Pulling Back the Curtain – Review of “Stranger Things 4” Episode Seven “The Massacre at Hawkins Lab”

The finale for the first part of Stranger Things 4 ends with several revelations, none of them good for our heroes. Monsters are fought, freedom is earned for some, and we finally get the story behind the Big Bad of the season, Vecna. While I, like many people, would have preferred all nine episodes be dropped at once, for now, we’ll have to wait a few weeks for the concluding chapters of Stranger Things 4.

Spoilers ahead for Stranger Things 4, episode seven “The Massacre at Hawkins Lab”.

The sheer weight of Murray and Joyce’s collective courage should be enough for them to fall right through the earth and into the Upside Down. Somehow, Murray is able to convince the Soviet prison in Kamchatka that he is Yuri the smuggler and they are able to get into the prison. At the same time, Hopper, Antonov, and the other Russian prisoners are being prepared for their fight with the Demogorgon. Joyce and Murray are forced to watch as the slaughter begins, and it is very much a slaughter. Within less than a minute, the majority of the prisoners are killed and partially eaten by the Demogorgon. It’s only with the intervention of Joyce mashing buttons on a control console after Murray holds the Warden captive are Antonov and Hopper able to make good on their escape. The palpable joy on Hopper’s face when he sees Joyce is as real as it gets.

Back in Hawkins, Steve is saved by the arrival of Robin, Eddie, and Nancy. The quartet find themselves cut off from the gate into Lovers Lake by more of the Demobats, forcing them to go into hiding. We get some excellent character-building moments between the quartet, particularly between Steve and Eddie. As Eddie rightly points out, Nancy may say she’s not still interested in Steve but her immediate reaction was to dive in and save Steve. That is an act of devotion that goes far beyond friendship.

While in the Upside Down, the four teenagers travel to Nancy’s house to retrieve some guns she has stashed there, under the impression that the Upside Down is a mirror reflection of the real world. However, it’s here that we see our first big revelation: the Upside Down isn’t a full mirror of our world. Instead, it is a reflection of the real world from the date that Eleven first opened the original Gate and Will Byers went missing (the events of Stranger Things). We learn this when Nancy goes through the version of her room in the Upside Down but finds items that have long since been discarded. The moment of revelation occurs when she opens the diary and sees the date that Will Byers went missing. For me, this makes the true nature of the Upside Down even murkier, since the common assumption was that it was just an alternate dimension.

Nancy and the others are able to find a way to communicate with Dustin, Erica, Lucas, and Max back in the real world. It appears that light sources from the real world create a sort of phosphorescent dust in the Upside Down, which can be manipulated to interact with the light source in the real world. This is a fun little easter egg for the fans of the show and a way to explain how Will was able to communicate with Joyce during Stranger Things.

Dustin, Erica, and Lucas are able to also sus out what Vecna’s plan is, which I discussed in my last review. At each site of one of Vecna’s murders, he’s able to use the psychic connection to the victim to create a portal to the Upside Down. Dustin likens Vecna to the five-star general of the Mind Flayer (as a comparison to the Demogorgon being a foot soldier). I’m not sure I entirely buy that but it does make a certain amount of sense. Given what we discover at the end of the episode about Vecna, though, it’s entirely possible that as a powerful psychic and sociopath, Vecna is actually at odds with the Mind Flayer. It’ll be interesting to see if that idea is explored at any length in the final two episodes.

With this knowledge in hand, Dustin, Lucas, Erica, and Max escape the Wheeler house after directing the teenagers in the Upside Down to one of the murder sites (in this case, Eddie’s trailer). Dustin is able to pierce the gooey membrane of the gate, which opens onto the ceiling of the Upside Down version of the trailer. The cuts between the group and the alien perspective really works well in this sequence. Both Robin and Eddie manage to get through the open portal but just as Nancy thinks she’s about to get through, she finds herself in a mindscape of Vecna (who has been alerted to the presence of the teenagers by one of the Demobats). Vecna works his curse on Nancy, drawing on the lingering guilt Nancy feels over the death of her friend Barb back in Stranger Things.

But as Nancy explores the mindscape of Vecna that Max visited during the episode “Dear Billy”, we get to see the monster behind the curtain, which also coincides with the final flashback Eleven goes through at the Nina Project.

Henry Creel, aka the Orderly, aka One, is Vecna.

Henry Creel discovered his psychic abilities as a child but before that point, he was already a disturbed child. It’s been mentioned in several academic textbooks on serial killer pathology that quite a few serial killers fed their murderous impulses by killing small animals as children. Vecna fits that mold to a T. After killing his mother and sister and framing his father for the murders, Henry is “adopted” by Dr. Brenner. In an attempt to recreate the psychic abilities Henry possessed, Brenner started the Hawkins lab, making Henry 001, the first test subject. When Brenner figured out that he couldn’t control Henry, he implanted a microchip in the young boy that nullified his psychic abilities.

Through careful manipulation, Henry (as the Orderly) convinces Eleven to remove the chip from his neck. Once free of the constraints of the chip, Henry goes on to commit the Massacre of the Hawkins Lab, killing all of the test subject children except for Eleven. As we see Eleven’s memories of the event, we’re shown Henry’s memories in the mindscape of Vecna, filling in all the pieces of the puzzle. Henry’s narcissism and broken viewpoint are frighteningly real. Adding into the mix his telepathic and telekinetic powers and you have a recipe for a deeply disturbed and freakishly powerful individual.

When Eleven resists Henry’s overture that the two of them remake the world in his twisted image, the pair enter a psychic battle of wills, with Eleven coming up short. Once Eleven taps in to a happy memory (a genetic memory of seeing her mother’s face as Eleven is born and hearing her mother say “I love you” for the first time) is Eleven able to gain the strength to defeat Henry. But she doesn’t just defeat Henry. Instead, she casts him into the Upside Down, which at this point is just a hellish void filled with lightning and darkened landscapes. As Henry hurtles through this hellscape, he is struck repeatedly by lightning, burning away his flesh and clothes, until we jump cut to Vecna connected to his lair in the Upside Down version of the Creel House and see the 001 tattoo on his wrist.

This final episode of the first part of Stranger Things 4 is a good stopping point despite the fact that splitting off the last two episodes of the season was a clear decision by Netflix to artificially keep subscribers hooked. We’ve reached a resolution for quite a few of the storylines set up this season but there are still lingering questions left. What happens to Nancy in Vecna’s mindscape? Does Eleven fully regain her powers? Is Jonathan, Will, and Mike going to make it to the base in time to save Eleven from Lt. Col. Sullivan? Now that Eddie is back in the real world, what happens when the rest of Hawkins catches up to him and the Party?

The answers to those questions will hopefully be answered when the final two episodes of Stranger Things 4 drop on July 1st, 2022.

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