Stranger Things can’t let go, and that makes it a weaker show

zaib055July 3, 2022


Warning: Massive SPOILERS for Stranger Things season 4 ahead

Back before the premiere of Stranger Things season 4, creators Matt and Ross Duffer called it their “Game Of Thrones season.” And indeed, there’s a lot the nine latest episodes have in common with HBO’s megahit. There’s the sprawl, for one; usually the characters on Stranger Things stick around Hawkins, Indiana, but this season they were spread all over the world, playing out separate dramas that would eventually connect in compelling ways. The production budget also shot up; Game Of Thrones raised the bar for what was possible on a TV production, and more and more shows are trying to clear it.

But there’s one cue Stranger Things hasn’t taken from Game Of Thrones, and it’s a big one: death. The HBO show was famous for killing off characters. And I’m not talking supporting characters: I’m talking Ned, Catelyn and Robb Stark; I’m talking Tywin Lannister and Stannis Baratheon; and finally Daenerys Targaryen, the most iconic character the show produced. Game Of Thrones murdered them all, and people lapped it up.

Meanwhile, Stranger Things seems unwilling to part with anyone it’s not well and truly prepared to lose. Oh, sure, some characters have died along the way; see Barb in season 1, or Bob in season 2, or Alexi in season 3, and now Eddie in season 4…but all of these guys were introduced in the same seasons where they expired; the Duffers could build a story around their deaths, ensuring that neither we nor they got too attached. When it comes to main characters, the show seems incapable of letting go.

The indomitable Jim Hopper

The biggest example is Sheriff Hopper, played by David Harbour. The show went out of its way to make his death at the end of season 3 a big deal. It pumped up the dramatic music, it spent money on the special effects, and it had a lengthy coda where characters hugged and cried and read heartfelt messages from beyond the grave. The show couldn’t let us grieve for the space of a credits sequence before hinting that Hopper was somehow alive and in Russia, and indeed, in season 4 he got his own tiresome subplot only tenuously connected to what was going on with the rest of our characters back in the States. For my money, it was the weakest part of the new season.

We don’t have an alternate reality version of the show to compare it to, but I think Stranger Things 4 would be better off had Hopper stayed dead. The show has to bend space, time and meaning to accommodate his resurrection; Joyce (Winona Ryder) has to look like an idiot who thinks it’s a good idea to leave her kids on their own during a catastrophe and throw off to Russia on the off-chance that a coded message means her almost-boyfriend is still alive. Eleven, who’s always been the face of the show, isn’t pushed anywhere new, because she has her father figure to rely on. And the episodes tend to run overlong, sometimes by ludicrous margins.

Clearly the Duffers enjoy working with David Harbour, and who am I to begrudge them their camaraderie? But doing fake-out deaths like that can be perilous because it may make the audience feel like no one is really in danger, and that makes the show less exciting. je n’ai pas want Hopper to die, but after the show gives him a death scene, I’d like them to stick to it.

But it is what it is. And surely the Duffers wouldn’t make that mistake twice?

The unsinkable Max Mayfield

Max Mayfield (Sadie Sink) has one of the best arcs in Stranger Things 4; she’s wracked with guilt over the death of her brother Billy, which makes her a target for the malevolent Vecna, who prays on human suffering. The moment when she narrowly escapes her clutches using love and the power of Kate Bush has become tea time of the season.

In the newly released season finale, Max has another encounter with Vecna, and this time she isn’t so lucky. He kills her…mostly, at least enough to complete his plan to merge the Upside Down with the Right Side Up, but Eleven brings her back from the brink. Last we see her, she’s in a coma.

Again, I didn’t want Max to die, but I’d love for the show to be able to commit to a death scene for once. This one isn’t as bad as Hopper’s, because at least we learn that Max is still alive by the end of the episode, but it’s another instance of Stranger Things being unable to let go.

The unlearned lessons of Game Of Thrones

And look, maybe it’s better that the show doesn’t kill off its lead characters. Maybe a kinder, gentler series is what the world needs…but for me, at least, it’s making me more aware of the strings. I’m not as nervous watching Stranger Things as I was watching Game Of Thronesbecause the producers have shown that they’re not really willing to take those big swings.

And look, Stranger Things is far from the only show that does this. The fourth season of Westworld is airing on HBO right now, and both Evan Rachel Wood and Ed Harris are back despite their characters both seemingly dying in the season 3 finale. There’s some too-complicated-to-get-into stuff right now involving their new characters, but the point stands: it’s hard to miss you if you won’t leave. The absence of a character can create a new kind of energy, pushing the story in exciting directions.

This is something that Game Of Thrones understood, and despite the litany of shows that are now modeling themselves off the HBO series, almost none of them have followed suit. This genuinely surprises me, because Game Of Thrones got more popular with each major death. Ned Stark’s execution got people talking, the Red Wedding turned the show into a phenomenon, and Jon Snow’s death damn near shut down the internet.* Why wouldn’t a new show want to replicate that kind of buzz? why wouldn’t you put all your chips on the table when you’ve seen how great the payout can be?

Stranger Things is heading into its fifth and final season, so all bets are off. Who knows what’ll happen in the final episodes? I think it’s a really good show and I’m looking forward to more, but I honestly don’t think it’s all that it can be, because it doesn’t take risks commensurate with its ambitions. Game Of Thrones wasn’t a perfect show, but no one doubted its boldness. Other series should take note.

*Yes, Game of Thrones did resurrect Jon Snow, but they could get away with it because they’d already proved many times over that they were willing to go all the way, and they would continue to do going forward. It’s alright to have an exception that proves the rule; Stranger Things is all exceptions.

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