Stranger Things Season 4, Chapter 7 “The Massacre at Hawkins Lab”
For the first forty or so minutes of “The Massacre at Hawkins Lab”, Stranger Things was a nice recovery from the interminably awful “The Dive”. Dustin’s brain was cooking, the elder teen foursome was bonding in the Upside Down, and a series notorious for killing its own momentum was finally starting to untangle itself from its overly ambitious, woefully underdeveloped set of adventures. That is, until Eleven makes her fateful mistake to take out a sci-fi nonsense device out of Henry’s head – which, oddly as it may sounds, is the very thing to throw Stranger Things 4 into an absolute tailspin, bathing itself in self-importance over a telegraphed reveal, curtailing the momentum of every running narrative for an overwrought monologue that takes a half hour of talking to just get to the fucking point.
Sure, the Vecna/Henry reveal needs to feel like a big moment; it is the origin story of Eleven’s bond with the Upside Down, and provides an important emotional frame for the conflict between the two. But the interminable amount of staring and dialogue it takes post-murder reveal to get to the El/Henry showdown (which is just…. two people pointing at each other, with some clumsy wire stunt work) is just not worth it – especially considering it comes at the cost of every single other running plot at the moment. Like the parents listening to Dustin’s bullshit answers to why they were at Lover’s Lake, everyone is just left standing around while Stranger Things explains itself… which, as you can guess, makes for some really boring ass television!
The unnecessary amount of girth given to the Vecna reveal has a clear effect on the rest of “The Massacre at Hawkins Lab”, which hinges itself on a series of plot developments that are dropped like hot potatoes. Want to know what happens to Steve and Nancy in the Upside Down, or Eddie and Robin after they pass through? LOL. Any word on the federal agent buried in the woods, or what dumb shit Argyle is saying this episode? Would love to know how Will and his dumb art piece are holding up right now, because remember in seasons one and two when Will had a connection to the Upside Down?
To all of that, “The Massacre at Hawkins Lab” instead says “How about we drag out the Hopper vs. Demogorgon plot for 20 minutes, and end without them even fighting each other?” In the season’s lamest development, the whole Russian plot was just a journey of identity for Murray; Joyce is no longer a character, just a voice who hugs Hopper after he totally doesn’t even fight the Upside Down creature that Stranger Things 3 made its big post-credits stinger reveal (which – DON’T DO THOSE, TV SHOWS… except Banshee, because we love Banshee).
For Hopper, we get to listen to him rehash the same bits of self-discovery dialogue he’s said for four seasons; just this time, he’s not wearing a Hawaiian shirt or smoking cigarettes (I really hate that everyone on Stranger Things suddenly stopped smoking, by the way). All that self-realization, so we can watch him swing a stick awkwardly at a CGI tennis ball, in what amounts to the most underwhelming use of 2+ hours of plot time on Netflix since the last Gal Gadot/Ryan Reynolds ‘blockbuster’. It’s embarrassing how utterly pointless the Russian material was; and Stranger Things knows it, cutting away from it the moment it knows it has enough material to fill out an ungodly, thoroughly unjustified 96-minute running time.
But “The Massacre at Hawkins Lab” cares about none of these things, so why should I? To paraphrase The Brady Bunch, this season is all Vecna, Vecna, Vecna – who explains his love for spiders, but oddly doesn’t fill in the details of how bats and weird dog-like creatures (who are also bipedal, which I forgot about?) play into that obsession. It’s all Vecna, all the time as Stranger Things 4 Volume I gets to its third and final act, which explains the minute details of a plot line that Nancy’s pretty much explained to us and her fellow brethren three times in the past two episodes.
(Also, did you remember that Max likes “Running Up That Hill”? Talk about running a music cue into the fucking ground).
What I do like about the Vecna reveal is how it posits the sources of power for both himself and Eleven; though both trigger their inner strength through channeling trauma, the result of that is very different. Eleven, whose powers come to life after she remembers her birth, draws her powers from a place of love, of powerful, overwhelming connection – where, as Vecna reveals in excruciating detail, draws his power from domination, from manipulation, and from… genocide(?). Of course, Vecna is probably less Henry, and more a result of Eleven disintegrating him into an alternate dimension that I imagine is controlled by some kind of supreme monster that makes everyone call him Papa (I mean, there’s still a fifth season…. Vecna is obviously not the main baddie!)… but still, the dichotomy between where Vecna draws power from (guilt, trauma, sadness) and Eleven does, is an interesting note to set the stage for the two episodes of Volume II.
(Also, the very lazy use of Vecna to make a half-hearted environmental metaphor… just don’t.)
The trip to get there though, is an unfortunate slog: and even if this wasn’t the mid-season finale, “The Massacre at Hawkins Lab” would feel less an episode about rejecting fathers than it was about rejecting logical story structure. Nancy is not the only character left in questionable limbo (though the only one with a healthy gun collection, apparently) – everyone on the Stranger Things playing board is left like this, Joyce and Hopper frozen in awkward embrace, while Dr. Brenner and Paul Reiser sit staring at a bunch of ancient medical equipment.
It’s a recipe for how to make a climactic moment feel anti-climactic; just drown it in bunch of other plot points the episode has no interest in resolving, and you’ve got the recipe for how “The Massacre at Hawkins Lab” can undercut perhaps the most revelatory hour of the series, by providing it the most thin, one-dimensional emotional plane to exist on. Though some facets of it are intriguing in how they engage with metaphorical ideas Stranger Things has mostly avoided, the reveal of Vecna is more trouble than its worth, more cumbersome than it is exciting – and in some instances, raises more questions about the series and its mythology than is intended (I’m not going to write a 1,000 words about universe inconsistencies, because the shitheads behind CinemaSins will surely make an annoying, nitpicky and overly critical video covering it at some point).
It makes for a bummer ending to Volume I, in a moment where the series should be celebrating a moment of clarity for its overarching narrative of evil alternate dimensions, spider lovers, and teenage nerds. Instead, it ends on an exhausting slog through (mostly) obvious information, slamming the brakes on a series of stories that was already struggling to maintain momentum alongside each other. With “The Massacre at Hawkins Lab”, Stranger Things has set the stage for an Eleven/Vecna showdown (and a grand reunion of the larger cast), which is a rather narrow, disappointing focus for a season with such lofty aspirations in its first few hours.
- I guess Eight is like Will’s birthday; not important enough for Stranger Things to remember! Roasted.
- Steve sure was losing blood for awhile…. until he totally wasn’t, his episode-ending bat wounds healing in similar fashion to Hopper’s broken feet. He certainly wasn’t losing blood to his penis when Nancy was around! 🙂
- I enjoy how Stranger Things continues to push Dr. Brenner as this wildly unstable, complex character capable of moments of empathy amongst these cold, calculated acts of absolute psychosis. It’s a great performance this show has missed.
- The Eddie/Steve scene was solid, though I wish Stranger Things would let characters like this have more than one scene together a season.
- With a Barb reveal and Nancy’s diary, Stranger Things really wants you to know it didn’t forget about season one! Except that the whole “Nancy feels guilty for Barb’s death” does not align with the character we know, and instead acts an empty narrative device to give Vecna a reason to terrorize her.
- The reversion back to CGI Eleven for random parts of this episode was super annoying, especially because the digital effects were much more noticeable this time around.
- The score to this show remains fantastic, though it was annoying to hear such incredible music behind the Russian subplot all season. Just an absolute waste.
- Erica, stop snitching.
- That’s it for volume I – see you in a few weeks for Volume II!