The Best Season Premiere Since Season One
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Stranger Things 4 begins with a warning.

Netflix added the warning after the recent mass shooting at an elementary school in Texas, and once you’ve watched the first eight or nine minutes of the Season 4 premiere you can definitely understand why.

Spoilers follow.

The opening of the Season 4 premiere is very disturbing. We flash back to 1979 and Dr. Martin Brenner (Matthew Modine) as he goes about his daily ritual and then heads into work. The lab is bustling. Kids in gowns with little number tattoos are sitting around playing games or joining scientists in solo sessions to work on their psychic abilities.

Brenner takes Ten with him into one such room and begins with some shapes and images before asking him to find another scientist with his mind. Ten is able to and then suddenly everything goes wrong. Ten starts to freak out and then we hear screams. “They’re dead,” he says.

The door to the room bursts open, knocking Brenner to the ground. When he wakes, Ten is dead. He clutches the boy’s body to his chest, clearly shaken and distraught, then makes his way through the smoking ruin that is the lab. We think perhaps a gate has been opened in the past, that a creature has come through already once before. But this can’t be. The wounds on the dead children and lab workers don’t look like the type a Demogorgon would make.

Brenner rounds a corner and there she is: Eleven (Millie Bobbie Brown). “What have you done?” he asks her as she stares back furiously.

This question—what have you done? or what did you do?—is, I believe, deeply important to the remainder of the season. The new villain, who we only see briefly in the first episode, appears to find his way from the Upside Down through peoples’ feelings of shame and guilt, and/or through their secrets (I’m only four episodes in as I type this so I don’t have all the answers and this is largely speculative).

The Lich

The new monster—Vecna—hunts his first victim, Chrissy (Grace Van Dien) by way of her mother. Chrissy has terrible visions of her mother that transform into a monstrous figure stalking her. She has other symptoms, too: nosebleed, vomiting, headaches. At one point she sees a grandfather clock in the woods.

The last vision is the worst. Chrissy has gone with newly introduced D&D “freak” Eddie Munson (Joseph Quinn)—a really terrific new character—to his trailer park across from where Max (Sadie Sink) lives. She wants to buy strong drugs to escape these troubling visions.

But it’s too late.

As Eddie searches through his room for ketamine, Chrissy’s eyes glaze over. She’s suddenly in her own home and her mother is shrieking at her. She runs to her father but he’s dead and his eyes and mouth are sewed up (another thing to pay close attention to as we move further into the season). Then the creature appears, walking slowly through the house. He comes up to her and puts his long, taloned fingers up to her face.

“It’s time to end your long suffering,” he rasps in a deep and terrible voice.

In the real world, Eddie is trying to snap Chrissy out of it. “Wake up, Chrissy!” he shouts, waving in her face, shaking her shoulders.

Then she lifts up off the ground, floats up to the ceiling and hovers there. A moment later, her bones start breaking. Her legs and arms snap in the wrong direction. Her eyes are pulled back and into her skull with a sickening pop.

Eddie screams.


As you can tell from this description, the horror in Stranger Things 4 has been dialed up a notch. This time around the scares are very potent and the kills are graphic and gruesome. The killer is also sentient rather than a beastly hunter—such as the Demogorgon—or a powerful but voiceless demon—like the Mind Flayer. The Mind Flayer was able to speak through Billy, of course, but remained detached in many ways.

This time around, the Upside Down feels more personal than ever before. The killer chooses his victims carefully, dissecting their shame and secrets and then boring past their defenses. He stalks them mercilessly and his hunt takes on a deeply personal, torturously cruel fashion. So far, at least, this is the scariest Stranger Things has been since Will was trapped in the walls of his own house in Season 1.

And since we’ve begun the season with a moment that Eleven has kept very secret, perhaps even secret from herself, it stands to reason that she’ll be in the monster’s sights at some point. What other victims face this brutal, terrifying death?


The Tigers vs The Hellfire Club

This episode is titled ‘The Hellfire Club’ which is the name of Eddie’s Dungeons & Dragons group. Both Mike (Finn Wolfhard) and Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) have become junior members in the group, and you can see why they’d want to.

Eddie is a charismatic screwup. He’s basically The Breakfast Club’s Bender, more or less, an outsider but one who doesn’t get picked on by the jocks and bullies because he’s fearless and tough in his own right. He also runs what appears to be a hell of a D&D campaign centered around the powerful undead wizard, or lich, Vecna.

As with previous campaigns, the monster of Stranger Things 4 is the same as the one in the campaign the kids are playing. First the Demogorgon, then the Mind Flayer, now a powerful spell-casting lich named Vecna.

Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) is the odd man out once again. He’s joined the basketball team which has made it the championship game under its charismatic jock captain Jason Carver (Mason Dye) who just so happens to be Chrissy’s boyfriend. The championship game and the final session of this massive D&D campaign take place on the same night, which means Lucas has to choose between the two.

Understandably, he chooses the basketball game, but for all the wrong reasons. Typically you’d play in the game because it was simply required by the school. If you want to be on the basketball team, you don’t really have a choice to skip the championship game (or any game you’re on the roster for) or you get booted off the team. But Lucas wants to play to get in with the cool kids so he doesn’t have to be a loser anymore.

This is bad reasoning and more than a little offensive to Mike and Dustin, but he’s not wrong that he needs to play in the game. When Dustin tells Eddie, he’s not happy about it and sends the boys to find a substitute.

They settle on Lucas’s little sister, Erica (Priah Ferguson) who turns out to be the perfect choice and quite the nerd. Eddie is skeptical until she rattles off her character’s stats and abilities and demonstrates a clear understanding of the game (though in my experience you don’t usually bring your established character into a different campaign like that since they might not be the right level etc. but whatever).

The big game and the big campaign take place at the same time, and the show jumps back and forth between the two as each approaches an epic climax. One point down, Lucas gets the rebound from Jason’s missed shot and takes a shot of his own as the ticker counts down to zero. After an agonizing moment, the ball goes in and the Tigers win the championship game on their home court.

Meanwhile, with just Dustin and Erica’s characters still alive, rather than flee they go in for the final kill. Dustin eats it but Erica rolls a 20—a critical hit in D&D—and sleys the vile lich. In the D&D room and in the gymnasium, the crowd goes wild. It’s a triumphant climax to the first episode of the season and a lot of fun to watch.

It’s also the beginning of the end. Later that night Chrissy goes with Eddie to his trailer and, well, you know how that ends.

Max, who tends to her cute little dog after listening to the game on the radio, sees Eddie and Chrissy go into the trailer. She is the only ‘witness’ to what comes next.

Two other characters head to the big game: Steve (Joe Keery) and Robin (Maya Hawke) who have become best buddies and now work together at a local video store (damn I miss video rental places!) go as well. Steve has graduated but Robin is in the school band and they discuss her new crush, who she’s worried about coming out to, on the way there. Dustin’s squeeze—Suzie (Gabriella Pizzolo)—is still an item also, though their relationship remains adorably long distance.

Speaking of long distance . . .

California Dreaming

In California, Joyce (Winona Ryder) has settled into a new life with her sons Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) and Will (Noah Schanpp) along with Eleven, who now goes by the name Jane Hopper. Everyone seems to have made the best of the relocation, and Eleven describes all the fun she’s having in great detail in a letter we hear her narrate to Mike.

Charlie has made a new BFF, the hilarious stoner Argyle (Eduardo Franco) and the two of them “smoke plants” that Charlie doesn’t want Eleven to tell Joyce about.

But the happy picture Eleven paints for Mike is a lie. There is trouble in paradise and it goes by the name of Angela (Elodie Grace Orkin), the ringleader of a group of bullies that targets Eleven with the kind of mean girl terrorism only girls like Angela can muster—though plenty of her boy friends join in on the bullying.

It’s every bit as disturbing as Vecna’s atrocities, perhaps because it is so much more human. Angela is a popular, pretty girl who has placed a target on Eleven’s back and relentlessly harasses her, both in and out of class.

Spring Break is coming and Mike is heading out to visit Will and Eleven soon and it is quite literally the only bright light in her life, the hope of some kind of comfort when he arrives. Will, shy and timid as he is, can do little to stave off the bullies. Charlie, meanwhile, is wrestling with the fact that his own long-distance girlfriend, Nancy (Natalie Dyer) isn’t coming to visit—something she also questions since he’s not coming to see her, either. Trouble in paradise.

Nancy is running the high school newspaper and her right-hand man, Fred (Logan Riley Bruner) pesters her about Charlie not coming, especially since the couple has plans to go to college together.

Soon, these stories will all start to converge, as they always do in Stranger Things.

Verdict

All told, this was a magnificent season premiere of Stranger Things. We’ve got a new villain that’s horrifying and whose Upside Down evil is totally new and different from the past seasons, which makes the story feel fresh and scary and mysterious.

The introduction of great new characters like Eddie—who will now be suspect #1 in Chrissy’s death—and new dynamics like the basketball team vs the Hellfire Club breathes new life into all these characters.

And we still have the mystery of Hopper’s disappearance and captivity in Russia to explore. Eleven has lost her powers, something that—after the opening scene—might not be such a bad thing, except for the whole murderous Lich problem. She’s the only one who can possibly face down such a threat, but she can’t even stand up to a bully now.

Eleven has been sheltered in many ways. She’s never had to deal with bullies without her powers at the ready. She’s totally unlike any other kid and has never had to face the kind of social horrors her friends have all their lives. She’s faced much worse terrors in many ways, but this new social gauntlet is harder to face and terribly sad to witness, especially if you’ve been bullied in the past, or had friends or family who have been bullied.

So far, I’m loving every minute of Stranger Things 4. I’ll be posting recaps every day this week here on this blog, so give me a follow if you want to read more. Next up, Vecna’s Curse. Stay tuned.

What did you think of the Stranger Things Season 4 premiere? Let me know on Twitter or Facebook.

If you want, you can also sign up for my diabolical newsletter on Substack and subscribe to my YouTube channel.



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