Stranger Things is one of Netflix’s defining series. But as the Eighties horror pastiche returns this week after a nearly three-year absence, the show and the streamer seem to be going in opposite directions. Netflix is contracting; Stranger Things is expanding.
It’s been a rough spring for Netflix. Subscriber growth has slowed, and actual subscriber losses are predicted later this year, which sent the streaming giant’s stock price stumbling. Employees have been laid off, and there’s a plan for a cheaper ad-supported subscription tier later this year to staunch the bleeding. There have been other belt-tightening measures in recent years, particularly when it comes to how long shows are allowed to run, and how quickly cancellations are handed down.
Stranger Things, though, just keeps getting bigger. This delayed fourth season has been split into two chunks: seven episodes now, two more in July. The cast is bigger — both in numbers, and in height, where Finn Wolfhard’s Mike looks like he could play power forward for the Pacers. While a lot of the action is still confined to the town of Hawkins, Indiana — and its evil mirror dimension, which the boys once dubbed “the Upside Down” — the scope of the season is such that characters wind up at various points in California, Utah, Alaska, and the Soviet Union. Beyond the ongoing war between the monsters of the Upside Down and the kids from Hawkins, the new season adds a demonic serial killer called Vecna; a clandestine civil war within the U.S. government over what to do with the telekinetic Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown); a more thorough examination of Eleven’s childhood as a lab rat under the supervision of Dr. Brenner (Matthew Modine); and the very real mid-Eighties “Satanic panic.”
To accommodate all these people, places, and concepts, the show’s creators, the Duffer Brothers, have opted to supersize all of this season’s episodes. In its earlier years, Stranger Things was not exactly a breezy show, with each installment usually hovering close to a full hour. But it wasn’t until the Season Three finale that the Duffers went full Sons of Anarchy with a 78-minute conclusion. That’s the new normal for Season Four, where the shortest of these May episodes is 63 minutes, the longest is 98, and the rest are all in the 70s. Netflix has also taken the unusual step of announcing the run times for the two July episodes, and the first is an hour and 25 minutes, while the second is two and a half hours long. Without doing an exhaustive search, that appears like it will be the longest episode in American TV history — a half hour longer than the M*A*S*H finale that 105.9 million people watched, 45 minutes longer than the Lost finale, more than twice as long as the longest episode of The Sopranos. It is also between 30-60 minutes longer than pretty much every movie that has influenced the Duffers, and those movies did not arrive with 10 and a half hours of preceding material that year.
Critics have only seen the seven episodes dropping this weekend. So I cannot say with certainty whether the season finale will justify its length. But the evidence presented by these earlier installments is not promising. There is a very good — if increasingly formulaic — season of Stranger Things here, but it is jockeying for space with what feels like an entire additional, much less interesting season of television, as if the show has acquired its own version of the Upside Down.
Though the younger actors have all aged noticeably since we last saw them, somehow only six months have passed for the characters since Eleven defeated the Mind Flayer in a local shopping mall, and Sheriff Hopper (David Harbour) appeared to sacrifice himself to close the latest gate to the Upside Down. Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder), sons Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) and Will (Noah Schnapp), and the orphaned Eleven have moved to a very E.T.-esque California suburb where Eleven is having trouble making friends, and doesn’t even have her powers anymore to strike back at bullies. Back in Hawkins, Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) has joined the high school basketball team in a quest to be popular, while Mike, Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), and Lucas’ sister Erica (Priah Ferguson) have joined the Hellfire Club, a collection of Dungeons and Dragons-playing upperclassmen led by defiant burnout Eddie (Joseph Quinn). Steve (Joe Keery) and Robin (Maya Hawke) have moved from selling ice cream to recommending movies at the local video store, in between offering one another relationship advice. Mike’s sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer) is preparing to graduate and go to college with Jonathan, though he’s much less on board with the plan than she knows. And Max (Sadie Sink) is listening to a lot of Kate Bush while struggling with memories of watching her brother Billy get killed by the Mind Flayer in the battle at the mall.
The more Stranger Things change, though, the more they stay the same. Soon there’s new trouble from the Upside Down, and as has increasingly become the case as the series has gotten older, the season essentially divides itself into multiple largely separate narrative strands. The main one involves the kids still in Hawkins trying to find and stop Vecna, who has a particularly graphic method for killing his victims, while also trying to evade Lucas’ new teammates in their vigilante quest to blame all the killings on Eddie and the Hellfire Club. Hopper turns out to be alive but imprisoned in a Soviet gulag, and Joyce and conspiracy-loving Murray (Brett Gelman) have to figure out how to liberate him. Mike heads to California on spring break to see Eleven, but instead gets stuck on a frantic road trip with the Byers brothers and Jonathan’s new stoner friend Argyle (Eduardo Franco). And Eleven goes off on her own to reckon with what happened to her while in Dr. Brenner’s custody.
It is untenable to have all the members of a cast this big regularly interacting with everyone else, but Stranger Things has begun to take it too far with these side quests. (Especially since characters from one plot can’t occasionally wander into another now that they are geographically distant.) They don’t seem to be about advancing the story so much as about making sure everybody’s favorite gets some screen time. David Harbour remains wonderful as Hopper, even in this more dour and desperate context, and it’s been a pleasure to watch the Duffers increasingly remember what a great comic actress Winona Ryder can be. But even though Hopper’s captors are still interested in exploiting the Upside Down for their own Cold War purposes, that entire corner of the season can’t help feeling tangential and dull. Ditto Mike and friends on the road, though they are featured in one of the season’s more intense and technically impressive pieces of action. Eleven’s trip down memory lane at least has Millie Bobby Brown at her most effectively sober and intense, but retreads thematic ground the show has hit a lot in the past, and is yet another instance of the Duffers giving her a solo adventure rather than figuring out how she should fit in with the whole group. (Mike and Eleven are in theory the two main characters, yet they’re the two that the Duffers have most struggled to write for as the show and the actors have gotten older.)
Not surprisingly, the material back in Hawkins feels the most explicitly like Stranger Things. It’s not just that those scenes are on home turf, dealing more directly with demons and monsters and homages to Eighties and Nineties horror. (Robert Englund appears in a sequence that’s simultaneously tipping its cap to Silence of the Lambs and to Englund’s work as Freddy Krueger.) It also has the greatest preponderance of characters who are not only fun in their own right, but in virtually any combination with anyone else. Maya Hawke, for instance, walked into the cast in Season Three and practically took over the show for a while. She and Keery remain a delightful platonic pairing, but this season allows Hawke to play an even more varied sheet of comic notes, as Robin proves to be more neurotic and socially awkward than she appeared at first. And swapping Robin in for Jonathan as Nancy’s most frequent scene partner does wonders for Nancy, who has been something of a buzzkill in seasons past. Sadie Sink, meanwhile, does some poignant and emotionally raw work in depicting Max’s difficulty moving on from Billy’s death. And in the process, she adds a degree of emotional heft to the proceedings that nicely balances all the crackling Dustin/Steve banter, or the self-aggrandizing antics of group newbie Eddie. (Like Hawke and Sink before him, Joseph Quinn makes a pretty seamless transition into what should be an impenetrable unit.)
Max’s arc provides the best devil’s advocate argument for these bloated episodes. The Duffers are clearly trying harder to reckon with the emotional reality of these high-concept stories, and to treat the characters as real people rather than archetypes. (Even Vecna feels more like a genuine villain with a personality than the Mind Flayer or the Demogorgon ever did.) But even that material is hit or miss, with some character arcs getting more attention than others. (And the Hawkins arc is trying to do too much in other areas, as the vengeful jocks seem increasingly unnecessary and one-note as the season moves along.)
And just from a storytelling standpoint, it’s hard to tell what’s still fundamentally a horror/suspense story when we have to keep pausing the action to jump to another time zone and/or genre. Some shows can make radical shifts in tone and perspective from scene to scene feel natural, and even part of the fun, but it’s almost always jarring here, and continually robs each plot of momentum.
The Duffers are smart writers and directors. They know that all the films that inspired the show tend to be lean and mean. So why the increasing bloat? They definitely wouldn’t be the first showrunners to get self-indulgent in their hit series’ later seasons. (Game of Thrones also waves hello.) And as the creators of one of the streaming era’s biggest hits, there’s probably very little little in the way of “no” from their bosses at Netflix — and there could, in fact, be some encouragement. With a show where Netflix knows for sure that most viewers will watch in its entirety, the longer the episodes, the more the “minutes spent watching” metric rises, and the happier the great and powerful Netflix algorithm feels. In this perilous moment, Netflix needs all the good data it can get
Or maybe it’s something much less nefarious than that. Maybe the Duffers just fell too in love with all these people they created, and/or the actors playing them, and couldn’t let any of them go, even in situations where they no longer had a take on the character (Mike, Will) or where the story might hit harder without them (i.e., Hopper’s sacrifice under the mall being real). And because they couldn’t say goodbye to any of them, Stranger Things as a whole just kept getting bigger and bigger, growing beyond their control in the same way that Eleven and some of Dr. Brenner’s other subjects once did.
It’s nice to have Stranger Things back, period, especially the Hawkins-based parts. But it would be nicer without having to wade through everything else to get to the scenes that work best.
The first seven episodes of Stranger things Season Four premiere on May 27. I’ve seen all seven.