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Review: Stranger Things – Season 1, Episode 4

Producer(s): Karl Gajdusek, Cindy Holland, Brian Wright, Matt Thunell, Shawn Levy, Dan Cohen, Matt Duffer, Ross Duffer, Iain Paterson, Shannon Tsang
Director(s): Shawn Levy
Writer(s): Justin Doble
Starring: Winona Ryder, David Harbour, Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobby Brown, Gaten Matarazzo, Caleb McLaughlin, Natalia Dyer, Charlie Heaton, Noah Schnapp, Joe Keery, Matthew Modine
Distributer: Netflix
Genre: Science Fiction, Horror, Supernatural
Rating: TV14+

After having pitched their show to most of the major cable networks and being rejected by all of them, the Duffer brothers started to doubt their future in television. It wasn’t until executive producer Shawn Levy came across the pitch script of the first episode in early 2015 that things started moving, and quickly. After purchasing the rights to the show, yet still keeping the Duffer Brothers in charge of writing, the team met with Netflix, who had just come off of a wave of hit original series (House of Cards, Orange is the New Black). It didn’t take long for Netflix to order the first season, and production began with a 2016 target. The show is now heading into its third season and has become a cultural phenomenon.

Content Guide

Spiritual Content: None.
Violence: A man is implied to have been eaten by a monster, some blood. One kid pushes another to the ground. Hopper interrogates with his fists now.
Language/Crude humor: According to Steve, his dad is a “grade A a**hole.” Bulls**t is also used.
Sexual Content: An intimate relationship is mentioned briefly.
Drug/alcohol use: Underage drinking is mentioned.
Other negative themes: Bullying is shown. Two kids mock someone who is presumed dead.
Positive Content: The show is about how far people go for those they love, and this episode steps this theme up a bit.

Recap

Opening in a masterfully eerie tone, the fourth episode of Stranger Things gives the impression of great things to come and then proceeds to deliver through its fifty-minute run. The police have arrived at the Byers’ with bad news, but it becomes clear immediately Joyce’s state of mind has made everyone a bit uncomfortable. It may have been the lights strewn throughout the house, or perhaps the letters painted on the wall, or Joyce’s insistence about her recent communications with Will through said lights. Something wasn’t sitting right with Hopper. Despite the sheriff’s attempts to comfort Joyce, even opening up about his grief after losing his daughter, the despondent mother refuses to listen. Joyce instead becomes more determined than ever to find her son, claiming the body found couldn’t possibly be Will. At this point Jonathan has had enough, feeling as though he’s unable to get through to his mother. He leaves the room in frustration. Not to be outdone, Joyce, too, shows her frustration by grabbing the family ax out of the shed.

At the Wheeler’s, Mike’s parents work out how to approach their grieving son. Thankfully, they decide to wait for Mike to come to them, which makes hiding Eleven (if what he is doing can be called hiding) easier while he yells at her in the basement his parents never visit. Mike’s yelling is cut short, however, when Eleven is able to channel Will from the walkie, making Mike a believer. The next morning, Mike sets another plan into motion. Using the walkie to communicate with Lucas and Dustin, Mike convinces the other two boys to stay home from school and meet up at his house in order to show them Eleven’s ability to listen to Will, proving he is alive.

The boys aren’t the only group trying to find who they believe to be Will. The Byers’, along with Hopper, meet up at the coroner’s to identify the body. While waiting by the front desk, Hopper discovers the regular coroner has been removed from the case by the government, raising some concerns for the sheriff. Joyce and Jonathan see the body for the first time, and though Jonathan leaves convinced, Joyce has a few tests for the body before she will accept it as her son. She doesn’t, and promptly leaves with an upset Jonathan following. Believing his mother is bordering on a serious grief-induced mental breakdown, Jonathan confronts Joyce in front of a group of onlookers about the need to come to terms with Will’s death. Joyce refuses Jonathan’s pleas and continues to talk about the lights set up to communicate with Will, which is the last thing Jonathan wants to hear. The two-part: Joyce to determine how to find her son, and Jonathan to begin planning his brother’s funeral alone.

The boys have finally gathered, and Eleven is working on connecting to Will again, but having trouble. The sounds Eleven is catching are indistinguishable from those one would hear when accidentally connecting to a baby monitor – a point Lucas brings up. Due to his need to convince his friends, a new plan is made. They need to get to the heathkit radio at school. The problem is Eleven is much too noticeable, and so, after a quick makeover using Nancy’s things, Eleven is ready for her first day of school.

Jumping to the government lab, Dr. Brenner and company (the name of his new band) have decided to send someone through the portal. A man named Shepard (not a commander) who has an unclear bond with Brenner is chosen. His desire to gain the doctor’s approval pushes him forward as he makes his way through the awkwardly animated door. All does not go well in this journey, as this is the last we ever see of Shepard, whose demise seems to impact Brenner in a way that is never explained, due to a relationship that is never explained. Not sure why they made it such a big deal. He’s just another Sandra with a hint of Barb mixed in.

At the high school, Nancy is learning about interviewing, though it’s not being taught by her teachers. After talking to Steve about what they should tell the police and what they should leave out so Steve won’t get into trouble, Nancy tells the abridged version of her story to the deputies, though she makes sure to tell them about the strange man she saw. Due to Nancy being a minor, Mrs. Wheeler is also present, and it’s clear she is not a fan of what she’s hearing. This prompts a fight between Nancy and her mother once they get home, and Nancy confirms her mother’s suspicions. Before anything else can be said, Nancy storms to her room. In her grief, Nancy takes out the torn photo of Barb she had gathered in the previous episode and notices something is off – an odd silhouette is standing behind her friend.

As the police investigate several different paths, the boys make their way into the school with Eleven for an investigation of their own. Unfortunately, the room they need to get into is locked, and as they try to come up with another way in, they are caught by Mr. Clarke. After a rapid-fire interaction between Clarke and Eleven, Mr. Clarke promises the group as much time with the radio as they want with the condition they attend the assembly in Will’s honor. Bursting into the assembly late, the group laments the superficiality of those pretending to care about Will, as well as becoming angry when their bullies mock their friend. Mike decides to address this by pushing the lead bully to the ground, and as the kid gets back up to attack Mike, Eleven steps in and freezes the bully in place, as well as making him empty his bladder on the spot. As the group leaves, Eleven does the smoothest nose wipe, backward strut off frame ever.

As the showdown at school is happening, Jonathan is at the funeral home setting everything up for Will’s service. It’s here Jonathan receives a surprise visit from Nancy. (Here. At the funeral home while planning a funeral. Nancy is not known for timing.) Jonathan takes this in stride and agrees to talk with her about the night Barb disappeared. Finding the silhouette in the picture strange, but unsure if it is an oddity from the camera or not, Jonathan asks more about the figure Nancy saw. When her description matches the one given by Joyce about the wall monster, Jonathan becomes more serious, and they agree to investigate together.

Hopper is working a case of his own, in his own way. After a short, yet revealing, conversation with the coroner, Hopper learns which officer discovered the body. Playing the role of a celebrating father at the bar, Hopper starts a conversation with the officer in question but takes the impromptu interrogation outside when the good cop act doesn’t work. Once Hopper’s fists learn of the instructions the officer was given concerning the body, the sheriff discovers he is being watched. Though his new fans escape, Hopper has a hunch as to where he can find them.

Back at the Byers’, Joyce frantically works to open communication with Will. As Joyce does this, the D&D troupe make their way into the radio room. As Eleven prepares herself to channel Will through the radio, she has a flashback to her time at the lab when Brenner worked with her to listen to people through her telepathy. Once she comes back to the present, she begins her work immediately, and as a result, seemingly unites the two worlds. The group hears Will and Joyce interact at the Byers’ house through the radio. Joyce and Will talk through a portal in the wall, like a window, but it’s slowly closing. Will tells his mother about the place he’s found himself in: Dark, empty, yet looks just like home. As Will explains as much as he can, the demogorgon is heard. Joyce promises to find him but tells Will he has to run and hide until she can get there. The boys hear everything, but before they can plan how to help their friend, Eleven nearly collapses due to using too much energy, and they are forced to carry her out.

At the high school, Jonathan and Nancy work on clearing up the photo mystery. Jonathan uses the available equipment to brighten and enlarge the strange figure in the image, and the two get a chance to talk as the new photo develops. Jonathan admits his photo shoot was a mistake and apologizes, explaining his belief that pictures reveal more about a person than they’re willing to say themselves, an idea which interests Nancy – though not as much as the developed photo. The new picture proves the existence of the creature. Jonathan expresses his belief in his mother’s story, and Nancy’s hope for her friend is renewed.

Meanwhile, Hopper makes his way back to the coroners on a mission to take a look at Will’s body himself. Allowing his fists to put in some more work, the sheriff gets to Will, and discovers, after having to convince himself he’s not crazy, it isn’t Will’s body, but a high-quality dummy. As this happens, Joyce takes an ax to her wall, hoping it will take her to wherever her son is. The portal is gone, and she’s left with a new entrance to her house. Not long after this new door is made, Joyce’s ex-husband arrives. The final shot of the episode is of an angry Hopper breaking into the government lab.

Review

This is the episode in which Stranger Things finds its stride. Strong writing, great performances, and an unsettling atmosphere created through both the score and smart camera work make episode four a standout. The first three episodes of the series carried just enough to keep me interested, but without a new spark, the show would have lost me. Every scene in this episode felt as though it had a new sense of purpose. In previous episodes, there were moments in which a scene, though still related to the story, felt as if it was simply there to add something for a character to do while only moving the plot along by an inch – an example being the library scene in episode three. There wasn’t an empty or wasted moment here. Each storyline began to move towards a common goal, and every scene carried with it a new weight which was missing before. The camera panning around the Byers’ home in the opening minutes of the episode captured this tone perfectly. It was tense, uncomfortable, and left you wondering if everyone’s sanity was simply hanging by a thread.

This episode also brought out some of the strongest performances from the cast so far. While I could go on about Winona Ryder, Millie Bobby Brown, and David Harbour, I think the unsung hero of the episode is actually Charlie Heaton. Though the episode was not particularly Jonathan-centric, the eldest brother certainly went for an emotional ride, and Heaton kept up quite well with some impressive range. A highly emotional and public fight between Joyce and Jonathan showed how the pair of performers challenged one another to up their game in the scene, and it worked. This wasn’t the only fight which showed off some excellent casting. Natalia Dyer and Cara Buono have a shouting match of their own in a powerful scene between a disconnected mother and daughter. Finally, it would be wrong of me not to include the young cast in this. The scene in the radio room when the group listens in on a heartbreaking conversation between Will and Joyce is done incredibly well on all levels.

In terms of plot movement, I’m not sure where to begin. Each character had plenty to do, and everyone took several steps forward. Hopper’s rogue investigation gave the audience a great cliffhanger, though most of his investigating was done by his fists. The sheriff’s entry into the lab is made even more gripping due to the activities currently taking place inside. The promise of a Nancy-Jonathan team up as they look into the demogorgon makes it difficult to stop from binging the rest of the season in one sitting. On the note of Jonathan and Nancy, it was nice to see Jonathan admit his photo shoot was a mistake. He’s growing. Learning more about Eleven’s powers and how she was taught them is becoming more intriguing, and her implementations of said powers is also becoming more entertaining as she gets creative at school. It was also heartwarming to see Eleven get the opportunity to feel like a normal girl for the first time in her life. The reactions both by the boys and Eleven when her new look is revealed is a great moment.

Everything has come together for Stranger Things in its fourth episode. With the writing staff showing off what all the build-up has been leading to, the camera work portraying the unsettling tone with purposeful movements, and a strong cast completely settled into their characters, this show is dangerous…you can easily lose yourself to the desire to binge watch the entire thing. 

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