Stranger Things Isn’t TV. It’s Something Else.
The escapist sweep of the Netflix show’s story keeps clashing with its winking plunder of archival pop culture.
This article contains light spoilers through the fourth season of Stranger Things.
Somehow, even thousands of viewing minutes in, my synapses numbed by a cinematic universe so squelchy that it induces visceral anxiety, I still don’t really know how to feel about Stranger Things. It’s hard to even say exactly what it is. TV watchers today are accustomed to streaming works that coalesce, murkily, somewhere between film and television. (Try—if you can—to define The Beatles: Get Back, an almost-eight-hour, three-part work of living theater directed by Peter Jackson.) But the transmediality of Stranger Things is stranger still. Each season follows an immutable formula—kids encounter a monster, superpowered girl saves the world, sweet but expendable supporting character is sacrificed in the process—swiping from a grab bag of ’80s VHS tapes, nostalgic earworms, and coming-of-age angst. And each season is designed to then be liberally rehashed: memed on Twitter, spotted on the Spotify charts, replicated on TikTok, explicated on Reddit.
Stranger Things is a big swing, financially and creatively: It’s a leviathan smash, and a sincere and uncynical pastiche that critics and fans have similarly appreciated. It’s good entertainment, in the sense that it’s blueprinted to trigger the dopamine rush that comes with watching epic battles, heroic sacrifices, the vanquishing of darkness by kids who are braver than they should have to be. But to me, at least, the show has never felt as clumsy and redundant as it did in its most recent episodes. Season 4 was a 13-hour-plus behemoth that added Wes Craven to its mood board but otherwise ended with undeveloped characters and obvious but superficial allusions to contemporary crises (QAnon, the radicalization of angry young men). This show doesn’t want you to think—it simply wants you to feel, to be thrilled by the familiar spectacle of aliens being sloppily beheaded and enemy helicopters being incinerated and preteen girls being literally saved by transcendent pop music.
And yet it’s hard to purely be swept up in narrative while watching, because Stranger Things is constantly reminding us that it’s a story, or rather pieces of different stories that it wants us to recognize and recall. Even the show’s casting is intertextual: Season 4 introduces a new archvillain, Vecna, who operates and looks eerily like Freddy Krueger, the supernatural serial killer played by Robert Englund; that Englund has a cameo, too, isn’t a coincidence. It’s a wink by the show’s creators, Matt and Ross Duffer, that doubles unintentionally as a distancing effect, reminding us that the series isn’t real, and that we shouldn’t get too absorbed in the arc of its action. (Not too many other shows will send you scrambling in the middle of a vital scene to scour Kate Bush’s Wikipedia page.)
Scholars of postmodernism might call Stranger Things a work of metafiction, a deliberately constructed object whose seams are visible by design. The Easter eggs meticulously thrown in to be spotted and itemized, and the inclusion of ’80s cinema stalwarts (Winona Ryder, Sean Astin, Paul Reiser) encourage the viewer to consider the series consciously and analytically. But the conventions of the genres that the Duffers are rifling through mostly demand the opposite: total, blissful, dumb surrender to the sweep of the story at hand. In earlier seasons, this tension felt less discordant. In Season 1, Joyce Byers was a nervy, terrified single mother whose history of marital suffering gained resonance from Ryder’s presence onscreen. If you can survive being chewed up and spat out as the ultimate Hollywood commodity, the show seemed to say, what’s so scary about heading into hell to save your son? But in Season 4, with Joyce’s mission retooled once more over the same tramlines (wacky theory, heroic journey, cathartic reunion), Ryder’s performance feels less transportive than wearily self-aware.
Again and again across the new episodes, every time I got drawn into the action, I was inevitably shaken out of it by a reference to the show’s artificiality. Even the physicality of the actors—who are aging at hyperspeed in front of our eyes in the kids’ cases or shredding themselves for Marvel movies in David Harbour’s—nods persistently to the real world. Nor did news events help: The brutality of Season 4’s opening scenes, in which children were murdered by an unseen force hinted to be Eleven, was hard to bear in the aftermath of yet another school shooting. The show’s employment of violence, up until now, has felt mostly arbitrary and governed by movie logic: Monsters attack people, Russians attack America, and the government manipulates its citizens via shadowy schemes, because that’s what monsters and Russians and the government do.
But more recently, Stranger Things has been studded with more specific instances of human cruelty, which are jarring in their own way. This isn’t a bad thing by default, but it darkens the tone and makes, say, the ludicrous “comedy” of Yuri, the Russian peanut-butter smuggler, much harder to swallow. Even Eleven is implicated. For all of Millie Bobby Brown’s best efforts, El is a Frankensteined collection of tropes—child with otherworldly powers, love interest, redemptive daughter figure—smushed into the shape of a girl. She has very little texture of her own, even a limited ability to communicate what she’s feeling. Her anger has always been the most interesting thing about her. In Season 1, when El uses her powers to slam and lock a door while Lucas is trying to leave, she’s intentionally unnerving. Her outbursts in Season 4, though, are so violent that they feel almost abstract. The show has always defined El by her actions, which, in the new episodes, are meant to serve suspense (we’re supposed to think, when she smashes the heel of a roller skate in a bully’s face, that she’s capable of the atrocities committed in Hawkins Lab in the opening scene). But in the process, El has been reduced to a dissonant mix of heroic self-sacrifice and homicidal rage.
The chaotic sprawl of Season 4 has left other characters feeling similarly underserved. Jonathan, once a forceful, hardworking kid who took care of his mother and brother, has been lost to a cloud of pot smoke and unspecified disaffection. Steve and Nancy, who broke up, Season 2 clarified, because Nancy’s ambition clashed with Steve’s desire for a “boring little life at the end of a cul-de-sac,” as Jonathan once sneered, are almost reunited when Steve tells Nancy that he … imagines her as the mother of his six future children, a moment that’s romantic even as it contradicts everything that’s come before. Will, who the series has hinted is secretly gay and might harbor feelings for Mike, remains vaguely drawn. His speech to Mike about being “different” could have been a confession about his sexuality, but it could also have been an allusion to the fact that he’s still possessed by the Mind Flayer. (That the series might be suggesting that those two things are analogous is troubling, when you start to think about it.) It’s hard not to feel that the show, having relied for so long on cinematic archetypes to shape its characters, doesn’t really know them either.
None of this is to say that this season didn’t include breathtaking moments of television—Dustin, Lucas, Max, and Eddie were standout characters who offered more than the material gave them. But the series is finally showing the limits of its model of sincere, loving reproduction. You can build the most successful show of the moment by affectionately cannibalizing things that have come before. You can even make a show so powerful that the delay of its final two episodes into a new financial quarter can have stock-market implications. But what you’re left with in the end will still feel more like a remix than a transformative, contemporary, or even relevant work of creative ambition.