I finally watched this thing, all four seasons over a few days, and I have thoughts. I knew going in that this show would never live up to the massive mountain of hype or expectations put upon it, so that kind of tempered the disappointment when it lost my interest in season 3.
Right off the bat, this show did not need to continue beyond season 1. As a self-contained miniseries, it works really well. Then it seemed like Netflix wanted more beyond its original concept, and that’s where it fell apart.
Season 1 was charming, with stakes just high enough to justify the “parents are useless” trope inherent to this genre. I think on Twitter, I said it was like Stand By Me, Flight of the Navigator, ET, and Nightmare on Elm Street had all been lumped into one thing. There was a vibe throughout everything that played off of a bunch of the feral 80s children tropes really well. It wasn’t trying to be anything else, but at the same time was very much a love letter to a lot of what I grew up watching and doing. There were a few moments that felt a bit cheap or rushed, but overall season 1 was very solid. There was a good mystery, and several threads that tangled and twisted together, and it ended with a very nice balance of resolution and questions.
And then season 2 was frankly a mess. Several people I’ve talked to said that’s where they dipped, and I can truly see why. I have a lot of problems with the narrative choices in this show, and they all started in season 2. The biggest one is El herself. Her entire character exists to be the deus ex machina and the MacGuffin all in one. And in a show where everyone is an archetype by design, that works really well. Season 1, if viewed as a standalone miniseries, is less about the spooky story and more about the nostalgia bender it takes you on. Everything, from the ages of the kids in both groups, to the set design was constructed around this visceral evocation that makes you feel like you’re ten years old again; deeply familiar like that movie the VCR ate because you watched it 300 times, but somehow brand new and fresh the way that movie was the very first time you saw it.
Which made season 2 feel weird right out of the gate. The story was resolved in a satisfying way, with just enough “what happens next?” hanging in the air to not feel too enclosed. The big bad has been covered up, and somehow a bunch of 12 year olds were trusted to keep this secret, while none of their parents were brought in on it, because we have to keep that “parents are useless” trope alive somehow. I mean, Ted goes above and beyond on being fucking useless, and Karen flanderises pretty strongly, but somehow that just made it feel more awkward to me. And somehow, even after season 4, the adults all have their heads so deep in the sand Ted’s scoffing at the news calling the gate to hell a gate to hell. By the end of season 4, there are three whole adults who aren’t in the government who know what’s going on. And I don’t count Steve in this, because I’m going to get to why he’s weird later.
But on top of the adults continuing to not have a clue, we all know El can beat this thing, whatever it is. There’s no tension there; no suspense. So they have to get rid of her somehow I guess, and they do it by literally putting her on a bus. That plot was so out of place, and aside from one throw-away mention in season 4, Eight never gets mentioned again. The whole road trip goes completely forgotten. It really felt like they wanted to get away from the small town aesthetic for a bit, and get more into the counter-culture aspect of the 80s but couldn’t figure out how to do it. So we get this ragtag group of street punks who walked this bizarre line between benign and ultra-violent in a way that just did not work for me. Again, they were all archetypes to fill a specific role, but this wasn’t the story for them.
And the whole of season 2, from El’s road trip, to Eight, and Will getting just wholeass possessed, was the start of the biggest problem I have with the whole series. From season 2 onward, I never once got the feeling that the show was continuing because there was more story to tell. Instead, it felt like story kept getting tacked on so the show could continue. Like I said, season 1 felt very self-contained. Eight episodes and it’s done. The bits of season 2 that stayed in Hawkins did a decent enough job of feeling like the logical fallout, but that fell apart in season 3. Season 3 felt like it had nothing to do with the Upside Down. And then by season 4, it was like they were trying so hard to tie it all together and make it all connected, but those threads weren’t there from the beginning. It went from vague hell monsters, to the Mind Flayer, to the Mind Flayer’s weird goo monster that managed to possess people, to some goopy-looking Grinch creature who has apparently been the big bad this entire time?
Also, while I’m on the subject of Vecna, or whatever we’re calling him, they showed his ugly ass way too early. The reason Alien is still one of the greatest horror movies ever made is because it practically codified the rule that you do not show the monster. Not right away, and definitely not in full light in the very first episode. I complained about this on twitter, and I was right. He’d lost all impact by the climax. He wasn’t scary anymore, and then my husband pointed out that he looked like the fucking Grinch, and that was all I saw for the last two hours. Come on, there are rules for horror, and season 4 broke nearly all of them.
But the progression of big bads isn’t the only weird inconsistency that got under my skin. Hawkins lab, and how it operated, was constantly in flux. And they did something else that they really should not have done with it: they answered questions. The lab worked so well as this unknown element. But they answered questions about it, and the more questions they answered, the more obvious it became that they had never known the answers from the beginning. They were making it up as they went. And Eight is the giveaway. She’s introduced as having similar but distinctly different powers from El. She’s more on the telepathic side of the spectrum, to El’s telekinesis. Which is fine, I guess, apart from how I didn’t like that subplot to begin with. But then we get to season 4, and all of the kids have what very much seems to be an identical power set, making Eight this bizarre outlier. It was obvious from the outset that El was not the only kid in the program (the clue is in her name, after all), but the way the program was operated also seemed to be constantly in flux. And the fact that the kids are socialised at all breaks a fundamental part of El’s character, in that she has no idea how to talk to another human being. None of the other kids spoke like she does. Are we therefore left to conclude that El is different on top of all of the other ways she’s different?
It just answered way too many questions and broke its own fundamental concepts.
I also really did not like the entire two-season plot with the Russians. Yeah, you gotta get your Red Dawn reference in there, but season 3 was so goddamn cartoony it barely felt like the same show. But then they did the same thing with Hop and Joyce that they did with El in season 2: had to get them out of Hawkins because the second Hop was called to a murder scene that looked like that, the plot falls apart. He’d take one look at it and be like, well fuck here we go again. Eddie would not have even been a suspect; at least not in the same way. Similarly, Lucas suffered some bizarre character assassination through the entire first half of season 4. For three seasons, Lucas was consistently a voice of reason, and now he’s suddenly obsessed with becoming popular to the point he actively makes things worse.
But this was a thread that continued through the entire show, honestly. Not just with Lucas, but with so many other characters. Bereft of context, I came into season 1 thinking the younger kids were freshmen in high school, or maybe eighth grade at the lowest, and the older kids were seniors. I didn’t even ping Jonathan as being in school until he was caught in the dark room. I thought he’d already graduated, with the first words out of his mouth being about picking up a shift at work. Presumably Barb and Nancy were in the same grade, and there’s no fucking way Barb was a sophomore. Though I did wonder why Hopper (I think?) called her a little girl. Even then, 15 is pushing it for “little girl.” And I know some rural areas even today are a bit lax on younger kids driving before they’re 16, but that’s usually reserved for like, farm shit. And season 1 takes place in November, meaning school has been in session for like, three months. The ages are so weird. Every single context clue pointed to them being so much older than they apparently are. So now we’ve got Nancy, who is supposed to be 15? during season one, dating Steve who is apparently a junior? All of them really had senior energy to me for some reason, but apparently that just wasn’t the case.
And obviously season 2 took place a year-ish later, since that was a big part of the plot. And that was confusing because I had thought they would have already graduated, but they’re still going to parties and stuff. It’s no wonder that by season 3, they started setting them during breaks between classes because they’d already kind of forgotten to send these kids to school half the time as it was. By the time season 4 comes around, I have no idea how old any of these people are supposed to be. The fact that Nancy and Jonathan are still in school was a shock, because surely they’ve graduated by now? No? Apparently not?
It’s one of those things where being vague is fine when you don’t have a running continuity to keep track of, but whoops. And now we’ve got Steve, who is apparently a grown-ass adult at this point. hanging out with literal children and nobody seems to think that’s weird? People are concerned with Eddie and Chrissy, but let’s ask what the fuck Steve is doing hanging out with kids who still have set bed times. I’m more concerned about that than what an alleged senior and her super-senior drug dealer are getting up to.
Also, holy shit Mr Munson got off lucky. All those cops crawling all over that trailer, and none of them found Eddie’s ketamine stash? Bullshit lmao
Another problem I increasingly had with this show are the stakes involved. Yes, yes, the world is ending. But we have a girl with superpowers and she’s saved the world before. It gets lampshaded so hard so many times, because nothing is ever permanent. Yes, there’s this ever-pervasive threat, but for the vast majority of this show, nobody who dies has actually mattered. Characters get introduced to die. The core group has plot armour so dense it has its own gravitational field. Billy is the first exception, in that he sticks around for two seasons before he eats it. But he was also conceived to be wholly unlikable. He’s not a pleasant character, and he was already a villain when he was introduced. His death doesn’t hit particularly hard because he’s a thing to be defeated by that point. The entire plot of season 1 is that Will isn’t really dead at all. Hopper apparently evaporates, except he doesn’t, and spends the whole of season 4 in a Russian gulag instead for Reasons. And they couldn’t even follow through with Max. Yes, yes. She’s in a coma, very tragic. It won’t stick. In season 5, they’ll somehow close the gate for good, and that’ll miraculously restore Max. Even Eddie is introduced to die, but it took the show four seasons to finally pull the rug out from under you and kill off a character in an emotionally meaningful way. His death wasn’t a plot device like most of the deaths in this show. His death was there solely to kick you in the balls and spit in your face. And I know this is not a sentiment that everyone is going to share, but goddamn it’s about time this show did that. Inject a bit of tragedy into a story that has killed a lot of people very meaninglessly.
The sheer size of the group is becoming detrimental too. It was split three ways in season 4, because there are just too goddamn many characters to use effectively. Every season introduces new people who get to be in on the secret, and now seventeen people, at least, know about the thing that was supposedly covered up and buried. I’ve counted three times and the number gets bigger every time, so I’ve probably still missed somebody. It has now got to a point where the group has to be broken up into cliques, which means some characters went the whole of season 4 without ever being in the same room as one another.
The show has just suffered from massive diminishing returns in so many areas as the plot sprawls out and tries to catch its own tail. I can only assume that 5 is going to be the final one, because idk a portal to hell masquerading as a 7.whatever intraplate earthquake seems pretty series-ending to me. But I pretty much checked out during season 3, and only stuck through to see where they were taking it. It stopped making sense at “secret Russian base several miles under Indiana” and never really came back from that. It really did become a show to stick with if you like the characters, but wow it’s kind of a mess. It was fun, and I bet it’s great to watch while high. But it lives in this category for me where it’s not good, but I’m not going to call it bad either. And watching it all at once probably made the flaws stick out more, because I didn’t have several years in between to forget about strange details that stuck out like a neon sign.
I have a lot more thoughts about it, but nothing terribly coherent at this point, and I think most of them just boil down to “why was this a choice that was made?” But man, some of the choices that were made were… they were choices. Just not the ones I would have made.
But I’ve finally seen it. I can’t see myself getting into the fandom beyond finally having context to the wank I rubberneck at as it crosses my TL.