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Stranger Things Catches Its Breath with “Chapter 5: The Nina Project”

Stranger Things comes back to earth and slogs through an episode with too many minor plot details to burn through.

Stranger Things Season 4, Chapter 5 “The Nina Project”

After such a brilliant crescendo to close out “Dear Billy”, there was a lot of hope Stranger Things had figured out its narrative convulsions, and was setting itself up for a more coherent, focused structure for the back half of this volume (of 3/4 of a season’s worth of episodes, in case you’re still as confused as me to how this season is designed). Welp, “The Nina Project”, structurally, is back to the old tricks for Stranger Things – and I’m not just talking about weird shit happening with lights.

Unlike the second half of “Dear Billy”, “The Nina Project” feels the usual pressure of Stranger Things 4 episodes, trying to tell stories in too many places at once. In this episode, that manifests in the thorough lack of tragic back story for poor Patrick (apparently Vecna is just pissed at all teens now), and extremely strange moments that are oddly papered over – like Hopper noting that his genetic code was affected by shoveling Agent Orange for a decade… oh yeah, and the Lenora boys BURYING THE BODY OF A FEDERAL AGENT IN THE FUCKING WOODS.

(Seriously – why is this just casually happening? How did we get to this decision? I have so many questions.)

Though an extreme example, what happens with Jonathan, Argyle (my dude – shut the fuck up!), and the Byers brothers is pretty emblematic of how “The Nina Project” treats its big plot moments. Dr. Brenner is back! He has some weird, pre-cogish water/mind machine! Hopper’s dead daughter backstory! Everyone is horny in the Creel house! Fucking Suzie allusions! There’s just so many different data points “The Nina Project” really needs to hit, that the episode feels like… well, a project, both in its construction, and the feeling it evokes throughout its 75 clumsy, scatterbrained minute running time.

There are certainly large segments of this episode I like, even though the Reference Game on Stranger Things is starting to feel a little too close to Ready Player One at times. When the teens are walking through the Creel House, showing off that critical thinking and teamwork that’s kept them alive in Hawkins for the last two years? Great stuff! Give me more of Nancy and Steve trying to hide their boners for each other, while Max obsessively jams to Kate Bush as she works backwards through the most frightening, traumatic existential experience of her life.

I’d happily replace that with all of Hopper’s sad sack routine (please miss me with the “she’s only in trouble because of me” when he spent the first season not believing her, season 2 gaslighting her relationship, and season three being an asshole), and also the Basketball Gang running around to fuck nobody up – whenever “The Nina Project” is just starting to get on a roll with either Eleven or the Creel House, it has to cut away to one of the many lesser stories sitting on the fringes, like Eddie’s extremely slow attempt at a getaway… or of course, Part 2 of “Joyce and Murray on a Plane”).

Perhaps the least interesting of these, the Murray/Yuri middleweight bout strangely provides the most thrilling sequence of the episode, which we’ll just call “Black Belt vs. Peanut Butter” in future references. Though it is obvious Stranger Things is not going to kill off two fan-favorite characters in Joyce and Murray (that they have no idea what to do with anymore, if we’re being honest), it makes for a thrilling sequence – though, Stranger Thing 4‘s structural mishaps unfortunately rear their ugly heads once again as it cuts back and forth between their predicament.

More presciently, one struggles to see why this whole Russia arc is contained to being random interstitials in between the United States-based material; though part of my brain thinks this is COVID-related to keep too many cast members from interacting at once (notice how fast everyone breaks off into small groups at the Creel House), but regardless of the inelegancy of coordinating something that complex, it makes for an extremely stilted story. Hopper’s defeat should feel like a massive weight on these characters; instead, it feels like a plot point awkwardly inserted next to some truly insane material – again, Hopper suggesting his daughter died because he shoveled Agent Orange back in Vietnam.

This could be a fascinating standalone episode, one where Stranger Things moves beyond its 80’s culture reach arounds, to touch on something that modern depiction of early 80’s culture forgets; the Vietnam hangover was real, and one that had rippling effects through American society. As a veteran of modern cinema’s most explored conflict, the allusions Stranger Things could find with Hopper would be fascinating – not in a political sense, because trying to funnel 80’s political thinking into 2022 messaging is thankfully something this show avoids. It would just offer the show a different avenue to express their clear fandom for a particular era of film, which would widen this show’s scope in a lot more interesting ways than physical mileage between characters, which seems to be all we get in “The Nina Project”.

I still haven’t even mentioned the whole Eleven/Papa/Owens/Creepy Brenner Teen plot, because that’s just how fucking overstuffed with stuff this episode is. Eleven, who agrees to not have waffles and leave town with Owens, finds out Dr. Brenner is alive – which… should feel like a bigger reveal, given how season one ended? Right? I guess considering this is a show that forgot Will’s birthday, they do not consider the devil to be in the details, so to speak.

I digress; the whole point of Eleven’s story is to introduce this strange fellow who just happens to stare and make creepy faces like a particular someone drawing energy from their alternate dimension childhood home (look, at this point, I’m sure people know who this guy is but… let’s play in the theoretical sandbox a bit here). It’s also to throw in some more sci-fi metaphors (tinges of Minority Report, anyone?), and some impressive CGI to de-age Eleven; basically, a lot of hastily cobbled together footage of some vague realm where Eleven is inside her own mind.

Look, I appreciate Stranger Things giving itself longer scenes to push more evocative imagery, and let their stars act a little bit; but the rehash of season one and two plots for Eleven as she tries to regain her powers inside her own head is too thin and drawn out, something that feels a lot more obligatory than it should, considering the stakes and circumstances.

(By the way, remember the Demo-dog from the mid-credits scene of the season three finale? Seems like we’re finally getting to that here. Just mentioning that randomly, to fit in with “The Nina Project” vibes.)

This, ostensibly, is a big moment for Eleven, reconciling her relationship with Dr. Brenner, embracing the power within herself, and reigniting the passion and anger that we’ve only seen in spurts since the show’s earliest episodes. But sharing so much space with other stories and developments (like major scientific breakthroughs regarding The Upside Down that we don’t even have time to try and understand, so I’m not even going to talk about them!), “The Nina Project”, Eleven’s story just melts into a story full of minor plot points and slightly evocative shots (shoutout episode director Nimród Antal, who previously worked with the Duffers on Wayward Pines, and also directed the 2010 oddity Predators), all of which end on cool moments that are thoroughly unearned.

Also – they buried a guy in the fucking desert! How is nobody talking about this????

Other thoughts/observations:

  • why does Vecna choose to terrorize Patrick next? Who knows – poor kid doesn’t even get a flashback backstory, just grandfather clocks and then he’s dead in the water.
  • Steve’s running meta commentary on his own character within the Stranger Things world is fun, but it feels like stand-in for actual character development.
  • Now we’re going to Utah? I can’t wait for Dustin to walk in, and Suzie’s like a super enthusiastic Mormon or something.
  • Argyle….. shut the fuck up. One of the fastest “let’s burn the audiences out on a fun one-note character” I’ve seen in a long time.
  • what parent buries their child in a church with a cross that looks that creepy?!!
  • There’s on the nose, and then there’s “we cast the Freddy Krueger guy so we could have a plot point about how Freddy Krueger’s sci-fic nonsense logic is like Vecna’s”.
  • Nancy is too smart for these people.
  • Jonathan’s big contribution this episode? “We have to open our minds!” and “Just let the dude have some weed”.
  • “We gambled and lost.” That quote should fucking hurt, but it feels like such a throwaway.
Written By

A TV critic since the pre-Peak TV days of 2011, Randy is a critic and editor formerly of Sound on Sight, Processed Media, TVOvermind, Pop Optiq, and many, many others.

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