Warning! Spoilers ahead for Stranger Things season 4, episode 4
Back in 2016, Netflix hit gold with a sci-fi series that harnessed a winning formula. Stranger Things tapped into the public thirst for nostalgia with its gleefully '80s setting — mullets and tight denim in simpler, pre-technology times where everyone wasn’t glued to their screens — then added supernatural goings-on in a sleepy Midwest town that wouldn’t be amiss in a Stephen King novel. And then, of course, there was its cast: a stone-cold pack of weirdos that comprised goofy pre-teens, outsiders and a near-mute telekinetic child, in whom we snatched glimpses of our former awkward, gangly selves. Its latest season — darker, more gruesome and psychologically heavier than ever before — asks what happens to the toothy grins and fun-loving spark when innocence is lost and the demons win? A very apt question for today, where every day feels like the beginning of the end of the world.
Turns out that while the gang have been hitting puberty, the Upside Down — the shadowy underworld with a portal in Hawkins — has been cooking up a formidable beast that makes the show’s previous monsters look like mice: Vecna. This sentient humanoid with sprawling tentacles hunts out the town’s most vulnerable high schoolers and after periods of tormenting them — headaches, nosebleeds, visions of their most scarring memories — destroys them in the most brutal way possible. The students enter a trance, which no one is able to snap them out of, and in their minds Vecna approaches. In the real world, what appears to onlookers like an invisible force breaks their bones and jaws, gouging their eyes out.
Monsters aside, we see that the community of Hawkins and the gang — Mike, Eleven, Will, Dustin, Max, Steve, Nancy and Jonathan — have not bounced back so well after the violence and trauma of the last few seasons. They have grown up, some have moved away and found new cliques, and in some we see the accumulation of all the trauma and pain. Max in particular has retreated into herself. Since the death of her brother Billy in the season three finale, her father has abandoned them, her mother has turned to drink and they have moved into a trailer park to deal with overwhelming financial insecurity. Max has recurring nightmares about her brother's death in which she replays his final moments, his chest cavity being ripped open. Come to think of it, she’s been having nosebleeds and headaches, too.
She is an obvious victim for Vecna, who preys on the students' worst memories and trauma. Previous victims include a girl who is tormented daily by her scathingly overcritical mother, another who often turns up to basketball practice with a black eye and another who is haunted by memories of accidentally killing a kid in a car accident when he was younger. Arguably the monster is an allegory of depression and teen suicide — the violence representing what happens when you are torn apart by your demons.
But Max has something that the other victims do not: the aforementioned pack of weirdos, friends who love her, see her and draw in when she pulls away. Episode 4, "Dear Billy" — arguably the most epic in the show’s history — starts with Max coming to terms with the likelihood that she will be the beast’s next victim and will succumb to his torture in the next 24 hours or so. She writes individual farewell letters to each of the gang and awaits her fate.
Her final letter is to her deceased brother, Billy. She reads it to him sitting at his graveside while her friends wait in the car to give her privacy. All of a sudden, her mind is pulled into the Upside Down — a Dalí-esque kingdom of hell — where the monster tightens his tentacles around her throat, ready to pull her apart. Physically, she’s unresponsive as her friends scream at her to try and break the spell. At a crucial moment they figure out that music can reach the far recesses of the mind, that a favourite song might be able to bring her back. So they slam the headphones on and the haunting vocals of Kate Bush’s "Running Up That Hill" blare into Max’s ears, pleading with her: "If I only could / I'd make a deal with God / And I'd get him to swap our places." Back in the Upside Down, Max hears the song faintly and a small window opens up in her consciousness through which she can see her friends screaming her name.
Suddenly, a montage flickers into her mind — laughing and trick-or-treating with her friends, dressing up and messing about, her first kiss with Lucas, happy memories — and she is able to break free, running for the window while literal hell crumbles around her in the most heart-stopping scene in the show’s history. She wakes up, alive and in the presence of her friends.
I watched the scene with tears brimming in my eyes. It’s a testimony to the restorative nature of friendship and community, of finding your people and letting them pull you back from the brink. There’s no doubt it will go down as one of the most unforgettable in the show’s history. While Max is saved, others are not so lucky, which speaks to the sad fact that not everyone is able, or has the resources, to defeat their demons. But if it says anything about the nature of human spirit, it's that it is resilient. Minds do break, tragedies happen and happiness is not a bank that will keep cashing cheques. But to have friends who are willing to force their way in during your darkest moments, that is surely a start.
Stranger Things season 4 is available to watch on Netflix