“The Hellfire Club”
- Creator: The Duffer Brothers
- Starring: Millie Bobbie Brown, Finn Wolfhard, David Harbour, Winona Ryder, Noah Schnapp, Gaten Matarazzo, Caleb McLaughlin, Sadie Sink, Natalia Dyer, Charlie Heaton, Joe Keery
Warning: Reviews of Stranger Things season 4 will contain spoilers.
The most bizarre aspect of the newest season of Stranger Things is one that nobody could control. Yes, much like many other returning shows in 2022, Netflix’s cultural smash was delayed because of COVID after it was scheduled to begin filming in 2020. This wouldn’t be such an issue if it wasn’t so specifically tied to a specific time and place: adolescence in the 80’s. Its stars are now mostly 20 or older (of its principal cast, Noah Schnapp is the youngest at 18 today) playing freshmen in high school.
But if you can get past the Dear Evan Hansen Effect, you’ll still find a mostly solid 76 minutes (more on that in a minute) of television. The first two or three episodes of each season of the Duffer brothers’ show tends to start out slow, teasing out the horrors to come, and “The Hellfire Club” is no exception. Though, understandably, the show has to establish where each character amongst its ever-expanding cast is at and how things have changed since the events of season 3, plus introduce this season’s new players. So let’s get right to it:
Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) and the Byers clan have moved to California, where she’s about as normal as she’s been, but still an outcast amongst her peers. She goes by Jane Hopper now. At least she has Will (Schnapp) to fall back to, and Joyce (Winona Ryder), who now sells encyclopedias by phone. One moment of note: after being teased for creating a diorama of her hero, Hopper (David Harbour), Eleven tries to use her powers in a bout of frustration but finds herself unable to do so. Meanwhile, back in Hawkins, Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Galen Matarazzo), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), and Max (Sadie Sink) are still far from the popular group, but they’ve found a few enthusiastic D&D players to sit with at lunch. “The Hellfire Club” takes its name from the eponymous group that plays a high-stakes game that just happens to coincide with the big game for the school’s basketball team, of which Lucas is now a member. The show occasionally brings up the traumatic events of last season – understandably, since it happened 3 years ago in real time – but when it does, it’s mostly through Max and her grief of losing her brother Billy traumatically.
It’s unclear if Chrissy (Grace Van Dien), the school’s It Girl and head cheerleader, will simply be the season’s first victim, or if her arc will be more substantial, but her moments alone are the show at its terrifying best. It begins when the lights flicker and she hears demonic voices in the school bathroom – after throwing up, an understated but strong character beat – and the episode’s finale expands upon those visions. Freaked out beyond belief, she turns to Eddie (Joseph Quinn), another series newcomer and the leader of the Hellfire Club, to buy some drugs to calm her nerves. But she’s greeted by a human-like monster, who looks like he was designed in line with the creatures from the Upside Down. The series has often leaned in to its 80’s influences, and the finale of “The Hellfire Club” feels straight out of Poltergeist or any other demonic possession/body horror film.
Yes, there are more and more plot threads and character developments at play throughout this episode, but these seem to be the most crucial to the season so far. Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) and Nancy (Natalia Dyer) are doing the long-distance romance thing, which likely won’t amount to much, but I’ll never complain about seeing Dyer or Heaton on screen. I suppose I should also mention that Joyce receives a mysterious doll in the mail, stamped with Russian postage. At the behest of Murray (Brett German), she smashes it and finds a cryptic note suggesting that Hopper is still alive, but this was already all but confirmed before the season began, even if you haven’t spent the last three years devouring every bit of leaked news or interviews from anyone involved with the show.
Much has been made of this season’s possibilities, primarily the fact that Netflix has given the Duffer brothers the keys to the company coffers, with each episode costing a whopping $30 million. And the almost feature-length running time of each of the season’s nine episodes (the finale is an insane 2.5 hours long). As for whether the runtimes are justified or not, I’ll need another episode or two to render a final verdict, since the season opener of any show has so much set-up to handle.
Expectations couldn’t be higher for Netflix’s biggest hit and, based on the season premiere, the Duffer brothers still know what they’re doing. The show may have its detractors, those who say it relies too heavily on 80’s nostalgia and shallow characters, and “The Hellfire Club” serves as a nice litmus test: if you’ve always liked the show, you’ll like where this one is heading. If not, you’re in for more of the same.
7 Episodes of Stranger Things are available on Netflix now. Episodes 8 and 9 will premiere on July 1.