**Warning: contains spoilers for Stranger Things season 4 part 1**
You’d be forgiven for thinking that Stranger Things – a show chock full of creepy Demogorgons, Mind Flayers and ominous red clouds – is purely the stuff of fantasy. That while the Netflix hit is anchored by pop culture references and is steeped in '80s aesthetics, its subject matter is anything but realistic.
However, things have shifted slightly in the newly-released season 4. Yes, it is still very much a sci-fi series about Dungeons and Dragons and weird membrane-like portals to the Upside Down. But its “monster”, Vecna, adopts psychological warfare to target his prey – which, I would argue, very much serves as an allegory for trauma, depression and mental illness, which is all too real.
It is suggested that Vecna’s first victim, Chrissy Cunningham (Grace Van Dien), has an eating disorder and that Fred Benson (Logan Riley Bruner) is still haunted by the fact he accidentally killed someone in a car crash the year prior.
Patrick McKinney (Myles Truitt), too, was targeted, although we have little detail (currently) about his psychological trauma and what led to Vecna’s attack.
Front and centre of this storyline, however, is Max (Sadie Sink), who, after her brother Billy’s (Dacre Montgomery) death in the previous season, is suffering from grief and guilt, and the trauma of witnessing his death. Believing that she stood by and watched him sacrifice his life to save everyone else, Max retreats from her friendship circle and becomes increasingly isolated.
It is during one of her regular visits to the school counsellor that we learn of her headaches, trouble sleeping and nightmares/flashbacks – symptoms of depression and PTSD. As the story moves on, we understand that these are mostly affections caused by Vecna's attack, but it doesn’t make it any less poignant to those who identify with themes of mental illness.
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Episode 4, titled Dear Billy, is where the show really doubles down on this message. With Max at risk of attack, not only does she prepare letters for her friends and family, she visits Billy’s graveside to explain to him how she’s feeling and to apologise for not doing more – even though she was in no way to blame. This is often a technique used to treat those suffering with trauma, to help them put past events in order.
It’s by his headstone that her mind and body are seized by Vecna, and she struggles to free herself from his overbearing, distorting presence. This whole scene really spoke to me, as someone who has clinical depression, as more often than not, those with mental illnesses feel as though they have to combat their thoughts, feelings and low mood alone. They think and believe things that other people cannot always understand or see themselves, and it can be all-consuming.
When Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Steve (Joe Keery) all rally around their friend in her hour of need, then, it is all the more striking. Beyond saving Max from the Upside Down and meeting her gory end, they remind her that she is not alone and that she does have people around her who care. They bring her back from the edge and let her know that no matter what demons she is facing, they are by her side.
In a particularly touching moment, Lucas tells her: “I see you.”
Speaking about the storyline during a roundtable interview, actor Sadie Sink explained how she approached season 4.
“I mean, yeah, [Max] had some heavy stuff this year. It was kind of a nice challenge, figuring out what these types of colours looked like on Max and [to] find something that felt true to her,” she said.
“It was kind of a more careful process than I think I was used to in previous seasons. Because, I mean, we were always dealing with supernatural elements and heavy stuff like that. But season 4, it feels a little bit more human.”
She added: “So it required a little bit more attention and, and focus. I mean, we're always very focused. But season 4 was like... I don't know, it’s kind of good to be delicate with it.”
And I would have to agree. The way the show – and Sadie herself – approached this topic was nothing short of sublime. It was powerful and moving, and really took the fantasy genre back to its roots of allegorical storytelling.
Stranger Things might be about the supernatural, but that doesn’t mean that it’s hollow or without purpose – and the first half of season 4 proves it.
If you're struggling or wish to know more about mental health issues and depression, please contact MindInfoline at 0300 123 3393 or visit www.mind.org.uk.
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Stranger Things 4 part 1 is out now on Netflix, with more coming on 1st July 2022. Stranger Things seasons 1-3 are now available on Netflix.
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