It’s not easy following up the success of an excellent book, film,or to keep a wildly popular television series going into multiple seasons. Television series especially run the risk of repeating the same old themes or inevitably turning into soap operas. The fourth season of the Duffer Brothers’ “Stranger Things” proves to be an example of how an excellent storyline can quickly turn into treacly melodrama.
Warning: Spoilers ahead.
What made “Stranger Things” unique when it first burst onto the scene in 2016 was its homage to 1980s pop culture. Every American GenXer could relate to one character or another and for a variety of reasons. Each character was endowed with an interesting personality, and more importantly, none was presented in a two-dimensional way.
Predictably, as the seasons progressed, the plot started to thin, and the characters became less complex. This isn’t the first time we encounter a literary and cinematic trope of kids fighting evil to save the world. But something changes in the world of “Stranger Things” when the kids begin to get older. This is especially true of the fourth season.
At this point, they’ve been fighting all kinds of forms of evil, the Mind Flayer being just one of them. The gates of hell were opened, and they can’t seem to be closed. One of the main characters, Eleven, a girl who has been used for experiments because of her apparent supernatural powers by Dr. Brenner, has been instrumental in saving the town of Hawkins, and by implication, the entire world.
In season four, Eleven has been adopted by Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder), and has moved away from Hawkins to suburban Southern California. She is joined by Joyce’s sons, Will and Jonathan, who are having their own difficulties.
In the meantime, Sheriff Jim Hopper is stuck in a Soviet military prison though presumed dead by the others, while the rest of the kids are still in Hawkins, and everything seems relatively normal. But, of course, that changes when Joyce receives a package from Russia indicating Jim is alive. This sets a chain of events that scatters all of the characters: Joyce and Murray end up in the Soviet Union; Eleven is in an underground military compound in Nevada; Will, Jonathan, Mike, and a new guy, Argyle, are trying to make their way from California to Nevada and then to Hawkins; and the rest of the restless gang is still in Hawkins.
In the meantime, a new villain has emerged: “Vecna,” who can destroy his victims by entering into their consciousness. And so, the entire season becomes a series of connected “in the meantime” events. The first two and the last two episodes are an interesting bookmark: the show begins in a very awkward and rocky way, and it ends the same way. The supposedly collaborative effort of the gang and the adults seems to destroy Vecna at the end but it’s revealed that the mayhem is only about to begin, as Vecna himself makes known. This naturally ensures a fifth and, reportedly, final season.
One of the biggest problems with season four is that the characters are always talking, yet they have nothing of significance to say. They are chronologically older, yet they are even more immature. Eleven, in particular, is an unusual heroine as she spends a large portion of her time crying, unable to discipline herself to become great.
In addition, once any characters (including the children) have been exposed to the great darkness in the “Upside Down,” they move from innocence to experience. In other words, the notion of wisdom enters into their consciousnesses and it changes the course of their actions. Think of the characters in C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: There we see a progression in which the children at some point comprehend what is at stake. But then again, Lewis’ book is a Christian allegory that carries within it meaning beyond the surface story.
This is part of the problem with “Stranger Things.” The notion of good and evil is something that only floats along the surface. This is not to say that the Duffer Brothers were obligated to create a theological allegory but the depth of human existence and what is at stake when darkness is fought is completely missing from season four. In one scene, Robin says she doesn’t believe in divine intervention or miracles, but the fact that they escaped Vecna’s slithering clutches constitutes some kind of miracle. This is a very tepid way of mentioning the presence of the divine.
What makes this worse for the original fans of the series is that the kids at this point in the story have become the kids of today’s society, and bear hardly any resemblance to kids of the 1980s, except for the clothes. What’s more, they are also hugely narcissistic. Much like Eleven, they are often crying and are overwhelmed with fear, which stretches the episodes and turns the narrative into primitive emotionalism and melodrama.
There are, however, two elements that render some parts of this season somewhat redeemable. Steve Harrington is one of the characters that is relatable, and he appears to be authentic in his disposition. He wants to have a normal life, get married, have children, and he loves Nancy. She, on the other hand, finds his desire to be a husband and a father a bit off-putting.
The second, and most important element is Vecna himself. The slow unraveling of Vecna’s identity was superbly done, but it was only through the amazing and praiseworthy performance of Jamie Campbell Bower, who plays the orderly in the institution where Eleven and other children are housed. He is also known as Henry Creel, One, and Vecna.
The grand reveal of his identity is the best episode in the series, in which Bower gives an intense performance. At once a Greek hero, a misunderstood and neglected child, a kind orderly, and Nietzsche’s Superman whose will only leads to destruction of others, Henry/One/Vecna delivers a performance that provides an insight into the complexity of evil. He attempts to seduce Eleven into joining the forces with him to remake the world in his own image; to rid the world of mediocre and boring people; to make something great instead of following and living out the hours of human desperation. But there is no love for creation, only will to power.
Eleven refuses, but not because she is strong. Eleven never really makes a firm choice, because it’s never clear why she wants to fight evil in the first place. She is not driven by something bigger, and even the love she has for her friends is somehow hollow.
Despite the fact that God or even the idea of God never enters the picture, Bower’s performance can’t help but allude to it. He plays Vecna as an interesting villain, and enters into his consciousness. It’s clear that Bower took this role very seriously, perhaps even more seriously than the writers. The others seem to have abandoned the depth they had, especially in the first season. They may be older, but they haven’t grown.