After the downpour in Season 3 Episode 3 of ‘Stranger Things’, Episode 4 of the Netflix show takes us back into the sun. However, this is not as much of a relief as it is more of a light shining on the rotten core of this idyllic town, that was only hinted at for so long.
For those unaware, this season has eight episodes, so this episode is smack dab in the middle. Accordingly, the Duffer brothers have already brought in a change of pace, from a casual introduction of characters and general unraveling of threats to the third episode, where they put a lot of narratives in motion, from secret Russians at the Starcourt Mall, to mysterious dropping of magnets and diseased rats, to the secret army Billy seems to be forming. Episode 4, titled ‘The Sauna Test’, is like a shot of adrenaline to the already pacy plot and we can anticipate that things will reach a crescendo in the next few episodes to come.
In the last episode, amidst all the things that happened, Will also realized that his goosebump-inducing chills were a sign that the Shadow Monster from Upside Down was back. Think of Will’s feeling as similar to Harry Potter’s scar acting up every time Voldemort is around. All differences are put aside as the squad gets back together to deal with Will’s problem and what it means. Well, all of the squad except Dustin, who is still tangled up in the Russian spy mystery at Starcourt Mall. Anyhow, our Hawkins group decides that the Shadow Monster must somehow still be trapped in our world instead of the Upside Down, and this creature must have found a new host. This host is none other than Billy, and following Will’s instructions and Mike’s ideas, the group devises a plan to trap and test Billy for being possessed by this monster.
In the meanwhile, Hopper, who received a beatdown from the unknown assailant in the last episode doles out some punches of his own, and the slithery Mayor Kline is at the receiving end of it. The sheriff makes the connection that he had seen the biker at the mayor’s office and is not afraid to get rough to get some answers, including the creative but sadistic use of a cigar cutting machine. Nancy and Jonathan’s rat investigation is stymied by their boss, and they get fired. We are not sure yet, but it seems as though they are also taking a break from their relationship since Nancy feels that Jonathan cannot understand his male privilege, and Jonathan feels Nancy cannot understand her financial privilege. This mystery takes the backseat for now, but the Starcourt mystery heats up and is one of the best parts of this episode.
The Starcourt squad (that’s what we are calling it) find a new member in Erica (the girl who kept asking for free ice cream samples). They use her to access the air ducts and enter the room guarded by the Russians. However, this exercise proves to raise more questions than answers since they discover some green stuff in protected test tubes and casings inside the room. What the green stuff is, is anybody’s guess but the room actually turns out to be an elevator leading somewhere underground. Where they are headed, is something that the next episode will unravel.
While the last episode raised a lot of questions about puzzles, this episode is about a lot of theories to test out how to solve those puzzles. Speaking of theories, Hopper’s beatdown of the mayor gives him a lead that Kline is in, neck-deep with the people at Starcourt Mall, who have purchased properties near the power plant. Believing this to be the source of problems for Joyce’s magnets, they go to investigate.
However, the bigger test comes when our core protagonists, the Hawkins group, traps Billy into the sauna room to see if the monster is inside him. It turns out they are right on the money, and what follows is a riveting fight sequence where El shows the true extent of her powers, while the Shadow Monster proves to be just as formidable with a strong lad like Billy as his host. While the battle is inconclusive, the song “We’ll Meet Again” begins to play. There is a note of promise in that song, and this could be the showrunners’ way of telling us that El and the gang will tangle with the Shadow Monster again. By the end of the episode, one of our theories does get confirmed. Billy is building an army for this monster, who is using people as hosts, and he seems to have amassed an impressive number already.
With Hopper on the trail of the assailant, the Starcourt squad on their way down to probably a secret Russian base, and the Shadow Monster and El and the gang aware of each other’s presence, the next few episodes are looking more promising than ever.
Okay, hands down, the best thing about this episode for me were the action sequences. Finally, we get to see El use her powers, and though it might be a little disconcerting to see a pumped up grown man throwing kids around, the Hawkins gang gets in their fair number of shots and prove why they work best together. It is great to see this coordination is back and maybe this will continue for the rest of the season. On this note, we believe Dacre Montgomery, who plays Billy, deserves praise here. He has shown his versatility this season by portraying a range of emotions, from sultry, to confused, to poignant, to outright evil.
Speaking of evil, Kline comes across as a one-dimensional character we are supposed to hate. We hope that changes soon, and though we did love Hopper’s own brand of justice, beating up the mayor might be something that comes back to bite him later, and also reflects badly that the sheriff who has had his own emotional roller coaster, might be beginning to lose it. Anyhow, seeing how the Duffer brothers are invested in character development, they should give Kline a better story.
This love for character development is evident in the interaction between Nancy and her mother. While the rat investigation has not been as interesting until now, and it might not amount to much in the greater scheme of things, but Nancy’s mother’s pep talk is not just words. She seems to be conveying experiences of her own, that she too was destined for something else but ended up trapped in this life. Perhaps, that is why in Episode 1 she almost went to the motel to meet Billy. It shows how dedicated the showrunners are, and brings a degree of nuance in the script about how the world beats down upon women until they become subservient to society’s whims.
I have saved the best for last, as we come to our delightful Starcourt squad. They have a new member, Erica, who is lippy but fun. They seem to be far removed from the troubles of the Upside Down, and caught up in their own Russian spy story. Dustin and Steve show some great bromance again, with Dustin urging Steve to push his ‘ass’ if needed to get him into the duct, and telling him that he would die with Steve if needed. However, Erica is quickly winning my heart with her dialogues as well, saying that she has no phobias, and showing her courage when needed. After all, you cannot spell America without Erica, as she points out!
Overall, this is the most action-packed episode of the show yet, and since our protagonists are only scratching at the surface of the evil, we fully expect things to escalate in the upcoming episodes. However, the Duffer brothers are juggling many storylines in this season, and we hope they can stick the landing as well.
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