August 12, 2022

Netflix

Stranger Things came back from a pandemic-driven three-year hiatus stronger than ever with an ambitious supersized fourth season—so much so that Netflix released it in two parts. Part 1 had a few minor flaws, particular in the earlier episodes, but quickly gained dramatic momentum. The cliffhanger ending deftly set the stage for the epic final two episodes, which featured a visually stunning, nail-biting battle against the denizens of the Upside Down—and some of the most emotionally resonant moments in the series to date.

(WARNING! Some very major spoilers below the galleries in the interest of in-depth analysis.)

Ratings-wise, this was the series’ best season yet, drawing so many viewers when Part 2 dropped over Fourth of July weekend that Netflix actually crashed at one point. S4 Part 1 dominated the Nielsen streaming charts for four straight weeks, and that dominance is expected to continue once Nielsen releases its numbers for the two super-sized finale episodes. (There’s usually about a month’s delay for streaming platform viewership.) Part 1 also received 13 Emmy nominations. Seven years after it debuted, Stranger Things is more popular than ever, even launching two old 80s tunes back onto the charts after they were featured prominently this season.

The season opens eight months after the S3 finale. The entire Byers clan, including Eleven (Millie Bobbie Brown), has relocated to Southern California, where Will (Noah Schnapp) and Eleven naturally find themselves high school outcasts. Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), Max (Sadie Sink), Nancy (Natalia Dyer), Steve (Joe Keery), and Robin (Maya Hawke) remained in Hawkins, where Lucas’ newfound basketball abilities wins him admission to the popular crowd. Meanwhile, Hopper (David Harbour) is being kept prisoner by the Russians, but he’s plotting a breakout with a Russian guard nicknamed Dmitri (Tom Wlaschiha). This involves sending a coded message to Joyce (Winona Ryder), who promptly hops on a plane to Alaska with Murray Bauman (Brett Gelman).

See also  Sony estimates its PC games sales will jump 375% over next year

The decision to split everyone up geographically made for a weaker overall narrative arc, because not all the storylines were equally compelling, The Russia subplot was by far the weakest, despite great performances by the cast, and the oddball pairings of Hopper and Dmitri, Joyce and Murray, worked very well. There just wasn’t enough plot to sustain it for the entire season. Also, each subplot is meant to evoke different film genres, which is a clever conceit, but the genres (prison breakout movie, stoner action comedy, 80s slasher horror, eg) don’t always mesh particularly well. Frankly, the show works best when it stays focused on Hawkins, which has always been the heart and soul of Stranger Things. This season was no exception.

Out of place

There are a couple other minor nitpicks, most notably the simplistic depictions of high school bullies in Hawkins (basketball captain Jason, played by Mason Dye) and California (Mean Girl Angela, played by Elodie Grace Orkin) who torment our protagonists. They and their minions are little more than walking cliches, made all the more noticeable by how well other characters have been developed—including several newcomers this season.

And then there’s Eleven’s disproportionate response after being humiliated in front of a visiting Mike at the local roller skating rink: she breaks Angela’s nose with a roller skate in a fit of rage. This is very out of character and seems to have been shoe-horned in for purposes of the plot. Eleven has only ever killed in self defense, and in the past would humiliate but not harm high school bullies. Plus, there are no real consequences or lessons learned. She is briefly arrested, but is soon whisked off to another secret government lab. There’s a world that needs saving, and she needs to recover her powers. Who cares if a high school bully got her nose broken?

Part 1 ended on three cliffhangers. Joyce reunited with Hopper as he escaped from his Russian prison, but they still had to find a way back to the US. Steve, Nancy, and D&D dungeon master Eddie Munson (Joseph Quinn)—easily this season’s breakout character—got trapped in the Upside Down. Dustin, Lucas, and Erica (Priah Ferguson) found another gate to rescue them, but Vecna snatched Nancy’s mind at the last minute, with Steve torn between trying to save Nancy right then or looking out for the younger kids in the “real” world. As for Eleven, she learned the truth about what really happened in the laboratory that tragic day—and the true nature of the threat her friends now face back in Hawkins. Naturally, they’re connected.

The latter episodes were among the strongest because they served to really flesh out the mythology, and it’s notably rich and satisfying. Dustin suggests that perhaps the Upside Down has always existed, a hellish dimension inhabited by monsters like the Demogorgon, perhaps created out of human mental anguish. We learned those creatures constituted a hive mind in S2, and met a seemingly conscious entity called the Mind Flayer in S3, who seemed to know Eleven. In S4, we found out just who that is.

This season’s big bad hails straight from classic D&D lore: Vecna, a once-powerful wizard who first became undead and then became a lich. The series gives Vecna a different backstory that connects the character to everything that has happened in Hawkins since the first season. He rather resembles Freddy Krueger from the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, except he preys on people’s (especially teens’) negative thoughts and feelings rather than their dreams.

Showdown in the Upside Down

Someone who falls under Vecna’s curse eventually gets trapped in a waking nightmare. In the final moments, their bodies rise into the air, every bone breaks, and their eyes are gouged from the inside out. Vecna takes three teens this way, and then targets Max. She manages a narrow escape when her friends play her favorite song (Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill”) on her Walkman, awakening happy memories. That entire episode (“Dear Billy”) is stellar, as is Sadie Sink’s performance, both representing Stranger Things at its very best.

But where did Vecna come from? Nancy and Robin track down a psychiatric patient named Victor Creel (Robert Englund), falsely accused of brutally murdering his wife, son, and daughter in the 1950s. His description of their deaths matches Vecna’s M.O. Meanwhile, Eleven recovers her memory of a brutal massacre in Hawkins Lab. The culprit was an orderly named Peter (Jamie Campbell Bower), aka One, Dr. Brenner’s first test subject—aka Henry Creel, Victor’s psychopathic son, who killed his mother and sister with his telepathic powers all those years ago.

Peter is about to kill Eleven as well, but her nascent powers emerge and she sends Peter through a portal into the Upside Down. Instead of dying, he becomes Vecna, channeling the dimensions’ dark powers for his own ends. The showdown between Eleven and Henry/One/Peter/Vecna started the whole chain of events since S1. The latest killings are meant to open four gates, enabling Vecna and the Upside Down to take over Hawkins, and then (one presumes) the entire world.

Those major twists set up some serious stakes for the action-packed Part 2 episodes (both feature film length), as the gang prepares to battle Vecna. Max agrees to act as bait to draw out Vecna, since he’s weaker when actively invading a mind. Dustin and Eddie create a distraction in the Upside Down to draw away the Demobats, so Steve, Nancy, and Robin can attack Vecna in his Upside Down lair. Hopper and Joyce do their part in Russia, weakening the hive mind further by attacking from that end. And Eleven regains her powers just in time to join the battle mentally, piggy-backing on Max’s mind.

In the end, they wound Vecna badly enough that the monster is forced to retreat—but not before he briefly succeeds in opening the gates between Hawkins and the Upside Down. (The final shot is the Upside down starting to bleed into the town.) This pyrrhic victory comes at tremendous cost: the deaths of Eddie and Max, although El manages to revive Max’s heart remotely in the nick of time. But she’s in a body cast, blind, and brain dead heading into S5, per the Duffer brothers, which doesn’t bode well for her future.

All told, Part 2 was a powerful, gut-wrenching, bittersweet set up for the final season. Everyone has been reunited, including Eleven and Hopper, but a final battle still looms against Vecna. Eleven has never lost before, and how she responds could determine the fate of the world. Will she be ready in time?

We need to talk about Eddie…

Meanwhile, Eddie’s demise did not go over well with the many viewers who came to love the character this season. (Quinn, a relatively obscure actor before being cast in Stranger Things, is handling the sudden stardom and fan worship with grace and class. )  Eddie’s broad appeal lies partly in the writing, and partly with Quinn’s masterfully nuanced performance.

When the British actor first read the script for his introductory scene—where Eddie is grandstanding and being a bit obnoxious in the high school cafeteria—his first thought was that the character was going to be really difficult to like. Fortunately, because of the pandemic, the Duffers had a little extra time to do some rewriting of that first episode to showcase the many layers to the character.

First, there’s Erica’s (Priah Ferguson) introduction to the Hellfire Club to replace her older brother Lucas, who skips the conclusion of dungeon master Eddie’s epic D&D campaign for the high school basketball championship game. Eddie is initially dismissive about playing with an 11-year old—it’s the Hellfire Club, not the Babysitter’s Club, after all. But Erica responds with her usual bold outspokenness, showing that she’s well-versed in D&D. An impressed Eddie slowly breaks into a smile and welcomes her to the game.

The other key moments are Eddie’s interactions with troubled star cheerleader Chrissy (Grace Van Dien), who has fallen under Vecna’s curse and is seeking some illegal substances to ward off her worsening waking nightmares. Eddie’s swaggering confidence fades into genuine awkward vulnerability with Chrissy, particularly when she admits she fears she’s losing her mind. He even shyly invites her to hear his heavy metal band play at the local dive bar with a winsome self-deprecating charm, claiming they often play before crowds of four or five drunks.

Alas, Eddie is the unfortunate witness to Chrissy’s brutal supernatural murder by Vecna, and runs away in terror. This means the police assume he killed Chrissy, since her wrecked body was found in his trailer, forcing Eddie into hiding. Dustin champions his innocence, and Eddie ends up joining the Hawkins contingent as they try to solve the mystery of Vecna and clear Eddie’s name. His hot-wiring skills come in handy, even if he is less than impressed with Nancy’s musical taste (“This is not music!!”). He gets his big hero moment in the Upside Down, standing on top of a trailer with his guitar and shredding to the tune of Metallica’s “Master of Puppets”:

Eddie Munson (Joseph Quinn) shredding in the Upside Down in the S4 finale of Stranger Things.

It’s simultaneously absurd, funny, scary, and powerful—hands down one of the most iconic scenes in the entire series. Metallica loved it. They confessed to being “totally blown away” by how the tune was used in such a pivotal scene, as well as Quinn’s head-banging performance. (“It’s so extremely well done, so much so, that some folks were able to guess the song just by seeing a few seconds of Joseph Quinn’s hands in the trailer.”) The band even posted their own virtual mashup duet with Eddie on Instagram. And yes, Quinn does play the guitar—you can watch him rehearse the scene here—although Metallica’s lead guitarist Kirk Hammett and Tye Trujillo, son of the band’s bassist Rob, actually performed the song.

Then everything goes horribly wrong. As he and Dustin prepare to flee the Upside Down, Eddie decides he’s going to buy Steve, Robin, and Nancy a bit more time, hops on a rusty bicycle, and leads the Demobats away from Dustin. Even then, he might have survived, except he decides he’s tired of running away. He turns and faces the horde of Demobats head-on, armed with nothing but a garbage can lid outfitted with spikes, and eventually is overwhelmed. Dustin reaches him just as he’s dying, in a scene that had me blubbering like a baby.

Much digital ink has been spilled over whether this death was really necessary and/or true to the character. Having now rewatched the entire season, I will defend this controversial choice by the Duffer brothers.

Eddie is the Oberyn Martell of Stranger Things: a colorful, big personality with a tragic flaw. He’s been told he’s worthless all his life and compensates with an in-your-face counter-culture defiance. He’s also wracked with guilt over running away when Chrissy was killed, even dedicating his Upside Down virtuoso performance to her memory. Pumped with adrenaline after that, he decides he wants to be a hero after all.

Eddie isn’t actually a coward—it takes guts to defy cultural norms in a small 1980s Indiana town—but he feels like one. In both scenarios (Chrissy’s death and the attacking Demobats), running away is unquestionably the correct response. But emotional decisions aren’t rational. As Dustin said, Eddie was quintessentially Eddie until the end. That’s why we all loved him so much, and why it broke our collective hearts to see him killed by Demobats and (one assumes) his body left to rot in the Upside Down. Worse, the people of Hawkins still think he’s a serial killer, unaware that he helped save them all.

Over 70,000 fans have signed a petition for the Duffer brothers to bring the character back for S5, and there are a few speculative theories about how that could possibly happen. For instance, per Gizmodo,

A popular fan speculation based on Eddie’s choice of armor and death is that he could become a version of Kas, a vampire character who served Vecna through imprisonment in their story arc from Dungeons & Dragons. He’s known to carry a spiked shield, which is what we saw Eddie use against those bats, and a lot of his motifs, like the bat tattoos on his arm, speak to some seeds we hope have been sown for this. So maybe a transformation is in order. Given his popularity, could he be given a new afterlife through an interpretation where Eddie the Banished becomes Eddie the Destroyer, like Kas who turned on Vecna? We would love to see it.

Sure, the gang could use another super-powered ally as they gear up for the final showdown. But while D&D elements certainly infuse the show, the mythology has never been implemented directly. It’s just how the young characters interpret the strange happenings in Hawkins. And having given him such a gloriously tragic death, I hope the Duffer brothers stick to their guns and let Eddie Munson rest in peace. I adored the character as much as anyone, and would have loved to see him survive for the final season. But the Duffer brothers made the right creative call. The best stories will absolutely break your heart at times; it’s part of their enduring power. There’s a reason we’re all still talking about Eddie.

All episodes of Stranger Things S4 are now streaming on Netflix.

 

Listing image by Netflix