The Road to Hell is Paved With Good Intentions – Review of “Stranger Things 4” Episode 8 “Papa”

The second half of Stranger Things 4 starts off with a bang with the episode, “Papa”. Everything is leading up to the final plan to kill Vecna/Henry/One and the stakes of the coming fight are laid out plainly that this is not a fight everyone expects to walk away from. In between the more action-packed moments of the episode, though, are heartfelt character beats that reaffirm why the Party have become as tight-knit as they are.

Spoilers ahead, so don’t read if you haven’t watched “Papa”, the eighth episode of Stranger Things 4.

Picking up where the previous episode left off, Nancy Wheeler is subjected to a form of mind rape at the hands of Vecna, who shows that he intends to use the gateways opened from killing his victims to completely break open the walls between the Upside Down and the real world. It’s clear from how we see Nancy later when she discusses this with the group that what she saw had a profound impact on her. The thing I love about Nancy Wheeler as a character (which is largely due to Natalia Dyer’s performance over the years) is that Nancy is a fighter, through and through. Rather than wilt away from the challenge, Nancy takes charge, getting everyone organized in the fight against Vecna.

It is young Max Mayfield that hits on the way to capture Vecna’s attention, giving the others a chance to take down the monster. Since she still feels the connection Vecna placed on her, she’s going to use herself as bait to draw the monster’s attention, giving the others a chance to enter into the Upside Down and kill him. It’s a brave and foolish plan, but it’s the best chance they have, as Max later tells Lucas. Lucas, understandably so, doesn’t want to lose Max but putting someone else on the chopping block who doesn’t have the chance to fight back is a recipe for disaster.

The group steals a Winnebago (which is just a truly funny moment) and heads to a military surplus store for weapons they can use against Vecna. While there, we get two radically different moments with Nancy and Robin. Robin, seeing the girl in band that she secretly pines for at the surplus store, is heartbroken to discover she has a boyfriend, dashing any hope Robin had of coming out and being happy (although the longing looks the band girl gives in Robin’s direction might indicate otherwise). Nancy has to deal with Jason, the captain of the basketball team who has been hunting Eddie Munson throughout the season. In case it wasn’t glaringly obvious before now, Jason is a despicable character for many reasons. Credit to Nancy for staring the creep down but given that she’s faced down literal monsters, a frat boy with a vengeance boner is small potatoes by comparison.

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As the Party gets ready to take on Vecna, there are some cute, heartwarming scenes between the Hawkins crew. Eddie and Dustin have a fun moment while creating spiked shields out of garbage cans, showing off the brotherly affection the two share. Lucas and Erica reaffirm that for all the grief they give each other, they are still siblings and have each other’s backs. But it’s Robin and Steve who have the most serious conversation, with Robin guessing correctly that their attack on Vecna is going to be difficult and costly, with an almost certain guarantee that someone isn’t coming back from this adventure.

Meanwhile, in Russia, Hopper, Dmitri, Joyce, and Murray (along with Yuri the smuggler) discover something diabolical in the bowels of the prison Hopper has been in for the last several months. The assumption was that the Russians only had one fully grown Demogorgon. Instead, they have several Demogorgons, most of which have been dissected and kept in formaldehyde jars. The biggest shocker, though, is the large containment cell holding a large black cloud of smoke. You can see the horror dawning on Hopper’s face as he approaches it when he realizes the Russians have somehow managed to contain a piece of the Mind Flayer’s smoke body. I got chills watching that scene because that can only end badly for everyone if it manages to get out.

The Russian group manage to get out of the prison. With Yuri’s reluctant help, they arrive at a storage shed where Yuri claimed he would have a way to get them back to the States. Turns out, like all the other times Yuri has made a claim, he’s completely full of it, leading the group to a battered and barely functional helicopter that can’t possibly make the journey. It’s at this point Joyce hits on the idea of contacting Dr. Owens, hoping that the well-connected doctor has contacts in Russia that can get them out. Dmitri makes the call but given how poor the telecommunications in Russia are, it could hours before the call actually gets made. Dmitri also makes mention that phone calls to America are almost certainly going to be tapped by the KGB, so whatever Joyce and Hopper want to say had better be coded or all of them are going to be in deep trouble.

Back on the American side of things, Jonathan Byers, Argyle, Will Byers, and Mike Wheeler are still making their way to the coordinates for Project NINA. During the drive, Will and Mike have an honest heart-to-heart talk, something the two have been avoiding since Mike landed in California. Mike’s insecurity regarding his relationship with Eleven stems from the fact that El is a superhero (for all intents and purposes) whereas Mike is just a regular nerd. It takes Will showing Mike a painting he made of the Party fighting a three-headed dragon (with Mike as the leader) for Will to remind Mike that he cares about both him and Eleven and that Eleven needs Mike. However, it becomes abundantly clear that Will has much stronger feelings for Mike than he lets on, crying silently knowing that Mike doesn’t feel the same way he does. Jonathan watches silently from the driver seat, knowing that his younger brother can’t be open about how he feels. You can’t help but feel for Will Byers. The kid’s been through a lot over the years but this is probably the moment he feels the most broken.

Eleven, on the other hand, has her powers back, evidenced when she lifts the NINA capsule up using her telekinesis. Now that she has her powers back, Eleven is able to remote-view the Party in Hawkins (during the meeting Nancy has where the group devise their plan to kill Vecna). Spurred on by the knowledge of who Vecna is and just how dangerous he can be, Eleven attempts to leave, only for Brenner to try and stop her. In one of my favorite moments from Stranger Things 4, Eleven cuts her father figure down to size, reminding Brenner that every bad thing that has happened over the events of the series are due to Brenner’s inability to let go of Henry. Now that she has her memories back, Eleven is able to deduce that all of her remote-viewing sessions weren’t to spy on the Russians but to find Henry in the Upside Down, which lead to the formation of the first Gate and the killing spree of the Demogorgon.

Everything becomes a moot point, however, when Lt. Col. Sullivan arrives to kill Eleven. Without much difficulty at all, Sullivan’s troops are able to pacify the NINA outpost and kill most of the staff (capturing Dr. Owens in the process). Brenner tries to escape with Eleven, only to be shot repeatedly by a sniper in a helicopter that has taken up position over the base. Right as the sniper is about to take out Eleven, the boys arrive in the pizza van, distracting the sniper long enough for Eleven to get up and bring the helicopter down on the military vehicles in an awesome show of telekinetic power (especially considered she’s still feeling the effects of the drug Brenner used to stop her from leaving).

Mike, Will, Jonathan, and Argyle are reunited with Eleven, who is overjoyed to see both Mike and Will. Whatever bad blood was developing between Will and Eleven is water under the bridge given the events of the past few episodes. Eleven also gets a chance to speak with a dying Brenner, who tries to make himself out to be the loving father figure with his dying breath. Matthew Modine’s performance as Brenner on Stranger Things has been exemplary, largely because Brenner is such a thoroughly unlikeable bastard. Whatever redeeming qualities Brenner had are dwarfed by the fact that he made Henry’s life and Eleven’s life a living hell in the Hawkins Lab. The fact that Brenner still tries to play himself off as some kind of heroic characters speaks volumes about the inherent narcissism of the character.

Overall, I felt this was an effective set up episode to get the audience where it needs to be emotionally and mentally for the final episode. The story arc involving Brenner meeting a bloody end felt more than appropriate, given how much suffering that character has caused. The Duffer Brothers has laid out the final strokes of the story in such a way that there’s no guarantee everyone makes it out alive or whole, which is exactly how it should be for a conflict of this magnitude. Let’s hope the finale holds up considering how everything has been built to this point.

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