The most notable thing about Stranger Things 4 (2022) is the concrete blackspot left in its wake. Aside from Netflix’s predictable rolling out of the memes across social media, and the significant (and probably lucrative) resurgence of Kate Bush’s music, there’s almost nothing I can recall from those endless hours of content created by the Duffer Brothers. The style of constant back-and-forth between vaguely-intersecting plots – simply to imply that there’s a cohesive narrative occurring – is compounded this season by production issues, such as cast availability and COVID safety restrictions. Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes claims that volume 1 is “darker” than previous seasons, with the Guardian’s Jack Seale pointing to notes of The Exorcist (1973) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) in line with the six years since season one – meaning younger viewers are now more mature and ready for ‘darker themes’. In reality, much like previous instalments, Stranger Things 4 is violently inoffensive, and the addition of yet-more reference material can hide that no longer. It may be more gruesome, and very testing for even the most developed of attention spans (Episode 9 shares a runtime with The Rise of Skywalker at 142 minutes), but it’s bad form for critics to mistake any of that for maturity.
Stranger Things 4 is trying to expand the mythos of the series. It’s beginning to coalesce somewhat-incongruent threads from across the previous three seasons in time for the forthcoming finale. It’s revealed that Vecna, the first ever magic child from the secret government facility, has been masterminding the events in Hawkins since season one. In any other show, this would be the moment in which people begin losing interest in the fiction – when separate events are forced into one overarching story, the suspension of disbelief is often broken. But this season’s bloated and self-important nature is protected by the properties of Stranger Things as a whole. It can never jump the shark, it can never put a narrative foot wrong, because there never was a suspension of disbelief. It’s always been such a self-aware and constructed facsimile of its own reference material that, for most discerning viewers, there’s no engagement with the Duffer Brothers’ own fiction. It’s impossible to forget the scene in Episode 2 wherein characters stand around and list off 80s movies in a VHS rental store. This referential style of storytelling isn’t a modern sin; George Lucas created Star Wars based on Flash Gordon. The difference here is that audiences are, more often than not, recognising the works of Spielberg, King, and Craven opposed to anything happening onscreen.
The imagery of Hopper and other prisoners working on railroad tracks, clearly inspired by photographs of forced labourers in Russian Gulags, is another example of this reference material approach of writing. The Gulags were closed in the 50s and 60s after Stalin’s death, and whilst the Union continued to employ forced labour camps for political prisoners until 1987, the conditions shown in the series are more in line with Western misbeliefs about the late Soviet government. Because the Duffer Brothers care very little about actual historical context, instead using vague notions held in the cultural consciousness. The most explicit piece of historical writing in the entirety of Stranger Things 4 is the brief occurrence of a Satanic Panic in Hawkins – and it’s portrayed by the Duffer Brothers as an attack on all the things they loved in the 1980s, and not an example of the paranoid and often senseless behaviours of the religious right.
Stranger Things has always had a strange relationship with fiction. The reaction to the character of Barb in season 1, regarding her death and subsequent narrative neglect, became somewhat of a meme online and spawned an endless stream of profitable discourse for Netflix. It led predominantly to the release of Justice for Barb t-shirts and phone cases, and creatively amounted to nothing more than a single scene in season 2. The characters were once simply reconstructions of old tropes, such as the underprivileged single-parent Byers family, but have since strayed very far from anything recognisable – even as archetypes. Eleven is a magical orphan, she’s a redemptive figure for Hopper, she’s a love interest for Mike, yet she has never held a humanistic core, never made a decision or had a desire that wasn’t chiefly a reconstructed, played out plot point.
You’re consistently encouraged – often gently – to remember that none of this is new, or even real. It creates a buffer, very intentionally, between the audience and the series. It’s a distraction, another Duffer trick to keep your brain at arm’s length from your eyes. You’re meant to pull out your phone and search for Kate Bush songs once the scene has ended. You’re meant to scratch your head when the climax stops and they talk about New Coke for a beat. Even if the original remixing of video nasties, seven-inch vinyl records, and Stephen King novels sat right with you, it’s impossible to deny that Stranger Things has never attempted the jump into untrodden territory. Since the original season, this show has drifted further and further from the shore into a dreamlike mire of star-studded ensemble casts and bright period clothing, with a writing style so postmodern and metatextual that Robert Englund has a prominent guest role in a series with a villain so blatantly referencing his most famous character.
Stranger Things is, first and foremost, an industry showreel. It has an immense scope and scale, unending high drama, licensed music and sprawling cast lists, as well as top notch visual and audio design. Shoe company Converse crafted original sneaker designs for certain scenes. Despite Netflix’s general rules against it, lines of dialogue from previous instalments have been re-edited to retcon mistakes in this season’s writing, eradicating the imperfections of creativity in favour of sleek prestige. Each episode cost roughly $30 million, totalling to around $270 million; the show exists predominantly to broadcast that what once was the cutting-edge of cinema is now the expected standard for television. It is a genuine story with resonant stakes, characters and ideas second. It’s a disheartening experience to watch TV further cannibalise itself, partially in the hopes of igniting critical appreciation via its own reference material – but it’s an appreciation that, due to its design, will begin to dissipate once the show wraps up in 2024. Stranger Things will suffer the same fate as Games of Thrones (2011-19). Shows such as The Sopranos (1999-2007) and Breaking Bad (2008-13) continue to hold in the minds of viewers because of how their creators pushed the storytelling boundaries of the artform. I’d bet a signed first edition of Stephen King’s IT that Stranger Things won’t hold up in the same way.