus’ ability to see the future. He often says or draws things that seem cryptic in the moment but turns out to be predictions of the future when the things actually come to pass. In that sense, for Eli, Gus knows more than most, even the adults, and being his elder brother, Gus is the one that Eli looks up to and turns to for advice.
In the same vein, for Gus, his older version is wiser and more aware of how things will turn out. This version knows the future clearly, and there is nothing more Gus wants than to know what his scattered visions mean and how he can use them to help his family. With this in mind, for both Gus and Eli, Gus is the wise guy they would turn to for advice. And that’s who they think they are talking to when they answer the red phone in the escape room created by their stepfather.
Another thing that has to be kept in mind is that despite being strong-willed and surviving whatever life throws at them, Gus and Eli are still kids and are trying to process their shared trauma in their own way. For Gus, going quiet and not speaking to anyone for years is a manifestation of trauma. Later, the red phone appears as another device to help them make sense of the world around them, and the first scene featuring the phone suggests that Gus has already been talking to the mysterious person for a while.
Apart from the problems at home, Eli also faces bullying at school. When he comes home after getting bullied and then being beaten up by a teacher for not ratting out his bullies, Gus takes him to Lyle’s escape room, where he shows him the red phone and asks him to wait. This means that Gus already knew about the phone, and he knew when it would ring and what it meant. For both kids, the red phone becomes a tether, something they turn to when they need to understand what’s happening or to receive an assurance that things will be alright, even if a bit cryptically. In the final episode, when Gus has a premonition about his brother’s death, he falls unconscious and dreams about being in the escape room and talking to the mysterious caller on the red phone in an attempt to understand what his vision means.
In the end, when Eli is in the hospital, and he dreams about Tytus making his way towards him with a knife, the phone rings in the background, as if trying to warn him of the coming danger, or perhaps, as a cry for help, to get someone’s notice and have them help Eli. When he wakes up, he realizes there is no danger and that he and his loved ones are alright. It must also be noted that Eli had not used the red phone in a while because, by 17, he already had a plan for the future and was on his way to becoming a journalist.
Considering all this, the red phone only comes into the picture when the boys need some guidance. In a way, it is their own conscience talking to them. They are having a conversation with themselves in which they don’t find a concrete answer, but they do get a sense of direction. Gus’ ability to predict the future allows them to believe that there is something mystical behind the red phone, too, when it really is a figment of their imagination. In truth, there was no caller, and there couldn’t have been any calls because the phone line was disconnected.