I was wrong.
While I still feel the Duffers are far too hesitant when it comes to swinging the hammer of death upon any character shielded with four seasons worth of plot armor, I admit that I was wrong. Watching the fourth episode of season four, titled ‘Dear Billy’, directed by Shawn Levy (The Adam Project), I couldn’t help but splash fuel on the fire that was the voice in the back of my head, hoping Max would meet her tragic demise by the time the credits rolled. I reveled in the unlikely-albeit-slight possibility of seeing a character as integral as Max Mayfield face the consequences of a formidable opponent. I waited, almost gleefully, as the episode took a turn for the dark. Usually, I have an affinity for the bittersweet. The outcome I had so eagerly hoped for never came. Darkness reared its ugly head upon Hawkins, as it does on a seemingly monthly basis at this point, though it did not win. The narrative device I deem a safeguard for most stories was of no use here. I’d think myself disappointed, from the perspective of a critic with little leeway in their preconceived standards, or, more likely, the perspective of a critic too afraid to admit their wrong-sayings. However, I was too distracted by the overwhelming relief surging through me as it all faded to black.
The episode feels typical Stranger Things, but in the context of where the story’s brought us, also introduces a murky, dire tone that acts as an undercurrent flowing beneath the surface. Sadie Sink, in the span of this episode alone, elevates Max’s character beyond the already-impressive standard she’d achieved in ST4’s prior outings. Sink has mastered the art of subtlety, as I’ve praised in the past, which she practices on full display in ‘Dear Billy’. She’s able to convey so much with so little. Her slouched, unmotivated posture at a desk in the Wheeler basement felt tragic to me with the context of what Sink brings to the table, what we know the character to be experiencing. The fear of impending death at the hands of Vecna isn’t universally relatable, but it felt as such here. The acting and writing work in tandem, adding an unmistakable sense of realism to it all that permeates through the screen and into us as an audience. It left me conflicted. On one hand: ‘affinity for the bittersweet’. On the other: I can’t help but want her to come out on top.
As Vecna’s curse loomed threateningly like a mythical storm cloud whispering to come-hither, the episode’s momentum increased and increased, amalgamating into a crescendo for the ages; a generational sequence that left us speechless at its profound beauty and overwhelming reminder of what makes this show so enticing.
Although Kate Bush’s ‘Running Up That Hill’ is so exhaustedly overplayed at this point, hindering me from discussing it ignorant of its impact on the cultural zeitgeist, it ushers the scene forward, softly but noticeably nonetheless. The scene starts with a quiet, raw monologue that, in the grand scheme of the scene, has been left relatively underappreciated. The season, to this point, has Max taking a backseat not only to the clique as a whole, but to herself as well. She’s been reserved and soft-spoken, even as the demons, ever-festering inside her mind’s eye, laid waste. She hasn’t been…there. She’s been there, but not truly there, if that resembles anything in the realm of an opinion.
The monologue is Max’s first time opening up. It’s a sweet monologue, a realistic one too, spoken and written akin to something straight from the mind of a fifteen-year old. However, context is key in season four and as such adds a tinge of bitterness to the sweetly sentimental soliloquy. Looming just beyond is Vecna, who strikes immediately post-recitation, conjuring up a painfully stark vision of Billy, bloodied and oh-so-evil as he taunts Mayfield, twisting the proverbial knife fast and hard.
Before I continue with the onslaught of praise and adoration, I want to take a moment to mention how funny it is that Vecna seems to play with his prey in this case, as opposed to the quick disposal of characters not-as-important, á la Chrissy or Fred. Maybe there’s something Vecna knows regarding Max that is unbeknownst to us as an audience, or maybe the writing shone through a bit too much, rendering itself a stick in the mud and loosening the grip of immersion for a second or two too long.
Anyway, it matters little, as the culmination of this build up is frankly astounding in its greatness. As Max runs and runs, she’s lured into what seems to be Vecna’s lair, where they have a moment of calm to discuss things expositorily, to coin an adverb. Another quick note, I couldn’t help but feel Vecna’s dialogue seemed a bit cheesy? Yeah, of course it’s meant to be a little cheesy as most things Upside-Down Demi-Monster should be, but I couldn’t help but think “Give it a rest, buddy” every time Vecna uttered anything in his technically-modified sounding grumble.
As Max and Vecna converse, her options run thin and, eventually, she cannot escape his grasp as he begins the process of ‘turning her to his side’ which equates to a brutal and bloody death. At this moment, my preconceived notions of where the show would go ceased and all that remained in its place was a thoroughly-permanent fear for Max’s life. As Steve, Dustin, and Lucas scrambled for the cassette tape, I could feel their panic. I shared in that panic as well. When the tape slipped in and the song started, a song so perfectly suited for the scene, cut-together with shots of scenes past, from seasons two and three, showcasing in perfection the warmth in their togetherness through everything, I couldn’t help but cheer. At this point, I knew she’d survive. Obviously the love of that song, which represents a deeper, more powerful love for her friends, would save her. As predictable as it may be, it doesn’t hinder its impact seemingly at all. And as cheesy as the unaltered, perfectly-cut inserts of scenes past may be, it didn’t matter. In these moments, all that mattered was the act. The music, the acting, the context, the villain, the way she breaks out of his grasp and runs desperately towards the fading comfort of her friends on the outside, trying desperately to break her free, all of it, and I mean all of it, works as a well-oiled machine to result in perfection. I said it, I’m a shill. I am a full on shill for this scene. I am eating my words and they taste bad. From now on, I’ll enjoy healthy dosing of nostalgia-fuel fed to me through cheesy dialogue and quick-cut flashbacks, please and thank you.
Thank you, Stranger Things writers, for proving me wrong. Thank you for keeping Max alive.