Stranger Things Season 4, Chapter 1
“The Hellfire Club” Review
It’s been a long, strange (expensive) road to get Stranger Things 4 to air, led by two forces of nature even Netflix couldn’t control – a pandemic and the rapid maturing of teenage actors. But three years and $200 million+ later after “The Battle for Starcourt”, Stranger Things has found its way back with “The Hellfire Club” – a premiere much darker and more focused than expected, albeit one setting itself up for the same familiar pitfalls of the past.
Perhaps the most interesting change to Stranger Things 4 is the heightened sense of disbelief it requires to function; save for its opening flashback, “The Hellfire Club” begins almost a year after the Battle for Starcourt – and knows immediately what it’s walking into, literally opening on an Eleven voiceover pondering the passage of time, time travel, and boy wouldn’t it just be cool if the audience accepted Will’s shitty haircut and the fact everyone looks old enough to drink?
Though it seems like low-hanging fruit, it seems odd that Stranger Things didn’t take this into consideration at any point, given how ridiculous it feels to watch The Duffer Brothers desperately try to find creative angles to hide the maturity of their actors. It must’ve been a shitshow when trying to cast extras, in a way that didn’t make the show look like either Gossip Girl or Pen15; to their credit, most of the new casting helps sell the façade a little bit, and it mostly fades as the episode settles into its new world.
“New” may not be the right word to describe “The Hellfire Club”; it is definitely sprawling, operating in two (*ahem* three) locations at the same time, an ambitious effort on a show where it takes a full 65 minutes of the premiere to catch up with its equally sprawling cast of characters. Stranger Things loves its central mystery, but boy does it not want to leave any other rock turned in this premiere, turning what is occasionally a very creepy, evocative hour into a running checklist of character reintroductions, which work to varying effect.
A lot of those beats are familiar; Eleven struggles to acclimate, Steve is mega horny, Mike is… well, Mike is just kind of there, as usual. Despite a lot having changed for our central characters, much remains the same; except with Lucas and Max, which is where “The Hellfire Club” really begins to find its voice as a story of something other than science fiction intrigue, or relying on baked-in allegiance to its main characters.
Once one of the show’s budding couples, Stranger Things 4 opens with Lucas and Max broken up, spiraling away from their social circles in drastically different ways. Lucas is trying to branch out, and Max is trying to shut herself in; and it makes for a short, if compelling, arc for both characters, especially in the brief moments they interact. Sadie Sink really runs away from the episode, capturing a sadness and discomfort in Max that could easily come across as pouty; though Caleb McLaughlin’s arc doesn’t allow for the same magnitude of emotion, how he internalizes the frustrations Lucas is facing provide the episode with some desperately needed emotional traction.
For most, “The Hellfire Club” opens in relatively comfortable places, narratively speaking; Nancy’s running the paper (with a new, fucking annoying nerd by her side), Jonathan’s getting high, and Joyce’s head is already wrapped around another mystery for her to solve. With Max and Lucas, Stranger Things 4 begins to feel like it is pulling at something different – which feels noticeably more dour than the show’s exploration of maturity and friendship before it, an interesting shift in tone bookended by the show’s mythos-heavy opening and closing scenes.
What are we to make of Eleven killing her counterparts and Chrissy falling victim to whatever the fuck Upside Down Night King-looking motherfucker showed up in her mind (I think)? Beyond the fact that clearly Stranger Things 4 is hinting at getting to The Point of It All, it points to a show that is looking to demarcate itself from the lighter E.T. and The Goonies references, and move into a darker, Gremlins and The Nightmare on Elm Street-inspired place (because The Duffer Brothers have no sense of subtlety, Robert Englund is part of this season’s recurring cast). Eleven killed a shitload of people, and whoever this slimy dude Vecna is, is also about to fuck up a ton of people.
The slightly more violent imagery aside, this sense of darkness pervades throughout every scene of “The Hellfire Club”. Take a step back, and everyone is utterly fucking miserable; Eleven hates school, Joyce hates her new job… and I gotta think Will hates that goddamn awful bowl cut on his head. Save for maybe Steve and our brief glimpses of Murray, there’s not a lot of happiness to be found anywhere, even as the town of Hawkins seems to have moved on with its collective life.
It makes for a surprisingly sad hour-plus, one that hangs needlessly long on every small twist of the knife; Eleven is being bullied (and has no powers, the Most Convenient Plot Device on TV in 2022), and Chrissy’s mom is also a bully, and Dustin’s new hero looks like the combination of Pauly Shore and Eddie Vedder… if there’s a distinct tone to be found in “The Hellfire Club”, it is one of absolute misery, only occasionally lightened by Steve and Robin hanging out (Robin’s got a crush on a girl! Sure that will end well!) and the cutaway of Joyce’s new neighbors acclimating to her presence in the neighborhood.
Honestly, it’s hard to expect much more out of “The Hellfire Club” than a whole lot of catching up; but the sadness hanging over everyone in Stranger Things is palpable, something more than mood for mood’s sake. And it brings me back to Lucas, who watches his friends have a great night from a distance (while they fail to experience his big moment alongside him); no matter what happens, life continues to push forward. Friends will move, personalities will change, and people who shouldn’t die will die. As an adult, we’ve become resigned to accepting these things through experience; but as teenagers, we expect our friends to be there for every moment, for our siblings to share every big experience with us. But as we grow, so does the distance between us and our childhood; though I’m not entirely sure “The Hellfire Club” was constructed explicitly to capture that sadness, it does so with an emotional clarity that is rather surprising.
The rest of “The Hellfire Club” is the usual mixed bag of overwrought tropes and intriguing storytelling, all married to the show’s typical, ‘homage as a visual language’ aesthetics. Unlike season three’s opening chapter, however, Stranger Things 4 is not opening with any pretense of normalcy or even happiness; if you aren’t ready for shit to get dark, like bone-twistingly, gory cheerleader-murdery dark, then “The Hellfire Club” is a clear sign to get off this particular train before it veers off the tracks and dives headfirst into the darkness of the Upside Down.
- Welcome back to Stranger Things coverage! For those new to Tilt, welcome back to my strange little pocket of The Upside Down.
- Let’s be honest: kind of a weirdly paced, languid premiere! However, it gave just enough time to its best characters that I was willing to allow the underwhelming sequels, “Eleven Goes To School 2”, “Joyce Does a Mystery” and “You Better Fucking Respect Dungeons & Dragons”.
- The episode opens with a Matthew Modine in a Bad Wig flashback to 1979; Eleven kills her counterparts and all the other doctors, and we see an image of her in her fully shaved head glory, bleeding from her eyes and panting. Mystery!
- No Hopper in this episode; but given the season trailer and the season 3 mid-credits stinger, I’m sure it won’t be long.
- Also – what’s up with the Russian doll and the magazine writing? Who knows – as soon as it is uncovered, that plot is dropped like a hot potato from the episode.
- Does anyone care about Nancy and Jonathan? Just asking because it feels like the show really does not.
- Spiders, grandfather clocks and porcelain dolls… sounds like we’re going to have some flashbacks going much farther back than 1979 this season, which begs the question of just how big the scope of this season really is.