Movie Reviews

Stranger Things Season 4 Fixed One Major Series Villain

While Stranger Things season 4 had its fair share of flaws, the Netflix hit’s fourth outing did manage to fix a major problem with the show’s oldest villain. Since the pilot episode of Stranger Things, Matthew Modine’s Dr. Brenner has seemed like the show’s primary antagonist. A seemingly friendly, erudite doctor, the mysterious head researcher at Hawkins Lab is soon proven to be a dispassionate murderer who will stop at nothing to ensure that his clandestine experiments on human children (and their disastrously destructive results) are kept under wraps.

Since the fallout from Brenner’s experiments almost killed Stranger Things hero Will Byers in the first episode and made Eleven’s early life a living hell, it seems obvious that the character was beyond redemption. Indeed, when Brenner got in the way of a rampaging Demogorgon at the end of Stranger Things season 1, it looked like he had gotten a quicker death than the villain deserved. However, for a long time, Stranger Things season 4 was seemingly trying to justify Dr. Brenner’s actions when the villain made an unexpected comeback. Fortunately, Stranger Things season 4 part 2 reversed this twist with a fitting ending.

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When Brenner returned in Stranger Things season 4, it seemed for a few episodes that he might be redeemed despite his monstrous actions. The head honcho of Hawkins Lab and, by extension, the man responsible for the mess Hawkins is in, Brenner was reintroduced to Eleven by Paul Reiser’s kindly Stranger Things supporting star Dr. Owens. Eleven was understandably horrified, but Owens explained to her that she needed to join forces with Brenner to overcome a bigger threat than Hawkins Lab and its former administrator. Eleven was slow to trust Brenner as the doctor put her through a volley of torturous tests throughout Stranger Things season 4 part 1.

However, by the end of Stranger Things season 4 part 1, Eleven was beginning to regain her powers and Vecna’s reign of terror over Hawkins was proving that there were more dangerous things than the denizens of Hawkins Lab. It seemed, in context, that Brenner’s earlier experiments on helpless children were almost justified when contrasted with Vecna’s killing spree. Then it was revealed that the main Stranger Things villain Vecna was one of Brenner’s creations, and the doctor was responsible both for refining the character’s powers and for pushing him into becoming the megalomaniacal monster Vecna was by season 4.

Dr. Brenner’s collaboration with Dr. Owens, his attempts to make Eleven stronger, and even his vague sort-of apology to Eleven were all signs that Stranger Things season 4 would point toward a bigger villain and play down Brenner’s crimes. This would have been terrible since earlier seasons of Stranger Things leaned into the evil of Brenner’s actions. Brenner was one of the few unforgivable monsters in the story of Stranger Things and, unlike Billy, the bullies of season 1, and arguably even Vecna’s childhood self Henry Creel, he was old enough to know how evil his actions were. Despite this, Stranger Things’ persistent death problem made it seem like season 4 would redeem him.

When Brenner was the only character able to push Eleven to find her powers, it seemed as if his torturous methods were surprisingly justifiable. When Vecna killed innocent young Hawkins townspeople in a gruesome fashion, it looked like Brenner’s quest to take down the villain made him an unlikely hero. However, when it was revealed that Brenner only knew the extent of Vecna’s powers and the villain’s plan because he was responsible for turning Henry Creel into Vecna, this storyline was flipped on its head and the real evil of Dr. Brenner was once again put on display. The Stranger Things timeline’s shifting chronology meant that this wasn’t revealed until the end of Season 4 part 1.

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Once Brenner’s role in shaping Vecna was unveiled, he was no longer a well-meaning if megalomaniacal scientist, but rather right back to being a full-blown monster who was at least partially responsible for the terror plaguing Hawkins. While Vecna admitted that he was pretty twisted as a child (graduating quickly from killing pets to murdering his mother), he was also still a small child when he was entrusted to the care of Hawkins Lab. It is impossible to know how much nurture could have helped him, but what is clear is that Brenner actively made him much worse by allowing the lab technicians to ostracize, bully, and beat him.

With this context, Vecna’s brutal killing spree was hardly a shock (particularly when his mistreatment was compared to Eleven’s bullying by Angela earlier in Stranger Things season 4). Brenner essentially tortured the young Henry Creel into becoming a monster and only wanted to arm Eleven against him so that his crimes wouldn’t be revealed to the world. To his dying moment, the scientist was more concerned with his work manipulating the minds of children than he was with their lives, their humanity, and even their survival. This made Brenner’s death a fitting one, as Eleven opted not to help her Papa having remembered that he viewed her solely as an experimental asset.

Whether it is Russian scientists under the Starcourt mall, the corrupt mayor, Hawkins Lab, or Brenner himself, Stranger Things has an implicit distrust of authority that is embodied by its first and worst villain, Brenner. While Stranger Things season 5 can bring back more of the show’s recurring motifs to end the series on a fitting note, the show has already given the story of Dr. Brenner an appropriate ending. Driven by his hubris, Dr. Brenner believed he could manipulate his subjects to become human weapons for him to control.

Instead, Brenner ended up inadvertently causing his own death when two of these subjects turned on him. While he escaped the wrath of Vecna, his crimes can now eventually be revealed by the heroes of Stranger Things and his legacy will be ruined. Thus, the true villain of Stranger Things got the ending he deserved, instead of an ill-advised last-minute redemption arc that would have derailed his character’s story.

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