Skip to main content

If that small woman is small enough, she could fit behind a small tree.

Stranger Things
Season 4: Volume 2

(SPOILERS) I can’t quite find it within myself to perform the rapturous somersaults that seem to be the prevailing response to this fourth run of the show. I’ve outlined some of my thematic issues in the Volume 1 review, largely borne out here, but the greater concern is one I’ve held since Season Two began – and this is the best run since Season One, at least as far my failing memory can account for – and that’s the purpose-built formula dictated by the Duffer Brothers. It’s there in each new Big Bad, obviously, even to the extent that this is the Big-Bad-who-binds-them-all (except the Upside Down was always there, right?) And it’s there with the resurgent emotional beats, partings, reunions and plaintively stirring music cues. I have to be really on board with a movie or show to embrace such flagrantly shameless manipulation, season after season, and I find myself increasingly immune.

Stranger Things mostly gets by on such consummately serviceable delivery, then, simply because the Duffers do what they do well, in that Amblin-meets-Stephen-King way of theirs. But a few points nevertheless qualify for a “must try harder”, if familiarity isn’t to breed contempt. In particular, and I mentioned this regarding Volume 1, there’s Vecna. Sure, he’s the requisite gnarly-faced monster with a deep, ominous voice, so full marks for delivering on expectations. Which is the problem, really. Vecna just isn’t interesting as performed by Jamie Campbell Bower (presumably) in a prosthetic suit. He wasn’t very interesting as a child psychopath either (Raphael Luce). But, as semi-likeable manipulator One, he was interesting. Take that away, and all you have left is the evil-because-evil monster face.

Brenner: I want you to know, I’m proud of you. So very proud. You are my favourite child.

Of course, One was evil from the off, so no amount of MKUltra-ing or Eleven sending him into a hell dimension was going to alter that. This is both unimaginative – One shows more potential for nuance than either his former or later self – and tends to let the bad guys (well, Brenner) off the hook. The “sympathy for the devil tactic” with Brenner – who is, after all, aware of ethical considerations in a way One is not, but just doesn’t care – is not an uncommon device, and it can be used effectively in the “misguided but initially well-intentioned” antagonist sphere. There’s arguably no such justification here – the Duffers are simply leaning on the trope, or perhaps they buy into it – and while Brenner is portrayed as stern, uncompromising and ruthless, he’s also granted “genuine” affection and concern for his creations.

On the one hand, this serves to confuse Eleven’s resolve (told “You are the one who released him from his prison” she parries that it isn’t her, “It is you, you are the monster”). On the other, his dying – Wiki says he’s dead but I won’t believe until his head’s on a spike. Even then, Chris Carter would find a way to bring him back – declaration confirms the Duffers identifying with “Papa” (how could they not? They need Eleven back to full wattage and firing on all cylinders to keep raking in the Netflix dollars). A true portrait wouldn’t be someone with genuine affection, except maybe in the manner of one who has a faithful dog.

Vecna: All I needed was someone to open the door. And you did that for me.

This back and forth on culpability, of gradations of evil, is a necessary part of the Luciferian/Satanist creed's modus operandi, to disassociate in terms of moral baselines. The problem is not so much about saying good people do bad things, as saying, “Really, there’s not much difference between good people and bad people” (Hollywood narratives are still, predominately, required to end with good triumphing, but the point is the trickle effect, to muddy the waters sufficiently). So Eleven is our hero(ine) – our superhero(ine) – but she is culpable (“He did not make me into this. You did”). And if we can excuse young Eleven acting blindly, can we excuse teen Eleven wilfully embracing her dark powers – super powers, but dark still, so such summoning is rather akin to the Ancient One’s greyness – for the greater good? Isn’t that Brenner’s argument for what he does (did)? And we, as the audience, inevitably root for her return to her path of ascendance (to godlike, gnostic Luciferian status). Eleven, despite warnings against, hubristically proceeds to confront Vecna – demigod vs demigod – rejecting his claim “You have already lost” with “I know you are, but what am I?”

Vecna: He was just a man. An ordinary, mediocre man. That is why he sought greatness in others. In you and me.

Which is what Vecna is doing. While it’s something of a cop out – unless they choose to explore it in Season Five, although we’ve got the Duffers saying the season won’t be as big as this one – to leave the Upside Down uninterrogated, the characterisation here is not dissimilar to that of a rejected false creation, a “realm unspoilt by mankind”, ripe for Vecna’s demiurgic sculpting.

Ted Wheeler: It’s the news. Now indistinguishable from the tabloids.

With this in mind, yet again, the show’s characterisation of Satanic Panic seems severely off base. Yes, there’s a swipe at controlled media and fake news, as the Jason-splitting Vecna-quake hitting Hawkins is fobbed off as simply an earthquake of unprecedented magnitude. But the decade’s Satanic Panic is evidently designed to be dismissed as just that: unwarranted panic, hysteria and false accusation – à la The Crucible and McCarthyism – by virtue of the accused party being innocent (the media report speculation that the Munson murders opened a doorway to hell itself). The actual subtext surely has to be that Satanic Panic is legit, but the targets are wrong, or overstated – D&D etc – such that a patsy gets blamed and the government, ultimately responsible, is able to deflect thanks to the blithe complicity of the media.

I wasn’t entirely persuaded by the decision to kill off Eddie Munson, not necessarily because he’s a memorable new character it’s a shame to lose – he is, but had he been kept on, the only way he could become part of the group would be to make him less distinctive and more homogenous – but because his demise is so contrived and the reasoning so telegraphed, it’s almost meta. The Duffers are obviously wary of offing anyone important, ever since they received a backlash to the lack of justice for Barb, but going in the opposite direction of setting out someone’s demise in luminous highlighter can have the opposite effect to the one intended.

Eddie’s “self-sacrifice”, atoning for running away when Vecna killed Chrissy, failed for me both because it was overly schematic and because it lacks any resonance. After all, it doesn’t really achieve anything does it? Ostensibly, Eddie’s warding the bats away, but they’re aren’t going to be interested in the other humans, seeing as they’re all securely bound by Vecna’s tentacles. If you’re going to kill a likeable character off, kill them off meaningfully; guiltily effective-self-immolation doesn’t count. When Eddie goes back into the Upside Down, I initially assumed he’d realised something important: which would have been what he needed – to go out in a blaze of purpose – rather than being nipped at a bit. Worse still, the Duffers use this moment to dredge up one of the most overused Moby tracks (When it’s cold I’d like to die – previously called upon in Season One). At least lift something by someone that’s era-appropriate (and I’m not arguing for more Metallica, no).

I had a different issue with Max, whom the Duffers have put through the ringer all season, to the extent of boosting Kate Bush straight up the singles charts on both sides of the Atlantic. Running up that Hill is a masterpiece, don’t get me wrong – which means you’d have to go very wrong not to instantly boost any scene using it. The song is euphoric, triumphant, rousingly anthemic. And yet the Duffers pay it off by having Max’s limbs cracked and broken and her senses switched off (“I can’t feel or see anything. I don’t want to die”). The last time we hear it, it accompanies Eleven/Neo-slamming Agent Smith/Vecna, and from thence comes ruin. Essentially, whether they realise it or not, they turned the song from a signature for overcoming to the soundtrack to failure. Well done, boys!

Will: You’re scared of losing her.

As with Eddie, imperilling Max this way likely comes easily, because the Duffers can’t risk it with the main cast (that is, the cast from Season One lot) as there’d be outrage. Well, okay, maybe they could get rid of the Byers siblings and no one would notice... And I’m sure Mike isn’t the only one wondering why Eleven doesn’t just ditch him. Jonathan seems preternaturally aware that Nancy no longer has such the hots for him, which is about as alert as the character has seemed all season (he’s essentially been running on fumes since the end of Season One, when Steve supplanted him in everyone’s affections, bar Nancy). I was sympathetic to Noah Schnapp being served a lame duck of a character in the first half of the season, was of a mind this was all down to poor material, but he seems to have embraced Will’s status as a pining wet blanket. Wet, because he appears to be perpetually soiling himself. Sure, such morbid obsessing may well be reflective of teen-angst bullshit, but it simply isn’t engaging to watch, and it’s the only mode Will has, until he reminds us at the end he has another, equally defeatist one. “You’re the heart, remember”, he tells his unrequited Mike. I guess that makes Will Toto.

The Duffers get to have their gay cake and eat it, though, having seized on a very enlightened and self-aware ’80s small-town America (in terms of self-aware teenagers, that is, rather than necessarily town mores). Robin gets to go in for upbeat mooning, plus she’s got the “loveable klutz rocking a Patty Hearst beret” card to play (her designated reciprocator, Olive Oil redhead Vickie Amybeth McNulty is possible too perfectly reflective a kook).

The gulag plotline is considerably better-oiled here, probably because the prison fatigue was broken towards the end of the last Volume. The embryo jars seemed like a conscious nod to (Ryder’s) Alien Resurrection, and if the crosscut crescendos get a bit much, the various subsequent reunions are nicely done (one thing the season achieves commendably is making it seem as if they’ve been apart for an age due to the momentous events and tribulations that have transpired).

Argyle: I know a magical place that has all you need, my brave little superpowered friend.

MVP of the season is, obviously, Argyle; let’s hope he’s given a steady fuel of Purple Palm Tree Delight in Season Five. Stranger Things Season Four is, as a whole, agreeable entertainment, if entirely dubious in its thematic undercurrents. But that’s to be expected. Almost as dubious as trying to revive someone by reading them Stephen King. The Talisman may be fantasy, rather than horror per se – and rather on the nose-ly dealing with alternate universes – but I don’t think that’s an excuse. The real excuse is that the Duffers are adapting it for Netflix.

Popular posts from this blog

I’m smarter than a beaver.

Prey (2022) (SPOILERS) If nothing else, I have to respect Dan Trachtenberg’s cynical pragmatism. How do I not only get a project off the ground, but fast-tracked as well? I know, a woke Predator movie! Woke Disney won’t be able to resist! And so, it comes to pass. Luckily for Prey , it gets to bypass cinemas and so the same sorry fate of Lightyear . Less fortunately, it’s a patience-testing snook cocking at historicity (or at least, assumed historicity), in which a young, pint-sized Comanche girl who wishes to hunt and fish – and doubtless shoot to boot – with the big boys gets to take on a Predator and make mincemeat of him. Well, of course , she does. She’s a girl, innit?

If you ride like lightning, you're going to crash like thunder.

The Place Beyond the Pines (2012) (SPOILERS) There’s something daringly perverse about the attempt to weave a serious-minded, generation-spanning saga from the hare-brained premise of The Place Beyond the Pines . When he learns he is a daddy, a fairground stunt biker turns bank robber in order to provide for his family. It’s the kind of “only-in-Hollywood” fantasy premise you might expect from a system that unleashed Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man and Point Break on the world. But this is an indie-minded movie from the director of the acclaimed Blue Valentine ; it demands respect and earnest appraisal. Unfortunately it never recovers from the abject silliness of the set-up. The picture is littered with piecemeal characters and scenarios. There’s a hope that maybe the big themes will even out the rocky terrain but in the end it’s because of this overreaching ambition that the film ends up so undernourished. The inspiration for the movie

I’m the famous comedian, Arnold Braunschweiger.

Last Action Hero (1993) (SPOILERS) Make no mistake, Last Action Hero is a mess. But even as a mess, it might be more interesting than any other movie Arnie made during that decade, perhaps even in his entire career. Hellzapoppin’ (after the 1941 picture, itself based on a Broadway revue) has virtually become an adjective to describe films that comment upon their own artifice, break the fourth wall, and generally disrespect the convention of suspending disbelief in the fictions we see parading across the screen. It was fairly audacious, some would say foolish, of Arnie to attempt something of that nature at this point in his career, which was at its peak, rather than playing it safe. That he stumbled profoundly, emphatically so since he went up against the behemoth that is Jurassic Park (slotted in after the fact to open first), should not blind one to the considerable merits of his ultimate, and final, really, attempt to experiment with the limits of his screen persona.

Everyone creates the thing they dread.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) (SPOILERS) Avengers: Age of Ultron ’s problem isn’t one of lack. It benefits from a solid central plot. It features a host of standout scenes and set pieces. It hands (most of) its characters strong defining moments. It doesn’t even suffer now the “wow” factor of seeing the team together for the first time has subsided. Its problem is that it’s too encumbered. Maybe its asking to much of a director to effectively martial the many different elements required by an ensemble superhero movie such as this, yet Joss Whedon’s predecessor feels positively lean in comparison. Part of this is simply down to the demands of the vaster Marvel franchise machine. Seeds are laid for Captain America: Civil War , Infinity Wars I & II , Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok . It feels like several spinning plates too many. Such activity occasionally became over-intrusive on previous occasions ( Iron Man II ), but there are points in Age of Ultron whe

Death to Bill and Ted!

Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991) (SPOILERS) The game of how few sequels are actually better than the original is so well worn, it was old when Scream 2 made a major meta thing out of it (and it wasn’t). Bill & Ted Go to Hell , as Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey was originally called, is one such, not that Excellent Adventure is anything to be sneezed at, but this one’s more confident, even more playful, more assured and more smartly stupid. And in Peter Hewitt it has a director with a much more overt and fittingly cartoonish style than the amiably pedestrian Stephen Herrick. Evil Bill : First, we totally kill Bill and Ted. Evil Ted : Then we take over their lives. My recollection of the picture’s general consensus was that it surpassed the sleeper hit original, but Rotten Tomatoes’ review aggregator suggests a less universal response. And, while it didn’t rock any oceans at the box office, Bogus Journey and Point Break did quite nicely for Keanu Reev

I think it’s pretty clear whose side the Lord’s on, Barrington.

Monte Carlo or Bust aka  Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies (1969) (SPOILERS) Ken Annakin’s semi-sequel to Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines tends to be rather maligned, usually compared negatively to its more famous predecessor. Which makes me rather wonder if those expressing said opinion have ever taken the time to scrutinise them side by side. Or watch them back to back (which would be more sensible). Because Monte Carlo or Bust is by far the superior movie. Indeed, for all its imperfections and foibles (not least a performance from Tony Curtis requiring a taste for comic ham), I adore it. It’s probably the best wacky race movie there is, simply because each set of competitors, shamelessly exemplifying a different national stereotype (albeit there are two pairs of Brits, and a damsel in distress), are vibrant and cartoonish in the best sense. Albeit, it has to be admitted that, as far as said stereotypes go, Annakin’s home side win

This entire edifice you see around you, built on jute.

Jeeves and Wooster 3.3: Cyril and the Broadway Musical  (aka Introduction on Broadway) Well, that’s a relief. After a couple of middling episodes, the third season bounces right back, and that's despite Bertie continuing his transatlantic trip. Clive Exton once again plunders  Carry On, Jeeves  but this time blends it with a tale from  The Inimitable Jeeves  for the brightest spots, as Cyril Basington-Basington (a sublimely drippy Nicholas Hewetson) pursues his stage career against Aunt Agatha's wishes.

Just because you are a character doesn't mean that you have character.

Pulp Fiction (1994) (SPOILERS) From a UK perspective, Pulp Fiction ’s success seemed like a fait accompli; Reservoir Dogs had gone beyond the mere cult item it was Stateside and impacted mainstream culture itself (hard to believe now that it was once banned on home video); it was a case of Tarantino filling a gap in the market no one knew was there until he drew attention to it (and which quickly became over-saturated with pale imitators subsequently). Where his debut was a grower, Pulp Fiction hit the ground running, an instant critical and commercial success (it won the Palme d’Or four months before its release), only made cooler by being robbed of the Best Picture Oscar by Forrest Gump . And unlike some famously-cited should-have-beens, Tarantino’s masterpiece really did deserve it.

Poetry in translation is like taking a shower with a raincoat on.

Paterson (2016) (SPOILERS) Spoiling a movie where nothing much happens is difficult, but I tend to put the tag on in a cautionary sense much of the time. Paterson is Jim Jarmusch at his most inert and ambient but also his most rewardingly meditative. Paterson (Adam Driver), a bus driver and modest poet living in Paterson, New Jersey, is a stoic in a fundamental sense, and if he has a character arc of any description, which he doesn’t really, it’s the realisation that is what he is. Jarmusch’s picture is absent major conflict or drama; the most significant episodes feature Paterson’s bus breaking down, the English bull terrier Marvin – whom Paterson doesn’t care for but girlfriend Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) dotes on – destroying his book of poetry, and an altercation at the local bar involving a gun that turns out to be a water pistol. And Paterson takes it all in his stride, genial to the last, even the ruination of his most earnest, devoted work (the only disappoint

Your Mickey Mouse is one big stupid dope!

Enemy Mine (1985) (SPOILERS) The essential dynamic of Enemy Mine – sworn enemies overcome their differences to become firm friends – was a well-ploughed one when it was made, such that it led to TV Tropes assuming, since edited, that it took its title from an existing phrase (Barry Longyear, author of the 1979 novella, made it up, inspired by the 1961 David Niven film The Best of Enemies ). The Film Yearbook Volume 5 opined that that Wolfgang Petersen’s picture “ lacks the gritty sauciness of Hell in the Pacific”; John Boorman’s WWII film stranded Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune on a desert island and had them first duking it out before becoming reluctant bedfellows. Perhaps germanely, both movies were box office flops.