[Editor’s Note: The following story contains spoilers for “Stranger Things 4.”]
“Stranger Things 4” treads a whole lot of water before showing its hand at the end of Episode 7 — but what a hand it is.
Like most television shows, “Stranger Things” uses its episodic structure to follow multiple parallel storylines. One follows Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), one follows the Upside Down, and there may be others, all destined to converge roughly around the finale when El can save the world. Waiting for everything to come together can be excruciating as the hours pass.
Next time will be different.
There are technically only two episodes left of “Stranger Things 4,” but for the first time ever, fans will have to wait over a month to watch the season conclude — and they now know the villain’s true identity and motive as those final hours approach.
Episode 7, “The Massacre at Hawkins Lab,” revealed that the monster Vecna is in fact Peter Ballard (Jamie Campbell Bower), the aide Eleven remembers from her time at the lab. To complicate matters further, Ballard is the son of Victor Creel (Robert Englund) and went on to become One, the first child Dr. Brenner (Matthew Modine) ever used for his experiments.
That is a lot to reveal in the last 20 minutes of an episode (a 90-minute episode, preceded by six 70-minute episodes), but the twist leaves things at a compelling juncture. Eleven has opened and closed gates to the Upside Down before, but this time she also used her powers to decimate One and banish him from this dimension. She remains linked to the Upside Down because her powers repeatedly peak when she breaches its boundaries. And if she sent him there, she might be able to bring him back.
Unmasking Peter as Victor Creel’s son and as One is arguably too much. Either reveal on its own would have been effective, though landing multiple narrative punches in a row increases the chances of a twist worth talking about. One proves to be a far more compelling addition to El’s backstory than Eight (Linnea Berthelsen) in Season 2, a confluence of both sinister and supernatural that fits the overall sci-fi/horror of “Stranger Things 4.” Campbell-Bower plays the uncanny confidence superbly; There is at once something deeply off about Peter, but also a quality that young El can’t help being drawn to — that misfit child in him that speaks to the one in her.
While Peter monologues in El’s memory, Nancy (Natalia Dyer) is in the Upside Down — or maybe some kind of sideways — where she visits the Creel house. She witnesses the same events Victor described, now through Peter’s experience: The boy Peter, unable to fit in and subsequently disillusioned with the human endeavor, starts tapping into his own psychic abilities by casting visions upon his family and mutilating animals. He eventually kills his mother and sister, passing out from the effort and appearing dead himself.
As soon as boy Peter kills a rabbit, the link is incontrovertible. He kills in the same gruesome and performative manner as Vecna — murders that Victor and present-day Hawkins residents can’t help but associate with devilry and witchcraft. As his father goes to prison, he ends up in Hawkins Lab under the care and study of Dr. Brenner.
As the revelation clicks into place in El’s memory, it also exposes Brenner’s motives. He wants revenge on his once-star pupil, by way of his current protégé. He always knew what Peter was capable of but pushed him anyway, and kept him around the children at Hawkins Lab. Over the course of El’s memories, Peter positions himself as an ally and confidante for the vulnerable child, isolating her from her environment and ultimately pushing her to unlock her abilities in their most dangerous form. Despite his own hatred of Brenner, he uses El just as shamelessly and faces the consequences.
Early in Episode 7, Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) poses a critical question that gets lost while he and his friends attempt to open a gate of their own: “What do Eleven and Vecna have in common?” Those final moments give us the answer, and it is the key to destroying Vecna in “Volume 2” and defeating the Mind Flayer once and for all. Vecna and Eleven were gifted children with superhuman abilities which they ended up using in drastically different ways. Vecna proves that such individuals can survive in the Upside Down, even serves as a cautionary tale for what El could have been. Vecna is the first Upside Down villain with memories.
Though not a shock for sharp-eyed fans, Peter’s true identity and link to the Upside Down makes him the most compelling “Stranger Things” villain so far, one with motives, method, and a haunting, human past. He knows what he wants and how to get it, knows his victims’ minds and weaknesses. He’s weakening the barrier between Hawkins and the Upside Down, and he’s not even the main event. As Dustin pointed out, this is all still in service of the Mind Flayer: “Vecna’s his five-star general…who can open gates.”
“Volume 1” was criticized for long episodes and arguably needless subplots, but unmasking the antagonist ahead of the final two episodes could give them a necessary shot of adrenaline. For once, fans have all the cards before the big showdown — and it can’t come soon enough.
“Stranger Things 4: Volume 1” is now streaming on Netflix.