Stranger Things season 4, Vol. 1 recap: The hunt for Hawkins' scariest monster yet leads to long-awaited answers
Chapter One: The Hellfire Club
It begins in 1979, four years before the events of Stranger Things' first season. Dr. Martin Brenner (Matthew Modine) is at the Hawkins lab, conducting studies on a young subject he calls Ten. Ten is having visions of horror, a bloodbath. Brenner investigates: Dead children, shattered glass, blown-out doors. It appears that it's Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), seething and dripping with blood, that's responsible. "What have you done?" Brenner asks. What has she done, exactly? It appears the Eleven we've come to know these last few seasons has an even darker history than we realized.
Cue "California Dreamin'." We jump ahead to March 1986. It's been 185 days since Joyce (Winona Ryder) ferried Eleven, Will (Noah Schnapp), and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) to California. In a letter to boyfriend Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Eleven gives us an update: Joyce works from home now; Will is "acting weird" and painting a lot; and Jonathan is depressed, clouded in pot smoke, and palling around with affable stoner Argyle (Eduardo Franco). El's also not being entirely honest. She says she's thriving in California, but the truth is that her grades are bad and she's being bullied relentlessly by a preppy clique led by blonde harpy Angela (Elodie Grace Orkin). Thankfully, she has something to look forward to: Mike's planned spring break visit.
In Hawkins, our teenage heroes are now in high school. They're also slowly drifting apart from each other. Mike, Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) are members of a Dungeons and Dragons collective called The Hellfire Club, but Lucas is ditching the big finale of their campaign to play in the championship game of the Hawkins basketball team. If he does well, he reckons, it could endear him to Jason (Mason Dye) and the rest of the Tigers, thus granting him (and, he says, Mike and Dustin) entry into the cool crowd. Mike and Dustin don't care; they feel betrayed. They're tasked by frizzy-haired Hellfire head honcho Eddie (Joseph Quinn, a great addition) to recruit a replacement for Lucas. They find it in Erica (Priah Ferguson), a.k.a. Lady Applejack, a "chaotic good half-elf rogue, level 14." Looks like some of Lucas' "nerd" tendencies rubbed off.
Relatable teenage drama, by and large, but, this being Hawkins, something supernatural is afoot. Head cheerleader Chrissy (Grace Van Dien), though sunny and all smiles on the court, is seeing things. Dark, horrifying things, the kind she could never tell straight-laced boyfriend Jason about. Monstrous visions of her mother, for example, or a spectral grandfather clock filled with spiders. She finds refuge in Eddie, of all people, who she hopes will sell her the kind of drugs that just might make it all go away.
First, though, she has to cheer her way through the Tigers' big game, which is juxtaposed against the Hellfire Club's culminating campaign. As the Tigers square off with the Falcons, Mike, Dustin, Erica, and company take on Dungeon Master Eddie's big bad, Vecna. The Sinclairs win it for both camps: Lucas scores the winning basket and Erica lands the killer blow.
And then there's Max (Sadie Sink), who is drifting in her own way. She's living in a trailer with her mother, who's working two jobs and often drunk, and still processing the loss of Billy with a school counselor, Ms. Kelly (Regina Ting Chen). She also broke up with Lucas, who, in a mix of concern and puzzlement, tells her "it's like you're a ghost or something." She skips the game to look after her incapacitated mother, but spots something curious: Eddie and Chrissy, an odd couple if there ever was one, disappearing into Eddie's uncle's trailer.
Inside the trailer, Eddie leaves Chrissy alone as he digs up his product. Bad idea. The visions return, worse than ever. Chrissy sees her mother as a rotting demon, her father with his eyes and mouth stitched shut. And then there's a hulking, groaning humanoid beast. "Don't cry, Chrissy," it says to her. "It's time for your suffering to end."
In Eddie's eyes, Chrissy is catatonic, her eyes rapidly blinking. She begins to levitate and, as he watches in horror, her bones snap in unnatural directions. Her eyes spill blood, then suck back into her skull. It's easily the most explicit shock of violence in Stranger Things history, a gut-churning tease of what's most certainly the series' most horror-inspired season.
- Best needle drop: KISS' "Detroit Rock City" during the climactic game/campaign. The perfect jolt of feel-good rock before everything goes to hell. (Fear not, we'll talk more about Kate Bush's "Running Up That Hill" in a future episode.)
- What I neglected to mention: Joyce gets a package with Russian postage. Inside is a doll that Murray (Brett Gelman) encourages her to smash open. Inside is a note hinting that Hopper (David Harbour) is still alive (as if we didn't already know that).
- Another thing I neglected to mention: Nancy (Natalia Dyer) is now the editor of the Hawkins newspaper. She's hoping she and Jonathan will be able to go to the same fancy-schmancy college together, but, as her lackey Fred (Logan Riley Bruner) notes, the distance between them is certainly having an effect on the couple.
- Steve (Joe Keery) and Robin (Maya Hawke) are still pals, commiserating over their crushes as they lord over the counter at Family Video.
- Dustin's still dating Suzie (Gabriella Pizzolo), who's reintroduced while hacking into the Hawkins mainframe to change Dustin's Latin grade from a D- to an A.
- Jason honors those lost in last season's "fire" during the Tigers' pep rally, specifically naming Billy and Hopper. "How much loss can one community take?" he asks. We're about to find out.
Chapter Two: Vecna's Curse
Remember that laser the Russians were using to open a portal to the Upside Down beneath the Starcourt Mall? Remember how Joyce blew it up and Hopper right along with it? Well, in this episode we learn what anybody who watched season 3's post-credits scene, any season 4 trailers, or read any pre-release interviews already knew: Hopper did not blow up. Hopper is alive. He…jumped out of the way, apparently? Thought it would be a little more complicated! Anyways, he's alive and mostly unscathed. Unfortunately, the Russians quickly scoop him up and begin to torture the everloving hell out of him. They want to know who he works for. They want to know who Joyce is. He gives up nothing and they give up on him, shipping off his battered, bruised body to Kamchatka, a brutal prison with its own dark secrets.
This is something Joyce and Murray slowly come to learn after poring over the bizarre letter she found in the Russian doll. They call the number on the note and speak to a mysterious Russian who says Hopper is "stuck," but that he can get him "unstuck" if they deliver $40,000 to a colleague in Alaska. Who is this man? By analyzing the audio and drawing upon linguistic clues, Murray speculates that the man is a prison guard that was very likely bribed by Hopper. Joyce, never one to hesitate, sprints to the bank to get the money.
Elsewhere in California, Mike arrives clad in what Argyle deems a "s—-y knockoff" of garishly vibrant Ocean Pacific beachwear. They head to Rink-O-Mania, where a sweet reunion turns sour after the arrival of Angela and her denim-clad cronies. As "Wipeout" blares over the speakers, the bullies surround Eleven before dousing her with a milkshake. As she licks her wounds, Will reveals to Mike that Eleven has been lying to him. He also says he feels like a third wheel, adding that Mike's made no real efforts to sustain their friendship. They continue to argue as Eleven emerges and confronts Angela, demanding she say sorry and tell Mike that they really are friends. When Angela cruelly rebuffs her, taking a shot at Hopper in the process, Eleven snaps. With no powers to draw on, she grabs a skate and cracks Angela in the nose, drawing blood. A bad day just got immeasurably worse.
In Hawkins, Max wakes from a nightmare to find cops speeding towards Eddie's. Outside, she sees Chrissy's mangled body. Later, she recalls three things to Dustin: the oddness of seeing Eddie and Chrissy together; the strange way her trailer's lights flickered in the night; and how right after they flickered, she heard Eddie scream and saw him flee in his van. Could he have killed Chrissy? Dustin is unconvinced, and he and Max go to Family Video with a mission: Use the store's surplus of phones to call Eddie's friends and find out where he went. With Steve and Robin's help, they narrow their search to the seemingly empty lakehouse of a drug dealer, Reefer Rick. A petrified Eddie is hiding in the boathouse. He tells the four of them about what happened to Chrissy, assuming they'll think he's crazy. They tell him about the Upside Down. Not so crazy anymore.
News reports of Chrissy's death are rippling throughout Hawkins. The Tigers, for example, are recovering after a hard night of drinking – Lucas, nursing his first hangover, is in particularly rough shape – when the cops show up with questions about Chrissy and her relationship to Eddie. Jason is shocked; Chrissy didn't do drugs and would never hang out with a "freak" like Eddie. Boiling over with anger, Jason gathers the Tigers and posits a theory: He's read about Dungeons and Dragons, the way it encourages Satanism and blurs fantasy and reality in the minds of its players. "It's like an epidemic," he says, adding that Eddie, who's clearly engaged in demonic rituals, will kill again. In fact, they should pursue the entire Hellfire Club, which he deems a "cult." When Lucas tries to interject and say it's not a cult, just a club, he's looked at with suspicion, leading him to relent and deny his own involvement. Popularity, it's a hell of a drug.
Nancy, investigating the murder with Fred, finds the devil in the air, too. "The devil lives here in Hawkins," says one resident of Eddie and Max's trailer park. Nancy talks to Eddie's uncle Wayne (Joel Stoffer), who has his own theory. It wasn't Eddie who killed Chrissy, but Victor Creel. Decades back, Creel was said to have killed his entire family, cutting their eyes out. Chrissy's eyes were gone, too. The problem? Creel's locked in Pennhurst Mental Hospital. Has been for years. Maybe he escaped? "He's a real boogeyman," says Wayne.
"Boogeyman" is one word for whoever's terrorizing Hawkins. Fred learns as much when he begins seeing monstrous visions of his own. First, a leering cop grows tentacles and accuses him of being a murderer. Later, he sees the same grandfather clock that Chrissy did before she died. It's surrounded by rotting, zombie-like figures who echo the cop's accusations of murder. Fred eventually finds himself on a lonely, dark road, where a flaming car brings back traumatic memories. He was in a car accident the year before. He lived and the other driver died. It's unclear if he actually was responsible for the other driver's death, but that means nothing to the humanoid creature that approaches him. "I want you to join me," it says. Fred dies just as Chrissy did, bones snapping and eyes sucking into his skull as he levitates high above the ground. "Boogeyman" isn't good enough for Dustin, though. Dustin, lest we forget, has a talent for naming the many creatures of Stranger Things. For this one, he draws upon Eddie's grand creation: Vecna. "A spellcaster," he says. "A dark wizard."
- Best needle drop: Talking Heads' "Psycho Killer," which kicks into gear just as Jason sets fire to a picture of the Hellfire Club.
- Speaking of Jason, is he doing a Tom Cruise impression or does he just talk like that? Regardless, I'm a big fan of Mason Dye's performance.
- What I neglected to mention: Jonathan and Nancy continue to spiral, with both resenting the other for not visiting over spring break. Furthermore, Jonathan doesn't want to go to Emerson with Nancy. He can't just leave behind his mother and brother. He's planning on attending the local community college with Argyle.
- Hawkins' new sheriff is Calvin Powell (Rob Morgan), who we've seen by Hopper's side in previous seasons. He calls in the big guns after seeing the state of Chrissy's body, a call that's being monitored by the same shadowy intelligence operatives that have long haunted Hawkins.
- I won't spoil who's been cast as Victor Creel, but let's just say it's a touch on the nose when you consider the horror movie that most influenced this season.
Chapter Three: The Monster and the Superhero
"Hawkins is in danger." Yeah, Dr. Owens, we know.
After being fired from the Hawkins lab after the Starcourt fiasco, Paul Reiser's Owens returns in "The Monster and the Superhero" when Lt. Colonel Sullivan (Sherman Augustus) drops a chopper on the disgraced scientist's front lawn, accusing him of helping Eleven. Sullivan, an agent of shadowy militaristic forces, believes Eleven is the cause of the horrors unfolding in Hawkins. Owens, on the other hand, thinks Eleven could be the cure for what's afflicting the town. After she's cuffed and shipped to juvie for taking a skate to Angela's nose, Owens and his men in black intercept her on the road. They have a plan. It involves helping Eleven regain her dormant powers; he believes he can help bring them back even stronger than before. "What if I'm not good?" Eleven asks. "What if I'm the monster?" That question, I'd wager, will hang over this entire season.
Speaking of monsters, Hopper's stay in Kamchatka is turning our beloved sheriff into something verging on inhuman. Shaven and seething, he barks out scraps of Russian while pounding rail spikes in the snow, all the while formulating a plan for escape that involves, in part, asking a fellow prisoner to smash his leg cuffs (and, by extension, his ankle) with a sledgehammer. Demonstrating an unfathomable tolerance for pain, Hopper retreats to his cell without alerting the guards to his injury. There, in a truly queasy sequence, he wriggles that bent steel and bruised bones to help ease off his leg cuffs. It's all in service to his escape, which Antonov, a.k.a. Enzo (Tom Wlaschiha), is helping to facilitate. Joyce and Murray are on their way, after all, touching down in an Alaskan snowstorm with a bag of cash in tow.
It's Hawkins, though, that sees the majority of the episode's action. After bringing a terrified Eddie provisions, Dustin, Steve, Max, and Robin link up with Nancy at the site of Fred's death. From there, they split off: Nancy and Robin head to the library to dig up information on Victor Creel, while Dustin, Steve, and Max set their sights on Ms. Kelly, the school counselor who was seeing Chrissy in the days before her death.
At the library, Nancy and Robin hash out the potential awkwardness of their Steve connection – Robin, without revealing her preference for women, wants Nancy to know they're definitely not dating; Nancy, despite acting incurious, is definitely curious – while finding zilch in the archives. It's Robin who suggests they eschew the mainstream papers in favor of old issues of the Weekly Watcher, a sleazy tabloid in the vein of the National Enquirer. There, they read about Creel's belief that a vengeful demon is responsible for the 1959 murder of his family. Vecna, it appears, has deep roots in Hawkins.
Max visits Ms. Kelly at her house, pretending to be in need of some emergency therapy – as Ms. Kelly points out, Max has plenty of trauma to sort through – but bolts after stealing her office keys. She, Dustin, and Steve head to the school and sort through the counselor's files, which detail severe headaches, nightmares, and bleeding noses. Huh, Max thinks, I also have severe headaches, nightmares, and bleeding noses. And then a voice. A deep one. Calling to her. And a grandfather clock embedded into the wall of the school. Oh, dear. Vecna's come for Max.
Owens spoke of a "war" that's coming to Hawkins. Vecna's part of that, sure, but it's about more than the town's supernatural maladies. Jason and the jocks, whether they realize it or not, want a holy war. Lucas is torn between his old friends and his new ones, and at the end of the episode it appears he makes the choice to leave Jason's witch hunt – but not before he tells them where Eddie is hiding, a nugget of info he obtained from an oblivious Dustin. Sides are being chosen. War is coming.
- Best needle drop: It's all about Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein's thrumming score, which hits a fever pitch during the episode's climax.
- What I neglected to mention: Mike, Will, and Jonathan can't get Eleven out of juvie until Joyce returns, so there's not much for them to do except go see Police Academy 3: Back in Training.
- Charlie Heaton hasn't had all that much to do since season 1. At least they're letting him be funny? He plays a good stoner.
- "You ever wonder why the wheels aren't wood, man?" I didn't expect to see shades of Dazed and Confused this season, but Eduardo Franco is absolutely channeling Rory Cochrane's Slater from Dazed and Confused in this episode. Funny stuff between him and Brett Gelman, too.
- Sullivan notes that Dr. Brenner was training Eleven to perform remote assassinations, a skill the U.S. government actively tried to cultivate via MKUltra and other intelligence operations. I'd recommend Jon Ronson's Crazy Rulers of the World for a deeper look.
- "Cigarettes, peanut butter, and Playboys – the best America has to offer."
Chapter Four: Dear Billy
Stranger Things has always worn its influences on its sleeve, utilizing them not as reference points but rather archetypal storytelling tools that weave into the fabric of its world-building. Sometimes, though, the Duffer Brothers can't help but make a direct nod to the movies that helped shape their sensibilities, like when they dropped a "stay frosty" in the Aliens-inspired second season or, say, cast Robert Englund in a series of episodes spattered with Nightmare On Elm Street DNA.
Englund's casting isn't just a stunt, though. There's a cleverness to him playing an alleged killer who says it wasn't him that murdered his family, but a creature from another dimension – one not so unlike the razor-fingered monster he helped make famous. It's fun that the only one to survive Stranger Things' Dream Master thus far is cinema's most iconic and beloved haunter of dreams. The question, though, is how he survived. Nancy and Robin, who hustle their way into a Silence of the Lambs-style interview with Creel, have a theory, but we'll get to that.
First, let's check in on Hopper, whose dreadful injuries have all been for nought. He gets far, taking out a handful of guards – first with his fists, then with some dynamite – and escapes via snowmobile to the church in the woods where Antonov's contact is meant to meet him and take him back to America. Unfortunately, Antonov's contact, Yuri (Nikola Djuricko), is a snake, having cut a deal with Kamchatka's warden to serve up both Hopper and Antonov, who are both swiftly captured. Yuri also plans to deliver Joyce and Murray, both wanted by the KGB for their roles in the Starcourt disaster, to the prison. He's already drugged them in advance of their flight to Russia.
In California, Mike, Will, and Jonathan are under house arrest. Owens' cronies tell them about the Hawkins murders and how Eleven is working on getting her powers back. For now, they aren't allowed to talk to anyone or go anywhere. As their armed babysitters sit in front of the TV, the trio, who are distrustful of Owens, hatch a plan to hitch a ride with Argyle and head to Hawkins. Unfortunately, Sullivan's camouflaged goons are one step ahead of them, showing up at the doorstep with machine guns in tow. A striking single-shot shootout unfolds, leaving both guards wounded. The diversion, however, clears the path for escape. Mike, Will, Jonathan, and one of the bleeding guards end up in the back of Argyle's pizza delivery van.
Meanwhile, Max is reckoning with the realization that she's Vecna's next victim. After poring over Ms. Kelly's files, she learns that Chrissy and Fred died roughly 24 hours after their first vision, meaning the clock is ticking. She writes letters for her friends – she calls them a "fail safe" in case things go as bad as she expects them to – and visits both her mom and Billy's grave. Unfortunately, Vecna's waiting for her at both locations, turning heartfelt moments into portentous teases of her fate. We get a return from Dacre Montgomery as Billy, who, in this vision, taunts Max with accusations that she was secretly happy when he died.
Steve, Dustin, and Lucas, who's now separated himself from Jason and the jocks, find Max in a trance at Billy's grave. She's firmly in the Upside Down now, lost in an eerie red fog among the gravestones. There, she finds what appears to be a deconstructed house punctuated by tree-like structures embedded with the warped bodies of Chrissy and Fred. Vecna appears, restraining her against a trunk with tentacles. Not good.
That's when Robin and Nancy, who make a mad dash from Pennhurst after being outed as imposters, call Dustin with a revelation. Creel told them that he heard the "voice of an angel" when he was in Vecna's grip, and that voice was apparently the reason for his survival. The answer, Robin realizes, is music. He was listening to Ella Fitzgerald at the time, and it drew him out of Vecna's nightmare. The boys grab Max's Walkman, her tapes, and fish out Kate Bush. "Running Up That Hill," which we heard Max listening to in episode 1, begins to play and, in the fog of the Upside Down, a portal to the real world opens. It appears not to be working at first, as real-world Max levitates just as Chrissy and Fred did before her. In the Upside Down, however, Max is able to free herself from Vecna and sprint towards the portal. She makes it, crashing to the ground.
She's alive. For now, at least. So maybe it's time to address Steve's (valid) questions. How, exactly, is Vecna choosing his victims? Is he connected to the Mind Flayer? And what's he been doing in the years between the murder of Creel's family and this new rash of murders?
- Best needle drop: Kate Bush, duh.
- Another major influence on this season? The Ring. Not only are Vecna's victims' faces as grotesquely warped as those in that movie, but there's a pretty clean timeline for the marked.
- Pretty gnarly makeup for Creel, who, after the death of his family, cut his eyes out with a razor. Great performance by Englund, too.
- How the hell is Hopper running and jumping after getting his foot smashed with a sledgehammer and yanking it through a leg cuff?
- They really softened Billy, huh? The bonds of family are strong, sure, but it's still hard to accept that Max would be so optimistic about what a friendship between her and her racist, bullying, near-sociopathic step-brother might have looked like had he lived. He's probably my favorite Stranger Things character, but I still don't fully buy that face turn.
Chapter 5: The Nina Project
We've gotten glimpses of what life was like for Eleven in the Hawkins lab, but never a detailed accounting of the experiments that turned her superhuman. Now, four seasons into the series, it's time we get a genuine grasp on just what she and "Papa" Brenner were up to in those sad, sterile halls. He's back, by the way, and not just in flashback. The scars on his face prove that he is very much alive, having survived his encounter with season 1's demogorgon.
Eleven, who remains petrified of Brenner, feels betrayed. When Owens brings her to the lab he fashioned beneath the desert, he makes it seem as if she's amongst friends. She's a celebrity here, he says, noting that the white-coated scientists lining the hallways have given up their lives in service to her potential. That won't stop them, however, from jabbing a needle in her neck when she tries to make a break for it. Owens and his nerd army may admire her, but they won't hesitate to bend her to their will. Thus, the reemergence of Brenner, as effective as he is cruel.
Their secret weapon is NINA, a sensory deprivation tank of sorts that, when paired with old surveillance tapes from the Hawkins lab, allows Eleven to relive her early days with Brenner. It terrifies her at first, but it's not long before she's standing alongside her former fellow patients – the ones we saw in bloody heaps at the beginning of the season, presumably – and relearning how to harness her powers. Turns out Angela wasn't Eleven's first bully, either; in the lab, a group of older patients exude a similar disdain for her.
Yuri's something of a bully himself, taunting Joyce and Murray as he preps them for their flight over the Iron Curtain. Once they're in the air, though, the sound of his old, roaring engine lets Joyce smash open a case of Yuri's precious Jif – a rarity in Russia – without alerting him. Yuri catches her in the act, but not before she frees Murray, whose martial arts skills, apparently honed during classes with "ferocious" 16-year-olds, are their only hope. Murray and Joyce come out on top, but they're not able to land the plane, which crashes into the Russian wilderness.
Hopper, meanwhile, is in despair. He recounts to Antonov, now his cellmate, a story about his time in the Vietnam War, where, as an oblivious teenager, he helped mix up 55-gallon drums of Agent Orange. He blames his exposure to the chemical for the illness that killed his daughter, labeling himself a "curse" upon everyone he loves. "The minute I sent for Joyce I sentenced her to death," he laments.
Vecna's curse still hangs over Max, though she resists the creature's pull by looping "Running Up That Hill" on her Walkman. Taking a cue from Will, she draws pictures of what she saw in the Upside Down. Buried in the drawings, Nancy notices, are fragments of Victor Creel's old house. She recruits Max, Lucas, Dustin, Steve, and Robin for a field trip to the abandoned estate, where flickering lights signal Vecna's presence.
Meanwhile, on the other end of town, Jason and the jocks break into Reefer Rick's, where Eddie is still hiding out. When they venture to the boat house, Eddie sets off in a dingy boat with a broken motor. Jason and Patrick (Myles Truitt) dive in after him, nearly catching him before the curse manifests, Voorhees-style, in the lake's dark depths. Patrick, you see, has seen the grandfather clock. His time has come. Jason and Eddie watch in horror as Patrick is sucked under, then shot up and into the sky, where his bones snap and eyes disappear.
Vecna appears to be growing stronger. Thankfully, Eleven does, too. After emerging from NINA, she makes another break for it. This time when the guards grab her, she's able to unleash a sonic boom that launches them into the bunker's steel ceilings. Exhausted, she tries (and fails) to do the same to Brenner. When he reaches out a hand to her, she takes it. Maybe it's the realization that she can't escape. Or maybe it's the thrill of using her powers again. Either way, old feelings die hard. A part of her will always see him as Papa.
- Best needle drop: Still Kate Bush.
- What I neglected to mention: Mike, Will, Jonathan, and Argyle are able to flee their pursuers. They can't, however, save the life of Unknown Hero Agent Man, who retrieves a pen before dying. The secret, they come to realize, isn't in what he wanted to write, but inside the pen itself. It's a phone number, but the digital squeal they hear when calling it signals that it's a computer on the other end, not a phone. Their only hope? A hacker in Salt Lake City. You might remember her from the worst five minutes of last season.
- Yes, I know, I'm a killjoy, but last season's Neverending Story singalong is, to this point at least, the nadir of Stranger Things.
- Fizzled romances find a new spark in the Creel household. Steve and Nancy share a loaded touch, while Lucas and Max remember what it was that brought them together in the first place.
- The FBI seems mighty interested in the fissure growing on the ceiling of the Munson household.
- Dustin explains Freddy Krueger to the Wheeler's youngest. I guess we're saying the quiet part out loud?
Chapter Six: The Dive
The demogorgon is back, baby. Well, a demogorgon. And, okay, it's not technically back, not yet, but it's crouched somewhere in the bowels of Kamchatka, eagerly awaiting another batch of prisoners plump with pork and wine. Anyone who watched the post-credits scene of the season 3 finale knew this moment was coming – why spoil it, I can't help but wonder – but it appears the Russians are hoarding their own interdimensional lizard and, as Hopper notes, the demogorgon's appetite is matched only by its need for entertainment. He and his fellow inmates, they're the entertainment.
Yuri knows as much. The smuggler informs Joyce and Murray they have until nightfall to save Hopper. Thankfully, the trio (rather conveniently) crash-landed within spitting distance of the prison. The plan is this: Murray will pose as Yuri and deliver the KGB's most wanted – with Yuri stepping in for Murray – to the prison. From there? We'll see! Murray grabbed a pistol; surely he can take out a few dozen ice-cold, rifle-toting Russian prison guards. Or maybe that green, no-faced creature waiting in the wings will rear its head at just the right moment. Hopper's as prepared as he can be, having nicked himself a bottle of booze and a lighter. Fire, after all, is one way to defeat a demogorgon.
How, though, does one kill a Vecna? A stake through the heart? Cut off his head? Steve, Max, Lucas, Dustin, Nancy, Robin, and Eddie ponder as much as they convene at Skull Rock. The walls are closing in: Max is marked for death, Eddie's name and photo is being broadcast on the news in relation to the Hawkins murders, and Jason is convinced Patrick's death was part of a satanic ritual. He crashes Powell's emergency town hall meeting and declares the Hellfire Club a murderous cult, blaming them for the Starcourt fire and Hawkins' myriad mysteries. "Let us cast out this evil and save Hawkins forever!" he rallies, inciting a witch hunt that spits in the face of Powell's newly instated curfew. Erica's insistence that Hellfire is nothing but a "club for nerds" falls on deaf ears.
That leaves our Hawkins contingent with little time. What they know is that Vecna appears to reside in the Upside Down's version of Victor Creel's home. The goal: Cross over through a "snack-sized" Upside Down gate and confront him. (I'm assuming one of these gates is the fissure growing on the ceiling of Eddie's uncle's trailer.) Dustin's malfunctioning compass, disoriented by the presence of an electromagnetic field, leads them to one of the gates, this one at the bottom of Lover's Lake, where Patrick was killed. Steve, Nancy, Robin, and Eddie sail off in search of it, leaving Dustin, Lucas, and Max on the shore to get scooped up by Powell.
Before we dive into the lake's chilly waters, let's talk about what's happening out west. Well, Mike, Will, Jonathan, and Argyle are in Salt Lake City to see Suzie, a hacker, Christian, and Ursula K. Le Guin fan who also happens to be Dustin's long-distance girlfriend. After roaming her insufferable house of horrors, a maze of budding musical theater dorks, they learn she's lost access to her computer, in part due to her "dating an agnostic." They form an elaborate plan that gets them into his office and onto the computer, where Suzie is able to navigate the NINA's code to access its location. And it's to Nevada they go.
In Nevada, Eleven is still immersed in her memories. There's more tests and more bullying. Eleven bonds with an orderly, Peter (Jamie Campbell Bower), who intriguingly tells her about the time her mother visited her in the lab and was dragged away. He also tells her about an absent patient named One, who Eleven was told by Brenner "doesn't exist." Peter says that sometimes Brenner lies and that "this place and the people here are not what you think." He's clearly not on Brenner's good side; later, Eleven sees Peter being tortured with cattle prods. What it all means is unclear for now. What's not is the massacre we witnessed at the top of the season – the memory of it returns and she's horrified. "I killed them all," she says.
Back in the Midwest, former Hawkins High swim co-captain Steve dives to the bottom of the lake, where he discovers the gate, glowing red and shaped like the Eye of Sauron. It sucks him through, but not before he's able to alert Nancy, Robin, and Eddie. They dive in after him. Will they arrive before the tentacles and bat-like beasts tear him to pieces? I hate to think of Hawkins without Harrington.
- Best needle drop: Loved the atmospheric Dixon and Stein piece playing beneath Nancy and Robin's heart-to-heart.
- It is so, so jarring whenever we switch between teenage Eleven and baby Eleven. No matter how good the CGI, the uncanniness persists.
- Both Argyle and Suzie have told people to hold onto their butts this season. Sorry, but that phrase was first uttered by Samuel L. Jackson in Jurassic Park, a movie they will not see for another seven years.
- In trying to find a pattern among Vecna's victims, Lucas and Max land on how each of them were "haunted" by something. That seems… really broad? Isn't that everyone?
- The lab bullies in Eleven's memories circle her just like Angela and her cronies did at the roller rink back in "Vecna's Curse."
- "My ribs are broken, don't make me laugh," says Hopper, who smiles for perhaps the first time this season. The downside of this whole prison storyline is that Harbour gets so few opportunities to have fun.
- Somebody get Steve his nail bat. This oar ain't cuttin' it.
- "When did Steve get so hairy?"
Chapter 7: The Massacre at Hawkins Lab
Eleven's trip back into her memories is likely to be a divisive one for viewers; we get some interesting context, but, when stretched across three episodes, her struggles feel redundant and, to steal a word from Brenner, "regressive," at least on a narrative level. Peter's affection for Eleven has been the most compelling part of these scenes, and it comes to a head when he tells her that Two and his cadre of bullies want to kill her. Worse yet, Brenner wants it to happen – he's been working to make it happen – because he knows he can't control her. As such, he wants to help her escape.
In the process of that escape, Peter reveals that he's been implanted with a chip of some kind – he calls it "soteria" – which he says weakens and tracks him. Eleven offers to remove it. Bad idea. After she does, Peter reveals that he has powers, too. And that massacre we all thought was unleashed by Eleven? That's Peter's handiwork. But Peter is not just Peter; Peter is One. Brenner's first pet. He's also related to another figure looming over this season, but let's circle back to that.
Steve lives! That's good news. Nancy, Robin, and Eddie, wielding oars and flashlights, fight off the bats pecking away at his shirtless torso. Unfortunately, he's left with the kind of wound that likes to resurface in moments of peril, but we can ignore that for now. First stop: Nancy's house, where she's got guns stored in her closet. When they arrive, though, they realize that the Upside Down is stuck in the past. It's still November 6, 1983, the day Will disappeared in season 1, meaning Nancy's guns are nowhere to be found. While they're there, though, they realize that, just as Will once did with Christmas lights, they can communicate via electricity with Dustin and company, who are "corralled by the law" at the Wheeler's.
Using Holly's Lite-Brite, Dustin learns that his pals can't return via the Lover's Lake gate because it's guarded by carnivorous bats. He informs them what he's come to learn: Vecna creates a snack-sized gate every time he kills someone. Next stop for both parties? Eddie's trailer, where Chrissy died back in the first episode.
In Russia, Murray is able to convince the Kamchatka warden that he's Yuri. Once inside, he spots Hopper and his fellow inmates gearing up to fight the demogorgon in a Rancor-style battle to the death. Hopper prepares his torch, distracting the warden and allowing Murray to make his move. He pulls a gun and demands the Russians open all the gates. That would mean unleashing the demogorgon, which is currently making mincemeat of the prisoners, on the entire prison. They won't do it, so Joyce begins smashing buttons. This allows Hopper and Antonov to escape alive and reunite with Murray and Joyce. It's sweet and emotional, but, you know, there's still a demogorgon on the loose.
Storylines begin to converge once we get to Eddie's trailer. Dustin helps Robin and Eddie pass through the gate and back into the real world. Nancy, however, is ambushed by Vecna, who intercepts her between dimensions. He steals her away to the pool where Barb met her fate – Barb corpse cameo! – and then ushers her to the Upside Down's version of the Creel House. There, we learn that Eleven's pal Peter, a.k.a. One, is Victor Creel's son. The true source of his powers remains unclear, but it was Peter who murdered his family, torturing them with visions that served as "mirrors" of their sins before mind-snapping their bones and sucking out their eyes. Nice talent, that.
His anger, we learn in a supervillain speech delivered to Eleven, stems from a rabid hatred of humanity and society. He describes humans as "pests." Before and after the Creel murders, he was studied by Brenner, who sought to control and clone him. In the lab, surrounded by the dead, Peter, impressed by her abilities, asks Eleven to leave the lab with him. She refuses and Peter begins snapping her bones. On the verge of death, she has a vision of birth (?) that I'm sure will make more sense later. Anyways, this rejuvenates her, giving her the ability to overcome Peter and, it appears, banish him to the Upside Down.
Yeah, it's a lot.
Also, remember that everything Eleven is experiencing here is in her memories. It actually happened in 1979, four years before the events of Stranger Things. That means Peter's lived as the creature we call Vecna for all that time. And this raises some questions: What kicked off his latest killing spree? Is he really a "five-star general" for the Mind Flayer, as Dustin suspects? And what the hell is the Upside Down, anyway?
- Best needle drop: Lots of great Dixon and Stein themes in the Upside Down, but the orchestral piece from Philip Glass' Akhnatenthat plays during Peter's speech gave me goosebumps.
- What I neglected to mention: Wallace, one of the men assigned to guard Mike, Will, and Jonathan, gives up Eleven's location to Sullivan after, you guessed it, plenty of torture. "Promise me you won't kill her," he pleads.
- Big laugh at Dustin yoinking Holly's Lite-Brite and Erica giving her a bag of Skittles as condolence.
- Am I misremembering, or did the demogorgon CGI look better in season 1?
Stranger Things season 4, volume 2 drops July 1.
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