Like many TV shows, Stranger Things is a creature of habit. For three seasons, the Netflix show stealthily recycled the same plot—terror comes to small-town 1980s Indiana and it’s up to a ragtag group of teens to save the day—to shockingly great effect. The series was energizing. It mingled horror with well-placed comedy and effective coming-of-age drama to tell an engaging, relatable story that almost single-handedly justified the practice of binge-watching. But even so, by the time the third season concluded, viewers had started clueing into the fact that the show was retreading ground, following the same narrative beats but covering up its tracks by introducing new variations of monsters from the terrifying otherworld known as the Upside Down. So when the Byers family-plus-Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) packed their belongings and left Hawkins following the big showdown in Season 3, it was a much-needed promise of something fresh and new. And while Season 4, with its dissonant plots set in Indiana, California, Russia, and an underground lab in the desert, certainly can’t be accused of retreading the same ground as the three previous seasons, it still refused to release its hold on the familiar by not allowing Jim Hopper (David Harbour) to take a backseat to the rest of the action.
As frustrating as it can be to watch a beloved show struggle to evolve as it ages alongside its characters, it’s arguably more frustrating to see writers who are too afraid to make necessary changes so that a show can become the best version of itself. No doubt, previous seasons of Stranger Things benefited greatly from the presence of Hopper, who is one of only a few adult characters with any effect on the show’s main story. His relationship with Eleven had been a stabilizing presence, providing moments of emotionality between action and comedy. Meanwhile, his burgeoning relationship with Joyce (Winona Ryder) was a sweet and welcome alternative to the hormone-fueled tales of young love involving the show’s teenage characters. But in Season 4, Hopper languished in a dreadful storyline that dragged on and on and had viewers reaching for the fast-forward buttons on their remotes.
It might not be fair to ask Harbour, who is one of two Stranger Things actors to have been recognized by Emmy voters for their performance on the series (the other is Brown), to sit out an entire season. But allowing the character to spend the entirety of the first seven, extremely long episodes trapped in a Russian prison is hardly the answer either. It’s painfully monotonous (not to mention monochromatic), and while that is probably synonymous with life in prison, it doesn’t exactly make for good television. The one highlight of the arc is Harbour’s emotionally affecting monologue about Hopper’s history with Agent Orange and his daughter’s ensuing death. But it’s too little, too late, which is almost laughable given that the events of each season happen over a period of days. Consciously, we know Joyce and Murray’s (Brett Gelman) hasty rescue mission to Russia is not actually all that long in the grand scheme of things, but it feels that way because it’s easily the least engaging and most expendable of the show’s numerous plots this season. And that’s really what it all comes down to: being expendable.
All said, Season 4 has four concurrent storylines. In addition to Hopper’s arc, there’s the familiar horror of Hawkins and the Upside Down, which focuses primarily on Vecna (Jamie Campbell Bower), the show’s new big bad, and his murder spree involving preying on those with trauma and guilt. This is the most stimulating storyline by far, even with the addition of a new character in Eddie (Joseph Quinn) and a heavy-handed approach to rekindling the flame between Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and Steve (Joe Keery). Next, there is the storyline involving the characters who relocated to California: Will (Noah Schnapp) and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), plus Mike (Finn Wolfhard), who traveled to the West Coast over break. They’re joined by Jonathan’s new friend Argyle (Eduardo Franco) in a storyline that finds the boys on the run from armed soldiers and trying to find a missing Eleven by tracking down Dustin’s (Gaten Matarazzo) computer-hacking genius girlfriend Suzie (Gabriella Pizzolo). It’s the second-most forgettable storyline of the season after Operation Rescue Hopper because it’s so far removed from Hawkins and the narrative that viewers care most about. And lastly, there’s the plot that revolves around the show’s biggest puzzle piece: Eleven, who spends a lot of time in an underground lab working with Brenner (Matthew Modine) and Dr. Owens (Paul Reiser) to revisit her memories in order to reclaim her powers, which she lost during the battle at the mall in Season 3.
Bouncing between these different storylines every episode makes for a disjointed viewing experience, and it’s made worse by the fact the episodes are frustratingly long (please, next time be willing to cut more, add more episodes, or simply adhere to better act breaks to benefit episodic structure). Just as one arc would gain momentum, the show would shift to pick up a different narrative thread, making it near impossible for any one story to progress all that much despite the extended runtimes. This became even more pronounced once Nancy, Steve, Eddie, and Robin (Maya Hawke) became separated from Dustin, Max (Sadie Sink), and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) and trapped in the Upside Down. And this isn’t even taking into account the Riverdale-esque plot about a group of jocks trying to track down Eddie that makes sense in an ‘80s sort of way but ends up being nothing but bloat.
Recognizing that pausing storylines and/or writing out characters, even for a brief time, in order to tell a better, more focused story is a rare and underappreciated skill. If the Duffers had utilized it here and allowed Hopper’s arc to sit on the backburner for Season 4—or at least until the final episodes—it would have eliminated some of the season’s worst fits and starts. It also likely would have increased viewer curiosity and anticipation surrounding what happened at the end of Season 3, when Hopper was seemingly vaporized at the gate. But as it stands now heading into the final two episodes of Season 4, everybody’s lost and nobody has won.
Kaitlin Thomas is an entertainment journalist and TV critic. Her work has appeared in TV Guide, Salon, Polygon, and TV.com, among other places. You can find her tweets about TV, sports, and Walton Goggins @thekaitling or read more of her work at kaitlinthomas.com.
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