This article contains spoilers for Stranger Things season 4.
The fifth episode of Stranger Things season 4, fittingly titled “The Nina Project”, opens with an enigmatic message.
As one of Dr. Sam Owens’ agents dies (his name is Harmon, but the kids come to touchingly eulogize him as Unknown Hero Agent Man), he leaves them with a desperate request.
“Nina…Nina…here’s the number,” Harmon gurgles as he holds out a pen to Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard) and Will Byers (Noah Schnapp).
Who exactly is Nina? Harmon is unable to say before he unfortunately expires. Thankfully, however, Stranger Things viewers find out shortly thereafter that the question isn’t “Who is Nina?” but “What is Nina?” Allow us to further explain.
As Mike, Will, Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), and Argyle (Eduardo Franco) eventually discover when they try to call Nina, Nina is in reality: a computer. Nina resides in the remote desert of Ruth, Nevada where Dr. Owens has established a secret science lair deep underground in an abandoned Intercontinental Ballistic Missile silo.
Dr. Owens (Paul Reiser) and the surprisingly still-alive Dr. Brenner (Matthew Modine) brought Eleven to that lair to “meet” Nina. You see, Dr. Brenner thinks he knows why Eleven’s powers have seemingly abandoned her. He does not let Eleven or the audience in on his theory but based on the actions of episode 5, it’s almost certain that it has something to do with Eleven suppressing details of an important memory. And it’s in accessing those memories where Nina comes in.
While you might think “Nina” is an acronym, it actually isn’t. Brenner explains to Eleven that Nina’s name came from a 1786 Nicolas Dalayrac opera of the same name.
“It’s the story about a young woman whose lover was killed in a duel. Nina was so traumatized that she buried the memory. It was if it never happened. Every day, she would return to the train station to await her lover’s return. A return that would never be. If only Nina could know the truth.”
Nina, the machine, is used for Eleven herself to discover the truth. We don’t see how the process plays out as Eleven is unconscious for it, but Nina works by placing a subject into a sensory deprivation tank. The individual floats in some sort of salt water solution as electrodes are attached to their naked head and the necessary audio/visual stimuli surround them. In Eleven’s case, the stimuli that Brenner and Owens have presented to her takes her right back to her time in the Hawkins Laboratory.
There are some interesting technical tricks used to indicate that Eleven is both passively and actively participating in a memory from several years earlier. For starters, her physical appearance cycles back and forth from that on the nearly adult actress Millie Bobby Brown in 2022 to her younger self as depicted in 2016’s Stranger Things season 1. Additionally, Eleven does have some limited control over her behavior while operating inside Nina. She is able to leave a room she does not want to be in, it’s just that unfortunately any time she enters into a new one she’s right back in the memory that Nina wants her to be in. What memory is that exactly? Well, it’s basically her time among the rest of the supernaturally-powered children at the Hawkins lab.
It’s in Eleven’s memories that we meet subjects Two through Ten. We also unknowingly meet Number One, who at the time of this memory is operating as an orderly under Brenner in the lab. Eleven is frequently bullied by the other children to the point where the orderly a.k.a. Number One convinces her that they are about to kill her. That leads Eleven to unshackle Number One’s powers to escape, and he in turns goes and kills all of the other subjects. This is the ultimate memory that Brenner wants Nina to uncover, along with the moment that Eleven confronts Number One and banishes him the Upside Down where he becomes the inhuman Vecna.
The use of Nina for these flashbacks is an important one because it makes Eleven and the audience actual participants in the show’s history mores than a traditional flashback would. And with every episode of this season being a particularly long one, the act of showing rather than telling is more dramatically important than ever.
One last bit of interesting information comes at the very beginning of the Nina sequence in “The Nina Project” and it may have lasting implications for the two episodes that make up Stranger Things season 4, volume 2. Right as Eleven and Owens arrive at the Ruth, Nevada facility, a chyron appears onscreen that read “Twelve Hours Earlier.” The timeframe this text is referring to is the previous scene in which Harmon tells Mike and company to find Nina with his dying breath.
Why was it important for Stranger Things to let us know Eleven’s Nina project was happening in the near past? Perhaps because the moment she’s out of that deprivation tank, things will have well and truly gone wild. Kudos to Eleven for revisiting her past and reclaiming her powers but she’s going to have to get back to work quickly.
All seven episodes of Stranger Things season 4 volume 1 are available to stream on Netflix now.