A Darkness Falls on Hawkins
Stranger Things: Season 4, Part 2
Long-form television shows are particular beasts. Sure, there are shows that run and run and don't have a plan, and most of the time those shows tend to fall off eventually as all the good ieas the creators had ran out and they end up just coasting until the network decides its time to end the run. But for planned out shows, ones that have a specific end-goal in mind, these kinds of shows require effort and skill to produce. You can't just go in with a plan in place, you have to understand that your plan is going to quick change whether you want it to or not simply because the needs of the story will overtake whatever ideas you had.
As someone that ran a webcomic for a while I can attest that it's hard to both produce an organic story that remains fresh and interesting while still arriving at specific goal posts you feel "have to be met." You have a story in mind, you want that story to be told just the way that you envision it, and that bumps right up against the reality of creating a story that will quickly take on a life of its own. You don't have to take my word for it, though, as there are plenty of good examples of shows produced whos creators simply couldn't bend the organic nature of long-form storytelling. When you look at How I Met Your Mother or Game of Thrones and you see the mess that happened when the creators, with their "plan" simply wouldn't let the ending bend away from their pre-planned notes, you begin to understand just how hard this can be.
The Duffer Brothers, creators of Stranger Things, have stated they have the whole story for the series written out. That is likely very true as the show, from a world-building standpoint, does seem very richly detailed and developed. The issue, as is becoming plainly obvious (especially in this second part of the show's fourth season) is that they are married to that plan and, no matter how the characters are changing or evoloving, or what other cool ideas, characters, or settings are introduced, the Duffers aren't going to deviate from that plan. The show feels like it's buckling under the stress of what it wants to be as that meets up against what the Duffers expect it to be, and as we've seen before, that kind of strain on a show can lead to ruin. Maybe it won't, maybe it will, but the signs are already there in these last two episodes for season four.
This last "part" for season four of Stranger Things picks up right where the previous season left off. Elevene in in the underground bunker, wanting to help her friends but she finds herself stuck training when she needs to do some good. Mike, Will, Johnathan, and new addition Argyle are on the chase to find her and save her from the government goons that took her. In Russia, Joyce, Hopper, and their crew have to find a way to escape the Soviet Union, one way or another, but they may just have to fight a bunch of Upside Down demons in the process. And then, back in Haawkin, Dustin, Lucas, Nancy, Steve, Robin, Erica, and onthe-lamb game master Eddie try to find a way to take out Vecna before he kills Max and completes whatever sick plan he has in mind.
There's a lot going on in just these two episodes, as there was in the rest of the season, but to be honest none of it really lands. This is the longest and most complex season of Stranger Things but it's certainly not the best and that's for one simple reason: nothing that happens here really matters. Think back to where the show left off at the end of season three: Hopper was presumed dead so the Wheelers took a de-powered Eleven with them to California so she could have a normal life for once. Season four then goes about undoing all that so it can setup season five. It doesn't actually do anything except move pieces back where then need to be for the last season.
Of the various plotlines that are raised, and then dropped, the Byers in California had the most potential to do something differernt for the series. It was a new location, outside of Hawkins, which wass a big change on its own. It also introduced a huge new cast of characters, all the kids at the high school that Will and El go to, and new class dynamics among all these teens. The first couple of episodes in the season set all this up and make promises about what could happen to Eleven in this new setting. Maybe Mike comes in and the two of them find a way to one-up all the kids. Maybe he reveals to Eleven that she doesn't really care what happens because it's just high school. These are stories that could have helped Eleven grow and change.
She certainly needs to grown and change as the show presents her as a stunted youth with an education little better than a 1st grader. The show does her no favors, making her not a young adult but a little kid in the body of a teen. Its no wonder the other teens pick on her because, damn, she's really not ready to be in high school at all. Her growing up and learning to fight for herself (without powers) could have been cool. Hell, she smashes in the face of a mean girl with a skate and that could have spelled big conequences for her in the high school hierarchy. Instead all of that is thrown away (as well as the consequences of her actions) so she can go become a superhero again. It raises the question of: what as the point of it all?
By that same token, Hopper was sent to Russia, fought demons, was rescued by Joyce, and comes back to Hawkins. While it's great in the moment, it doesn't really amount to much of anything. It's reseting pieces, giving us Hopper back in Hawkins so he can be there for season five. Nothing that happens in Russia honestly has any consequence (the show has the characcters say, "if we attack the demons here maybe it weakens the villain they're fighting" but we really don't see that in a practical sense). None of it matters, not really.
Worse, the season builds itself up about one villain: Vecna. We learn he was Number One, the first of the super-children that the government trained (as opposed to Eleven who is, naturally, number eleven). He was thrown into the Upside Down (by Eleven), took over, and became the force that's been sending all the demons through to out world for the last three seasons. The goal, as established this season, was to defeat him and save the day. The kids fail as Vecna gets away in the end and reveals his grand plan on Hawkins, all as setup for next season. In effect nothing that happens here matters because the kids don't succeed and will have to try againt next time.
The only things of consequence this season, really, are (spoilers) Eddie dies and Max nearly dies. In the case of Eddie he's a character introduced this season who, cool as he is (and he's really great) wasn't part of the core cast and didn't matter in the end. This is a trick the series has pulled before, with Bob, with Billy, and now with Eddie, and in each case you can clearly see them set up as fodder meant to illustrate "the show will kill anyone". Except it won't. Only one person in the cast really suffers -- that would be Max -- and even she's not dead and will likely get to ocome back, healed and ready to go, for the final fight against Vecna in seaason five. Thus, again, none of it really matters.
Now, any of these bits of story could have been interesting if they were the focus of the show. Let's say we take all of the various plot ideas here: Eleven in school, Eleven in training, Hopper in Russia, the kids in Hawkins, the backstory for Vecna. Any one of these could have made for an interesting movie on their own, a long, two hour feature to explore each of these ideas. I think if season four has been broken up into five or six individual movies focusing just on specific characters these stories could have landed. Focused, specific tales with beginnings, middles, and ends that really got you involved in these specific tales. I would have liked that.
Instead, what we have is a mish-mash of all these stories comglomerated together with none of them really feeling like they get the development they needed. Done in this way (in a style that, sadly, reminds me of Game of Thrones) we're left with stories that a suffocating because none of them get the emphasis they need. They swirl and whirl around each other but none of them rise up to really grip us and make us care. It's just a whole lot of table setting for an entire seaason. We've seen that kind of show, that trait in long-form storytelling, and it sucks. This season, when you get down to it, sucks.
The problem, by the very construction of this season, is that by breaking it up they way they did, it put extra emphasis on these last two episodes when they weren't really meant for it. These two episodes are a pause screen at best. "We have this story we have to finish, but we're not actually going to finish it here no matter how much it feels like we've set these two episodes apart to be an 'epic conclusion'." These two episodes can't take it because, plainly, the season just wasn't there for them.
Look, this show is nowhere near as bad as Game of Thrones when that series went right down the toilet in season eight. But the signs are there. Everyone that matters is protected by plot armor as the Duffer Brothers lead us by the throat along their predetermined path they absolutely refuse to deviate from. This was the plan for their fourth season and, no matetr what the season might have needed, what ideas it actually should have explored, the Duffers had one story to tell and they're going to tell it no matter what. That's what drags all this down.
I still like the characters here, and the setting is interesting. The show doesn't lack for ideas at all. What the final season has to do now is pay everything off. They spent an entire season setting everything up such that, now, if season five bombs it's going to drag the rest of the show ddown with it. Sink or swim, the fate of Stranger Things now resides on its conclusion and, sadly, we could be in for another Game of Thrones-level bomb.