Wednesday, November 1, 2017

REVIEW: 'Stranger Things' - Small, Intimate Moments of Horror are Destructive to Everyone in 'Chapter Four: Will the Wise'

Netflix's Stranger Things - Episode 2.04 "Chapter Four: Will the Wise"

An ailing Will opens up to Joyce - with disturbing results. While Hopper digs for the truth, Eleven unearths a surprising discovery.

The shadow monster reaching its tentacles into Will was an ominous final note for the previous episode. It needed to become a turning point for the season. Will has spent his new time in the Upside Down running away from this creature. It was a terrorizing sight. He chose to stand up to it in order to get it to go away. That was a decision aided by Bob's well-intentioned suggestion. But now, it promises to be even more devastating for Will and his friends and family. This attack is still happening at the start of "Chapter Four: Will the Wise." Joyce arrives at the school and is able to find Will's friends and then Will. It's a sequence that highlights how this experience is actually happening to Will while his body is still here in this world. He doesn't just disappear and his friends can't see him because he's no longer a part of this world. He's still present which leads them to suspect that he can't actually be hurt by whatever is hunting him in the Upside Down. But that would take all of the horror out of this shot with the shadow monster. This moment needed to change Will. It does precisely that. It's the show embracing so much intimate horror in the lives of these characters. They were all forever changed by the events of Season 1. And now, all of these supernatural forces are conspiring against them once more. It's traumatizing and terrorizing. And now, it has gotten ahold of Will once more. And thus, it makes any kind of moment seem like a potentially dangerous situation.

The overall theme of this season has proven to be Hawkins being a community where no one feels safe and secure. It can be as simple as Steve no longer feeling like his place on the basketball team is secure because of how skilled Billy is. But it's also the looming threat of the government listening in on all of their conversations ready to strike if their secrets get released. It's also the unknown of whatever comes from the Upside Down and how it can radically change people's lives no matter how long they were in there. It's also just the incredibly commonplace action of grounding a teenager for disobeying the rules. This is a season of instability. The literal ground of Hawkins is becoming contaminated and can no longer be trusted. Will has the vision to see the connections that are going on between this world and the Upside Down. That could be presented as a gift. But it's terrifying to his family. Joyce is freaking out because her son is changing. This incident has created a new being inside of him that no one truly understands. And the one person she trusts with this information is Hopper who isn't available for a long time. She's unsettled and doesn't know if she can bring anyone in on what's happening within her family. But the hour is still building up these new connections and how certain people need to trust each other in order to cope with all that is happening in this crazy world.

"Chapter Four: Will the Wise" is the most effective episode this season so far when it comes to horror. It frames it all as personal horrors. Every moment is minor in the scope of this town. Most teenagers believe that their actions have life-or-death consequences to them. But with these characters, that is actually the case. Everything they decide to do could be the thing that sends them spiraling towards death and destruction. They remain hopeful that the world is better than that. That they can find new love. That they can discover new creatures. That they can continue to be curious and playful. But the horrors of this world are increasing. There is only a select few that they can actually talk about it all with as well. Max believes her new friends are purposefully being manipulative of her. They want her to be their friend but push her away with their secrets. But it's also personally invasive for Lucas because Max around knows who El is. He wasn't expecting that. He didn't know that she had that knowledge. But it still doesn't force him to open up even more. He provides no additional clues as to who El is or what's going on in Hawkins. He is doing so for her own protection. It's her protection from both the monsters of the Upside Down as well as the monsters within the government. But what Lucas doesn't know is that this simple action is a betrayal that could unleash a new monster on him in the form of Billy. Billy doesn't like having Max as a part of his new family. But he's targeting Lucas now because he deems him untrustworthy. That may be this show's blunt way of addressing the racism of the time. But it's definitely a mentality that is prevalent in this world that could be quite destructive in a personal way.

And then, there is just the internal horror of the bathroom in the Byers household. It's an unsettling place long before Will walks in with fear of the warm water. The direction purposefully highlights the darkness of this room. It's the middle of the day but it's still covered in shadows. It's Joyce doing her best to care for a sick child. She's hopeful that it's just the case of a simple flu. But Will's symptoms are more polarizing than that. He's actually getting colder. And then, there's the moment where Will is facing off with the prospect of a bath. It seems incredibly simple. But it's framed as a horror sequence where a chill runs down the spin of the main character. This is just as terrifying to the new version of Will as the portal to the Upside Down and Dart are to other characters throughout this episode. The direction does a strong job in making sure all of those moments carry the same amount of narrative weight and dread. This is a changed Will. He can speak with confidence when it comes to what this new creature within him wants. It's unsettling for Joyce. And yet, Will is still himself as well. He still wants to articulate what is going on within him to Joyce and Hopper. He is ultimately able to do that by drawing these new memories he has. At first, they seem like scribbles. But then, Joyce and Hopper are able to line them up and discover a maze of interconnected branches. It's not lightning because the coloring is wrong. Instead, it's vines. That's perhaps even more damning because it provides a connection to Hopper's own investigation with the pumpkins. He knew something was up with the chaos reigning over the crops recently. He needed Owens to take it seriously. But instead, he's the one out there digging in the field. He digs a hole into the vines themselves. It's a reveal that shows that the Upside Down is breaking through into this world and is much more complex and connected than anyone else was lead to believe.

Meanwhile, there is the appearance of simplicity in El's story. She returns to the cabin with no new threat coming towards her because she left the safe world Hopper created for her. Instead, she returns home to face the wrath of her new paternal figure. He is furious that she has broken the rules and grounds her. That means an escalation of time with no TV. It feels like a fairly standard plot about the struggles of parenting a teenager. And yet, it has more severe consequences than that. TV is more than just mindless entertainment for El. It's her means of escape. She can use it to see her friends by using her powers. It's a small comfort she has in the confinement of this cabin. This place is so limiting for her. The fight El and Hopper have is able to escalate because they both believe to be right while also saying some hurtful things. El compares Hopper to Brenner while Hopper criticizes that El can't clearly see how much danger she continues to be in. That's what makes Hopper break the TV as a form of punishment while El breaks the windows in pain. It's a tense encounter that is scary for both of them. Their relationship is so complex because they are both trying to fulfill certain roles with the other. But it's more complicated because of the secrecy and danger involved. And now, El has even more evidence that Hopper has been lying to her. The audience knew right away that it was a lie when Hopper said El's mother was dead. No TV means that El has the time to actually explore the cabin and the hidden contents Hopper has stored in the crawlspace. That leads her to the discovery of her mother. She can visit her thanks to the radio and see the pain she is in. But it's also a realization that she is still alive. More secrets are being kept from her. That's traumatizing and could very easily lead to her continuing to act out against Hopper while he is distracted by everything going on with the Byers family. 

Some more thoughts:
  • "Chapter Four: Will the Wise" was written by Paul Dichter and directed by Shawn Levy.
  • Dustin is still foolishly keeping it a secret that he found Dart and is keeping it at his house once more. The other friends are still focused on finding it and figuring out if it is connected to either the Upside Down or Will. Instead, Dustin returns home and the action does a slow and creepy shot panning in on the destruction that Dart has done in Dustin's room. It has killed the cat and grown once more. This is a creature that Dustin may not be able to control for much longer.
  • Mike is the only one who shows up at the Byers house after school to check up on Will. Dustin and Lucas are concerned as well. But Mike is the one who Will has confided in about his experiences in the Upside Down. And so, Mike immediately knows about the shadow monster. That forms trust with Joyce immediately even though she doesn't want to expand this circle of information beyond herself and Hopper.
  • The show is definitely being a little manipulative with Nancy and Jonathan's story. It makes the audience believe that they are taken by the agents from Hawkins Labs before being able to tell Barb's mother the truth. But in actuality, that was a part of their plan because they needed to get Owens on tape admitting to what happened last year in order to have proof that it actually did. It continues to showcase how Nancy chooses to fight back just like Joyce.
  • Paul Reiser continues to do a wonderful job in making Owens seem genial and compassionate until he starts delivering threats to ensure that people will keep quiet about what's going on in this building. He plays both sides of that personality in his interactions with Nancy and Jonathan. He also shows them the portal to the Upside Down that the scientists are continuing to burn to keep in control - not knowing that it has already spread elsewhere in Hawkins.
  • Of course, it's also important that the show keeps Jonathan and Bob separate from what's going on with Will, Joyce and Hopper. Jonathan only interacts with his mom and brother when he returns home to see them sharing a bed. That's not anything to worry about for him. And he leaves home before learning what's going on with Will and seeing the chaos that Joyce then spreads out across the floor of the living room.

As noted in previous reviews from this show, every episodic review was written without having seen any succeeding episodes. Similarly, it would be much appreciated if in the comments, the conversation would only revolve around the show up to this point in its run.