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Stranger Things Digs Its Own Grave
Stranger Things season four has been disappointing. The New York Times’s Mike Hale has called the season “deflatingly familiar”, as it recycles fan-favorite moments from previous seasons, while also shoehorning as much 80s nostalgia as possible into its feature-length episodes. The fans have noticed. A comment by Kyle H on the movie-rating site Rotten Tomatoes says that Stranger Things is “starting to repeat scenarios. I really hope they end this series before it’s too late.” Similarly, Bdarus B commented that the Duffer Brothers “probably should have ended the series with this season… It feels as though another season may be stretched thin.” It seems the show has fallen prey to the ultimate Hollywood cliche: ruthlessly copying itself in an effort to keep its audience.
The show was past its prime years ago. A shameless reliance on visceral horror–best exemplified by the literally flesh-and-blood monster of season three–had replaced a focus on character drama and building tension through mystery suspense. Part of the problem is that Stranger Things originally rooted its appeal in the mystery of the Upside Down. The structure of the first season in particular served as a pressure release valve for the audience's understanding, slowly releasing bits of information on the evil realm through the story of Will Byers’ disappearance. But the kids have grown up and the Upside Down is anything but a mystery. Now, it is merely just another name for hell: terrifying, yes, but also terrifyingly familiar.
Still, the transition from mystery-horror to just straight horror is ancillary to the real problem, namely that the showrunners have no self-awareness.
The inability to know when a show has reached its stopping point, the point at which it can no longer find meaningful ways to reconfigure well-worn themes and characters, is now commonplace. It has turned fantastic series into case studies on creative exhaustion. Take The Walking Dead. AMC’s adaptation of the popular graphic novel was an absolute blockbuster when it first came out, but, after ten years on the air, it has become a sad joke. A clue as to why can be found in the attitude of the showrunners: 100 episodes in, rather than discuss an end-game strategy, they insisted the show was only in its second act. Consequently, the once-gripping series has turned into a slog. Major characters have disappeared due to actors leaving the show for something different. Without a guiding story arc–the search for a cure, for example–the show’s tale of survival has devolved into an aimless struggle between factions, complete with tragic character deaths that seem more like attempts to stir interest than genuine storytelling.
Lack of self-awareness brings another set of problems, many of which have bedeviled Stranger Things’s fourth season. Once again, we must return to the fact that all shows have a natural ending. Once that natural ending is ignored, showrunners must resort to emergency measures that will extend the longevity of the show.
Shock Value. Without a solid narrative to guide it, Stranger Things has resorted to exaggerating its most iconic features—namely its 80s setting and horror aspects—to continue engaging its audience. In season one, Stranger Things had the benefit of mystery: the Upside Down and Hawkins lab were relative unknowns, making them perfect narrative bait for even the most casual viewer. The show's genre and setting served to make that mystery concrete, to root it in a specific time and place–both in the real world and the world of cinema. But the mystery is gone and, without a solid plot device to replace it, that careful dynamic has been reversed: instead of the genre and setting serving the show, the show serves the genre and setting.
As to the setting, the show has become a veritable factory of 80s tropes and teenage stereotypes–Mean Girls antics, peer pressure, garish colors, big hair–with less and less meaningful melodrama mixed in. A scene in which eleven is bullied by a posse of jerks led by a bratty blonde in a skating rink is so contrived I had to press pause and ponder how the Duffer Brothers are the same people who made season one. Just as depressingly, the genre of the show has been unwittingly turned against itself. Horror in Stranger things had, until recently, seemed more emotional than visceral–based on the simple terror of not knowing. Now, teens’ limbs and jaws are broken in plain view, their mangled corpses used to decorate Vecna’s lair like taxidermied animals. In some cases, the old horror has been completely replaced by action. While this shift occasions such spectacles as a one-take, close-range shootout that would make John Wick blush, as well as a standoff at a desert outpost that ends in Eleven taking down a manned chopper, they do not jibe with the show’s billing as a mashup of horror, thriller and drama. You can practically hear the filmmakers begging for you to care, to ignore the shoddy storytelling and simply feel the 80s nostalgia and squelchy violence.
Repetition. There is truth to the statement that if something isn’t broken, you shouldn’t try to fix it. There is also truth to the notion that Stranger Things is cannibalizing itself for content. There are simply too many scenes that echo or outright recreate moments from earlier seasons to ignore. And this comes even as Stranger Things regularly borrows from genre classics like The Goonies and The Shining, and follows a narrative formula—“kids encounter a monster, superpowered girl saves the world, sweet but expendable supporting character is sacrificed in the process”, in the words of The Atlantic’s Sophie Gilbert—from which it rarely deviates. While Stranger Things was able to get away with being both derivative and predictable, season four's reliance on old plot devices, motifs and situations was a gamble that did not pay off. It’s very hard to maintain any semblance of intrigue or excitement when even the details of a given story are unabashedly rehashed.
There are a plethora of examples to choose from when discussing the show’s repetitions, but the most obvious ones are the most central to the plot. Eleven’s efforts to relive her past in order to “remember” her lost powers comes to mind. While the plotline further unravels the mystery of the Upside Down by revealing Vecna’s identity, it also seems like a ploy, as Mike Hale put it, “to present the actress Millie Bobby Brown as often as possible in the childlike haircut and costume that defined her in Season 1.” Later in season four, Eleven’s friends improvise yet another sensory deprivation tank to allow her to locate and fight the bad guy–except this time, they do so in a pizza parlor. Even with the attempts at variance, her arc throughout the season is nothing new. Likewise, the World War Z-esque plotline in which Steve and the gang arm themselves with repurposed household items to defeat Vecna has a too-familiar ring to it. As Robin reassures a bewildered Eddie, “We’ve kind of been in this situation before.” Yeah, no kidding.
Then there are the plot devices. Flashing lights are again used to communicate with those in the Upside Down, a respectable callback to season one. Sadie Sink’s Max offers one Stranger Things easter egg too many, however, when she traces Vecna’s origins to a creepy house in Hawkins by drawing his lair in the Upside Down from memory, ripping up the drawing, and arranging the pieces into a perfect picture of the house in question. Will Byers pulled a similar stunt with his sketch of the Mind Flayer in season two. Either all the kids are blessed with photographic memories (and artistic talent), or the Duffer brothers are overestimating our suspension of disbelief.
Grand finales. They can be both good and bad. The difference is that the bad ones do not serve to enrich the plot; they simply provide enough reason to continue the show. Often all the reason that’s needed is a change of scenery. An explosive finale can destroy pre-established motifs, characters and situations, leveling the ground for a new narrative. But such narratives are almost always subpar. The Sopranos understood this. Widely considered one of the greatest shows in TV history, the show perfected the art of anti-climax by, among other things, refusing to whack every villain that came down the creative pipeline in the gruesome, climactic manner typical of past mafia movies, thereby allowing the tension to ebb and flow. Not only did this give continuity to a multiseason endeavor, by emphasizing the drudgery and monotony of mob life, it elevated the genre to new heights of realism.
Stranger Things, on the other hand, cannot be understood apart from the divisions between its four seasons. Season one was about the Demogorgon; season two was about the Demadogs; season three was about the Mind Flayer; and season four was about a boy who became Lord of the Upside Down because Eleven put him there without even knowing such a place existed(?). Dumb villians are only one byproduct of the show overextending itself through explosive finales. Thanks to the massacre at Starcourt Mall in the season three finale, the characters have gone from all living in Hawkins, Indiana, to being scattered across the U.S. and Russia. The ensuing struggle to “get the band back together” in time to defeat Vecna is central to the plot. Too often, though, it seems like an underhanded way of padding out the season’s 13-hour-plus runtime. The Russian storyline that sees Joyce Byers and Jim Hopper reunite in a gulag is a flashy concoction of Soviet tropes and cartoonish action sequences that seem out of place in a horror show. Much of the Wolfhard-Heaton-Franco storyline, likewise, is little more than a vehicle for pot-addled banter as the group travels across the Nevada desert in a pizza delivery van. The comic relief the storylines do provide is far outweighed by their fluff, leaving the viewer wondering when Eleven or Dustin will make a reappearance.
Imagine, for a moment, if season three was a natural bridge to a broader conflict instead of a self-contained chapter trying to fill a creative quota, which the Duffer brothers have arbitrarily set at five seasons. Imagine if season four began like a post-apocalyptic movie in which Hawkins was overrun by monsters and the kids, having lost against the Mind Flayer, led an underground resistance. The need for diversions would be gone, at the very least. And while that would mean that season four would probably be the show’s last, considering the sloppy storytelling of the last nine episodes, would that be such a bad thing? On its current course, the overall impact of the show will be a neat procession of increasingly improbable victories. There’s nothing wrong with saving the world, but doing so repeatedly (and from scratch) can get tedious.
For all of season four's stretching and repackaging--all of its dog-eating-its-own-tail moments--the show ended end up in the exact same place it would have ended up had the story arc reached its natural conclusion in the fourth season: Hawkins under assault, with the kids on the defense. But I’m sure Eleven, with an eleventh hour assist from her non-superpowered friends, will sort things out with enough time to spare for a heartwarming victory lap. Because really, what more can we expect?