After a long, pandemic-laden three year wait, Stranger Things has finally returned to Netflix with its fourth, and penultimate, season. Ever since the release of season three in 2019, which left some asking why the show’s structural formula had not matured in any meaningful way creatively, the show has had to step up its game and do something new. After all, the idea of these kids (now teenagers, soon to be adults) defeating the various villains from the Upside Down, only for another, slightly more formidable foe to rear their ugly head merely months later is tiringly overdone (and has been ever since season two). However, the season four premiere ‘The Hellfire Club’, written and directed by Stranger Things showrunners Matt and Ross Duffer (known collectively as The Duffer Brothers) adds new, fun characters, a different setting, and, most importantly, better writing.
The heart of Stranger Things is not only in the generous dosage of charming 1980s nostalgia, but in the kids and their D&D-esque journey as well. The Upside Down has always been a clever metaphor for the demons every one faces in their childhood and in this episode, The Duffers begin to explore it.
The season opens with a heart-wrenching, eight-minute tease of something not previously explored. Jumping back seven years to 1979, we see a brutal massacre at the Hawkins Lab, perpetrated by none other than Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown, Godzilla vs. Kong). It’s a bloody but brief glimpse into the titular character’s foggy past, which left me intrigued, curious, and lended a sense of the unknown, a feeling I hadn’t had since the first season.
When we reunite with our characters in the present day (1986), we get an idea of the niches that will make up the season’s new dynamic. In Lenora Hills, California, Eleven (now going by Jane Hopper), Will (Noah Schnapp, Hubie Halloween), and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton, The New Mutants) focus on schoolwork at their new high school where El is relentlessly bullied by a group of very cliché archetypal bully characters. The three hurry to school every day in a pizza delivery van, driven by Jonathan’s new stoner friend Argyle (Eduardo Franco, Booksmart). Additionally, Joyce (Winona Ryder, Beetlejuice) works at home, selling encyclopedias over the phone. The whole sequence is narrated by El in a letter she wrote to Mike. At the end, she expresses excitement over his upcoming trip to Lenora Hills to visit her for spring break. Before any of that, however…
We return to Hawkins where Mike (Finn Wolfhard, Ghostbusters: Afterlife), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo, Prank Encounters), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin, High Flying Bird), Max (Sadie Sink, Fear Street trilogy), Nancy (Natalia Dyer, Yes God Yes), Steve (Joe Keery, Free Guy), and Robin (Maya Hawke, Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood) continue in the ‘swing of things’, trudging through their semester, preparing for spring break, playing basketball, D&D, attending pep rallies, and trying to forget the traumatizing events of season three. The juxtaposition of the ensemble, now split up in different parts of the country and forced to ignore the past, highlights one of the major improvements of the season: the editing.
As we jump from niche to niche, from Eleven and Will, Jonathan and Argyle, to Mike and Dustin and Lucas, Max, Steve and Robin, we’re forced as an audience to keep up. Nine times out of ten, the sheer number of characters the show has, especially with the new batch of characters joining the fray shouldn’t work. It should feel rushed or convoluted or overstuffed but in this edit it doesn’t feel like that at all. The show puts on a balancing act for the ages and succeeds in ways impressive even to an untrained eye. That’s not to mention that within each niche, the characters manage to retain their respective personalities. They each struggle with complex, multi-faceted stress/pain-inducers, and at this point, the show relies on the context of the first three seasons to guide you in understanding it all. Hypothetically, it’s a big ask, but with the clear, rapid fire editing, they make it work. With El, it’s bullying. With Max, it’s the insurmountable guilt over her brother Billy’s death in the season prior. With Nancy, it’s the newfound doubt over her relationship with Jonathan. With Jonathan, it’s the newfound doubt over his relationship with Nancy. With Steve, it’s doubts over successfully finding a girlfriend. With Robin, it’s also doubts over successfully finding a girlfriend! The characters undergo many of the same problems. However, Steve’s inability to find love is cut from a different pie than, say, Robin’s. In complex but understandable problems and situations to face, the writing peaks through in ways it hadn’t previously.
Now Mike, Dustin, and Lucas face a problem that isn’t cut nearly as deep. However, it’s just as necessary in its realism and relatability to growing up in high school: the desire for popularity. When Lucas has to choose between playing in Hawkins High’s basketball championship game with his team or attending his D&D campaign finale with Mike and Dustin, he chooses the former, as he desperately wants to get in with his teammates and, as a result, be popular. Lucas convinces Mike and Dustin they would be popular by association if he can join the cool group. This leads Mike and Dustin to pose the idea of rescheduling the campaign finale with the infamous Hellfire Club in a scene that introduces the biggest standout of the fourth season additions (so far): Eddie Munson (Joseph Quinn, Dickensian).
In Eddie’s first scene ever, he rambles about the media’s D&D-devil-worship narrative, being a ‘weirdo’, the stupidity of basketball, and the prospect that he WILL graduate this year after being held back twice already. His charisma, humor, and tangible admiration for Dustin and Mike, in a school filled with kids who look down upon them, is the perfect recipe for another Steve Harrington situation. That isn’t a knock on Steve, who, as great as he is, doesn’t make much of an impact this time around.
When posed with the idea of rescheduling the campaign, Eddie orders Mike and Dustin find a replacement for Lucas, which leads into the epic reintroduction of Lucas’ much beloved sister Erica (Priah Ferguson, The Oath), who, in a tense standoff with Munson, earns his respect and with that a place in the Hellfire Club.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Max, who, in my opinion, gives the most with the least. Walking down the hallway to the oddly melancholic but powerful 80s smash-hit ‘Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)’ by Kate Bush – which has shot up the charts on all modern music streaming platforms thanks to its inclusion in the series – Max’s stoic face tells an entire story without saying a single word. She seems to be the only character whose actions, and emotions, reflect the horror that took place at Starcourt Mall just months prior, which makes sense as she lost Billy, her half-brother. She goes to the school counselor, as she’s been mandated to attend. Throughout it all, Max keeps her head low and speaks infrequently. She suffers in silence. Even later on, when Lucas asks for an explanation to the dodgy behavior, Max retorts with a straight-to-the-point “people change.” All of this is brought to life on the screen by Sadie Sink, who shines with a touching, subtle performance that accentuates the pain behind her eyes.
She turns away from Lucas and goes into the bathroom, downing a duo of Advil (without water somehow) to subdue the dull pain of a headache. Meanwhile, star cheerleader Chrissy Cunningham (Grace Van Dien, The Binge), another season four newcomer, throws up in one of the nearby stalls. When Max asks if she needs help, Chrissy demands that Max leave. Max abides and we’re left with Chrissy, alone in the stall, recovering from the sickness. Suddenly, she hears the echoing voice of her mother. The voice gets louder and deeper, eventually morphing into the growling, grumbling tone of this season’s main villain. The stall door shakes, almost enough to completely loosen the screws holding the metal lock in place. The light fixture above flickers and assumes a green tint. Chrissy screams and cries, falling back against the far wall of the stall. We see two slimy, dark, veiny feet approach from the other side of the door before, without a moment’s notice, it’s all over. It’s a frightening introduction to our foe, and one that promises a far more perilous fight for our heroes than ever before. Although the scene showed little in terms of gore, it was clear that The Duffer Brothers were going for something different. It felt far darker than anything that came before. From the hauntingly normal tone of Chrissy’s mother that quickly melted into something far more sinister, it was abundantly clear that this villain knew about Chrissy on a deep, personal level.
The final ‘act’ of this episode fires on all cylinders with a wonderfully edited sequence that juxtaposes Lucas’ championship basketball game with Dustin and Mike’s D&D campaign finale. Cutting back and forth, we see Mike and the other members of Hellfire die to their villain, known as Vecna, a dark wizard with no left arm or left eye. Meanwhile Eddie, the campaign-master, recites the events of his story like a Tolkien-esque novel, jumping on his chair, leaning over the wall of D&D folders, papers, and rulebooks he’d set up for himself, peering into the eyes of Dustin and Erica, the only two left. Meanwhile, we watch Lucas sitting on the bench as his team loses headway. A player falls and gets injured, the coach yells at Lucas to “get in the game,” much to his surprise. Lucas unsnaps his sweatpants and jacket, running onto the court. The show cuts back and forth as both the Hellfire Club and the Hawkins High team call for time-outs. They strategize and return to their respective fields of battle. Hawkins is down by two points with seconds remaining. Only Erica and Dustin remain against Vecna. Vecna only has twelve more hit points left. The final moments of this sequence are high-octane and fast-paced. It isn’t something you’d expect from Stranger Things, but it’s great nonetheless.
The clock ticks down and the Hawkins High star player and team captain Jason (Mason Dye, Bosch) sets up for a shot. He releases and launches the ball towards the hoop. It clinks against the rim and bounces off! Dustin readies his dice, whipping his arm around and launching it across the table. The scene is nicely capped off with some great sound editing that dramatizes it all for the better. The roll of the die comes to a stop, landing on eleven. Dustin cries out in frustration as his character meets his demise. Erica grabs her die and steps up to the plate as her fellow Hellfire members pray beside her.
The ball rolls off of the rim but Lucas grabs the rebound. He dribbles it through the arms of his defenders, out to the three-point line, pivots around, sets his feet, jumps up, and launches the ball once again.
Erica lets the die roll towards the other side of the table. It bounces to a stop in slow-motion and lands…on a…
…The ball hits the rim and flies up. It hits the backboard and makes its way back down towards the hoop.
Twenty! Vecna defeated. The Hellfire Club breaks out into a gaggle of cheers as Eddie bestows the victory upon them.
The ball, on its downward descent back towards the hoop, rolls in! Hawkins wins! The entire stadium erupts into screams and love for the benchwarmer-turned-hero Lucas Sinclair, as his teammates hoist him up onto their shoulders.
Phew! What a scene.
After the game-winning shot in the parking lot, Lucas makes his way out beside his teammates as they pat him on the shoulder. It’s all smiles until he notices Mike, Dustin, Erica, Eddie, and the rest of Hellfire Club leaving from the other side of the lot. I felt this was a moment to talk about because it reveals…a lot. Lucas is the hero of the night, and he’s on his way towards achieving everything he’s worked for. However, in this very moment, the slight relaxation of his ear-to-ear grin tells us something more. It reveals his deeper inner conflict. Does he really want to be popular? Does he feel it’ll sacrifice what he’s had with his best friends? Is any choice he’s made up to this point good?
While the basketball/D&D sequence stands out as this episode’s most memorable, I have to mention the FINAL final scene when Chrissy Cunningham goes home with Eddie Munson. For some context, earlier in the episode Chrissy had met with Eddie on a drug deal, something uncommon for Chrissy but, due to her ‘predicament’, she hopes it could help. Eddie offers her weed but she asks for something stronger.
In the Munson household (a trailer), Chrissy waits in the living room while Eddie searches for Special K in his room. Meanwhile, Chrissy enters another ‘trance.’ She goes in search of Eddie and finds her mother instead, sewing a dress. All around her, the trailer is replaced by her family home. She approaches the woman, seemingly her mother, only for it to reveal a far more frightening reality: an undead woman with white eyes and a creepy grin. Chrissy unhands her at once and sprints out the room. She runs down the stairs and sees the back of her dad’s head as he watches TV. She grabs his shoulder in a plea for help, rotating the Lazy Susan, revealing her father with his eyes and mouth sewed shut as he lets out muffled screams. This whole scene is straight out of a horror film. Sure, you could say Stranger Things has always had horror roots. However, I’d say that in seasons one through three it felt more creepy or ‘nostalgic’ as it paid homage to campy horrors from the 80s such as Beetlejuice or Sci-Fi classics like E.T.. This felt more Nightmare On Elm Street. It truly dug deeper and darker than anything we’d seen from the show before and it served as a damning up close introduction to this season’s villain. As Chrissy tries desperately to escape, she’s forced against a wall as the ‘being’ from the stall makes an appearance. Slug-sized veins run up and throughout his entire body, his eyes inset against a crusty, burnt flesh coated face. He growls at Chrissy that her “suffering is at an end” as he raises a clawed hand, stabs into Chrissy’s face, and begins what looks like an essence transfer. From Eddie’s POV, Chrissy begins levitating into the air. She flies up towards the ceiling of Eddie’s trailer as the essence transfer is completed, at which time Chrissy’s arms snap awkwardly. Her legs follow suit. Her jaw snaps out of place and her eyes explode with blood. Cut to black.
The episode ends with a promise to the audience: that this villain is unlike anything we’ve seen before. If we’d thought the demogorgon or the rat-Billy-creature thing from season three posed a threat, we haven’t met this ‘thing’ yet. He seemed to have known Chrissy, and her fears. We don’t know what Chrissy’s issue with her mother is, or why this villain used it against her. However, what we do know is that it scared her to her core, and she paid for it in snapped limbs and bloody eye-sockets.
Stranger Things season 4: volume 1 debuted on Netflix on May 27, 2022. Volume 2 debuts on July 1, 2022.