Created by The Duffer Brothers
Release Date: 27th May 2022
There is always something magnificent when watching a television series deliver an episode you know it’s going to be remembered for. In an era of social media when pop culture seemingly has to hit those iconic moments more than ever in order to trend or go viral, there is something reassuring in watching a series not only hit a beat you know audiences will be enthusiastic about but also doing so in an episode that represents everything within it working at its very best.
Dear Billy will undoubtedly be that episode. Even before it gets to that now-iconic moment and its powerhouse use of Running up that Hill (Deal with God) by Kate Bush, the episode is already shaping up to be amongst the finest episodes of the series, featuring another characteristically brilliant performance from Sadie Sink as Max and an escalation of the season’s core stories and themes, not to mention a sense of terror in relation to the horror component which becomes increasingly darker and terrifying than ever before.
It comes in the middle of a season that sees Stranger Things return to our television screens bigger than ever. Three years since the third season, a delay caused by the pandemic, The Duffer Brothers’ iconic and popular series in its fourth season approaches the story and the characters with a “go big or go home” approach, and yet home (in this case Hawkins) is one of many locations the season is situating itself, those familiar surroundings being somewhere we constantly return to but which is now part of a bigger narrative.
After three years of small-town mysteries against an epic fantasy horror backdrop, everything about this fourth season sees the epic flavour which has always existed on the periphery of the series’ foundations regarding parallel dimensions and demonic monsters explode open, the storytelling becoming more expansive than ever. We’re off to Russia with Joyce and Murray to save Hopper, half of the cast are in California, and the other half are still in Hawkins.
The antagonist this year is a more singular entity with humanistic characteristics and a more pointed threat than the Lovecraftian monsters of previous stories, and by the time we get to the finale of this half of the season, those motivations and backstory for what is dubbed Vecna by Dustin are revealed in what amounts to some of the most spectacular television of the year so far.
For some this may come across as bloated, a feeling made even more so by episodes that all run for well over an hour, the shortest coming in at an hour and three minutes, the longest at an hour and thirty-eight, a drop in the ocean compared to the two and a half hour finale that awaits us in July.
Yet, none of this ever feels bloated or baggy-the episodes have pace and verve to burn, never for one-second feeling as if they are dragging their feet. Some might scoff at the more comedic vibe of the Joyce and Murray storyline, but Winona Ryder and Brett Gelman bring some welcome levity to a season that features sequences of dead children and some horrifyingly portrayed bullying involving Eleven which is made even more distressing to watch by a fully committed performance by Mille Bobby Brown.
There is no risk of boredom or ever having your attention lost as characters we care for are placed in danger, hurt or must risk it all to save the day. By this stage of the series, the cast is playing their roles to perfection, finding nuances in the smallest details of their characters, and carrying the story and the audience along with humour, charm and compassion.
As far as the writing goes, this is very much placing itself into the wheelhouse of a grandiose horror epic. Like Stephen King’s IT, the writers take the coming of age story with horror overtones and place it into an epic sphere, as if HG Lovecraft decided to write Stand by Me. Stranger Things being what it is, there are overtures made to the pop culture of the era, and where previous seasons had that Spielbergian wonder to it, that lighter fantasy touch has dissipated (naturally I might add) in favour of a monster straight out of A Nightmare on Elm Street, which not only gets namechecked brilliantly in the dialogue but which also sees Robert Englund himself being so very memorable in an important guest role.
The death by dreamscape idea allows the series to have all sorts of dark, nightmarish visuals and ideas, while Vecna is very much cut from the Krueger mould visually but never for one second ever becomes the wise-cracking character that Krueger did in the later Elm Street films. Any human physiology is long gone, the motivations are murkier and complex and the persona is pitch black in its vindictiveness and desire to kill. That previous monsters of the series have been entities more than characters allows Vecna to stand out from the crowd here, and before you know it the final episode of this volume goes and humanises him on a very dark playing field, one connected to a previously unseen part of Eleven’s backstory.
In what is a fantastic season, the final twenty minutes of this volume’s final episode goes and delivers a cavalcade of information and revelation. Yes, it’s a monologue delivered by the season’s villain, but it holds you in the palm of its hand, grabs your attention and like all great television shows when the credits smash cut to black, it leaves you agonisingly frustrated that you have to wait, but excited that there is still more to come.