Netflix’s Stranger Things
“Chapter One: The Hellfire Club”
Directed & Written
by The Duffer Brothers
* For a recap & review of Season 3’s finale, click here.
* For a recap & review of 4×02, click here.
A paper boy goes about his deliveries in a quaint neighbourhood. Inside one of the houses, someone sets a timer while they meticulously finish a crossword puzzle. After that they do a bit of plant pruning, then some shaving. This is where Dr. Martin Brenner lives.
It’s September 8th, 1979. At Hawkins National Laboratories, all the kids with extraordinary powers go about their days. Dr. Brenner visits with a child, who’s marked with the number 10; we also see Eleven’s room. Brenner and Ten do a bit of testing. He gently pushes the boy to do a little psychic reading, drawing on a piece of paper then asking Ten to guess what he’s drawn. After that, Brenner asks Ten to “find Dr. Ellis.” Ten sees Dr. Ellis with Six doing tests. We can easily tell that Dr. Brenner is trying to spy on his colleague, and whatever’s going on disturbs Ten deeply. Suddenly, an alarm goes off throughout the labs. Then Ten says both Dr. Ellis and Six are dead. Screams and all sorts of noises are heard outside the door before the door explodes off its hinges, knocking Brenner out.
When Dr. Brenner comes to he’s alone and Ten is dead and mangled. The screams continue outside. Brenner stumbles out to see bloody, mangled corpses everywhere, from the children to the staff. He eventually finds young Eleven in the midst of it all, covered in blood.
In current series time it’s March of 1986. Eleven writes to Mike after they’ve been apart a while since Eleven and the Byers family left Hawkins for Lenora Hills, California. She’s busy trying to fit in among her new surroundings. Joyce has a new job working from home over the phone, which is a great contrast to our lives in the age of the pandemic. Will and Jonathan are each doing okay; Jonathan’s been into smoking “smelly plants” with a friend of his lately while Will’s still figuring himself out as he grows up. Soon enough it’ll be Spring Break, which gives Eleven hope, excited to see Mike again.
Meanwhile, Mike’s back in Hawkins trying to get through the last day and night before flying off to California to see Eleven. Dustin and Suzie are putting their big brains together to become somewhat early computer hackers. Lucas is playing basketball, and looking for Max’s attention, albeit she doesn’t seem too impressed with him being a jock. Then there’s Steve and Robin each trying to navigate their respective love lives. A bit easier for Steve, considering the fact Robin doesn’t want to become the “town pariah” if people discover she’s a lesbian.
At Hawkins High, there’s a pep rally for the basketball team and the team’s captain remembers those that Hawkins has lost, attempting to pump everybody up. Of course Mike and Friends don’t see a basketball game as something to get that excited over, and it’s obviously causing a rift between them and Lucas, even if they’re still all able to stay friends. Mike and Dustin are upset because a basketball game is getting in the way of Hellfire Club, their Dungeons and Dragons group. I love Stranger Things because it takes me back to a time and place when these sorts of situations were big, massive deals in our lives, as if the be-all, end-all of youth, when in reality it’s just life: sometimes friends are busy, but also sometimes friends need to make sacrifices, whether big or little.
At home in California, Joyce receives a package with a ton of stamps on it from the Soviet Union. She tears it open and finds a Russian doll inside. She’s clearly confused. Or, rather, worried.
In school, Eleven takes part in a class exercise talking about heroes. She’s chosen her dad, Jim Hopper, as her hero. She made a diorama to show the cabin and everything they shared together. The other kids in class just laugh at her, poking and prodding. Will watches on while Eleven struggles and it’s one of those heartbreaking scenes from being young with which many of us can likely empathise.
We watch Max visit the guidance counsellor at school. She talks about her mother working a lot and struggling with alcoholism. She’s glad it’s only them at home now; “less assholery.” She’s still clearly traumatised by the death of her brother, though keeps that deep inside. After the counsellor, Max runs into Lucas, who says she’s “like a ghost” lately. He wants to be there for her, despite them breaking up, but she can’t open up right now; not to him, not to anybody. Later Max runs into a sick girl, Chrissy, in the bathroom but the girl wants to be alone. That’s when Chrissy thinks she hears her mother outside the stall door, except it’s something FAR more terrifying. It tries to get in but can’t. Then, it’s gone.
Newsweek and 60 Minutes are in the swing of things bashing Dungeons and Dragons while Hellfire Club and its leader Eddie don’t dig forcing conformity, “the real monster.” Bad time for Mike and Dustin to have to tell Eddie that Lucas can’t make it to Hellfire Club this week. Eddie doesn’t want any of his club members to be “taken in by the dark side.” And certainly not when their game’s getting serious; they’re approaching Vecna. Now, Eddie wants Dustin and Mike to begin recruiting for Hellfire since he’ll be moving along soon, leaving the club in their hands. Mostly he just wants an alternate to fill in for Lucas tonight.
Joyce calls Murray about the Russian package and the doll. Murray suggests undressing the doll, looking for “wires or a bug.” Joyce takes off the doll’s dress and sees there’s a crack in it, suggesting that there may be something lurking inside. After she elaborately smashes the Russian doll open she finds a piece of paper inside: it says that Hopper’s alive. At the same time, Jonathan and Nancy are struggling with their long distance relationship, though they’re incredibly in love, it seems.
Dustin and Mike are in a struggle of their own trying to find someone to fill Lucas’s spot at Hellfire. At the same time, Chrissy’s privately going through something bad. She walks out of Hawkins High and beelines into the forest by herself. She comes upon a grandfather clock in a tree. The clock’s glass cracks and spiders crawl through it. But only Chrissy sees it. Eddie walks up on her and he can’t see any clock or spiders. He’s actually there to sell Chrissy drugs out of his little black lunchpail. They chat a bit and Eddie brings up meeting Chrissy in middle school. They actually have things in common, they’re just on opposite ends of the high school social spectrum.
Eleven a.k.a Jane gets tripped up in front of everybody by one of the mean girls in her class, Angela, which beats up her diorama. The dumb kids stomp on the diorama right in front of her, too. This pushes Eleven to the point she tries to use her powers. And nothing happens. Embarrassing for her. Then Angela’s dragged off in trouble by one of the teachers. The damage is done to Eleven; she not only feels socially isolated at school, she probably feels completely isolated from her own life, no longer able to use the powers she once knew so well.
Mike and Dustin find a replacement for Lucas: none other than Lucas’s sister, Erica. This doesn’t impress Eddie until Erica displays her complete knowledge about all things Dungeons and Dragons. She’s a bad ass and will not be denied, which Eddie digs. So while Lucas is out on the court balling, his younger sister’s at the Hellfire table throwing down with the club as they face a cult worshipping the dreaded Vecna, who’s returned from the dead to terrorise the living. “I say we fight to the death,” says Dustin, pumping up the rest of Hellfire.
Love the way this episode juxtaposes the basketball game and the Dungeons & Dragons game, the dice bouncing off the board like the ball rolling around the rim, Hellfire having a huddle just as the Hawkins team does on the court, most of the sequence set to “Detroit Rock City” by Kiss. While Lucas takes a buzzer beater shot for Hawkins High, Erica rolls the dice for Hellfire, both of which hit their respective marks. And all rejoice! Yet it doesn’t feel good for Lucas when he sees his friends coming out of Hellfire, along with his sister, none of them having witnessed his triumph.
That night, Eddie takes Chrissy back to his trailer to do some Special K. While he looks for the drugs she waits and out of nowhere she hears the grandfather clock ticking, ringing, as if calling out to her. Chrissy goes to look for Eddie but finds her mother sewing. And her mother has the face of a demonic entity. Chrissy turns to run and finds herself in a completely different house, back at home. She sees her father with his eyes and mouth sewn shut.
Eddie finds his drugs and goes back to share with Chrissy, but she’s in a strange, near catatonic state. The lights start flashing. Chrissy’s still caught in that other place. She sees a hideous creature begin to come down the stairs. She runs but comes upon a dining room full of mouldy, rotten food. She can’t escape the house at all, boarded inside. And poor Eddie’s unable to get Chrissy to snap out of it. Chrissy’s soon confronted by the horrible creature in her house; it looks like a wet skeleton and a sea creature all in one. The thing wants to end Chrissy’s supposed suffering. Eddie watches Chrissy levitate off the floor, then she slams into the ceiling, her bones twisting and snapping before, finally, her eyeballs cave in.