Netflix’s flagship series gets lost in season-long traffic jam-Opinion News, Firstpost
In the fourth season, the show mined its own mythology, repeatedly playing a reel of highlights from previous seasons to invoke nostalgia for its own past.
stranger things 4 came to an epic conclusion with a showcase of hours of do-it-all variety. Watching the latest episode of Netflix’s flagship series was like watching nine movies that culminated in a semi-double-billed conclusion. The creators, Matt and Ross Duffer, chose to justify a three-year wait (plus a month between the two-volume season) by raising scale and stakes, rather than standards. By the time the finale (which ran for two hours and 19 minutes) reached its memorable climax, some viewers may have been drained of all the narrative gymnastics.
When the show debuted in 2016, its novelty was in the way it tapped into nostalgia. The Duffer Brothers built their world from a blueprint of familiar ’80s arcs and tropes that were remixed into something that felt new. It was originally a pop culture museum dedicated to the works of Steven Spielberg and Stephen King. Even though the next two seasons didn’t do anything drastically different other than revamping more or less the same core elements, the gang had grown enough not to drag us out of the show. The same cannot be said for the fourth season.
With a larger budget and embellished by CGI, stranger things 4 was the nostalgic industrial complex writ large. Only, unlike his predecessors, he betrayed the emotional richness of his influences in pursuit of his own tail. Rubbing shoulders with fan goodwill, he mined his own mythology, repeatedly playing a reel of highlights from previous seasons to invoke nostalgia for his own past. Max’s Michael Myers mask from Season 2 returns. El is in a tank of sensory deprivation and projects into the Void. The gang is pinned down by vines. Personal redemption is equivalent to heroic sacrifice.
The resurgence of Kate Bush was perhaps the only welcome side effect of this season’s nostalgia for the past. In a more powerful weaponization of nostalgia, the British singer-songwriter “Run up that hill” was used as a recurring motif to show how music can lift us out of despair. Max’s must-have anthem not only helps him deal with trauma, but also awakens inner resilience. When Vecna (the Upside Down’s new Big Bad) takes hold of her, the song pulls her from the brink. Yet she also knows that she cannot forever seek refuge in comforting music. In Vol. 2, we see her confronting her demon by “abandoning Kate Bush” – as part of the gang’s plan to defeat Vecna.
Indeed, this season, the Duffer Brothers themselves have come up a hill only to come back down, carrying the weight of a snowball story. Accommodating individual character beats in disparate narrative threads, pairing them with set pieces and CG exposition, would have been no easy task. Credit should be given to the Duffer Brothers for simply pulling it off, if not to great satisfaction. The problem comes from their struggle to establish an inner rhythm within this bloated cacophony.
Like every season, stranger things 4 introduces new characters. Some existed as comic relief; some as sacrificial martyrs. But the show is more enjoyable when the old gang is together and able to play against each other. By dividing them, it loses what is at the heart of its appeal. We will have to wait until the end of the season for Team Russia (Hopper, Joyce and Murray), Team California/Nevada (El, Mike, Will, Jonathan and Argyle) and Team Hawkins (Dustin, Nancy, Lucas, Max, Robin, Steve, Erica and Eddie) to come together – in spirit, if not physically – to defeat Vecna. The back-and-forth between Hawkins, California and Russia creates a season-long traffic jam that seems designed for an era of falling concentration thresholds.
Amid a multi-pronged attack on Vecna, the finale still pauses for ties and confessions. Emotions are now treated as the obligatory bits between pro-forma action. When the characters say they love each other before the climax, there’s something mechanical about the staging of those scenes. The same goes for the scene where Will can’t muster the courage to come out, but supports his best friend Mike, who struggles with the insecurities of being a superhero’s helpless boyfriend. He describes Mike as the “heart” of the gang, the one who holds them all together. El? Sure. Dustin? Maybe. Mike? Certainly not.
At its best, the show takes ideas from science fiction, horror, and coming-of-age tales, and finds new emotional resonance in its remixing. This season, we see it when Max finds the courage to face his trauma and not let Vecna decide his fate. Or when El regains her strength and turns her back on the manipulative Papa after coming to terms with her own trauma. One of the most striking moments in the finale comes when Eddie grabs a guitar to shred Metallica’s “Master of Puppets” to distract a colony of debats in the Upside Down. Most metal, indeed.
What isn’t metal is for the second consecutive season finale, the show shocks viewers with the apparent death of a main character, only to reverse the decision. The final two episodes were meant to set the stage for the next season: the beginning of the end. The doors separating the dimensions have collapsed. The new big bad Vecna turned out to be the big bad that has been terrorizing Hawkins since the very beginning as part of a grand design to wrath our world and rebuild it. El and gang came out on top in the first climactic battle. But given the excessive intrigue we had to endure to reach the climax, the victory lap isn’t nearly as poignant. With the fourth season finished and dusted off, stranger things is now heading towards its endgame. How the Duffer Brothers rectify the missteps of the fourth season will decide whether the series can achieve lasting cultural resonance beyond its derived parameters. The concern is that what started out promising may end miserably.
Prahlad Srihari is a film and music writer based in Bengaluru.
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