I have to give credit to the Duffer Brothers: when they commit to an idea, they don’t half-ass it. Whether it’s plumbing the depths of horror or pulling on our heartstrings, Stranger Things 4 manages to evoke powerful emotions with deft ease. The fourth episode, titled “Dear Billy”, deals with impending death, how we face it, and the choice to live with the pain we carry.
Spoilers ahead, so don’t read if you haven’t watched “Dear Billy”, the fourth episode of Stranger Things 4.
Let’s get the Hopper subplot out of the way first so I can get to the meat of this episode. Hopper manages to make his escape in spectacular fashion, killing a number of Soviet guards in the process, something Antonov the guard figured Hopper had a 100 to 1 odds against successfully pulling off. Unfortunately for Hopper, Murray, Antonov, and Joyce, Yuri the smuggler sold them out. It was far too early in the story for Hopper to make his grand escape from Russia and you just knew there had to be some kind of double-cross coming in this arc. My money was on Antonov being the one to pull the double-cross but Yuri the smuggler being the one who pulls the proverbial trigger makes sense (smuggler characters like Yuri are not regularly known for strong moral fiber). I wouldn’t hold out much hope for Murray to make it to the end of the season, to be honest. Out of all of the characters in this plotline, Murray’s the one that has the least amount of plot armor.
The other major plotline involves Will, Mike, and Jonathan being brought up to speed on Eleven’s decision to regain her powers. They are placed under the supervision of a pair of agents but quickly devise a means of escaping, using Jonathan’s stoner friend Argyle as their ride. I have to say, Argyle is a fun character. His little moments throughout the first three episodes bring some light-hearted laughs, which you need in this kind of story. But just as the boys are about to make good on their escape, a squad of soldiers (most likely sent by Lt. Col. Sullivan) attack, killing one of the agents sent to protect the boys and injuring the other. The group barely manages to make it out in one piece but with the Army looking for them, who knows how long they’ll be free.
Which brings me back to the Hawkins portion of the storyline, which is again split between two groups: Nancy and Robin (who is forced to wear stereotypical women’s clothing, much to her consternation) visiting Victor Creel in the Pennhurst Mental Hospital; and Steve, Max, Lucas, and Dustin trying like hell to find a way to save Max from Vecna.
Nancy and Robin’s misadventure in the mental hospital is quite the bone-chilling tale. Robert Englund, the man who helped define 1980s horror as Freddy Krueger, portrays Victor Creel and his story can’t help but move you. A World War II veteran who came into some money, Victor, his wife Victoria, and his two children Alice and Henry move into a massive house in Hawkins, ready to live the American Dream. Within a month, Victor’s world turns into a nightmare as unexplained phenomena begin occurring. It starts with small animals being found dead and mutilated around the house. Then everyone starts experiencing vivid nightmares, including one that makes my skin crawl as an arachnophobe. Victor himself sees visions of his time in World War II when he accidentally bombed a house with noncombatants inside, including an infant. When Victor returns from that vision, his wife and daughter are dead and his son is in a coma (and dies a week later). With no way to prove he didn’t kill his family, Victor decides to gouge out his own eyes to kill himself but he’s saved and institutionalized.
But there is one bright spot that comes out of this sorrowful tale. When Victor was experiencing the vision of his greatest mistake in World War II, he hears Ella Fitzgerald on the radio and it is able to bring him back to reality. This little tidbit comes in handy after Robin and Nancy are able to escape the mental hospital around the same time that Max is under the thrall of Vecna.
I saved the best part for last because this really is Max’s episode. One of my biggest complaints from Stranger Things 2 is that Sadie Sink didn’t get much to do as the newest member of the cast. The Duffer Brothers fixed this in Stranger Things 3 by pairing Max and Eleven together, letting the two young girls in the main cast bond and become close friends. In “Dear Billy”, Max is faced with a literal ticking clock as Vecna has targeted her. Max spends much of the episode stuck in place both emotionally and mentally, with Sadie Sink absolutely killing it in her role. There’s a part of Max that desperately wants to reach out to her friends, especially Lucas, but she is simply unwilling to take that step, making her easy prey for Vecna to feed on her survivor’s guilt. While Billy Hargrave was no angel by any stretch, his final moments were spent protecting his little sister and Eleven.
Max has never really forgiven herself for Billy’s sacrifice and that is most keenly shown during the final scenes at Billy’s grave. Throughout the episode, Max is subjected to traumatizing imagery meant to illicit a stronger fear response from her. Vecna appears to be using her fear and depression as a conduit to enter Max’s mind. However, as the final confrontation between Max and Vecna occurs, Max is able to find herself within the Upside Down, or at least a mental landscape resembling the Upside Down. We see what happened to the most recent victims of Vecna’s machinations: each of them is bound to pillars with more of the vine-like tendrils protruding from their bodies. It’s a truly sickening sight.
But there’s a bright spot that occurs once Dustin receives the message about music from Nancy and Robin. The boys manage to find Max’s favorite cassette tape, put it in her Walkman, and put the headphones on her head before Max is overtaken by Vecna. This opens a window in the mental hellscape that Vecna has constructed. Focusing on the music allows Max to remember all of the fun times she had with the Party: shopping with Eleven, getting pictures together with her in crazy outfits, laughing with the boys, kissing Lucas and the Snow Ball dance. Those happy moments give her the strength to fight back, eventually freeing herself. Not to be outdone, Vecna begins hurling objects in the path of Max as she races toward the portal back to the real world. In the closing moments, Max is able to make it back, where Lucas immediately cradles her in his arms. There’s a moment of profound relief on all of their faces as they sit with Max. Regardless of all other circumstances, the Party is there for each other in all things.
I’ve mentioned in previous reviews that I’m someone who lives with depression. It’s an insidious mental disorder, particularly because it often drives a person to isolate themselves from the ones they love. This isolation only increases the feelings of loss and hopelessness. Sadie Sink managed to bring that to the screen without saying the words. This episode was as much about saving Max as it was about Max saving herself, of her letting go of the pain she’s been holding on to over Billy’s death and remembering that the people around her are there for her no matter what. I will give a lot of credit to the Duffer Brothers for putting this episode together. This is the kind of message people like me need from time to time: a reminder that even in the darkest moments, we are not alone.
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