‘Stranger Things’: Eleven Returns Home to Confront Her Past (RECAP)
The Nina Project
Season 4 • Episode 5
[Warning: The below contains MAJOR spoilers for the Stranger Things Season 4 “Chapter Five: The Nina Project.”]
Coming after one of the strongest episodes of the series, this fifth episode of the overstuffed fourth season falls into some of the common Stranger Things traps. Just when certain plot lines seem to be advancing, a new obstacle or twist brings things to a halt, or worse, reverts things back to where they were two or three episodes ago. Unfortunately, that’s the case with the storylines in Russia and California, both of which are spinning their wheels.
The Hopper (David Harbour) plot is particularly egregious, as the flawed escape has landed him right back in prison, this time with corrupt guard Enzo (Tom Wlaschiha) for company. You can’t help but feel we’re right back where we started. That’s not to say Harbour isn’t doing his best with the limited material. His realization that he put Joyce (Winona Ryder) in danger becomes a devastating wake-up call. He opens up about the death of his daughter and the guilt he feels for having brought her into the world when he knew the health risks linked to his time cooking up Agent Orange while in the army. He holds himself responsible for his daughter’s death and believes he’s sentenced Joyce to a similar fate. “I wasn’t cursed,” he says. “I am the curse.”
However, as heartfelt as Harbour’s performance is, it doesn’t remove that meandering feeling of the Russian plot. And even worse is that it’s sucked Ryder into its orbit, as her screentime so far this season has been solely dedicated to finding Hopper and bickering with Murray (Brett Gelman). Sure, there are a couple of laughs in Joyce and Murray’s mid-air escape and karate takedown of the double-crossing Yuri (Nikola Đjuričko) — which results in them crash landing the plane into the snow-covered woodlands below — but it feels like a waste of Ryder’s talents.
The show might have been better off combining the entire Russia plot into a single 40-45 minute episode — meaning they could have chopped some of the excess from the other episodes, making for a tighter, faster-paced viewing experience. As it is, the detours to Russia are starting to become an annoying distraction from the more exciting and engaging stories going on elsewhere in Hawkins and with Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown).
It’s not just Hopper’s storyline that is dragging, though. The action in California has the feeling of forward momentum with its car chases and shoot-outs, but it’s just as meandering. Mike (Finn Wolfhard) and the Byers boys find themselves in the middle of the Californian desert with a dead FBI agent and a spun-out pizza delivery boy. I haven’t talked much about Jonathan’s (Charlie Heaton) wacky pizza bro Argyle (Eduardo Franco) yet across these recaps, and with good reason; the character is just kind of… annoying. Of course, Jonathan’s annoying too, I guess, so it makes sense why they’d be friends. But these are not characters I particularly want to spend time with.
The only clues they have in finding Eleven are the final words of the FBI agent (“Find Nina”) and his pen. It takes the group the majority of the episode to work out that the pen itself is a clue, containing a phone number within its cap. But the phone number is yet another stumbling block, as it calls through to a coded computer that will require a hacker to decipher. That means the gang will be taking a detour to Salt Lake City to pick up Dustin’s (Gaten Matarazzo) computer whiz girlfriend, Suzie (Gabriella Pizzolo).
If I sound like I’m totally down on this episode, you should know that my complaining stops here. The rest of this episode is top-quality Stranger Things goodness. The Eleven storyline is especially intriguing, as she’s taken back to her “home” in Ruth, Nevada — that being the underground missile silo cum laboratory where she was experimented on as a young child. Dr. Owens (Paul Reiser) assures her this is where she needs to be to regain her powers, but the reappearance of Dr. Brenner (Matthew Modine), aka Papa, fills Eleven with fear.
There is nowhere to run and, without her powers, not much she can do to escape. Eleven is sedated, placed inside a hyperbaric chamber (nicknamed NINA), and hooked up to various wires and machinery. She’s suddenly transported into her memories as a young girl at Dr. Brenner’s lab, surrounded by other children and a patronizing orderly. No matter how often she runs, she always ends up right back where she started (like Hopper’s storyline). She shifts between her current and younger self, with some aged-down CGI magic, as Brenner tells her she must tap into her buried memories and find her own way out.
It’s a cool way to explore Eleven’s origins and bring back some of these characters that were so important in Season 1. The shifting memories and complex mind maze make for a dark and disorientating trip into Eleven’s past. Also, Brenner continues to be an enigmatic character, and it’s hard to tell if he is on the side of good or evil. He promises that all he’s ever wanted to do is help Eleven, but it does take Owens yelling at him to let a convulsing El out of the chamber. Yet, his methods seem to be working, as El regains some of her power when she screams and sends three armed guards hurtling through the air. With a choice to run or stay, Eleven ultimately takes her “papa’s” hand and returns to the lab.
Finally, the Hawkins crew takes a haunted house tour after Nancy (Natalia Dyer) realizes the place Max (Sadie Sink) saw in the Upside Down was Victor Creel’s old house. Armed with flashlights, a Kate Bush tape loop, and some ill-advised bravery, the gang breaks into the boarded-up Creel mansion in search of answers. There are jump scares, group banter, and moments of bonding. Max and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) seem back on the same page after the Upside Down drama, with Lucas claiming his love for Kate Bush after she saved Max’s life. And Nancy and Steve (Joe Keery) continue to get reacquainted, with Robin (Maya Hawke) kindly pointing out again that she and Steve are “platonic with a capital P.”
It doesn’t take long for the group to realize that Vecna is present in the house, as the Dark Wizard travels through electricity, flittering between the flashlights and house lamps. But the lights are not a sign that Vecna is approaching the house itself; they are a warning sign that he is about to attack again. And this time, it’s one of the football jocks, Patrick (Myles Truitt), who is in the demon’s sights.
As Jason (Mason Dye) and the football crew finally sniff out Eddie’s (Joseph Quinn) hiding place, Vecna makes its presence known. While swimming after Eddie, who tries to escape in a malfunctioning rowboat, Patrick is suddenly hoisted up into the air and meets the same limb-snapping death as Chrissy and Fred before him. Given that both Jason and Eddie witnessed this, it should clear Eddie’s name and get the jocks off his back.
The action in Hawkins remains the heart of the show, and the quicker the side stories wrap up and merge with the central plot, the better things will be. For now, though, it’s still a waiting game.
Stranger Things, Season 4, Streaming Now, Netflix