Stranger Things Season 4, Chapter 3 “The Monster and the Superhero” Review
After a clumsy opening pair of episodes, I wouldn’t have pointed at “Paul Reiser monologue” on the bingo board of Things That Could Get This Season of Stranger Things Back On the Rails. And yet, a two-minute diner sequence at the end of “The Monster and the Superhero” is really all this season needed to kick into gear; though I hesitate to call a 63-minute episode a ‘tight’ affair, Stranger Things 4‘s shortest episode yet is also its best, with a third act that ranks among the best of the series.
With the Hopper/Joyce storylines sitting on a hamster treadmill (Joyce and Murray get on a plane, Hopper has his ankle broken on purpose… there, we caught up) and Vecna plugged into the Upside Down Power Enhancer, “The Monster and the Superhero” can really take some time to develop the stories of Max, Lucas, and Nancy a bit… and even leave a bit of time for some much-needed comedic relief with Jonathan and Robin. It’s the closest Stranger Things has felt to its earliest hours in a long time, a Greatest Hits of sorts that works best as everything starts overlapping and crashing into each other in the final minutes.
As everyone races for answers to what is happening in Hawkins (yet again), Stranger Things finally begins to pull its many disparate story threads together into something more coherent. Part of the issue with “Vecna’s Curse” was Stranger Things holding its cards so close to its chest, it couldn’t reveal why these stories were all happening concurrently. And though the execution remains clumsy at times (see: Dustin turning to Steve and basically saying “Hey, you’re going to restart the love triangle with Nancy, huh?”), “The Monster” uses Max, Nancy, and Eleven (with a heavy assist from Sam) to bring everything into sharp focus, as they start to unravel the story of Victor Creel, and piece together a theory about why Fred and Chrissy were selected by Vecna to kickoff his Mind Flaying apocalypse.
Of course, this last bit is the most important; as Sam is slowly explaining to Eleven that she doesn’t need to worry about Angela’s grade 2 concussion (the speed at which we are dropping the Angela and Fred stories is hilarious), Max starts to realize that she fits the mold of Vecna’s victims – which in a few short minutes, escalates to her seeing clocks and hearing creepy whispers. Not a good sign for our friend; but with Lucas and Eleven slowly rediscovering their true selves, help is hopefully on the way for our troubled, Kate Bush-jamming teenager, still trying to recover from the traumatic death of her brother less than a year earlier.
With Max, it seems Stranger Things 4 is starting to build out some of its larger ideas around Victor Creel (or whoever) is Vecna, and how this all ties into the many, many other stories of Stranger Things. Looking beyond the vague “Join us” and “a war is coming” moments, there does feel like a metaphorical undertone is being applied to Vecna, a tragic character who is now literally feeding off the traumatized teenagers of Hawkins, Indiana. It’s not clear, of course, what this is all trying to say (if anything at all), but with Max as a conduit, Stranger Things 4 has properly positioned itself to tell an empathetic story of maturity, of how the longer we live on earth, the more sad, inevitable, unpreventable things we see happen in life, and how difficult it can be to continually rise above them (though in this case, Max rising is probably not the image we want to see…. knowing we’ve all already seen it briefly in the trailers, of course).
Max’s slow descent through the Hawkins middle school is as tantalizing a sequence Stranger Things has offered all season; turns out the third time is the charm, when the third time depicting events is driven by a character the audience cares about. Fred and Chrissy, as horrible as their endings were, can’t really provide the emotional weight of someone like Max or Eleven, simply as a matter of plot: Stranger Things tries to draw out thin bits of character backgrounds for them, but an awkwardly inserted flashback of a teenager killing another dude in a car accident is a bit too heavy and a bit too random to “bring the noise”, so to speak.
(Plus, if you’re going to rip off every fucking 80’s movie in the book, where are the Christine vibes??? This show has already heavily referenced King works like Needful Things, The Shining, IT, Firestarter and Carrie, I feel like ‘haunted cars and horny teenagers’ would be a natural fit).
The other big plot point, of course, culminates in the stirring, score-enhanced speech from the former star of Mad About You and The Paul Reiser Show; which is a fantastic scene, regardless of the gymnastics required to put all the pieces in place. Though I’ve had enough of this “Eleven has powers; no, she doesn’t; yes she does” bullshit across 28 episodes, how this particular iteration of the arc is being framed is really intriguing; after smashing in Angela’s face, Eleven is clearly struggling to keep her moral compass intact, a slippery slope that the return of her powers could really complicate (I mean, she didn’t try to use them on Angela in the season premiere to be affectionate, right). We’re already seeing allusions to a massacre she was presumably involved in; there’s a very thin line between benevolent Eleven and an uncontrollably violent Eleven, and it seems Stranger Things 4 is setting itself up to engage with that in a huge way.
“The Monster and the Superhero” isn’t all serious, though; with characters like Robin and Jonathan, “The Monster” provides a highlight for the season’s (mixed) attempts to balance its lightest and darkest elements. A character like Steve will always be a natural, endless fountain of punchlines, given his arc from douchebag shithead to lovable shithead; with characters like Mopey Jonathan and Extremely High Motor Robin, however, that proposition can be a little more challenging. The solution for both, of course, is to push them into situations with contrasting characters; and that’s where the two aforementioned characters diverge to wildly different results.
The problem with Jonathan is that the contrasting characters are just his younger siblings; with Argyle there to do nothing but pop stoner jokes, Jonathan lacks a counterpart to suss out the more interesting, conflicting bits of his personality. Instead, we get none of what we get with Robin, who gets to bounce off Nancy as they try to uncover clues on Victor Creel using microfiche (god I miss microfiche), exploring the dissonance between the two characters (but also exactly why Steve wants to have them both in his life, in their unique capacities). With Jonathan, it’s just “sad stoner dude who is lying to the girlfriend he’s sad about” which is… certainly more complex than ‘stoner who forgets what olive oil is’, but a lot less rewarding than other scenes of Stranger Things pushing different characters together to explore their personalities.
With a much more focused, driven story at its center, there’s really no way “The Monster and the Superhero” isn’t the best episode of Stranger Things 4 so far (even including the Will/Eleven argument scene, which I’ve dedicated a bullet point to below) – and I swear, it’s not just because it’s the shortest one that I like it the most. Be it Lucas’ well-intentioned, ill-fated attempts to play both sides of his friend groups, or the show engaging with the complexities of Eleven’s past and existence, there’s a thematic richness to this episode the previous two haven’t been able to engage with, having to set up so much story and check off the obligatory boxes of period-specific references and music (notice the lack of licensed music in this episode? It’s kind of nice!). “The Monster and the Superhero” may not be a complete reset of Stranger Things 4, it definitely feels like we’re (finally) past the intro, and can start telling the real story that we’ve all tuned in for.
- Ok, the Will/Eleven argument; as someone who was never really convinced of their romantic attraction in the first place, the chemistry between performers at this point is excruciatingly bad, and should be avoided at any cost. Stranger Things is really struggling to find equal footing for their conflict; it’s a classic ’emotional female vs. rational male’ trope, and it’s not particularly fun to watch play out for the zillionith time. Though I suppose given the show’s blueprint (if you tell stories everyone’s seen a billion times, except put them all together at once), this is to be expected – and in that sense, it is perfectly well executed, even if I don’t think the performers play off each other particularly well in the scene.
- “The Nina Timetable” is what Sam is referring to… what that is, I have no idea, but MacGuffin-y science things whose names imply great tragedy? I’m into it.
- We ever going back to those other kids from season 2? Feel like this might be a good time to try and find them, or at least mention their existence.
- the timing of Joyce leaving town as El gets arrested and shipped off is very obvious, but well-timed… once the audience realizes what the kids are up against, it provides that “oh man, they’re fucked” moment the plot really needs to feel dramatic.
- Steve: “ALWAYS the goddamn babysitter.”
- Hopper’s implied escape plan makes no fucking sense. That being said, I’m completely on board with it.