Season 4: Volume 1
(SPOILERS) I haven’t had cause, or the urge, to revisit earlier seasons of Stranger Things, but I’m fairly certain my (relatively) positive takes on the first two sequel seasons would adjust down somewhat if I did (a Soviet base under Hawkins? DUMB soft disclosure or not, it’s pretty dumb). In my Season Three review, I called the show “Netflix’s best-packaged junk food. It knows not to outstay its welcome, doesn’t cause bloat and is disposable in mostly good ways” I fairly certain the Duffer’s weren’t reading, but it’s as if they decided, as a rebuke, that bloat was the only way to go for Season Four. Hence episodes approaching (or exceeding) twice the standard length. So while the other points – that it wouldn’t stray from its cosy identity and seasons tend to merge in the memory – hold fast, you can feel the ambition of an expansive canvas faltering at the hurdle of Stranger Things’ essential, curated, nostalgia-appeal inconsequentiality.
Dustin: There’s another world. A world hidden beneath Hawkins.
That’s particularly true during the first half of this run, where episodes stagger under the weight of, if not filler exactly, then the luxury and indulgence of unexpurgated telling. There’s no compulsion or pressure to cut to the chase, and there’s a point where character development – which is surely the excuse for a lot of the narrative dead air early on – gives way to inertia. The irony of this expansive timeframe (overall about a third again longer than Season Three) is that characters still get short-changed. Which, I guess, is indicative of how much they have going for them in the first place, but nevertheless.
The Byers fare worst, with Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) getting thoroughly wasted, dude, with new recruit Argyle (a very funny Eduard Franco) but otherwise without much purpose (he and Natalia Dyer’s Nancy are pretty much over, so what he loses, the already well-catered-for Steve (Joe Keery) gains). Brother Will (Noah Schnapp) never really recovered from being abducted for most of Season One, such that Schnapp now stoically and dutifully delivers sensitive gay third wheel. For most of the season they’re on the run with Mike (Finn Wolfhard, more limber than ever for The Emo Phillips Story) , simultaneously trying to locate Eleven, but whether they’re in California or on the road, the only times their storyline picks up are when there’s an-all-out military assault on the Byers house (Chapter Four: Dear Billy) and their visit to Suzie in Chapter Five: The Nina Project (notably, they don’t appear at all in the longest episode, Chapter Seven: The Massacre at Hawkins Lab, which tells you a lot about how crucial they are).
The season also reconfirms the tenuous importance of the adults’ plotlines. In their favour, though, you can believe they’ve aged a mere four years in approximately six of actual time; in contrast the main bunch of juniors, knocking twenty, are all supposed to be about fifteen, I figure. The Soviet hellhole is fundamentally inessential, and I suspect the Duffers grossly overestimate our interest in Hopper, along with our investment in seeing him and Joyce reunite. Tom Wiaschiha (Game of Thrones) is a welcome enough addition to the cast, but much of the first half of this run is spent on a Hopper escape attempt, only for him to fail (before adding a Demogorgon to his woes, for shits and giggles). Possibly the season nadir is serving him an interminable, mopey Agent Orange monologue.
While Joyce and her rescue bid isn’t very much more engrossing, it benefits immensely from pairing Ryder with Brett Gelman as Murray Bauman; if there’s one thing the series has done consistently well, its creating new eccentrics (this season’s addition being Argyle). The downside is that it spotlights how very few characters who aren’t (Steve, pretty much, and maybe Joseph Quinn’s Eddie Munson too) are engaging in their own right. The Nina Project’s plane fight sequence – “My fingers are like arrows!” – is a particular comic high point.
I’ll discuss the Eleven plotline separately, but that aside, the most consistent and successful of the season is the Hawkins Big Bad. Obviously, it’s a redux of the familiar Upside Down menace, with some thematic elements that will require further consideration, but with the season suffering from excess baggage until Dear Billy, this is the plotline that keeps engagement buoyant.
There are new sources of tried-and-tested character tropes, including Mason Dye’s jock head boy Jason Carver (Caleb McLaughlin’s Lucas is inveigled into a not-quite betrayal of his nerd pals when he discovers a footing with the cool kids) and geek rebel Eddie (Quinn is an immediate scene stealer), who suggests the lineage of John Hughes favourites Judd Nelson and Elias Koteas, but with a D&D twist. His admission of nerd-jealousy over Dustin hero-worshipping Steve is most amusing, as is their bonding over Henderson’s egotism (“It’s his tone, right?”)
The downside of rekindling Steve and Nancy’s attraction is that it serves to emphasise how strong the chemistry between Keery and Maya Hawke as Robin is (but the Duffers rather wrote themselves out of that one). Matarazzo is his usual irrepressible self, of course, while Priah Ferguson also has some good material (“The whole couch is on fire!”)
During earlier episodes, Max (Sadie Sink) is handed a “next-on-the-hit-list” plotline that’s occasionally in danger of becoming overcooked; when Running Up that Hill pipes up during Chapter One: The Hellfire Club, it smacks of a very lazy, made-to-order choice, since Kate Bush instantly takes up the slack for any emotional weight that isn’t being pulled. It’s at least somewhat gratifying, then that “Music is a lifeline” should give it more resonance (The Power of Kate Compels Her). However, I’d still rather these guys – who are we trying to kid, the Duffers were two years old in 1986 – could come up with an ’80s track to make the series’ own (they’ve got R.E.M. on the wall well before their mass audience appeal after all, so isn’t beyond the realms of possibility that an awkward Hawkins teenager should select something a bit more obscure as their favourite, rather than every other teenager’s).
On the period references front, was “Send him to Kamchatka!” a reference to Risk (Altogether now, “Ten into Kamchatka!”)? “I thought we were watching Thundercats” is a nice framing that anyone of a certain age range will watch kids’ cartoons, even the jocks. And the school assignment – “Helen Keller was my hero” – was surely tinged in irony, since we all know Helen Keller was full of it. Right?
Sam: Each time it returns, it comes back stronger, smarter, deadlier.
The mode by which Vecna takes his victims is suitably unnerving/ twisted (literally, with regard to the latter), and the floaty pose favoured by both the monster and his means of dispatch suggests the Duffers have been watching Raised by Wolves. Design wise, he isn’t all that unique – but then, what is in the show? – resembling the Shadow (The Armageddon Factor) meets Swamp Thing. Further, the scenes of foisting on the characters own guiltiest experiences is very in keeping with A Nightmare on Elm Street’s pursuing and punishing teens, complete with Robert Englund. Albeit, he’s a good guy wrongly accused this time. The references – “Like Michael Myers killed his whole family”; “We’ve got a serial killer on the loose here” – stand as both misdirection and accurate, as the true perpetrator turns out to be Myers-esque (a bad seed minor) but operating on a Freddy plane.
Chrissy: Do you really ever think you’re losing your mind?
Inevitably, though, there are diminishing returns with the modus operandi; the demise of Chrissy Cunningham (Grace Van Dien), whereby a winning in-girl and nerd fraternisation in the woods is subsequently rudely ruptured when she’s killed in Eddie’s uncle’s home, is probably the most shocking of the lot. Next time, with Fred (Logan Riley Bruner), it’s that bit less so.
The depiction of the Upside Down realm is always effective, though, and it’s a offbeat touch that this one is set years earlier (Nov 6 1983), as is the means of getting back through the ceiling (“Holy shit, this is trippy”). Perhaps most disappointing are the surprisingly pedestrian flashback scenes, showing the 1950s Victor Creel and the fate of his family. There’s a resounding lack of engagement here; indeed, apart from the kudos of getting Englund, Victor Creed character is altogether vanilla. But then, the origins of Vecna himself are somewhat underwhelming, given the promise of Jamie Campbell Bower’s performance as One.
Victor: I am still very much in hell.
Vecna’s genesis lead us back into the world of Eleven and DUMBs, with the season opening on the mass slaughter of children in such a base. Soft(ish) disclosure (Netflix is now issuing warnings, given the latest reported shooting, the ilk of which are typically tied to psyops and programmed participants. There may also be an echo here of The Montauk Project’s psychic beast wreaking havoc on the base)? Bower’s kindly One, punished for aiding young Eleven in her trials and tribulations, suggests an individual with more sides than either the essential bad seed of his younger self Henry Creel or his final form as Vecna. That said, the dual exposition, whereby both Nancy in the Upside Down and Eleven in NINA (putting her in a very Altered States and MKUltra fiend John Lilly flotation tank) are being supplied the same information from different points of inquiry, is well spun.
The return to the scene of the crime of Eleven’s formative traumas was perhaps inevitable, particularly with the advances in de-aging tech (such that there’s a shrunken, younger Millie Bobby Brown’s head on a stand-in’s body). The actual terrain here is as murky as it tends to be when Hollywood filters deep-state activities, in that Eleven is the hero and One is the villain, yet One is as opposed to the instigator of traumas (effectively the Elite) as she is. Indeed, One as presented is a further cop out, since his psyche derives neither from abusive parents nor a traumatic incident(s); he’s simply born bad. Thus, while Brenner (Matthew Modine) hasn’t helped him any (and further, has compounded his sins by making an army of him when he realises One’s uncontrollable), much of the doctrine One espouses is precisely the kind of next-level thinking the Elite considers their (birth)right.
One: But the human world was disrupting this harmony. You see, humans are a unique type of pest, multiplying and poisoning our world all while enforcing a structure of their own. A deeply unnatural structure. Where others saw order, I saw a straightjacket, A cruel, oppressive world dictated by made-up rules. Seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, decades. Each life, a faded, lesser copy of the one before. Wake up, eat, work, sleep, reproduce and die. Everyone is just waiting for it all to be over. All while performing in a silly, terrible play, day after day. I could not close my mind and join the madness. I could not pretend. And I realised I didn’t have to. I could make my own rules. I could restore balance to a broken world.
So does this character reflect (a) what the Elite believe they are, or (b) a warning of the distortion they create (One is, after all, fundamentally opposed to them, but he’s also a wrong ’un regardless of their influence)? One explicitly uses language of a superior being, comparing himself to a Black Widow spider (“gods of our world… most important of all predators… immobilise the weak… bringing balance and order to an unstable ecosystem”).
He thus assumes the position of one with the power and the right to wield leavening order on the world. One presents himself as “A predator but for good” and all those in his realm as corrupted, having falsely presented themselves as good; they have all lived a lie and done terrible things (“I showed them who they really were. I held up a mirror”). This is the view of Gnostic Luciferian, seeing the world as a false, demiurgic creation and therefore one that demands no moral restraints; as an incumbent (demi) god of this world, there is only attainment and becoming (“We could reshape the world, remake it however we see fit”). Vecna plays his own most dangerous game with his victims, torturing them gradually on the way to an eventual fate, and would treat humanity as a whole in similar fashion.
Mike: They’re nobodies. And you’re a superhero.
The disappointment comes from revealing One as a straight-up psycho, then, since the persona Bower imbues him with is considered, and much of what he says is legitimate (“Papa doesn’t tell the truth”; “This place and the people here are not what you think”). Instead, we have One contrasted with Eleven, she the good demigod to his bad one. The indignities/difficulties Eleven/Jane suffers as a teenager are direct paralleled with the ones she encountered in the lab, only with more roller skates to hand and fewer mental powers, having lost them à la Spider-Man 2 or Superman II. Pointedly so, as the superhero comparison Mike makes is significant. After all, what superhero worth their salt doesn’t have a trauma-based formative experience that instils in them their alter motivation (Spider-Man, Batman; even Superman, well Clark Kent, was born from an exploding home and parents)?
Consequently, the promise “What if I told you there was a way… to bring her back… stronger than before?” derives intrinsically from the premise that trauma-based mind control is GOOD! It makes you more special! It makes you more super! It makes you a true, power-packed hero! More complete. More capable. Just as long as you overcome your trials; this is Luciferian transcendence (becoming a god oneself). Notably, for all that Stranger Things deals with other realms and (astral) planes, it has next to nothing to say about the eternal soul. It is, consequently, a good fit for such materialist-humanist strains of thought (tapping as they do in transhumanist messaging). Besides Eleven, there is also the motif of suffering/trauma leaving one open to further negative influence (death by Vecna), so unless that trauma is used purposefully (transforming one into a superhero and thus a god), it is a weakness and leaves you eternally out for the count (like poor Barb).
Brenner: You speak of monsters, superheroes. That’s the stuff of myth and fairy tales. Reality, truth, is rarely so simple. Only by facing all of our selves, the good and the bad, can we become whole.
This is essentially the creed espoused by Brenner when coaxing Eleven. He can justify himself and his unspeakable acts on the basis of moral relativism – and further, Crowleyan “Do what thou will” – and we see in him one whose only compass is the objective of control (of the animal to be tamed). Reiser’s Sam, a weak man who knows what is right – “I see a frightened, traumatised little girl. Good for us” – yet justifies himself with utilitarian homilies, is in some ways even worse than Brenner, because he lacks even the courage of his convictions.
In core terms, then, we’re asked to get behind Brenner’s machinations as they will give us back Superhero Eleven – who was born into the programme, as we see “Papa” waiting at her delivery, much as those in Elite/bloodline families or specifically selected for slave work are born into Monarch programmes – just as we can easily discard evil One because he was always like that (as such he bears comparison to a “super nice guy”, per discussions of Eddie: “They said the same shit about Ted Bundy” while he was “murdering women on the weekend”. Someone else whose connections to MKUltra programming are less than renowned when it comes to the MSM arena).
FBI Agent: There are factions within our government who are working directly against Eleven, who are, in fact, searching for her as we speak.
Mike: So what? We’re just supposed to trust that you’re the good guys?
The above exchange might imply the military, willing as they are to use torture – “Just don’t kill her. Promise me you won’t kill her” – and, apparently, assassinate a houseful of high schoolers, are nevertheless the good guys, since they’re in opposition to Brenner and his work. Which wouldn’t be entirely persuasive. It’s unclear at this point quite where they stand, presenting two possible explanations for events in Hawkins – an invisible boogeyman from another dimension, and Dr Breen’s special little pet gone rogue again – while evidently favouring the latter. Which would suggest it’s unclear if they are blinkered/sceptical about non-material entities. Perhaps the least persuasive aspect of the show in terms of remit is that the makers are willing to sacrifice their lead protagonist at the altar of crassly manipulative retraumatising cycles; they won’t set her free, offering only false dawns.
The point about belief systems, or lack thereof, leads in Season Four’s peculiar relationship with religion. We see a couple of signifiers of church faith, one in which Jason impassionedly wrests control of a church service, pressing the Hawkins folk into vigilante justice, while the other is at Suzie’s house in Salt Lake City. She is, presumably, part of a Mormon household. Per both Cathy O’Brien and Dave McGowan, Mormonism is a hotbed of mind control and Satanic cult activity, and it’s very noticeable that Suzie – the fellow kids in whose house are into all kinds of weird role play, including play acting a snuff movie – has a Wizard of Oz poster on her bedroom wall; she is herself, presumably, a victim of MKUltra programming (and she’s a whizz at computer programming). The NeverEnding Story – “That scared the shit out of me” – is also mentioned by Argyle (O’Brien mentions this movie as a programming tool). On this front too, it’s notable that traumatised pupils going to counsellor Miss Kelly are entirely failed by one upon whom they are most dependent.
Season Three mentioned Satanic panic, but it’s a major element of the fourth. The first episode references a Newsweek cover on D&D and the suggestion it promotes Satanism – “That’s bullshit” – but you can’t really make a commentary on unmotivated Satanic panic in a series where the premise revolves around demonic forces wreaking havoc on a small town. Sure, you can say the D&D guys are nice guys, and the wrong target for excoriation, but… they’re also the ones who just happen, innocently, to be playing a game featuring the very entity unleashed (which doesn’t appear to take its first victim until the night of their game; Vecna seems to have been dormant/growing/acting like a five-star general for about seven years, if we go by the timeline).
Jason: How do you expect to stop the devil if you don’t believe he’s real?
Thus, we hear a lot of hyperbole from Jason, rousing the crowd to fever pitch, and spurious accusations towards Eddie, whom we know is innocent, that he “probably sacrificed her”, “drained her blood for the devil” – “Satanists do that shit” and “Eddie is a vessel. Just a vessel. For Satan”. The Duffers’ position appears to be that Satanic panic was entirely unsanctioned (“We’ve all heard about how Satanic cults are spreading throughout country like some… some disease”), but more accurately, the response Jason personifies is misinformed. We see a similar attitude from One’s father, who thought a demon was cursing him for his sins, yet Henry’s mother recognised the truth. But surely that’s chicken-and-egg splitting hairs, since Vecna is a demon (“An undead creature of great power; A spellcaster; A dark wizard”). Or at minimum a demonic entity.
Buffy had its swing at such panic in its time too, but you can only get away with such a plotline where the terrain speaks to such attitudes and belief systems as false. Even The ’Burbs, which references Satanic panic, ultimately has the Klopeks as guilty of goodness knows what (badness, pretty much). So Stranger Things is all over the place in terms of subtext, and I doubt it’s suddenly going to right ship in the last two episodes of the season. Let’s face it, the Duffers are more than able to keep the show going, but it’s very much “What can we think up to perpetuate it this year?” in its sub-Buffy, Big-Bad teenage-rites way, ultimately requiring Eleven (the Chosen One) to flame on, like clockwork.