‘Stranger Things’: Does Max Survive Her Trip to the Upside Down? (RECAP)
[Warning: The below contains MAJOR spoilers for the Stranger Things Season 4 “Chapter Four: Dear Billy.”]
Kate Bush is a cheat code. It doesn’t matter how many times “Running Up That Hill” is used in film and television; once those opening synths kick in, it’s enough to elevate even the most mundane of scenes. That’s not to say the closing scene of “Dear Billy” is mundane — far from it. Max’s (Sadie Sink) brush with death and eventual escape from the Upside Down is one of Stranger Things‘ greatest scenes to date and is only enhanced by the theatrical pop perfection of Bush’s magnum opus.
This entire episode is Stranger Things operating at the height of its powers, which is somewhat surprising given that Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) herself doesn’t appear. Eleven has been ushered away to training camp to regain her superhero abilities, leaving everyone else scrambling to survive. This leads to what the show does best: heartfelt group camaraderie in the face of danger. From Hawkins to California to Alaska to Russia, our heroes are trying to hold firm against increasingly insurmountable odds.
Let’s start with the events in Hawkins, which see Max take center stage as she becomes the latest victim of Vecna’s curse. Seeing Max in such a pivotal role is refreshing, as sometimes it can feel like the character gets the short end of the stick. Sink is so good at portraying that vulnerability masked beneath a tough exterior. Max doesn’t want to show weakness or talk openly about her feelings. That’s just not her style. She can’t even bring herself to tell her friends and family how she really feels, instead choosing to write her thoughts in a series of farewell letters to be opened should she not survive the curse.
The one person she does open up to is her deceased step-brother Billy (Dacre Montgomery); it’s much easier to lay bare your soul to an engraved headstone. Max reveals that she replays Billy’s death over and over, wondering what would have happened had she’d stepped in and saved him. “We could have become friends, like a real brother and sister,” she says. But she didn’t. She just stood there and watched him die. And as much as she’s tried to be happy and normal, she knows things have changed. “I think maybe part of me died that day too,” she confesses.
This guilt and regret allows Vecna’s curse to burrow its way into Max’s psyche. “Part of you wanted me dead,” says a bloody apparition of Billy as Max falls into a trance. “That’s why you hide… that’s why late at night you think about following me into death.” Max is consumed by these evil thoughts as she’s sucked deeper and deeper into the Upside Down, stalked by the Dark Wizard. All the while, Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), Steve (Joe Keery), and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), who rejoins The Party to warn them about the football jocks’ “freak hunt,” try to bring her back to reality.
Max’s fate is left in the hands of Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and Robin (Maya Hawke), who embark on a mission to figure out a way to lift the curse. Posing as research students from the University of Notre Dame, Nancy and Robin visit Pennhurst Mental Hospital under the aliases of Ruth and Rose. This pairing continues to be a winner, especially with Nancy forcing the grungy Robin into her ill-fitting clothes, looking like a punk rocker in Stepford Wives fancy dress.
While Robin struggles in heels and a tight blouse, she gives a passionate speech about how women are overlooked in the field of psychiatry and earns the right to interview Victor Creel (played by Freddy Krueger actor Robert Englund — a brilliant touch given Vecna’s Krueger-like dream invasions).
There are also some Silence of the Lambs vibes going on as Nancy and Robin walk down a hall past the cells of the criminally insane. The scraggily-haired, eyeless Victor claws at a table as Nancy and Robin try to get him to open up about what happened to his family. He seems reluctant until they tell him that they believe him. Victor begins describing as we flashback to the 1950s for some twisted haunted house horror. The Creel family was tormented by strange happenings for months before the demon took the lives of Victor’s wife and children, seemingly only sparing Victor as he was pulled out of the trance by the voice of an angel.
Nancy and Robin make a run for it after their cover is blown, and it suddenly clicks about what it was that saved Victor. It was the music. Victor was humming Ella Fitzgerald. The melody punctured through the hallucination, and Victor followed it back to reality. The revelation comes just in time for Robin to radio the information to Dustin, who flings a bunch of cassette tapes in front of Lucas and tells him to pick Max’s favorite song. Cue the Bush ex Machina just as Vecna has his tentacles wrapped around Max’s throat. She’s able to tap into her happy memories with Lucas, Eleven, and the gang, allowing her to fight off the Dark Wizard and run up that hill back to reality. It’s an epic scene.
Max isn’t the only one who comes close to death in this episode. Mike (Finn Wolfhard) and the Byers boys have wound up in the middle of warring government factions. Put under watched guard and told to stay put, the trio starts plotting a way to get back to Hawkins. They can’t exactly call and forewarn their friends as the government might be listening in. So Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) comes up with the idea of ordering pizza and then using his friend Argyle’s (Eduardo Franco) delivery van as a getaway vehicle. While they wait, Mike and Will (Noah Schnapp) patch things up, confessing their flaws and Mike admitting that Hawkins hasn’t been the same without his best friend.
But before the boys can enact their escape, a group of camo-wearing soldiers ambush the Byers’ home and start firing off live machine gun rounds. They take out one of the FBI guards and injure another. Luckily, Jonathan’s friend arrives just in the nick of time for them to get out and into the van, with the wounded FBI agent in tow.
Speaking of escape, Hopper (David Harbour) is so close to freeing himself from his Russian prison nightmare. After smashing his ankles, removing his chains, and fighting off a bevy of armed guards with a hammer and a handy helping of dynamite, he hops aboard a snowmobile and makes it to his rendezvous point. Meanwhile, Joyce (Winona Ryder) and Murray (Brett Gelman) make it to Alaska to hand over the ransom money to Yuri (Nikola Đjuričko), a criminal pilot who seems to flit between jovial and psychopathic in the blink of an eye. However, as I previously predicted, this was never going to be as simple as it all seemed.
As Hopper waits for rescue, he’s suddenly ambushed by Russian soldiers. It’s a setup. Yuri reneges on his deal with Enzo (Tom Wlaschiha) after realizing he can make even more money by turning over Hopper and the corrupt prison guard to the Russians. He also has Joyce and Murray at his disposal, poisoning them with hot coffee and offering them up to the Motherland. So, Joyce and Hopper might soon be reunited, just in a prison cell rather than a romantic restaurant.
Other than a slightly darker tone, this fourth season isn’t exactly breaking new ground. But Stranger Things is a show that knows its strengths, and when those strengths are firing on all cylinders, like in this episode, it can still be one of the most entertaining shows of the streaming era.
Stranger Things, Season 4, Streaming Now, Netflix