Stranger Things Season 4, Chapter 4 “Dear Billy” Review
If you knew, how would you spend the last day of your life? Though most of us would spout off some platitudes about doing a thing or seeing a place they always meant to, or telling someone the words they couldn’t bring themselves to say before – but I think the most realistic image of what that looks like is Max sitting in the backseat of Steve’s car in “Dear Billy”, the most driven, focused episode of Stranger Things I’ve seen season one. She’s frozen, incapable of doing anything but putting words to paper and staring out the window; that fear, the utter sense of dread searing through Max’s veins, sets the table for “Dear Billy” – and thanks to Sadie Sink’s performance at the episode’s core, delivers Stranger Things‘ most heartfelt story of love, survival, and hope.
Though Max’s arc throughout the series has frustrated me at times, the vibe she’s brought to the group over the past few seasons has had a noticeable effect on Stranger Things as its become a larger, more all-encompassing series about growing up. But before this season, it would’ve been easy to write off Max as a mere presence; she provided an emotional baseline for characters like Lucas, Eleven, and Billy through seasons two and three – but after she wasn’t the skateboarding new girl anymore, it felt like she’d become much less of a priority in the show’s hierarchy.
Season four’s been different, of course: by focusing on Max’s life as she tries to move on from Billy’s tragic death (and the abusive horrors he brought to her life, she’s had to try and reconcile alone), Stranger Things has smartly pushed her to become something more than red hair and some vague goth vibes; in this season’s first trio of episodes, she provided a vector to open up Stranger Things to something a little bit more personal, a little bit more darker than what we’ve seen in seasons prior.
As Vecna pursues her, and her friends race to find clues to save her life, “Dear Billy” feels energized to show the fight for Max’s soul; picking up right where Paul Reiser’s speech left off, “Dear Billy” is a very long episode that almost never backs off the gas pedal – and even when it does, it’s only to douse the enemy in unsettling aesthetics, in the form of a very self-indulgent, but absolutely-worth-it cameo from Robert Englund (as the mysterious, insane Victor Creel).
Of course, this can only happen because it takes 40 minutes for Yuri to count $40,000 – with a full third of the Stranger Things 4 narratives sidelined for the first two acts (Eleven is not in this episode at all, a fascinating, if necessary, choice to leave her in offscreen limbo), “Dear Billy” diligently works to pull the many threads in Hawkins together in chaotic, fascinating fashion – and when you’re able to pull out a thoroughly surprising gunfight and terrifying dream sequence out in successive fashion, it’s no wonder this episode hits so much harder than “El gets bullied at a roller rink” or “Jonathan looks stoned and confused”, which comprised more time than it needed in the season’s opening hours.
At near movie-length, “Dear Billy” turns what could be an incidental story – Max starts to see Vecna, slowly revealing clues about The Upside Down – into something terrifying and moving, setting a mortality clock in the first five minutes for what’s to come. Then, all that’s left to is build – which “Dear Billy” does to astounding effect, on the heels of Sadie Sink’s devastating performance, which captures innocence, regret, determination, and frustration all in a single, powerful scene, reading a letter at her dead brother’s grave.
That scene, while it might feel like a designated Emmy Reel moment for Sink, says a lot more about Vecna and season four than one might expect. It comes back to the idea of life itself; though Stranger Things does not prescribe to the “life is precious” ideal (remember Joyce’s boyfriend? lol), it does believe in hope. When hope is lost, is when horrible things happen; it’s only through insane, irrational hope that Joyce is able to save Will in season one, and it’s only a sense of hope for his sister and his salvation that Billy sacrifices himself at the end of season three. It’s in the absence of hope that The Upside Down appears to thrive; where fear and anxiety live (the unseen, dark and twisted corners of our minds) is where Vecna and the Upside Down seem to hold their power; as long as you can hold onto that last possible glimpse of light, there’s a chance to survive.
(You know, unless you’re a Russian guy who gets murdered at a county fair… look, no theological rumination is absolute, ok?)
Ultimately, Max’s life is saved by Lucas and Eleven; when she was a depressed eighth grader trying to avoid abuse from her family, Lucas and Eleven gave her a place to be herself, an avenue out of the depressive bullshit she had no part in creating. For so much of her life, Max has just tried to react and survive, defensive tactics that manifest in loud headphones and constant rejection in this season’s first three episodes. But Lucas makes an important point; if you don’t talk to someone, or even just listen, it’s so goddamn easy to lose hope. Sometimes, all you need to know is one person is there, to provide an ear and a hand – it’s not going to solve the problem, but sometimes it can provide a lifeline from the depressing, accusing voice hiding in the back of all our minds (the one that sounds a lot more like ourselves, then it does Vecna). Vecna knows this – when he tells Max “There’s a reason you hide with them” he’s absolutely correct, but for the wrong reason; it is not out of fear, but out of hope, that she keeps the ones she loves within shouting distance, no matter how much it hurts.
Chrissy and Fred, though their stories are willfully underdeveloped, gain a bit of resonance, as “Dear Billy” begins to filter this idea through Max’s story; it is easy to see why they were such easy potential victims, the former consumed by her mother’s abuse, the latter by a traumatic experience they couldn’t escape. Evil, after all, preys on the weak and disadvantaged; you certainly don’t see Vecna trying to take on Nancy or Dustin, as his Ursula-imitating ass can only exercise power over the broken; in that way, Stranger Things finally delineates its creepy naked bad guy from Game of Thrones, in that Vecna relies on illusions and pain to draw his power (while The Night King literally just iced fools bc that’s what that motherfucker was born to do).
Look, I don’t think Stranger Things put as much thought into Vecna metaphors as it did selecting “Running Up a Hill” for its big moment; regardless, both work in tandem to create one of the most riveting scenes I’ve seen on television this year. As Max runs towards herself, Vecna sneers, and Kate Bush belts about making deals with God, “Dear Billy” briefly touches the divine rod of Television Greatness, in a scene equally heart wrenching and breathtaking.
It is the culmination of some truly genius writing; though the Joyce/Hopper failure and Lenora shootout still feel too isolated from the main narrative, how they’re engineered to operate in this episode works wonders. Without Yuri’s betrayal, the danger to Max’s life doesn’t feel as prescient; and an unexpected, close quarters gunfight with the Lenora boys serves no purpose except to get the blood pumping before Max’s big scenes…. which hey, I’m willing to allow, if it gets those motherfuckers on the road back to Hawkins and closer to the show’s important narratives.
Though there’s plenty of other interesting things going on in “Dear Billy”, this entire episode is constructed around its final 15 minutes – which is a pretty wild gamble, but one that absolutely pays off for Stranger Things, closing on a moment of relief and intrigue that revitalizes the season before it heads into its trio of (extremely) extended episodes. Though it comes in fits and starts, Stranger Things is certainly still capable of magic, especially when it is able to get all of its characters on the same wavelength (or radio frequency). What a fucking episode of television.
- I don’t know what’s more impressive; that the Billy/Max scene in the Upside Down works so well, or that it does so despite the two actors filming their parts of the scene over a year apart.
- Don’t forget – Murray has a black belt!
- Will and this fucking unfinished piece of art are so annoying…. nobody cares, dude!
- Hot take: silent season 4 Hopper > yappy, constantly complaining and self-righteous season 3 Hopper
- Dustin pulling out an extra bit of antenna before trying his message again? That’s cinema, baby!
- Ok, I love Robin, but the overly dramatic way she listens to Victor’s story is extremely distracting. A rare instance of someone Acting a little too hard on ST.
- Shout out to Harmon, who went from lazy TV watching asshole cop to badass killing machine in 0.2 seconds.