Stranger Things 4: Netflix’s flagship series shifts gears, loses it way in a traffic jam of a season-Opinion News , Firstpost

2022-07-10 09:02:50 By : Ms. Vicky Liu

In the fourth season, the show strip-mined its own mythology, repeatedly playing a highlights reel of previous seasons to invoke nostalgia for its own past.

Stranger Things 4 came to an epic conclusion with a pull-out-all-the-stops variety-hour showcase. Watching the latest instalment of Netflix’s flagship series was like watching nine movies that culminated with a double-bill semi-conclusion. The creators, Matt and Ross Duffer, chose to vindicate a three-year wait (plus a month in between the two-volume season) by upping the scale and the stakes, rather than the standards. By the time the finale (which clocked in at two hours and 19 minutes) reached its momentous climax, some viewers may have been drained from all the narrative calisthenics.

When the show made its debut in 2016, its novelty lay in how it harnessed nostalgia. The Duffer Brothers built their world from a blueprint of familiar ‘80s arcs and tropes which were remixed into something that appeared new. At its core, it was a pop culture museum dedicated to the works of Steven Spielberg and Stephen King. Even though the next two seasons didn’t do anything radically different besides more or less rearranging the same building blocks, the gang had grown enough on us to not take us out of the series. One can’t say the same about the fourth season.

Bolstered by a bigger budget and embellished by CGI, Stranger Things 4 was the nostalgia industrial complex writ large. Only, unlike its predecessors, it betrayed the emotional richness of its influences in pursuit of its own tail. Coasting on fan goodwill, it strip-mined its own mythology, repeatedly playing a highlights reel of previous seasons to invoke nostalgia for its own past. Max’s Michael Myers mask from Season 2 makes a return. El lies in a sensory deprivation tank and projects herself into the Void. The gang are pinned down by vines. Personal redemption equals heroic sacrifice.

The Kate Bush resurgence may have been the only welcome side-effect of this season’s pining for the past. In a more powerful weaponization of nostalgia, the British singer-songwriter’s “Running Up That Hill” was employed as a recurring motif to show how music can snap us out of despair. Max’s go-to anthem not only helps her cope with trauma but also awakens an inner resilience. When Vecna (the new Big Bad from the Upside Down) takes hold of her, the song pulls her back from the brink. Yet, she also knows she can’t seek sanctuary in comfort music forever. In Vol. 2, we see her confront her demon by “ditching Kate Bush” — as part of the gang’s plan to defeat Vecna.

Indeed, this season, the Duffer Brothers themselves have been running up a hill only to roll back down, carrying the weight of a snowballing story. Making allowances for individual character beats within disparate narrative threads, coupling them with CG set pieces and exposition, would have been no easy task. Credit must be given to the Duffer Brothers for simply pulling it off, if not to great satisfaction. The problem arises from their struggle to establish an interior rhythm within this bloated cacophony.

As with each season, Stranger Things 4 brought in new characters. Some existed as comic relief; some as sacrificial martyrs. But the show is most enjoyable when the old gang is together and able to play off each other. By splitting them up, it loses what is central to its appeal. It takes till 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 reunite — in spirit, if not physically — to take down Vecna. The shuffling back and forth between Hawkins, California and Russia creates a traffic jam of a season that feels designed for an era of declining concentration thresholds.

In the midst of a multi-pronged attack on Vecna, the finale still pauses for bondings and confessions. Emotions are now treated as the obligatory bits between the pro-forma action. When characters say they love each other before the climax, there is something mechanical to how these scenes are staged. The same goes for the scene where Will can’t summon the courage to come out, but buoys up best friend Mike, who is wrestling with insecurities over being the powerless boyfriend of a superhero. He describes Mike as the “heart” of the gang, the one holding them all together. El? Sure. Dustin? Maybe. Mike? Certainly not.

At its best, the show takes ideas from sci-fi, horror and coming-of-age tales past, and finds fresh emotional resonance in its remixing. This season, we see this when Max finds the courage to confront her trauma and not let Vecna decide her 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 more striking moments in the finale comes when Eddie grabs a guitar to shred Metallica’s “Master of Puppets” to distract a colony of demobats in the Upside Down. Most metal, indeed.

What isn’t metal though is for the second straight season finale, the show shocks viewers with the seeming death of a mainstay character, only to reverse the decision. The final two episodes were all about setting the stage for the next season: the beginning of the end. The gates separating the dimensions have collapsed. The new big bad Vecna turned out to be the big bad who has been terrorising Hawkins from the very beginning as part of a grand design to wreak his wrath upon our world and build it anew. El and gang gained the upper hand in the first decisive battle. But given the over plot we had to endure to get to the climax, the victory lap doesn’t feel as poignant. With the fourth season done and dusted, Stranger Things now moves towards its endgame. How the Duffer brothers rectify the missteps of the fourth season will decide whether the show can achieve an enduring cultural resonance beyond its derivative parameters. The worry is what began promisingly may end lamentably.

Prahlad Srihari is a film and music writer based in Bengaluru.

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