Unlike the previous episode, there is little filler in “Dear Billy”. Chapter Four maximizes every minute of its 79 minute runtime, gripping us with horrific imagery and emotional reckoning. Sadie Sink establishes herself as the season’s anchor, the ghosts of Victor Creel are unearthed, and David Harbour is finally given something to work with*.
Director: Shawn Levy
Writers: Paul Dichter, (Matt Duffer; Ross Duffer, creators)
Runtime: 79 minutes
US Release: May 27, 2022; Netflix
As Max accepts the fact she’s next on Vecna’s (Jamie Campbell Bower) hit list, she begins writing goodbye letters to her loved ones; it’s the kind of therapeutic process she needs regardless of the circumstances. One such letter is delivered to her mom, whom Max spies in the yard. A touching mother-daughter moment ensues – Max again displays the vulnerability she’s long concealed – but soon it’s revealed to all be a Vecna mind trick. Trapped in her “day dream”, Max is told that her time is almost up. It is a genuinely shocking moment, showcasing the insidious horror that makes this – and A Nightmare on Elm Street – so chilling.
Speaking of A Nightmare on Elm Street, this is my third reference to the 1984 classic over the course of these reviews. Imagine my delight then, when my sense of homage was confirmed in “Dear Billy”. Turns out the actor playing Victor Creel is none other than Freddy himself, Robert Englund. Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and Robin (Maya Hawke) have conned their way into the inmost cave of the asylum. There they converse with Creel, who shares the tragic events of his life thirty years prior. The 1950s flashback seems new for the series, but maintains that trademark strand of corrupted nostalgia that Stranger Things does so well. In addition to providing critical information for Nancy and Robin, the inclusion of Creel also adds a subtle layer to the series.
Unlike the fantastical realm of the Upside Down, Vecna seems to inhabit a more familiar hell. In memorably heightened language, Creel speaks of “the spawn of Satan”, angels, and demons. As the flashback revels in haunted house conventions, you are struck with the impression that there may be a more religious bent to this whole thing. We’ll see how far the Duffer Brothers are willing to lean into that, but the change in tone lends itself well to meaningful character catharsis.
No character grapples with this more than Max. Her final letter is the most personal; it is addressed to her abusive older step-brother Billy, who was possessed and killed by the Mind Flayer in season three. It’s a lot for a teenager to handle, but Max is determined to confront her demons. She does so at Billy’s grave. Director Shawn Levy keeps the focus on this moment, allowing Sink to work through the letter; it is instantly among the best performances the show has seen.
When she finishes, wiping away her tears, the sky grows dark. Vecna has come for her, in the form of Billy (Dacre Montgomery) no less. What ensues is a thrilling cat-and-mouse between Max and Vecna in the dreamworld. Meanwhile, Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), and Steve (Joe Keery) do what they can to snap Max out of her trance. Based on information relayed from Nancy and Robin’s discoveries with Creel, the boys pull Max out of Vecna’s clutches by playing Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill (A Deal with God)” through her headphones.
In the dreamworld, the song cuts through the darkness. Max recalls all the love in her life and the sudden infusion of hope weakens Vecna enough to let her slip away. Back in the real world, she awakens in the warm embrace of her friends. The whole sequence is enthralling and heartfelt. Like Creel’s memories of his family, Max’s journey is uniquely poignant and seemingly rooted in a kind of faith. Faith in loved ones, faith in oneself, and faith that the Devil can be beaten.
*Hopper’s story grows much more interesting, but let’s face it, this is Vecna’s world and we’re all living in it.
by Vincent S. Hannam