Can Stranger Things Save Itself With Season Four?
2016 saw Netflix launch Stranger Things, a new sci-fi horror series that focused on a group of kids and introduced us to the monstrous Demogorgon, Millie Bobby Brown and her charismatic co-stars.
The show, created by the Duffer brothers, was an overnight success and made global stars of Brown, Finn Wolfhard, Gaten Matarazzo, Caleb McLoughlin and Noah Schnapp. Stranger Things, a show about other dimensional nasties that exuded an appealing fusion of Super 8, Stand By Me and E.T., forged a solid narrative across its opening eight episodes, ticking all the boxes and then some.
We were introduced to some wonderfully-written characters, including the foreboding wildcard sheriff, Jim Hopper (David Harbour), and offered a welcomed career reprise for the delightful Winona Ryder. Matthew Modine, playing the mysterious science villain, made up the superb ensemble, which gave us consistently strong dialogue and well-balanced episodic progression to rival anything else at the time.
However, problems arose when its sophomore season landed after the hype machine had gone into overdrive, meaning anything less than five-star magnificence simply wouldn’t do. As it happened, Stranger Things season 2 not only failed to live up to its predecessor, it didn’t build on the success and magic the initial eight hours had so deftly mapped out. Aside from Bob’s (Sean Astin) introduction and tragic demise, the series stuttered.
While season 1 had plenty of high points – whether it was the slow-burn mystery that paid off, the protestable outrage over Barb’s disappearance, or even its genuinely touching moments of character interaction through exquisite development and acting – season 2 never managed to live up to the promise, failing to move things along as it should.
By season 3, the show had reshaped itself as it jumbled on-screen dynamics and veered character arcs off course, yet made proceedings decidedly more adult. With the balance that made its debut so likeable now gone, it took the series in an altogether different direction: our sweet and innocent protagonists started to grow up and scenes lingered around adolescent vulgarity and sexual curiosity. Most alarming was Hopper’s transformation from the physically intimidating long arm of the law into an annoying manchild that bickered with Joyce (Ryder) as the pair flirted like teens.
So what should season 4 build upon and do away with?
Well, for starters, we need to see continued development of the show’s MVP: Steve Harrington. Once an unlikeable high school bully, the majestic quiff has undergone an incredible journey into one of the best people on the show, and alongside newcomer Robin (Maya Hawke) – and, of course, Justin (Matarazzo) – the three made quite an impact as they splintered from the core group.
Having proven itself with the complexity and mystery of a government plot in season 1, the show needs to get back to its roots of simple, effective storytelling. In an ironic twist, the global pandemic that’s seen production halted has given its helmers time to actually finish writing (and even rewrite) the scripts prior to shooting.
The challenge for season 4 is to package different threads and character relationships that move along the overarching plot without it becoming convoluted or losing its edge, while bringing in some entirely new locales in Russia and wherever the Myers have moved. Strong character writing is key: we don’t need filler or weak, slapstick dialogue that takes us nowhere. Progression is paramount.
The mid-credits sting, implying Hopper (described as ‘The American’, who is actually alive and imprisoned in Kamchatka, Russia), could see his character transform from his season 2 overprotective parent and 3’s flirtatiously obnoxious oaf into someone altogether unrecognisable. Season 3 was much darker in parts thanks to the terror of the Mind Flayer and some gross body horror moments, so we need more mature horror like that.
Rehashing what we’ve seen before – Will targeted, an other-worldy beast tries to enter Earth, fails – won’t do. Joyce closing the gateway to the Upside-Down, and apparently killing the Mind Flayer in the process, means there has to be something much grander at stake. But is the portal closed for good? And other than Hawkins, where else may dimensional rips have occurred? A fresh, innovative and original story is essential to keep the show evolving toward its inevitability (even though this season isn’t the end, it’ll either culminate in a season 4 two-parter or at season 5).
Imprisoned in a Russian facility may just do the trick in regards to saving Hopper’s character and plunge him into much darker territory; with Harbour’s return confirmed, he has hinted about a big backstory reveal that’ll reshape his persona, which is exactly what’s needed.
But what of Eleven?
The most recent finale saw everyone split up and Eleven lose her powers. With the Myers leaving town, along with El, rendering Mike, Nancy and everyone watching at home heartbroken, it seems our leads have gone their separate ways. In fact, that letter Hopper wrote was one helluva touching end to what could’ve easily finalised the entire series: world saved, Hopper dead, lessons learned, we all move on.
The biggest no-no has to be the removal of that emotional manipulation. How dare they make us cry over Hopper’s ‘death’, hear the narration of that poignant note, then tease us with his survival right at the end! Building him up as an increasingly toxic and cretinous character all season only to pretend to kill him off, felt a little cheap, and frankly we should feel used.
In truth, future episodes do look set to up the stakes somewhat as the narrative goes global, involving Russia and posing a number of critical questions, such as how did they capture a Demogorgon? Is the tear to the Upside-Down closed for good? Are the Soviets creating some sort of Demogorgon weapon, or even building an army? And what the hell are they doing to Hopper down there?
In short, season 4 needs to focus on moving forward and getting us nearer to the conclusion of the Stranger Things story. Yes, try new things, but also remember what made season 1 so great and please, for the love of god, give us some jaw-dropping moments and, of course, more Steve Harrington.
Stranger Things season 4 is scheduled for a 2021 Netflix release.
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