Episode four, I feel, demonstrates some of the arguments I've made about Stranger Things up to this point—chiefly that it works just as well to hint at something, rather than explain or show it outright. This is especially salient concerning special effects that aren't immediately convincing, for one reason or another.
I'm not just championing the old-school, here. However, the technicians of yore (at least sometimes) understood that hiding or partially-concealing their creations generally helped add to the effect, because it left whatever the audience saw as incomplete. As a result, viewers' minds would be left to fill in the blanks, themselves.
This is because our brains take whatever data our sensory organs supply us with and convert it into images; when the data is inadequate, the brain makes its own interpretative leaps, resulting in "visual" effects stronger than any technician's. The Gothic novelist Ann Radcliffe spearheaded the notion of terror as something that expanded imagination, rather than annihilate it. Hide something and your mind will make it grow—expanding into a monster more horrible than whatever could actually be hiding in the shadows.
Likewise, Stranger Things is at its best when it suggests, rather than spells out. It provides small pieces of a larger puzzle that we, ourselves, must solve, as we watch the show. When Hopper and Joyce shake Will down for info, regarding the shadow he saw in the Upside-Down, they persuade him to use his artistic talents to illustrate what he sees—described as "now-memories." This concept, in and of itself, wasn't entirely clear, at first, but eventually makes sense.
Granted, Will could have drawn it all on a single page, but where would the fun in that be? His incomplete illustrations also serve to make a point: the mind processes data much faster than it can communicate it, be that in images or words. What Will is drawing for us we've already seen—is shown to us ominously as a cross-cut point-of-view shot, underground somewhere. The stream of seemingly-random data is presented to us, piecemeal, and we're left to make heads or tails of it, ourselves, afterward.
This apophenia—or discovery of patterns in random data—is all part of the fun. There's a chance to actually be wrong with our interpretations. The characters toil on their hands and knees to connect the dots. Exhausted, they fall back on their laurels, gazing at their work—now complete, but no less enigmatic. The camera pulls back, and we see what they see, and are just as confused.
The diagram winds around the house like a maze. We can attribute it to the POV shot, from earlier, but we're still not sure what that was. Did it belong to the creature, or something—somewhere—else? This lack of conclusive, immediate, and direct results adds to the generative power of the scene (accomplished, I might add, with cameras, actors and crayons). There's no need for overly-expensive digital effects that reveal too much, in ways that don't allow for one's imagination to run wild.
To Stranger Things' credit, it understands this concept fairly well. If only it'd surrender once-and-for-all the need to rely on special effects that undermine it's goals, I'd do cartwheels.
In any case, the events of the episode, apart from Will's illustration session, are admittedly rather enjoyable. When his body rejects the warm bathwater, I remembered Dart likewise complaining loudly to Dustin about the heat lamp in his pet turtle's cage. I grin, imagining that Will and Dart are one in the same, much like the realization Lovecraft's protagonist from A Shadow over Innsmouth (1936) has, comparing himself to that story's so-called "deep ones." Between them exists a potential, terrifying homology meant to chill the blood.
Other aspects of the episode were equally and enjoyably revelatory. One, Billy reveals to a local squeeze that he and Max aren't related. I found myself thinking of the scene in episode 2 when he chewed Max out for the two of them being "stuck" in Hawkins. When I heard that, I imagined a twist, very similar to Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin (2014), with Max and Billy being space aliens, who, like that film, share a puzzling, unexplained relationship that regardless seems unhealthy to the audience. I wasn't wrong about them not being siblings. Maybe I won't be either, concerning this extraterrestrial theory. I'm happy to have a chance to forecast and be mistaken, rather than have the entire plot spelled out, to me.
Granted, there are moments where some exposition is supplied, all the same. In a wonderfully-tearful performance by Noah Schnapp, Will accounts his possession to Mike—to the extent that he can, as his now-memory clears, or awakens. Personally I would have preferred it to be kept entirely mysterious, with Will having no idea what is wrong. Instead, he is Will the Wise, cursed with "True Sight." He can partially see what is amiss. And yet, the show is still able to provide us with a narrative that isn't completely transparent; it walks a tightrope between awareness and stupefaction, allowing us to teeter along with it.
I enjoyed the explanation given by Mike, citing Will as a "super spy"; it reminded me of Tolkien's Return of the King (1955) with Aragorn and the seeing stone, where the Lord of the Rings and the King of the West see one another through the same magical circuit; they play games with one another, showing the other images to mislead them. Likewise, I enjoyed it when Nancy and Jonathan were in the park. As they're waiting to meet with Barb's mother, they sit anxiously. They look around them, unable to shake the sensation that they're being watched. To use a Radcliffe term, their paranoia was "exquisite torture."
At the same time, I was rather disappointed by how the Spielberg villains were so transparent, so easily duped. They seemingly allow themselves to be recorded by these two teenagers before letting them go—or they're simply incompetent (as many of the adults in this show are). Maybe it's a trick; maybe they're feeding the couple information, to see where it leads... except Hopper and Dr. Owens already seem fairly open with one another, all things considered.
I suspect it's more like a poker match: each is showing the other what they want them to see. In any case, I'm not sure how Jonathan and Nancy will lead Owens to Eleven. If Will's True Sight felt razor-sharp in its intent; here, with Owens, the plot feels somewhat convoluted. I don't mind waiting to catch a big fish; I do if it feels small, to begin with. In other words, Dr. Owens and the Spielberg scientists feel simple. They completely fail to ignite my imagination. They're just "bad men" who hate Russians. It's all rather mundane.
As poorly-visualized as the shadow creature is, at least its motives aren't spelled out. I felt a sense of untold relish as I watched Hopper stumble through the pumpkin patch, and then dig into the rotten soil with his spade. It made me think of Thoman Ligotti's "The Shadow at the Bottom of the World" (2005), where the scarecrow in that field is infused with a dark shadow or goo, that reaches up from the sick earth. Ligotti's inspiration was undoubtedly Lovecraft's "The Colour Out of Space" (1927).
Yet those stories (their shared iconography and implied narratives) function much more deftly than Spielberg's simplistic Cold War allegories. It goes to show that hero worship, like these perennially-virulent farmlands, doesn't always bear edible fruit—not when it's from a poisoned tree.
For the most part, things are progressing in a reliably satisfactory manner. However, I was a little appalled by Nancy's desire to "burn down" the lab. If Dr. Owens is right, burning the lab down isn't exactly the wisest of plans. Who's going to burn it down, exactly—the government, the news agency? Am I supposed to believe that her cure-all to the town's potential inter-dimensional invasion is a media circus? Not sure that's smart. Then again, Dr. Owens might be lying when he's telling them the gap can't be closed, too. That's all up in the air.
However, one thing that struck me as irrefutably stupid was Hopper going down under the field by himself. He's had experience with this threat, before. So I'm stumped as to why he'd take it upon himself to sleuthing solo against such a dangerous foe. I mean, look at where he is. Would you go down there?
Granted, he's never been one to shy away from danger. At the same time, his brief moment of idiocy seems like a naked attempt to place a key character in the show "in danger." The problem is everyone in the show knows better. I wish that aspect of the writing were better. Then again, if people never screwed up, nothing would ever happen. It's a fine line, one the show occasionally strays from.
That being said, at least the tunnel itself looks grand. It's a real set, dark, and lit much in the same fashion as such alien topography would be in a Ridley Scott film. Everything is dressed in shadows, and vines pulse like veins, briefly exposed by flashlight until Hopper pulls back in disgust. Good stuff.
On to episode 5. Stay tuned for more.