In this episode of Stranger Things: The kids enter High School, there’s a Satanic Panic, Joyce gets a package from Russia (with love?), and more!
Stranger Things Season 4 Chapter 1 begins with a quick recap of season 3 to get anybody up to speed after the long hiatus. It does a good job of showing the more serious moments of season 3 that ultimately led to season 4 starting off with the gang having gone separate ways and Hopper believed dead. In a cold open flashback to Hawkins National Laboratory, we see Doctor Brenner and numerous subjects undergoing the same testing that Eleven was shown to have gone through as a child. Doctor Brenner is testing one subject, Ten, on his ability to ascertain what he drew on a piece of paper using only his mind. After a correct guess, the doctor suggests something “more challenging” asking to find Doctor Ellis and subject “Six”. Six quickly finds them and reports on what they are doing but quickly begins to hyperventilate, saying there is blood everywhere and Six and Doctor Ellis are dead. Alarms begin sounding and Doctor Brenner runs to the door to see what is going on but it flies off its hinges at him and knocks him unconscious. After waking Doctor Brenner makes his way through the destroyed laboratory to the Rainbow Room and realizes Eleven caused all of this and asks her what has she done.
Admittedly, for a cold open it was pretty hot! We get another little peek into El’s past and what trauma came from the lab and get to delve a little deeper into the trauma that ensued from her time there. This is one of the things that I like about Stranger Things, it takes its time telling you the story it wants but spreads it out over time. This scene would have fit perfectly in season 1 but we got it as the opening to the final season and it felt perfectly in place compared to how the other 3 seasons have told their narratives.
The episode really begins showing El and the others entering High School and how adolescence changes them and slowly moves them down different paths. El is in Lenora Hills High School in Lenora California and is making a diorama of the cabin she lived in with Hopper while writing a letter to Mike telling him how she and her family have adapted to their new life. She goes on to say that Will is painting something he won’t show her, and she thinks “it is for a girl he likes”, and Johnathan has begun “smoking plants”, and that “it’s ok because they come from the Earth, but don’ tell Joyce”. The way El is using more “proper” grammar really made me laugh, as I feel that it was written in the same way as Data was in the first few seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation: the knowledge of being human IS there but the ability to effectively utilize it hasn’t been found by the character yet. This is no fault to the writers, or the character of El, in any way, I think it’s pulled off well in this episode and adds to the overall drama of the episode.
We see that Lucas has joined the basketball team, and the battle at the end of the previous season was released to the public as “The Starcourt Mall Fire” and that’s how Hopper and others in the town supposedly died. After the pep rally, Mike and Dustin realize the championship game is at the same time as the final session of the Dungeons and Dragons group they are in and try to convince Lucas to join them for the final battle, but Lucas declines saying he wants to be cooler and has to show his support to the basketball team. We then see Max is getting counseling at school to try to help with the loss of her brother but she isn’t being receptive to the help and lies to the counselor telling her she, and her mother, are doing better and she isn’t exhibiting any of the symptoms she previously was.
After her session, Max runs into a bathroom to take some medicine and overhears someone getting sick and has a quick back and forth asking if she’s is ok and needs anything. We see that it’s Chrissy, one of the cheerleaders from the pep rally inside the stall throwing up in the toilet. She hears the bathroom door opening and thinks it’s Max coming back and yells at her to leave. However, it’s her mom’s voice and whatever is outside the stall starts trying to force its way in screaming about Chrissy’s self-conscious weight issues. When it apparently leaves Chrissy exits the stall only to find nothing there, nor any trace of anything ever being there.
Mike and Dustin realize they have to talk to their Dungeon Master to try to move the date of the session to accommodate Lucas’ game schedule. They find Eddie in the cafeteria reading a Newsweek article about Dungeons and Dragons being satanic and requiring ritual sacrifices and how it turns young children evil. Mike and Dustin proceed to explain, as best they can, that Lucas can’t join, and that they can’t beat the final Boss without him so it would be in everyone’s best interest to just move the game. Eddie, being older and wiser, or possibly just more manipulative, sweet talks them into being “the future of the Hellfire Club” after he and his friends graduate and that they need to bring in a substitute to play in Lucas’ place. After searching the entire High School, Dustin realizes that he doesn’t need to limit the search and they recruit Lucas’ sister Erica to join their game.
While on a call, to sell encyclopedias, Joyce receives a large box in the mail and opens it to find a “creepy Russian doll” inside. Out of fear, Joyce calls Murray who tells her to inspect the doll closer to see if it has any surveillance devices attached to it. Inspecting it, she notices that it looks like it’s been cracked and then resealed at some point. Thinking it may contain a bomb Murray tells her to set up a rope and heavy object to drop on the doll to safely check the doll. After breaking it Joyce finds a note inside saying that Hopper is still alive.
We then see Chrissy leaving school and walking toward the woods and has another hallucination of a grandfather clock half embedded in a tree. When the clock chimes black widow spiders emerge out of the face terrifying Chrissy. The hallucination stops when Eddie, revealed to be a drug dealer, approaches Chrissy in the woods. Eddie tries to sell pot to Chrissy but, after cryptically asking if he knew what losing his mind felt like, asks for something stronger.
The championship game starts with Lucas on the bench looking for Max. At the same time, Eddie is running his final boss fight with Erica taking her brother’s place in the party. The Hawkins Tigers seem to be keeping pace and gaining ground against their opponent as does Erica and the DnD party. In the basketball game, one of the Tigers is intentionally injured and has to be removed from the game, letting Lucas get some play time and Vecna is revealed to be the final boss of the DnD Campaign. We get to see both teams strategizing on how best to proceed with Jason, the basketball Captain, telling his team, without much input from the other players, to give him the ball and let him handle it, while the DnD party gets everyone’s input and ultimately let the two characters who are alive and stand a chance give the final decision. Both teams move forward in their games and Jason misses his shot, and Dustin misses his attack roll on Vecna. On a rebound, Lucas throws a 3-point buzzer-beater to win the game and Erica manages to get a natural 20 on her roll, giving her a critical attack, defeating Vecna. We then see Lucas celebrating his win with the team but hearing his sister and other friends celebrating THEIRS he knows he misses them.
I really liked the dynamic of the basketball game running simultaneously with the DnD on-screen. At first glance most people wouldn’t associate the two things, however, they are functionally very similar. The dynamic of Jason just telling his team to basically give him the ball and get out of his way and being so arrogantly convinced that he will win juxtaposed against the DnD party actually getting everyone’s input, using the combined information to formulate a plan and then letting the leader execute said plan because they know it’s the overall best chance really sets up a lot of potential for Erica and Jason throughout the rest of the season and I hope that this potential plot thread isn’t overlooked.
Listening to the game on her radio, Max hears her dog barking for dinner outside. Entering the living room she puts out her sleeping mother’s cigarette and throws her empty beers away. While feeding her dog, she sees Eddie and Chrissy going into his trailer where we find that Chrissy is, indeed, buying “something stronger”. Eddie calls it “Special K”. When asked if it will kick in quickly, he explains that depends on how she takes it. Eddie goes searching around the trailer for it leaving Chrissy in the living room. She starts to have another hallucination after looking out of the window into the foggy night. In her hallucination, she is still in the trailer but Eddie is not answering her when she yells for him. She goes to the back room to find her mother sitting at a sewing machine, once again telling Chrissy about letting all of her clothes out for her, playing on her self-consciousness. Running away downstairs, she finds herself in her house and her father in a recliner trying to scream but his mouth has been sewn shut, muffling his screams. The same monster that was in the restroom with her is now in the house with her and coming downstairs calling her name. Chrissy runs through a dining room full of flies and rotting food only to find the door is barred and nailed shut, trapping her. Cornering her, the monster tells her to stop crying and that it’s time for her suffering to end. In the real world, after finding the Special K, Eddie sees Chrissy standing in the living room, staring lifelessly at nothing. He begins to yell at her and shake her to try and wake her up but it doesn’t work. Chapter 1 ends with Chrissy levitating and then being forcefully thrown to the ceiling while having her joints bent at reverse angles and her eyes being gouged out while a horrified Eddie can only watch.