The Flashback Sequence of Episode 7
New narrative techniques are most often the province of literature and poetry rather than film. For example, in the famous so-called Brown Stocking scene from Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, the narrator floats around in time and space making the identity of the narrator unclear.
A form of cinematic twist on narrative technique appears in episode 7 of season 4 of Netflix’s flagship show, Stranger Things. Reportedly costing $270 million (the highest per episode program at $30 million per episode) Stranger Things4 is full of incredible action and special effects. With shares of Netflix plunging 35 percent, it will most likely be the last time Netflix spends so much for a series. In fact, the Wall Street Journal claims Netflix is “lowering costs by reducing the number of episodes it orders for shows for their second and third seasons.”
With the spectacular action of Stranger Things 4, it’s easy to miss a brilliant new narrative technique woven into the story. The sequence begins around an hour and twenty minutes into episode 7 when Nancy fails to get pulled back into the real world like her friends but falls into the Upside-Down world of the monster Vecna’s red soup to become stalked by Vecna as another of his victims.
At the same time of Nancy’s fall into the Upside-Down (from Eddie’s trailer in California), Eleven learns much about her mysterious past that has been blocked from her memory at the secret lab in Hawkins, Indiana. This is related to Eleven by a young orderly at the lab named Peter Ballard who has befriended Eleven.
The words of Peter are played out in a scene from the 1950s where a young Victor Creel’s family moves into their huge Victorian mansion in Hawkins, Indiana. After wandering around in the Upside-Down, Nancy comes upon the scene that Peter is narrating to Eleven. She appears inside the home as Victor Creel’s family first enters the home. She watches scenes of the family in the home unfold like an unseen ghost. (Associated with the Creel home and the 50s period in America is the song “Dream a Little Dream For Me” recorded by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. As one observer noted, the song is capable of instantly transporting audiences to a time of Tupperware parties, Stepford wives, and what modern listeners associate with the eery veneer of a blissfully ignorant post-war optimism.)
* * *
The Duffer Brothers mix time and place in the scene providing new perspectives on the traditional film flashback device. New perspectives are provided by mixing things up for the viewer. Here, the present exposition of the orderly Peter to Eleven becomes the voice over narration of an event in the 1950s witnessed by Nancy. Two time periods are involved as well as two places and two people.
But also mixed in all of this is the reliability of the narrator. The story is told by the orderly at Hawkins Lab named Peter Ballard. But the audience (as well as Eleven and Nancy) soon learn that Peter is really Henry Creel, the young son of Victor Creel. We learn that Peter/Henry is also Vecna, the monster of season four. The narration gives us Peter/Henry/Vecna’s perspective but leaves many questions for the audience since we question the reliability of this narrator. In addition, we see the narrated story through the additional filter of Eleven’s memory. It is a memory we know has the potential to be incorrect.
In fact, the reliability of narrator’s is a technique overlying the entire story of Stranger Things. It moves beyond Peter/Henry’s story and Eleven’s suspicious memory to also include Dr. Brenner, the head of Hawkins Lab who Eleven calls “father.” Is his story about wanting to help Eleven to be believed? His reliability as a narrator has been in question through the entire story.
The last two episodes of season four of Stranger Things – episode 8 “Papa” and episode 9 “Piggyback” – might finally give the audience a reliable narrator. On the other hand, the reliability issue might be held in suspense until resolved in season five (the final season) of Stranger Things. Or, then again, it might never be resolved.