Wow. Episode 4 of Stranger Things 4 is a real knock-it-out-of-the-park showstopper of an episode. Not just the best of this season, but one of the best of any Stranger Things episode and one of the finest hour and seventeen minutes of television I’ve seen in a long time.
Note: Read this post while listening to Kate Bush’s ‘Running Up That Hill’ for maximum effect.
Alright, let’s recap this sucker.
Before we get to all the juicy awesomeness that takes place with the Hawkins gang—and trust me, the awesomeness is so juicy this episode!—we’ll head to California where the boys have been separated from the superhero.
Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) has been taken by Dr. Owens (Paul Reiser) to a secret location to try to regain her powers—a choice she made willingly last week after Owens took her from the police van and explained how dire the situation was.
Back at the Byers residence, Owens’ agents give a briefing to the boys, letting them know that Eleven has been taken to get her powers back and that the less they know the better. Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) will no longer be in charge while his mother is away. Now, two bodyguards will rule the roost—preventing any incoming or outgoing calls and keeping a close eye on the boys due to “other factions in the government”—aka Lt. Colonel Sullivan (Sherman Augustus)—who are after Eleven.
Mike (Finn Wolfhard) and Will (Noah Schnapp) are back at the Byers residence and finally have the heart-to-heart we’ve been waiting for. Mike apologizes for how he’s been acting, and reassures Will that it’s not his fault. He tells him that since Will has been gone, it just hasn’t been the same in Hawkins, and that he’s focused too much on his worry over Eleven on not enough on their friendship, all of which brings tears to Will’s eyes.
Mike wants them to be a team again—a team of best friends. Will smiles, and as they pack up to sneak off with Argyle (Eduardo Franco) he grabs the rolled up painting he didn’t show Mike before and stuffs it in his bag. I still can’t tell if Will has a crush on Mike or if he’s just a sensitive kid who really does care this deeply about their platonic friendship. Either is completely plausible, though it seems clear that if it was a crush the feelings would not be reciprocated.
One thing they all seem to agree on is that they need to go find Eleven regardless of what Owens and his minions think so they hatch a plot to have Argyle deliver them pizza and secret them away in his van. The bodyguards—Agent Harmon (Ira Amyx) and Agent Wallace (Kendrick Cross)—fall for it and call in the order. (Argyle’s pineapple pizza pitch on the other end of the line is classic). Soon after, the doorbell rings and Agent Wallace goes to get the pizza.
Only, it’s not the pizza. It’s a uniformed soldier who shoots Wallace in the stomach. Everyone inside freezes except for Agent Harmon who springs into action. Yes, these guys looked like a couple of couch potatoes a moment earlier, but this guy proves that looks can be deceiving and offers up one of the most badass shootout scenes in recent memory.
The boys scramble, grabbing their bags and running downstairs only to find soldiers coming in the back. Harmon shoots one of the soldiers before pelting the invaders with cover fire all while directing the boys where to go. He takes down another soldier and then another, all with his handgun against automatic rifles. Shoot, direct, reload, fire again. Agent Harmon? More like Agent John Wick!
He’s shot, however, just as Argyle pulls up with the van and boys hustle him out to the street, pile into the van and scream at Argyle to drive. Argyle is a bit slow on the uptake (though can you blame him?) but eventually puts pedal to the metal and squeals out of dodge.
Yuri Gonna Love This One
In Russia, Hopper (David Harbour) finally makes his daring escape from the Soviet prison. After breaking his sledgehammer, he approaches a guard with the broken shaft and then follows the guard to a nearby toolshed. When the guard opens the door, Hopper pushes him inside and attacks him. He quickly starts removing the chains from his mangled feet, but the nosy prison guard who’s been eyeing him and Enzo (Tom Wlashiha) over the past couple of episodes finds him.
Hopper and the guard fight but the guard alerts his comrades when he fires his gun. The other guards come running but Hopper makes it out of the roof and a gas cannister explodes, sending the guards running. Hopper hops on a snowmobile and zips off to safety in what is essentially the snowmobile chase scene in the final bit of Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 2’s Cliffhanger mission.
Hopper makes it to the church Enzo told him about where he finds crates full of peanut butter. He opens one, dips his fingers in like Ted Lasso, and tastes American food for the first time in months. It makes him weep. He clambers into a nearby bed to get warm and we feel a sense of great relief—but only for a moment.
In Alaska, Joyce (Winona Ryder) and Murray (Brett Gelman) have arrived at Yuri’s hangar where they meet the jovial Russian prankster for the first time. Yuri (Nikola Djuricko) likes to joke at everyone’s expense, telling them at first that Yuri was killed recently by polar bears. He’s a jester as much as he is a smuggler, though it turns out this is all part of his act. He counts the money, buying time as Murray and Joyce sip on his coffee—which he drugged.
It turns out that Yuri has sold his partner, and the Americans, out in order to get rich quicker. What’s worth more than $40,000 USD? Keeping that money and turning over Hopper and Enzo to the warden—and Joyce and Murray to the KGB. Joyce falls to the ground, drugged and woozy, and Russian soldiers burst into the church where Hopper is hiding. Enzo takes a call at the prison where Yuri explains his betrayal. “What have you done!?” Enzo shouts as guards race toward him to make the arrest.
Damnit, Yuri. Not cool, man.
Victor Creel, I Presume
Back in Hawkins, Nancy (Natalie Dyer) and Robin (Maya Hawke) head to Pennhurst Asylum to meet with Victor Creel (played by Friday the 13th’s infamous Freddy actor, Robert Englund). First they have to convince the asylum’s director, Dr. Hatch (Ed Amatrudo) to let them see the maximum security prisoner.
They pose as college students Ruth and Rose, psychology aces with 3.9 GPAs and a thesis all about Victor.
Dr. Hatch is not convinced, telling them that they should have filed a visitor’s application months ago and that if they file one now they maybe, just maybe, have a chance to see him in a few months. Nancy says their thesis is due next month and Hatch snaps back, “Then you’re too late.”
Robin isn’t ready for defeat. She gets angry. She fibs, telling Hatch that they filed their application months ago and were denied, so they filed another one and were denied, and that she put on these ridiculous clothes just to come in here and get an audience with Creel by appealing to Hatch directly. She spins a good yarn, talking about how when she first heard of the murders she wasn’t horrified, she was intrigued. That it was that story that made her want to be just like Dr. Hatch and study these terrible—but fascinating—twisted minds.
Flattery works and Hatch allows them a brief meeting with Creel as part of a tour of Pennhurst. But his heckles come back up when they ask if they can talk with Creel in private. Their excuses are flimsy and Robin accidentally botches the name of their professor. Hatch allows them the ten minutes alone saying he has urgent business to attend to—which, in reality, is him just doing a background check on “Ruth” and “Rose” who he now suddenly finds deeply suspect.
Still, they get their audience with Victor and he tells them the story of his family’s horrific demise.
After inheriting some money from a relative, Victor purchases a lovely manor house and moves his family there. His daughter says it seems just like a fairy tale house, but his son seems unsettled.
Soon, things start going bad. “We had just one month of peace in that house,” Victor tells them. Then they started finding mutilated animals. Lights flickered in unusual ways. Waking nightmares haunted them: Spiders pouring forth out of bathtub drains and the like. They told him it was nothing, just a wildcat and bad dreams but he knew differently. The house wasn’t just haunted, it was possessed by a demon.
Then, one night at dinner, the radio flickered on by itself and the haunting melody of Ella Fitzgerald singing ‘Dream A Little Dream’ filled their dining room. Moments later, the first horrific killing. Victor’s wife was thrust into the air, her limbs snapped, her eyes gouged inward, the same as Chrissy and Fred.
Victor raced to get his children out of the house but was trapped in a vision instead—a vision of his dark secret, his old shame. A bombed out building in WWII that Victor had shelled thinking it housed German soldiers—a slaughtered family, a burning bassinet. When the vision faded it was too late for Victor’s children. Victor was taken to Pennhurst where he used a razer to gouge out his own eyes.
Victor survived thanks to the voice of an angel: Ella Fitzgerald’s lilting tune worked like a lure, guiding him back to the real world and saving his life. Later, this detail comes back to save the day. Dr. Hatch told Robin and Nancy that music can have a therapeutic effect on patients, acting as an anchor of sorts, binding broken minds to reality. This, plus Victor’s survival, are powerful clues that end up saving Max’s life.
Dr. Hatch returns and informs the girls that he’s called the police after discovering their deception. They hightail it out of there, making a break for the car, and drive off just in time to receive an important incoming transmission on the radio from none other than Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) who has a code red on his hands . . . .
Tick Tock, Maxine
The meat of this meaty episode is all about is all about Max (Sadie Sink) and her desperate fight for survival as Vecna comes in for the kill. We learned last week that she’s his next victim after she entered a vision in which she saw a grandfather clock and heard its ominous chimes—just like Chrissy and Fred before her.
Max writes letters to her friends and family, handing them out to Dustin, Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) and Steve (Joe Keery). Steven then drives her to her house where she leaves letters for her family before spotting her mom hanging laundry outside—which is weird, because her mom ought to be at work.
She goes out and talks with her, telling her about the letter which her mom finds strange. Max explains that it’s just a precaution with all the murders. “What if something happens to me?” she says, knowing full well that she’s about to die. They embrace and then things go sideways.
The sky darkens. Her mother’s grip tightens and her voice changes. “Nothing will happen to you,” she says moments before, but then: “Nothing that you don’t deserve!” The vision is terrifying and when it breaks, Max falls to the ground breathing heavily, clearly shaken. She heads back to the car and tells Steve to drive her to the cemetery, something he’s understandably reluctant to do given the circumstances.
But Max is convincing and they drive her to Billy’s grave, where she sits and read him the letter that this episode—Dear Billy—is named after. What follows is probably Sadie Sink’s best performance in Stranger Things so far, a deeply moving letter to her dead step-brother imagining what might have been. Maybe they could have become friends, she says, wiping tears from her cheek. Maybe like a real brother and sister. She hasn’t been able to feel happy and normal since Billy died and she signs off, ‘Your shitty little sister, Max’ which illustrates her own feelings of self-loathing and shame, even if she’s clearly anything but.
Naturally, the emotional poignancy of the scene is just a doorway into Vecna’s curse. Once again, the sky darkens but this time, Billy (Dacre Montgomery) appears. He taunts her, twisting what she’s written, throwing it in her face. He claims that a part of her was happy and relieved when he died, which is why she feels such shame and why she hides from her friends.
Billy transforms into Vecna and Max bolts, racing through a twisted version of the graveyard before spying up ahead a hypnotizing red fog. She approaches it warily. Within, she finds what appear to be broken pieces of the Creel manor. We see the distinct stained glass door window, the twisting staircase. And we see Chrissy and Fred—or their corpses anyways—trapped in tangled black vines. Vecna finds her there and seems surprised. “What are you doing here?” he asks, as if she’s stumbled on something private—perhaps dangerously private.
With the flick of his fingers, vines wrap around her, pinning her to a pillar and then wrapping around her neck, squeezing.
Back in the Rightside Up, the boys watch what appears to be Max just sitting by the grave. Steve is nervous, though. “I’m calling it,” he says, and good thing. He finds her, eyes rolled into the back of her head, in the same trance Chrissy was in when Eddie (Joseph Quinn) found her—moments before she died.
The boys spring to action and Dustin gets on the walkie-talkie—but nobody answers. “Nancy, Robin, we have a code red!” he shouts as Vecna strangles the life from Max.
When they finally do answer they tell Dustin about their music revelation. He grabs the Walkman and a handful of tapes and dashes up to the grave. Lucas asks what’s going on but he tells them it’s too much to explain—just find her favorite song. They scramble through the tapes and finally find Kate Bush, the real hero of this episode.
In the Upside Down, a rift opens and Max glimpses herself at the grave with Steve, Dustin and Lucas around her. As the music plays she sees visions of her friends. Laughing and flirting with Lucas. Joking around with Mike. Getting ice cream with Eleven. All these fun memories to counter the shame and guilt she feels over Billy, reminders that she is worthy of love and has something to live for.
Vecna says something about ending her suffering and she replies, “You’re not even here,” before using a vine to slash at his neck. The attack releases her and she runs, Running Up That Hill playing around her as Vecna hurls boulders and debris at her. She stumbles and falls but gets back up again (somebody should make an edit of this scene using ‘Tubthumping’ by Chumbawamba just for fun) and finally bursts back out of the deadly hallucination and into the real world.
Her floating body collapses back to earth where Lucas grabs her and holds her tight. Everyone is breathing heavily and she says, breathlessly, “I’m still here.”
This was, to put it simply, one of the most outstanding episodes of Stranger Things period. Throughout Seasons 2 and 3 I enjoyed the show but kept thinking “Nothing compares to Season 1.” Well Season 4 changes all of that, and ‘Dear Billy’ is the best of the season so far, a true television masterpiece.
I’ve watched some excellent shows in 2022 and this season of Stranger Things is right at the top of my favorites list, which I wasn’t expecting if we’re being honest. Seasons 2 and 3 were good but made me think that the Duffer Brothers were more of a one-hit wonder with Season 1. I was wrong. Along with Yellowjackets, this is some of the best TV of the year.
Sadie Sink deserves special mention here as well. Her performance all season long has been top-notch and she really brings it in ‘Dear Billy’ proving that she’s one of the finest actors on this show. Bravo!
And one more special callout to Agent Harmon. I feel like he and Hopper would have been good buddies if they’d ever had the chance. Two tough dudes who will happily put their lives on the line to protect those in their care, and who can rock the mustache and the dad bod. (We’ll talk more about Agent Wallace soon enough).
It’s remarkable that each of these long episodes feels so tight with almost no filler at all. The moments that are less plot-crucial tend to be comic relief rather than filler, and it’s all just so well put together that I’m never bored or antsy while watching.
I’ll be reviewing one episode of Stranger Things 4 every day this week here on this blog, so be sure to follow me here on this blog (sign up to receive email updates for my posts, it’s free and helps me out!) and on Twitter or Facebook to stay up to speed on each recap/review.
Next up, The Nina Project!
Read my previous Season 4 reviews at the links below:
- Episode 3 ‘The Superhero and the Monster’ recap and review
- Episode 2 ‘Vecna’s Curse’ recap and review
- Episode 1 ‘The Hellfire Club’ recap and review
Read my other Stranger Things articles:
- Stranger Things 4 works so well because of what it takes away
- Stranger Things Seasons 1 – 3 recap before you watch Season 4
Thanks for reading!