Published July 26, 2022
Stranger Things is back on track, and hopefully near the end of the line.
Stranger Things 4 has restored the series from the nadir of the previous season, and set up what should be an epic conclusion. Netflix may be tempted to keep the popular series going indefinitely, but it is time to conclude the journey, before the plot and the characters give out.
The shoddy Season 3 illustrates what happens when showrunners don’t have a goal beyond keeping the money train rolling. The finale of the (surprise) hit first season left them enough material for a clear goal in Season 2, but then they were apparently at a loss for ideas. And so their third effort had a weak story and poor characterization covered with cheesy nostalgia and cliched tropes, epitomized by Hopper as alternate sitcom dad and 80s action hero. It had spectacle, but lost the excellent characterization, with its consequent emotional and relational tensions, that had made the show great.
Still, the third season did at least set up a lot of loose ends for the darker, more intense Season 4 to work with. In particular, Hopper was missing—presumed dead, but perhaps captured by the Soviets—and Eleven had lost her powers and was leaving Hawkins, along with the Byers family. Resolving these and situations makes for a long season following different groups of characters, but Season 4 competently handles them and much else.
The most notable revelation is that of the main villain. This story arc also fills in a lot of backstory about Eleven and Hawkins Lab, and works well from a plot perspective. But while the villain really is creepy, the dramatic reveal struggles to explain his motives. Something about…spiders? Explaining the inner life of a world-destroying monster is hard, and the writers might have done better had they kept the monologue shorter.
Regardless, the series is now set up for a spectacular showdown in what ought to be its final season. The characters are in place, the backstory is filled in, and it generally seems like it’s go time. Of course, the showrunners could delay the inevitable showdown for a while in order to fill out a complete season, perhaps by having the government evacuating everyone from Hawkins. Starting Season 5 with everyone outside of Hawkins could scramble things in ways that could easily be mined for side plots and drama.
But that will become stale if matters aren’t moving toward a resolution. Aimless stories quickly become boring, and the plot seems poised for a final chapter. One more season seems like all it can reasonably take.
Furthermore, even if the showrunners decide to draw the story out for several additional seasons (new villains being the most obvious), the characters also can’t take much more, at least while holding our interest. Having children as main characters in a show for adults made Stranger Things unique, but also limits how long it can run. The primary difficulty is not that a slow filming schedule has the actors outgrowing their characters (though they are), but that the characters themselves are growing up, which means that the dynamics that gave the show much of its drama cannot be endlessly sustained.
As usual, the problems of school and social life loom large early in Season 4. Eleven is struggling to fit in among normal people, and Lucas is caught between his old friends and the lure of the cool crowd he’s hoping to join through the basketball team, where he’s riding the bench. But we know that these issues will quickly fade into the background as the real threats emerge, with little more than some secondary villains to show for it.
Nonetheless, these conflicts do help shape the tone of the season, in which almost everyone but the heroes is increasingly unsympathetic. It is not just that the government is malevolent to the point that Eleven is forced back into the clutches of Dr. Brenner, who is, of course, still alive—on television, all major heroes or villains who have only been presumed dead are, like Schrodinger’s cat, in a dual state, both alive and dead. Rather, in a shift from previous seasons, the people of Hawkins in general are presented as ignorant and superstitious rubes.
On this point the show draws inspiration from the actual satanic panic of the 80s, but as ridiculous as that sometimes was, Stranger Things is a poor vehicle for mocking it. Are the townsfolk really that stupid for thinking that ritual murders are the work of a drug-dealing leader of a group called the Hellfire Club, rather than suspecting an extra-dimensional monster with telepathic and telekinetic powers? Similarly, the show’s attitude toward religion remains out of sync for small-town Indiana in the 80s. The heroes may vaguely and doubtfully hope and pray for a miracle, but specific religious belief is played for laughs at best, and shown as malevolent at worst.
The divides between the protagonists and everyone else may be necessary to propel the story, in which the government can’t be trusted and no one else will believe what it really going on. After all, if the authorities were on top of things, then all the characters except Eleven would be sitting at home. The government’s mix of incompetence and malignancy is what necessitates the intervention of the show’s unlikely but courageous heroes. The problem is that, absent Eleven’s powers, they’re not up to the challenge—even with Kate Bush and Metallica providing the soundtrack.
That most of the protagonists are outsiders is more than a plot point, however. It has been essential to the heart of the show since the first season, which was driven by friendship and maternal love when the characters had little else to rely on. But Joyce’s protective maternal instincts, which were central to the first two seasons, are all but absent here as she leaves the kids behind to try to find Hopper. This is a necessary change, as the frantic maternal dynamic couldn’t be rerun forever, but it leaves a hole that needs to be filled.
The main substitute is eros, which has assumed an increasingly central role in the show. But while this can create tension and develop characters, it eventually needs a resolution, or it becomes a soap opera. How many more seasons of the Nancy/Steve/Jonathan love triangle do viewers want?
In an obvious sop to current-thingism, this season included two subplots centered on unrequited homosexual attraction. But though this may annoy many viewers, in one case the writers may have undermined their own ideology by showing that erotic passions, including same-sex attraction, can be controlled and subordinated to a higher good. No doubt the showrunners did not mean to convey this message, but good art subverts ideology, even that of its creators.
Regardless of the efficacy of the show’s attempts to push the LGBT agenda, there remains the general problem of how long the show can maintain its relational tensions. Without them, the show will lose its heart, but they can only be extended so long before it all feels contrived. As Shakespeare knew, there comes a time to wrap things up and have your characters either get wed or dead (in a few cases, both). The writers of Strangers Things would do well to adopt a modern version of this as their goal.
Season 4 brought Stranger Things back after the blunders of the previous season. Now it’s time for the show to finish strong, arriving at a cathartic conclusion.
Nathanael Blake, PhD, is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. His primary research interests are American political theory, Christian political thought, and the intersection of natural law and philosophical hermeneutics. His published scholarship has focused on Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Alasdair MacIntyre and Russell Kirk. He is currently working on a study of J.R.R. Tolkien’s anti-rationalism. He writes from Virginia.