Warning: This post contains spoilers for Stranger Things 3.
Hawkins, Indiana has now undergone enough trauma and horror through three seasons it can be hard to remember how it all started. Everything began with Eleven, a test subject of a secret government agency that was exploiting children with supernatural talents. While in a deprivation tank using ESP to remotely spy on the Soviets halfway around the globe, she saw a Demogorgon from the Upside Down. After being encouraged to make contact with the strange creature, Eleven inadvertently opened up a portal between the two worlds. It’s a rift that continues to cause havoc to this day, and one the Russians have used to obtain their own demodog.
But how did the U.S.S.R. learn about the Upside Down at all, and what were they doing in Stranger Things 3? The answer might be found back where this whole nightmare started – with Matthew Modine’s Dr. Martin Brenner.
The existence of the Upside Down was accidentally discovered by the Americans sometime in 1983 when Eleven made contact with the Demogorgon. That connection opened up a small hole between the two dimensions that grew into the underground tunnels below Hawkins in season one.
But as we learned in Stranger Things 3, by 1984 the Russians were close to opening up their own portal to this world which just a year earlier no one knew about… and instead of a child with superpowers, they built a massive machine requiring tremendous amounts of energy. While the comrades were able to open a brief crack, ultimately they could not create a lasting doorway. As Alexi (a.k.a. Smirnoff) explained to Maury, Joyce, and Hopper, the machine was trying to break through an impenetrable wall. But in Hawkins, where a gateway had already been opened previously, the barrier was still vulnerable.
That led the Soviets to do something wild and dangerous – move their entire operation to America under Starcourt mall, where they were on the verge of fully opening the pathway before Joyce shut down the machine for good. Whatever they learned from their time there paid off, though. During the season finale end credits, we learned the Russians extracted an almost fully-grown Demogorgon they were holding captive in a secret base, where an unnamed American (possibly Hopper) was also being kept prisoner.
It’s clear what the Russians wanted from the Upside Down: a new weapon to use against the United States in the Cold War. Unlike the Americans, who in season two clearly learned why that was never going to work, the Soviets had no idea how dangerous that idea was.
But plenty else about their mission is unclear. How did they learn about the Upside Down at all? And how did they know about what happened in Hawkins, Indiana? The most likely answer is they had someone on the inside, someone who betrayed the United States government. But who would be evil enough to both betray his country and unleash an unspeakable evil that threatened the very existence of mankind itself?
Dr. Martin Brenner.
Although the Demogorgon appeared to kill him in season one, all we actually saw of Brenner’s last moments was a brief attack. We only assumed he was dead, as did Eleven and everyone else. However, in season two, Ray Carroll, who worked as an orderly at Hawkins National Laboratory under Brenner and helped electroshock Eleven’s mother when she tried to rescue her, said Brenner was alive. He promised Eleven and Kali their “Papa” wasn’t dead. “I’m not lying. He trusts me. I’ll take you to him.”
While Kari created a vision of Brenner later that episode, one that showed Eleven still has unresolved issues with the man who stole her life, that tease seemingly never had a payoff in season three. That is, unless everything we saw with the Russians was only possible because Brenner was working with them.
We know from Paul Reiser’s (decidedly not-evil) Dr. Owens that, after Brenner helped unleash the Upside Down, the United States government realized just how dangerous it was to toy with. If the former head of Hawkins National Laboratory did survive like Ray Carroll swore (though in fairness, while begging for his life), where could Brenner have gone? Would he have been welcomed back by his country? Would he even have risked that possibility? Or would he have been far more likely to go into hiding? That would be the only way to ensure he wouldn’t face any consequences for his actions.
But where can a man like that go? Who would offer a high-ranking U.S. official refuge?
America’s greatest enemy, who would be enticed by his insight into an unimaginable power. The Russians sudden knowledge of a secret evil dimension, along with their awareness of the exact coordinates of an unlikely place where a portal had previously been opened before, can easily be explained if a desperate Brenner turned to them after fleeing for his life in 1983.
Even if he had previously been working to spy on the Soviets, a man who would kidnap and imprison kids so he could exploit them as weapons, after honing their skills via torture, isn’t someone with a strong moral code. He also would be motivated by personal animosity after what happened to him following Eleven’s escape. Her “Papa” had raised her as his own instrument, and in his eyes, she, Hopper, and everyone else in Hawkins (and America) betrayed him after he tried to keep his country safe. An evil man with nowhere to turn and vengeance in his heart is a dangerous man, and only a dangerous man would help the Russians access the Upside Down.
Dr, Martin Brenner was the show’s first villain, and the was the one who brought the Upside Down into the real world, starting all this horror. He could also be the final villain Eleven has to stop when Stranger Things comes to an end.