The older the characters on Stranger Things get, the more complicated their problems become. And Volume 1 of Season 4 proves that their emotional complexities are not just some side story to deal with after they save their town from a supernatural entity.
The fourth season of Stranger Things introduces Vecna, a demon that preys on vulnerabilities of the human inhabitants in Hawkins. Once he smells your fear and trauma, he sets his sights on you, getting inside your mind to exacerbate those fears and trauma, and warp what you understand of your surroundings, before killing you. That's a far cry from the demogorgon, who, as series star Charlie Heaton, who plays Jonathan, points out, was like a "rabid dog."
"Vecna is the puppetmaster of all these monsters," Heaton tells Metacritic. "He's part of the mythology of the whole show. He's our ultimate adversary — or Eleven's ultimate adversary, at least. He's also, I think, the scariest villain that we've faced. This is not a quick attack out of nowhere; he taunts his prey and hunts his prey and plays with them."
"It's really scary because it seems personal. It seems like he's really good at getting inside of your mind, which is not something that really seemed like a motivation for the demogorgon because [that was], 'Oh this scary monster is going to eat us now.' But it's so much more than that," adds series star Gaten Matarazzo, who plays Dustin.
Vecna can get personal because he knows what it's like to be a person. Because it turns out he is not merely a supernatural force: He was once a person with supernatural abilities. He is both the son of Victor Creel (Robert Englund) and One, the mysterious first patient in the National Laboratory in which Eleven grew up who became the stuff of folklore. He presented himself as an orderly (and is played by Jamie Campbell Bower in adult human form). He is the one responsible for killing the Creel family and he is also responsible for the massacre in the National Laboratory, and (as he put it), each life he took made him stronger and became a part of him.
But when he told Eleven his life story, she ended up destroying him, literally ripping him open with her powers and then sending him into the Upside Down, where his physical being was further tortured and transformed into the demon known as Vecna.
Vecna feeds off of the dark truths of people who don't show their full selves to the world, which makes anyone who has pain, grief, shame, or other secrets vulnerable. Enter Max (Sadie Sink), who is still mourning the loss of her older brother Billy (Dacre Montgomery) in the season and has emotionally distanced herself from some of her core group, including breaking up with Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin). In the fourth episode of Season 4, it all comes to a head for Max, who, when visiting Billy's grave, gets taken by Vecna.
"In terms of Max and how she's the perfect victim, it really is unfortunate because these dark thoughts are eating away at her, and it's the thing she doesn't want anyone to find out, but it's also what Vecna feeds off of, so she feels really exposed and vulnerable," Sink tells Metacritic.
Although Max is vulnerable to Vecna infiltrating her mind, she has the support of her friends on her side. After confiding in them that she has been experiencing some oddities, they work together to race against the literal clock Vecna shows his victims to find a way to save her. It gets extremely down to the wire, as Vecna pulls her into his mind lair, which puts Max's physical body in a trance as her consciousness comes face-to-face with the demon in a vine-covered, fiery red broken home of despair.
Vecna's vines pull her and trap her in place, coiling around her throat to kill her as Vecna repeats her fears about not really belonging with her friends. Like his previous victims, she levitates, signaling that he is almost through with her, but before he can actually kill her, her friends shove headphones over her ears and blast her favorite song, Kate Bush's "Running Up That Hill" from a Walkman. This opens a portal in his mind lair to show her friends gathered around her in Hawkins, trying to bring her back. She flashes through memories of her friends and manages to break Vecna's hold on her so she can run through the portal, returning to her body and her friends, probably much to his surprise.
"That was actually a real person in the prosthetics," Sink says of filming the mind lair scene. "We had a lot of practical effects this year, so it was easy to just imagine yourself there and go to that place. That was a really good, intense little sequence, but honestly some of the most fun scenes I got to shoot."
The sequence took four days to film, Sink shares, and that included a lot of harness work for her in both the mind lair and Hawkins cemetery as she was levitating. The vines, however, were all put in via visual effects, Sink says.
After Max survives, she is able to sketch out her memories from being inside the mind lair, which Nancy (Natalia Dyer) realizes feature fragments of Victor's house. But talking to Victor, which Nancy and Robin (Maya Hawke) do, is far from all they need to do to get to the bottom of who Vecna is and how to stop him.
Along with Steve (Joe Keery) and Eddie (Joseph Quinn), who has thus far been accused of being a ritualistic spree killer by the townspeople who still don't know the truth of the Upside Down, Nancy and Robin end up in the Upside Down for a little while. And while there, Nancy is able to see Vecna's childhood memories in his home.
But to go up against him, they will need Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), who (when she has her powers) is the only one who can match what he can do.
Eleven is not as powerful as she once was after having spent months living in California with Jonathan, Joyce (Winona Ryder), and Will (Noah Schnapp). And in that time, she has assumed Hopper (David Harbour) is dead. So, not only is she without some of her support system, but she also is grieving, similar to Max.
Controlling her emotions was key to harnessing her abilities, but without them — and with her new grief, isolation from her boyfriend Mike (Finn Wolfhard), and experience being bullied in school — Eleven ends up resorting to physical violence to take action against her bully. After smashing a roller skate into the girl's face, Eleven is supposed to be sent to juvenile hall, but luckily Sam (Paul Reiser) intervenes. He brings her back to the National Laboratory so Papa (Matthew Modine) can immerse her in her memories and retrain her. And clearly, it's not a moment too soon.
"I get super defensive when people try to make her out to be something she's not. She just doesn't know," Brown says.
"You see the scene where she is being questioned by the police officers and they're saying, 'Why did you do it? Were you intending to kill her?' And she says, 'I don't know,'" Brown recalls. "When she's answering, that's the truth. She doesn't know if she wanted to kill her or not. I think that's the theme of the season is that El doesn't know who she is. She doesn't know why she does the things she does, because she doesn't know who she is. I think that's what you'll have to find out this season."
The final episodes of Stranger Things Season 4 stream July 1 on Netflix.
Megan Vick contributed to this story.