Another Beast from the Upside-Down
Stranger Things: Season 4, Part 1
I have to admit that i don't feel the hook of Stranger Things they way other viewers seem to. I get why people like the show, playing on the '80s nostalgia while telling a fairly familiar story (especially in its earliest seasons), but for me interest in the show comes not from its time period and setting but from the actual cool ideas buried deep with in it. A government organization trying to turn kids into superheroes? That's creepy but cool, like dark version of the X-MenLaunched in 1963 and written by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the X-Men featured heroes distinctly different from those featured in the pages of DC Comics. Mutants who didn't ask for their powers (and very often didn't want them), these heroes, who constantly fought against humans who didn't want "muties" around, served as metaphors for oppression and racism. Their powerful stories would form this group into one of the most recognizable superhero teams in comics (and a successful series of movies as well).. Setting that alongside a town with a hidden other world existing parallel, populated with evil creatures? That sounds bitchin'. With all of that you don't really need the '80s nostalgia.
That said, we are of course living through a decade of 1980s nostalgia. This happens in every era with every generation of adults pining for the things they liked when they were kids. We already see some 1990s nostalgia creeping in as well, with revivals of Saved by the Bell and Full House (which technically bridged both eras). Fashions and stories of the era keep coming back and you have to watch to revisit it to feel that hook. Thankfully even if you don't care about the 1980s (I grew up during that decade and I'm meh about it) the meat of the fourth season of Stranger Things works even without all the era call backs. I actually wonder if they show would be stronger, though, if it hadn't gone for the 1980s call-backs at all.
This first part of the fourth season (with two more episodes coming later in the year) find out ever-growing cast of heroes now in high school. Nerdy guys Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard) and Dustin Henderson (Gaten Matarazzo) have joined with the Hellfire Club, an after-school D&D club headed up by Eddie Munson (Joseph Quinn). Technically their pal Lucas Sinclair (Caleb McLaughlin) is part of the club as well, but he's also a fourth-stringer on the basketball team and, as their D&D game reaches its finale, Lucas has to go to the championship game for the team (where, hey, he scores the winning basket). This puts him on the outs with his friends, but he does get new buddies to hang out with on the school team.
Things take a turn when Eddie takes the head cheerleader (who is suffering from nightmares along with painful headaches) back to his trailer so he can sell her some drugs. Unfortunately for Eddie, and really unfortunately for the cheerleader, her symptoms were caused by Vecna, an evil creature from the Upside-Down, who traps her in her mind before levitating her, crushing her, and stealing her essence to the other world. Of course, Eddie is blamed for it, with everyone in town having a moral panic over the "Hellfire Club" and the "satanic acts" the club performed (aka, D&D). The guys (and all their extended friends they've collected over three seasons) realize the truth, that there's something trying to break through from the Upside-Down, but they also know they have to act on their own. If only Eleven were around to help them.
Speaking of Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), she's off in California with the Byers family -- Joyce (Winona Ryder), Johnathan (Charlie Heaton), and Will (Noah Schnapp). When Mike comes to visit Eleven (missing all the action in his hometown) he gets to see all that Eleven has been dealing with as the outcast in high school (and picked on by all the mean kids). When one particularly abusive episode at a skate rink sends Eleven over the edge, she bashes a skate into the mean girl's face, which then gets Eleven arrested. She then gets scooped up by the government organization that made her, led by Sam Owens (Paul Riser) and Martin Brenner (Matthew Modine). They want to help Eleven gain back the powers she gave up so she can fight Vecna and save the world. The boys, though, don't trust the government and go off on a road trip to find Eleven and save her. All this while Joyce heads off to try and save a suddenly very much alive Hopper (David Harbour) who is trapped in a Russian prison.
Watching through this first part (seven episodes) of Stranger Things you quickly realize there's a lot of story going on here. Each episode of the show is movie length all on its own leading to a very long season. To the show's credit it never really drags, engineered such as it is to bounce back and forth between all the characters as they're all given season-long stories to play out. There's a lot of action, a lot of big moments, and so much going on. The show packs it all in and, even with the extra long episodes, it still feels like it needs more time.
That being said, while the episodes are long enough to let all the story happen it's arguable if all the story in the show is really necessary. The meat of the season takes place in Hawkins, IN, where most of the characters resides. This is the story we want to see, the one that has the most energy, as we watch our very human young heroes take on a threat far beyond them (very often succeeding in the process). All the old cast comes back, along with new faces, and everyone really works to keep this meaty section of the sow rolling. It's the bits around the edges, though, that feel so superfluous.
The California plot, for instance, really doesn't go anywhere. Eleven's issues with the mean girl are resolved in the first couple of episodes (when she bashes the bitch in the face) and while the aftermath carries through on Eleven for a bit (she gets arrested, which makes her easier to pick up by the government) there aren't any real plot consequences for it. Eleven worries she may be a monster, yes, but the mean girl goes away, and the government wipes away Eleven's arrest, meaning it's really no harm no foul. All that build up for Eleven's story in high school is ended with a skate to the face.
The boys in Cali have it every worse as they're way superfluous. Their big adventure is to go on a road trip to chase after Eleven, but this all feels seriously tacked on. Mike comes to California and basically just ends up doing nothing alongside Johnathan and Will. The California crew could have been written out almost entirely and we wouldn't have missed them, sent off to join Poochy back on their home world. Had Mike stayed in Hawkins he would have had way more to do, and felt much more essential, but the series basically sidelines him.
Joyce gets it the worst, though, as her entire plot line -- chasing after Hopper, his time in prison, and them fighting to get back to each other -- could have been condensed into one half of one episode. Instead the series drags it out, killing much of the momentum this storyline needed. The fact that they're now halfway around the world and even more removed from the story means that, as of right now, it feels like they're adding nothing. Again, they're legacy characters that could have simply exited the story at the end of last season and it wouldn't have mattered at all.
The big issue is that Stranger Things has a giant cast of characters and creators The Duffer Brothers don't want to let any of them go. A ton of people should have moved on the second they left Hawkins, keeping the focus back on the town and the stranger things that keep happening there. I get that this season had to work with where the third season ended -- Hopper presumed dead, the Byers moving to Cali with Eleven in town -- but everything that happens outside of Hawkins feels lackluster and unneeded. Eleven needs her powers back? She could get them at the lab in Hawkins. We want the Byers in here? They could drive to Indiana for a visit. Want Hopper to return? Have him fight his way out of Russia on his own, all to arrive back in Indiana where he's needed. The show takes a long and meandering route to get where it is when it needed to be lean and interesting.
The central story of this fourth season, the battle against Vecna, is really interesting (even if the show makes the cardinal sin of ending its mid-season finale on a long villain speech explaining everything, which really does kill the momentum). What we needed was tightening up, focusing the story on what matters while ditching everyone that doesn't. We have two episodes to finish the story later this year, and then hopefully, in whatever spin-off comes next, the Duffers are able to let go of old characters and find new things to do with this weird little town in the middle of Indiana. Long as the cool ideas keep coming, the show just might continue to work.