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Coming to grips with my “Stranger Things” fandom.
Thoughts on the fourth season of Netflix’s flagship series.
Spoiler-y discussion of Stranger Things season 4 to follow. Reader beware.
I’ve been a fan of the Netflix flagship series Stranger Things pretty much from the premiere episode. (Here’s a reflection I wrote about the show following the season 3 finale.) The way in which the story unfolded throughout the original eight-episode run was immediately engrossing, captivating audiences around the world with gripping performances from child actors, nimble writing, and synthy musical landscapes, all of which was packaged as a loving remix to beloved 1980s science fiction properties and paraphernalia. Stranger Things is endlessly compelling, portraying stories of friendship and loss and unexpected courage backdropped against inter-dimensional monsters lurking about in the shadows whose only bane is a mysterious girl with telekinetic abilities.
The show creators, Matt and Ross Duffer, fondly referred to as the Duffer Bros., recently dropped season 4 of their sci-fi mega-hit, this time dividing the story into two volumes (Vol. 1 consisting of episodes 1—7, with Vol. 2 containing episodes 8 and 9). In the four-week interlude between volumes — which the Duffer’s admitted was necessary seeing as some of the show’s visual effects weren’t quite finished upon initial release — the wife and I decided to go back a watch the previous three seasons again in their entirety. Rewatching those episodes was a pure thrill, reminding me of all the reasons why I am so fond of this show in the first place.
Seasons 1 and 2 are especially powerful. The writing is tight, providing a copious amount of intrigue and suspense, along with expertly crafted character development (I’m looking at you, Steve Harrington!). The kids who save the day feel like kids, even as they stumble into cracking conspiracies and unearthing alternate worlds full of hideous bloodthirsty beasts. They ride their bikes. They hide in the basement playing Dungeons & Dragons all day. They fantasize about being heroes who save the world from terrible evils. There is a heart to the first two seasons that is palpably present in nearly every scene. Indeed, the final two episodes of season 2 are exceptional, representing all of the best that Stranger Things has to offer. Season 3, for some fans of the show, took Stranger Things in new directions. There was more action, more comedy, more nostalgia, more tropes. There was more everything in the third season. For me, though, even season 3 hits its mark, showing the growth of the characters with stakes that grew with them. Even for all its faults, Stranger Things’ third installment is an incredible summer thrill-ride that I will gladly revisit.
Season 4 stands in stark contrast to the previous seasons’ narrative structure and fondness for smart albeit derivative storytelling. It introduces a bevy of new characters and stuffs multiple levels of mythology into what was a relatively confined concept. All of that stuffing, though, results in a bloated nine-episode installment that felt almost nothing like the stories that went before it. In fact, season 4 was so swollen that each episode felt more like a “mini movie” as opposed to a television show, with the finale clocking-in at a humongous 2 hours and 20 minutes. There were so many narrative threads, it was nigh impossible to keep track of them all, let alone get invested in the characters which populated them. Some of the moments seem “needlessly Michael Bay-esque,” as one reviewer put it. He continues, “A lot of the moving pieces are just that: pieces that don’t contribute to the show’s greater whole.” Like many other properties before it, and many surely to follow, Stranger Things has become the latest specimen of entertainment to fall prey to the “bigger is better” monster.
Discontent with the relative smallness of the first season, this time the Duffer Bros. inject a ginormous amount of lore into the horrors which haunt the fictional town of Hawkins, Indiana, most of which are entirely unnecessary. “Despite its many highlights,” writes Alan Sepinwall for Rolling Stone, “Stranger Things this year proved how easily more can be less.” For example, the mysterious dimension known as “the Upside Down,” which plays a pivotal role in the show’s conflict, is expanded upon in ways that feel unsustainably large. What’s more, season 4 falls into the trap of providing a backstory we didn’t know we needed that is suddenly forced down our throats, fundamentally altering the way the preceding seasons are meant to be understood. Many of the revelations in season 4 were poorly conceived and clumsily executed. The big, bad villain of the fourth installment, a slimy dude known as Vecna, is revealed to have been the haunting menace behind much of the horrors of seasons 1—3. This wouldn’t be so bad if it didn’t feel so hackneyed, stereotypical even. And that’s the ironic part.
Stranger Things was always filled with tropes — that was part of its mystique, its appeal. With season 4, though, the show is parroting its own tropes, which isn’t so much endearing as it is tiresome. Stranger Things is no longer a loving homage to classic cinematic ideas and stereotypes, charmingly filled with ’80s nostalgia. Instead, it has become a self-congratulatory love fest, with the writers having fallen in love with the idea of what they have created rather than investing in their creation itself. It is a distended masterpiece that is running threadbare on its own clichés, having forgotten what made it so spectacular in the first place. Sadly, I’m not even sure Eleven can save the day this time.