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Stranger Things 4 needed to dream bigger

The show’s limited imagination for its characters is more depressing than thrilling

Robin, Steve, and Nancy fighting Vecna; Nancy is aiming a sawed-off shotgun Photo: Netflix

In the 90-minute penultimate episode of Stranger Things’ fourth season, its heroes — mostly teenagers now, after six years of real-world aging since the series premiere — get ready to battle demons. They hammer nails into trash can lids, saw the barrel off a shotgun, and fashion spears out of knives and rods. It’s not their first time; previous seasons built to similar showdowns. But it is the most grim. While prior climactic battles in Stranger Things were waged with the tools of children, like fireworks and makeshift CB radios, this time the kids are arming themselves with deadly force. With one season remaining, series creators Matt and Ross Duffer take moments like this to underline how the show’s cast has grown up — but it also shows how limited their imagination for them has been.

The hardest thing to parse about the bombastic, supersized Stranger Things 4 is who, exactly, the series is for anymore. The show continues to cycle through ’80s film tropes, its plot unbothered by the notion that its young cast might not be a good fit for the next reference the Duffer brothers want to make. Just like season 3 found room for a Terminator-esque assassin, season 4 carves out a season-long side plot involving Jim Hopper surviving and escaping a Russian gulag, effectively making a second ’80s B-movie in parallel with the ’80s horror pastiche in the main plot.

Tonally, season 4’s story — about an otherworldly, humanoid creature called Vecna stalking teenagers in their nightmares before grotesquely murdering them in the real world, like Freddy Krueger — is all over the place. While the first season (and perhaps the second) could conceivably be pitched for viewers roughly the same age as its tween cast of Dungeons & Dragons lovers, Stranger Things now firmly resides in R-rated blockbuster territory with gruesome monsters and alarmingly violent shootouts getting a greater number of long, lovingly crafted scenes than any of the (often good!) moments where kids get to be kids. When Stranger Things 4 stops to be the show that is, for example, deeply invested in Max’s (Sadie Sink) lonely struggle, it’s great. But too often, it feels just like that — a pause for a big character moment so the series can get back to gulags and demons.

Dustin and Eddie standing back to back with their make-shift weapons Photo: Netflix
Lucas, Eleven, Mike, and Will standing and looking at Max in a hospital bed Photo: Netflix

That isn’t to say there is no appeal; even without the statistics Netflix proudly trumpets about its success or the marketing heft the series receives from the streamer (something it affords virtually no other series), Stranger Things is unmatched when it comes to scale or spectacle in modern streaming series. All of its effects level up this season, from Vecna being a rubber-suited creation of genuine menace to the Upside-Down being a hellishly rendered nightmare realm that increasingly intrudes on our own. When Stranger Things relishes in its own bigness, it rules — watching newcomer Eddie (Joseph Quinn) shred to “Master of Puppets” as demon bats swarm around him? That’s the good stuff. But it’s also disjointed stuff, as Eddie gets the majority of his big emotional moments in the same finale where he dies, spending most of the season hiding from people who want him dead.

Stranger Things’ hour-plus episodes are no obstacle to viewers who have reportedly made it among the most-devoured shows on Netflix. But if there is an answer to “Who is Stranger Things for?” the clearest one is “the Duffer brothers.”

The series is mostly cleanly explained and understood as a list of their obsessions, lovingly recreated with little reflection or critical thought. Characters are tone-deaf, written to follow the social mores reflected in films of the ’80s: bumbling dads, boys who are clueless about girls, and the occasional racial stereotype for good measure via sassy dialogue from Erica (Priah Ferguson, a wonderful presence that deserves a story of her own).

This grants Stranger Things a purity that is appealing, if one isn’t put off by it. It is thrilling to watch artists given carte blanche to pursue their interests; so few get the opportunity. It is unfortunate, then, to see the Duffers unable to do more with Will, Mike, Lucas, Dustin, Eleven, and their other creations than slot them into their very expensive scrapbook. That is, after all, what these characters mostly embody: memories more than people, a collection of things their creators remember characters being like, and not realized people that exist in the story they are telling. In this, Stranger Things is less an ’80s homage than it is a work of 2020s wistfulness, a tract about the good ol’ days when men were gulag-escaping men and kids could go to war because no one else would believe them.

Watching Nancy (Natalia Dyer) stare down the barrel of her newly sawed-off shotgun or Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) wielding his spiked shield are images far more indelible than any Vecna or Mind-Flayer because they’re frames that convey meaning — even if their message isn’t particularly flattering or intentional. The Stranger Things world is one where the adults are missing and the children have no option but to prepare for war.

Image: Netflix
Eddie showing off his trash lid with nails in it in front of Dustin Image: Netflix

In the popular culture of the 1980s, the latchkey kid was a symbol of a generational loneliness. The Reagan-era boom years didn’t mean much to Gen X kids whose parents both left them home alone to participate in the workforce in order to strive for their place in an ascendent (white) middle class. Those kids would grow up to make films about that time, where lonely kids would discover aliens, pass around a can of beer, and otherwise leave the home their naive parents seemed to think they would stay in.

The kids in Stranger Things are ostensibly left to their own devices for the same reasons, finding in each other the support their families are rarely around to offer. But the monsters they band together to fight? That feels more like the present, an artifact from an era where there is little future to imagine for the next generation that isn’t some pending disaster, some great violence.

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