There! Is! So! Much! Happening!!! When the news of Stranger Things season four’s hefty episode runtimes broke, people had a lot to say. While bloated TV episodes can feel self-indulgent or do damage to the overall narrative because they’re simply stuffed with unnecessary fluff or meandering plot — that doesn’t seem to be what’s happening here. Are there scenes and storylines that could be slimmed down a bit? Always. But mostly, these episodes have been packed with action that is moving each storyline forward. And that’s a good thing because with basically four major storylines all happening concurrently (there’s Hawkins, the Hopper/Joyce plot, and yes, I’m splitting up wherever Eleven is and the Byers boys adventures), chaos could reign.
The other wild thing here is that all four storylines are compelling. Each could stand on their own. In any other show, that shootout at the Byers house — with a stunner of a tracking shot in the middle of it, courtesy of director Shawn Levy — would be the episode’s big set piece. Here, it’s a subplot. That is crazy! But it’s working. Surely, at some point in the season (probably not until Vol. 2, I’m betting) everyone will end up together in Hawkins — it is the Stranger Things way — but until then, I’m more than happy to jump around.
Still, if I had to rank those four storylines, the stuff going on in Hawkins is, not surprisingly, the strongest. And when I say “strongest,” I mean it is both bonkers and emotionally moving and I teared up more than once. I will not apologize for this! There’s some real emotional heft to everything going on with Max, and everyone in the Hawkins group really nails it (especially Sadie Sink and Caleb McLaughlin).
So, in case you somehow forgot: Max Mayfield has, give or take, 24 hours to live. What’s happening to her with the hallucinations follows the same pattern as Chrissy and Fred, so unless the crew figures out a way to stop Vecna from killing Max, we’re all headed toward heartbreak fast.
The only real lead they have is Victor Creel, who is currently locked up in Pennhurst asylum. Nancy and Robin cook up an idea to pose as psych students from Notre Dame looking to interview Creel for their thesis. That leaves Steve (always the babysitter, never the Fake Psychology Student), Dustin, and Lucas, who joined the group after fleeing our Satanic Panic Squad, to look after Max. There’s not really much they can do for her while she waits for what feels like an inescapable fate, but bless those boys’ hearts, they do try.
Max has her own idea of how she wants to spend her time while they wait for some ray of hope from whatever Nancy and Robin — excuse me, Ruth and Rose — can get out of Creel. First, she writes everyone she cares about a good-bye letter. Including Steve! She calls them “a fail-safe” in case she doesn’t survive and refuses to hear any type of reassurance that she’ll be okay from Lucas. Nothing in her life has really gone right, why should this? Next, she wants to drop off some letters at home. You can just see in Lucas’s face that he so badly wants to say something to Max but stops himself. Don’t stop yourself, guy! She needs you, even if she won’t admit it!
This all becomes even more apparent once Max makes it home. She sees her mom hanging laundry and … whoops, nope, she ends up in a warm embrace with Vecna himself, who is telling her that she’s going to get what she deserves and that no amount of letters she writes will change things. And he adds a little “your time is almost at an end,” just for funsies before he goes. That guy sucks, okay?
Max does not tell the boys that her hallucinations are getting worse and instead tells them she has a second stop to make: The cemetery. She wants to deliver her letter to Billy. Before she makes it to his grave, Lucas stops her. He can’t hold it in anymore. He needs her to know that she can talk to him. That she has friends right here. “I’m right here,” he keeps telling her. I feel like a proud mom seeing our little Lucas step up like this, in such a mature, moving way. I mean, it doesn’t work, Max still runs off to take care of things on her own, but Lucas! Give him a hug, someone!
Max sits at Billy’s grave and reads her heartfelt letter to him. It’s full of regret that they didn’t get a second chance to become friends, to become real siblings. It’s full of guilt over the thought that has been plaguing Max: That she could’ve done something to save Billy. “I think maybe a part of me died that day, too” she tells him. It’s heartbreaking to see her in such anguish over something that she clearly could not have stopped. By the time she’s signing off her letter with “love, your shitty little sister Max” Vecna’s back, and this hallucination is the big one. Steve comes to grab her so they can get back to the safety of the Wheeler house, but he finds her in front of Billy’s tombstone in an impenetrable trance. He, Dustin, and Lucas all try to wake her up, but nothing helps. If they don’t get some kind of useful information from Nancy and Robin soon, they’ll lose Max.
So what is going on over at Pennhurst? It turns out Nancy and Robin make a great team. Sure, Robin isn’t thrilled that she has to wear Nancy’s clothes to keep up this little psych student ruse, but they need to look like serious academics to impress Dr. Hatch, the director of the asylum, to convince him to let them speak to Creel. Also, those uncomfortable clothes inspire Robin to give a rousing speech about how women in the field of psychology aren’t taken seriously and how this is her dream. It works; they get to see Creel. Sometimes it’s so hard to believe that there were two seasons of this show without Robin; she feels that big a part of the group.
Honestly, bless the Duffer Brothers for casting Robert Englund, the Freddy Krueger himself, in this very Elm Street-inspired season. Yes, Englund plays the much-talked-about Victor Creel — complete with creepy, slashed, and scarred eyes for your viewing pleasure. Nancy and Robin tell Creel that they believe his story about the demon, and they want to hear the full story (flashback time!). Creel tells them about how he and his wife, daughter Alice, and son Henry moved into this gorgeous home in 1959, and within one month, it had turned into a complete hellscape. Animals were turning up mutilated and killed, his wife and daughter were having crazy hallucinations, and eventually, he was too — one of war atrocities he had committed and carried around with him. One night at dinner, the radio randomly turned on and played Ella Fitzgerald singing “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” the lights started going crazy, and then Creel’s wife was lifted up into the air and her bones were snapped — just like Chrissy and Fred. Creel tried to get his kids out of there but was stuck in a trance, in his living nightmare. When he came to, Alice was killed just like his wife, and Henry was in a coma. He died a week later.
When the girls press Creel for more info about how he survived the demon’s curse, he says that he heard the voice of an angel and followed it out of the hallucination. He begins humming, “Dream a Little Dream of Me.” None of this is helpful, and Nancy and Robin are out of time: Hatch has figured out that they’ve been lying and called the police. They decide to make a run for it. They make it to the car just in time to get away and to hear Dustin calling code red on the walkie. They need a way to help Max, and they need it now. Thankfully, Robin has a theory: During their tour, Hatch told them that they use music to help patients because it can reach a part of the brain that words sometimes cannot. Creel had talked about an “angel” and was humming that Ella song — what if music is some type of “lifeline” that allowed Creel to find his way back to reality?
It might not be much, but it’s the best and only shot they’ve got to save Max. Thank god Max has been so emo these days; she hasn’t gone anywhere without her walkman and tapes. Thank god Lucas is the best, he knows her favorite song is Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill,” which they promptly put on and shove Max’s headphones over her ears. Thank god that song is such a goddamn jam because it really adds some drama to the entire conclusion of the episode. The perfect needle drop! Kate Bush saves lives, and don’t you ever forget it, baby.
In Max’s hallucination, she is tortured and taunted by Vecna, just like Creel described. Billy appears before her, bloodied and angry. He tells her she was lying in her letter, that she was actually relieved when he died and that’s why she feels guilty. He tells her he knows that late at night she sometimes wishes she would die too. It’s dark and disturbing, and then Billy becomes Vecna, so, you know, still dark and disturbing. But something different happens this time around: Max sees a strange red mist in her hallucination, and she follows it. She winds up in a creepy place full of blood and jagged stone and fragments of the Creel house — that grandfather clock and the stained glass door. Chrissy and Fred’s bodies are tied up on trees. And Vecna seems surprised that Max is there. We have no time to dive into that — he ties her up like Chrissy and Fred and is ready to end her. Out in the cemetery, Max is levitating above her friends, more panicked than ever. But then that Kate Bush song plays. A small clearing forms in the mist, and Max can see the scene at the cemetery — she can see her friends. Vecna tries to tell her that she doesn’t belong with them, she belongs with him, but memories flash before her. They are happy memories with El and Mike and Dustin and yes, Lucas. I’m fine, I am not crying over this.
The memories give her the strength to break free from Vecna and she runs toward that clearing in the mist. He tries to stop her, but love, friends! Love and Kate Bush power Max through. She falls to the ground and into her friends’ arms. She’s survived Vecna’s curse! Oh, he is gonna be so pissed, isn’t he?
More Strange Things!
• Again, it’s wild that this isn’t the main storyline of this episode but big news: Hopper makes his escape from the prison! It does not go smoothly, but Hopper is a broody action hero now (I prefer rough around the edges, secret softy Hopper, but this Hopper is also good), so he peels off on the snowmobile and makes it to the church where Yuri is supposed to pick him up. Hopper tearing up as he eats peanut butter? I’ll treasure that moment always.
• The rescue mission is a complete failure. Surprising absolutely no one: Yuri, the unhinged smuggler, betrays everyone. Instead of taking the $40,000 and picking up Hopper, he calls the warden of the prison, tells him where Hopper is hiding, that the guard Antonov is the one who helped him escape, and he also drugs Joyce and Murray and plans on turning them over to the KGB. So, yeah, Yuri’s a real asshole.
• So, yes, a shootout! In the Byers’ house! Owens sent some agents to protect them while he works with El to get her powers back, but Mike, Will, and Jonathan aren’t okay just sitting around while their friends and family back in Hawkins are in trouble. They make a plan to get Argyle and his pizza van to get them, and they’ll drive back to Hawkins, but that plan gets nixed when military guys show up at the door and start shooting. One agent, though shot, helps them escape, and they load the bloodied agent into the back of Argyle’s van and tell their very confused friend to shut up and drive.
• Is Will in love with Mike?
• El signs her good-bye letter to Mike with “from,” and I am truly LIVING for the fact that even with the world possibly ending, El has found time to be a petty bish. You tell him, girl.