Fear and Panic – Review of “Stranger Things 4” Episode Five “The Nina Project”

Moral outrage is a good thing from time to time. Without it, we would become complacent. But behind many acts of moral outrage are two key emotions: Fear and Panic. Episode Five of Stranger Things 4, titled “The Nina Project”, dives into both of those two emotions and how we as people tend to deal with the fear and panic that the unknown causes in us.

Spoilers ahead, so don’t read if you haven’t watched Stranger Things 4, episode five “The Nina Project”.

This season of Stranger Things has been moving forward at a breakneck pace, despite the added length to the episodes. After the events of “Dear Billy”, we needed a bit of a break to explore these characters a bit more, starting with Hopper in Kamchatka. Much of Hopper’s backstory we learned over the course of the first three seasons: he was married and had a daughter, Sara, who passed away at a young age, leading to the dissolution of his marriage. In one of David Harbour’s best scenes in Stranger Things, Hopper lays out the fear that’s been eating away at him for years, ironically enough to Antonov, the prison guard who had tried to help Hopper escape.

Hopper reveals through his monologue that he was drafted into the Vietnam War and worked in the Agent Orange program, an herbicide used by the U.S. Government during the War as a biological weapon. Due to the lack of safety measures, Hopper and his fellow soldiers were exposed to the chemical residue. When Hopper and the rest returned from the War, all of them had problems starting families, with many resulting in stillbirths. It’s directly implied that Hopper’s exposure to Agent Orange is what led to the cancer that took his daughter’s life. But as Hopper reflects on his relationships with Eleven and Joyce, he comes to understand that he needed them in his life to bring him back into focus. It feels like the realization of a man who accepts the fear that has driven him to this point. As Antonov points out looking down at the gladiatorial pit where the Demogorgon is kept and fed prisoners, the pair are most likely going to die.

Joyce and Murray (particularly Murray) get their time to shine in this episode. When we saw Murray in his karate gi in the first episode, I thought it was a joke but Murray can kick some serious ass when he puts his mind to. Working together, Joyce and Murray are able to overpower Yuri but, as is the case with these kinds of circumstances, neither one of them knows how to fly, leading to them crashing in the Siberian wilderness.

The wounded agent who helped save Jonathan, Will, and Mike from Lt. Col. Sullivan’s soldiers dies from his wounds, leaving a pen for the boys. As we later discover, the pen holds a phone number which turns out to be a dial-up modem rather than an actual phone line. With this being 1986 in the show, the line is most likely connected to the ARPANET, the precursor to the internet that connected universities and military bases together across America. Will and Mike hit on the idea of driving to Salt Lake City, UT to visit Suzie, Dustin’s long-distance girlfriend who is a nascent computer hacker. We’ve already seen Suzie earlier in the season when she has a WarGames moment by fixing Dustin’s grades via the computer, so I’m interested to see what Suzie manages to connect the group to with this modem number.

Back in Hawkins, the fear and panic of the community is reaching a crescendo. During Chrissy Cunningham’s funeral, the fear of Hawkins is on full display, with Chrissy’s mother invoking the idea of Satanic cults and laying the blame on Eddie Munson for her daughter’s death. Jason Carver and the basketball team, including Patrick (who in the last episode we saw is the next victim of Vecna), find old photos of Lucas and the Party, making the connection between them. They also discover the home of Reefer Rick and head out there. Eddie is still hiding in the boat house and tries to reach out to the rest of the Hawkins group, who are incommunicado for reasons I’ll get to in a minute. Eddie manages to escape momentarily but Jason and Patrick begin swimming after him, only for Vecna to claim Patrick as his next victim while Jason and Eddie watch.

When Stranger Things first dropped in 2016, with its focus on the 1980s and Dungeons and Dragons, I knew there was going to be a point where the Duffer Brothers brought the Satanic Panic into the story. During the 1980s, there was a moral panic that Satanists were everywhere in America, preying on children through heavy metal music, Dungeons and Dragons, and horror movies. A large amount of the American population bought into this lie, so it as inevitable that it would appear in Stranger Things. Eddie Munson is the stand-in victim for the Satanic Panic, which focused on anyone who was perceived as different from the expected norms of society at that time. The Duffer Brothers and Kate Trefry (the writer of “The Nina Project”) manage to capture the Satanic Panic in way that brings to the stupidity of the idea to the forefront without making the people who believed in it appear as one-dimensional idiots.

The Hawkins Party (Max, Robin, Nancy, Steve, Dustin, and Lucas) make their way to the Creel House (which is evocative of the house on Niebolt Street from Stephen King’s It). When Steve finds a preserved black widow spider (and almost gets bitten by one), this confirmed a theory that I’ve been developing since the last episode: Vecna is Victor Creel’s son Henry. As the Party explores the house, they begin to see lights flickering (similar to how lights would flicker when Will was stuck in the Upside Down during Stranger Things). The group converges on the attic, which flips over into the Upside Down version of the Creel House, where Vecna is initiating his attack against Patrick from the basketball team. To say that the entire sequence is creepy is an understatement.

Much like the last two episodes which firmly focused on a single character (while giving plenty of time for the other groups), we see Eleven at the Facility for Project Nina. The reveal that Dr. Brenner survived the events of Stranger Things was not a shock to me. There was some more mileage left out of that character (and the hints have been there since Stranger Things 2 that Brenner survived). The purpose of Project Nina is to place Eleven in a sensory deprivation tank and make her retrieve a lost memory (which is the subject of the opera Quand le bien-aimé reviendra by Nicholas Dalaryrac that Brenner explains during the course of the episode). This is where my suspicion of Henry Creel is solidified with the recurring character of the adult Orderly who keeps reappearing in Eleven’s flashbacks.

The first few minutes of the first episode for Stranger Things 4 showed a massacre at the Hawkins Lab, with the implication that Eleven was responsible for killing all of the other test subjects and several members of the staff. Instead, the implication now is that Henry Creel/The Orderly committed those murders and Eleven was the one that stopped him, casting Henry into the Upside Down, where he became Vecna. If my supposition is correct, then this would make Henry/Vecna the catalyst for much of the sorrow that has befallen Hawkins over the years, starting with the murder of his family and the breaking of the Gate into the Upside Down that would later allow the Mind Flayer to enter the real world.

While “The Nina Project” is not the most action-packed episode of Stranger Things 4, it is a welcome change of pace for the first part of the season. The groundwork has been laid for the final two episodes of this first party (the last two episodes of Stranger Things 4 will drop on July 1st, 2022). No one in our core group of characters is safe at this point, which is exactly where the characters need to be at this stage of the story.

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