Director: Shawn Levy
Producers: Matt and Ross Duffer, Dan Cohen, Karl Gajdusek, Cindy Holland, Shawn Levy, Matt Thunell, Brian Wright
Writer: Justin Doble
Stars: Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobby Brown, Winona Ryder
SPOILER ALERT: THE FOLLOWING REVIEW INCLUDES SPOILERS FOR THIS EPISODE OF STRANGER THINGS.
Will’s body has been found—and tensions are high in Hawkins. Joyce struggles to convince others of what she is sure of: that Will is nearby and, what’s more, he is alive. Even Mike turns on Eleven after the body is found, convinced that she has been leading the boys on a purposeless journey to nowhere, rather than in pursuit of Will. Hopper digs into the case, having realized that Will’s disappearance is likely not an isolated incident. Chapter 4 heats up, and STRANGER THINGS approaches its climax.
Much like in Chapter 3, flashbacks to Eleven’s (Millie Bobby Brown) containment in the government lab unfold. “Papa”—Dr. Brenner (Matthew Modine)—is a great source of horror to the viewer, for his deplorable actions but also in response to the hold he has over Eleven, who can’t be entirely sure whether she is being used. The worst kind of patriarch, Dr. Brenner uses her compassion against her, exploiting her desire to please him for scientific gain. The scenes at the lab are thick with tension, the music booming as the viewer beholds quick cuts of metal, glass, and the blank whiteness that envelopes every room. Eleven’s fear is subordinate only to our fear: viewers have the context to understand the goals of Project MKUltra and the potential ills that could befall Eleven, whereas she only has the vaguest sense of unease.
Although Eleven is more or less forgiven early on in the episode (when she manages to reach Will via one of Mike’s (Finn Wolfhard) Walkie Talkies, proving that she wasn’t lying by suggesting that he was alive), she is still treated with fear and distrust, especially by Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) (as usual). Her efforts to help the boys find Will are not enough to endear her to the group; even after all that they’ve been through, she is still an outsider, gendered and raised differently. It becomes apparent how insidiously gender comes into play when Lucas comments on her appearance with disgust: “Look at her,” he says. Strangely, Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Mike don’t question his remark—possibly because Mike has already acknowledged that he sees Eleven as a potential romantic interest and, thus, as a heterosexual male, is socialized to see her both as person and as object. The conventional makeover montage ensues, depicting a strange scene of the boys dressing Eleven in an old-fashioned pink dress and a low-quality blonde wig. She looks bizarre—somewhere between a prairie girl from the nineteenth century and a toddler playing dress-up—but the boys are satisfied. While she nervously awaits their reaction—once again under pressure to be something that she has never been expected to be before—the boys nod approvingly. Mike calls her “pretty,” and, inexplicably, though words like “friend” escape her, the significance of “pretty” strikes her. She looks in the mirror longingly and repeats the word—this designation seems to mean everything to her, which is a little perplexing, given how little the traditional value of a feminine gender performance was reinforced in her upbringing.
Joyce (Winona Ryder), the other female protagonist in the series, also suffers from her own powerlessness. Isolated in her house—Jonathan is usually at school or searching for Will—she is at her most vulnerable and, like Dr. Brenner, the monster is quick to take advantage of her position. It’s hard to tell whether the sound of Will’s voice through the walls of the house is a source of relief or despair—but, agonizingly, he is still out of reach. Even when she pries off the wallpaper and can see Will’s silhouette through a fleshy membrane that suggests that something has devoured him, she can’t get to him. The closer she gets to Will, the more frantic and determined Joyce becomes. Both Joyce and Eleven, tellingly, struggle with the knowledge they hold—terrible knowledge of the danger of their situations, the degree to which their knowledge is dismissed, and the isolation that this knowledge forces them into.
Hopper (David Harbour), seemingly motivated both by his dedication to uncovering injustices and his friendship with Joyce, has hit his stride. Long gone is the man who we once saw stumbling off of his sofa to smoke a cigarette or warding off a hangover at the station. He has gained focus—and, as a result, we are privy to a new Hopper, one who is recklessly dedicated to doing his job. In Chapter 4, Hopper ruthlessly knocks out the government employee guarding Will’s corpse—and thus makes the discovery that the body is a fake—and goes undercover at a local bar to get to the bottom of who is responsible for the fake, beating the answer out of another uncooperative official. His total lack of any inhibitions when it comes to using violence is refreshing, for the poetic justice it delivers to men who are accountable for child abduction and abuse and because it gives him a boost in what seems like a hopeless situation, against an infinitely powerful entity: the United States government. Speaking of hopelessness …
On the more mundane side of things, trouble hits paradise—Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and Steve (Joe Keery) are fighting, a result of Steve doing precisely what Nancy did in Chapter 3: hesitating to cooperate with the police to solve Barb’s disappearance out of a self-protective instinct. For her part, Nancy seems finally to be beginning to realize the seriousness of the situation and continues searching for Barb with a renewed sense of urgency. Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), who is also seeking out the monster, steps in to help, and a tentative acquaintanceship begins to take hold between them. Viewers are in luck this time around: Nancy’s worst crime is her narcissism, which is pretty much a constant that you have to get used to in order to watch the show. For instance, she shows a brief interest in Jonathan’s photography but, halfway through a thoughtful response—that every photograph has a message, “saying something” to the spectator—she interrupts to ask about herself: “What was I ‘saying’? When you took my picture?” No, Nancy, we didn’t forget that you’re here.
References to keep you hankerin’ after the MTV era:
- Rubik’s Cube
- Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899) (Not specifically ‘80s, but an interesting parallel to the darkness and paranoia growing in Hawkins.)
- Professor X
- The Clash