Like the rest of the world, I’ve been very obsessed with Stranger Things lately. I’ve been very obsessed with Stranger Things for a while. I’m a bandwagon fan. When I see everyone screaming about something online I think what is this thing? Why am I not screaming about the thing? I was a little late to get onboard because this is a scary show, but my sister (who is more of a coward than I am, which is saying something) started watching it and said it was really good, so I jumped on the bandwagon.
It’s a really great show, and that’s not just the nostalgia talking because I don’t have any 80s nostalgia; I was born in the 90s and (unpopular opinion incoming) I haven’t seen or don’t like a lot of 80s movies. Like, I’ve never liked Ghostbusters or ET and I’ve never seen Goonies or any of the many 80s horror films Stranger Things took inspiration from. Somehow despite not particularly liking the genre, generally being annoyed by fictional children, and not having any major pop culture nostalgia I still got quickly and totally immersed in Stranger Things, and the show has kept its hold on me for the past six years even through the inexplicably unpopular season three (season three has Robin! How is it unpopular?) And even through season four’s sharp turn into horror.
I thought Stranger Things 1 was horror. I was wrong, because that was absolutely nothing compared to what we see in Stranger Things 4. There are some gross and frightening moments in the early run of the show—Will with that slug attached to him in the Upside Down was creepy as heck, and Bob’s death was traumatic—but Chrissy’s season four death took it up a lot of notches. During that scene I specifically thought man, if season one had started out like this I would not still be watching. Because that scene is terrifying and disgusting, and those effects don’t get any easier to watch even as they keep getting recapped or repeated with other characters. But I was already so deeply invested in the substantive Stranger Things cast that I was willing to keep watching even as the content of the show got scarier and scarier until it was far beyond what I’m usually comfortable watching. Once I got past the horrifying horror of it, though, I found that I enjoyed this season as much as the ones who came before it. I’m not necessarily part of the crowd who is calling this the best season of Stranger Things or the season that saved Stranger Things because I like all the seasons and don’t think the show needed saving, but it is definitely very good and because I like blabbing about the stories I find very good, I’m going to break it down, and because I first and foremost love characters, I’m going to bring back my old school method and break it down character by character.
I had originally planned to do a straightforward review like I did for The Umbrella Academy, but because the show was long and spread out, I had a lot of time to think about it and discuss it with my equally analytical, if less nerdy, sister. As I was writing this it turned out to be less a standard review and more a series of mini character-focused essay akin to my I care too much about fictional characters series, so that’s what it is. The short version of the review is: I really liked it and I’m really looking forward to season five.
The long version is… a lot longer. When I realized my thoughts were nearly 10k words I decided to split them up into more manageable chunks. If you follow me, prepare to get spammed with a lot of Stranger Things content.
i care too much about fictional characters
Of course we have to start with Eleven. Was there any question of that?
Eleven is arguably the main character of Stranger Things, and she’s certainly one of the most recognizable. Everyone and their mother dressed up as Eggo Eleven back when the show first aired, and she has continued to be THE character for the show. Most legitimate fan theories center around her, most entertainment sites use her image when writing about the show, and actress Millie Bobby Brown’s name almost always gets thrown around for award nominations. So I kind of have to start with her, even though she’s probably the least interesting character in season four. You’re probably thinking, but what about that time she piggybacked from a pizza dough freezer? You might be thinking, but wasn’t it sad when everyone was bullying her and then she absolutely wrecked Angela? I mean, sure. I guess. She has a few good moments, but on the whole she’s season four is not El’s season.
Listen, I don’t dislike Eleven. Do I think she’s the most intrinsically interesting character of the bunch? No, not really. “Psychic child” is a pretty standard trope, and Eleven goes through most of the standard stepping stones for Chosen Ones. Do I think she’s the best actor of the bunch? No. I would have said yes in season one, especially of the child actors, but whereas I feel everyone else has improved she strikes me as either about the same or slightly less believable as when she was younger. But that’s not the problem. The problem with her this season is that she doesn’t get any new story beats after the first two episodes.
I was SO excited to see Eleven in a new context. She’s always been the magical deus ex machina. She spends a lot of time wiping away nosebleeds and floating in sensory deprivation tanks. She spends a lot of time glowering menacingly and being emotionally manipulated by Brenner. She doesn’t have social skills, and has always relied on her telekinesis to get her out of her scrapes. When we open this season, she is stripped of her powers and plunged into a normal life. For the first time, she can’t beat up on bullies by flinging them across the room. She is a de-powered superhero who has never learned how to navigate the world as a real person, but suddenly she has to. That opens up so many rich, interesting potential storylines. It is painful to watch her struggle with bullies and see the cracks in her upbringing, but it is painful in the way good storytelling is. These are new problems for Eleven, and she is forced into a new dynamic. She has never been the least powerful person in the room, but suddenly she is the least powerful one in every room and that forces her to behave differently (or face the consequences) and to view herself differently. It would have been fascinating to delve into El’s psyche. She has long thought of herself as a monster because of the things she has done with her powers, but she has used those same things for all her heroic moments. Is she still a monster without those powers? Is she still a hero?
It was hard to watch, but El trying to blast Angela was one of her best, most interesting scenes this season. Angela is obviously horrible, but Eleven’s reaction was clearly not the right one. Remember when she blasted Lucas back in season one? Her default reaction to hardship is violence, and she’s lived a life where that has been a suitable response in most situations. It’s not, though. As Mike reminds her, he’s been bullied his whole life. El is living with Will, who has certainly been bullied his whole life. She feels alone when she’s not alone, and since El is the show’s hero and Angela is a one-dimensional jerk it is easy to get caught up in the humiliation of this moment, but if you really look at it Eleven nearly killed a girl for laughing at her diorama. The only reason she didn’t do serious damage is that she couldn’t. That’s absolutely fascinating, and quite troubling. It’s not Eleven’s power that needs developed.
Even her relationships are dictated by her power. When Mike describes his insecurities regarding their relationship he tells Will, “One day she’s gonna realize that I’m just some random nerd that got lucky that Superman landed on his doorstep.” If even Mike of all people sees their relationship like that, sees El like that, who is she without those powers? It’s a question Stranger Things doesn’t seem all that keen to reflect on in that it puts Eleven on a path to regain the lost powers almost immediately.
I was also really wanted to see who Eleven would be as part of the Byers family. There was so much potential to throw her in with Will, Jonathan, and Joyce. She and Will are outsiders, both because of identity and circumstance. We get a few small scenes of them being siblings, but nowhere near enough. Who could relate to Eleven’s Upside-Down-induced otherness better than Zombie Boy? Who could understand Will’s feeling of intrinsically being different better than Eleven? Will and Eleven have been thematically circling each other for the whole run of the show. She appears the night that he vanishes. She unleashes the creatures that possess him. At first she feels like she can’t be a part of the group because the group is so focused on finding him, and when he returns he feels that he has been displaced by her. She is the group’s strong defender and he is the one who needs rescued and protected. And now they’re siblings and equals. She doesn’t have her powers and he doesn’t have a reputation as a freak. They’re starting this new school together with no history, on equal footing and firmly on the same side for the first time ever.
Then there’s Joyce. Eleven has longed for a mother practically. Terry has been a lingering plot point, to the point that I’ve started to be a bit annoyed by it; it frustrates me that a woman El barely met is almost always shown as the person whose memory gives her the boost she needs or the shot of love to put her over the edge. Terry was never a present mother for her. She tried, but she wasn’t. Moments when El uses happy memories to fuel her inexplicably often end with Terry rather than a character Eleven has a real connection with like, say, Mike or Hopper. Eleven desperately wants a mother, but Terry is unavailable. But Eleven has a mother now, or at least a maternal figure. We’ve seen season after season that Joyce is a badass mama bear, and seeing Eleven with that presence in her life for the first time would have been great. Also, as my sister put it, Joyce and Hopper are in the unusual position of being a couple who have both independently been the parent to the same child. Emphasizing Joyce and Eleven’s mother-daughter bond would have added a delightful element to Joyce and Hopper’s romance.
As for Jonathan… I just want him to have more to do, and he’s at his best when he’s being brotherly to Will, so I suspect that he likewise could be at his best when being brotherly to El.
There is so much wasted opportunity with Eleven this season. How does a person who has always depended on supernatural powers make her way through life without them? How does someone raised away from people and without significant emotional relationships or human contact function in regular society, especially when tossed right into the deep end with unsympathetic high schoolers? There are so many great directions Eleven’s story could have gone this season, but instead she is nearly immediately relegated to plotlines she’s already performed multiple times: sensory deprivation tanks, nosebleeds, and psychic conditioning by her psychotic papa. It’s not necessarily a bad plotline, but it is one we’ve seen before. El could have had her Vecna flashbacks without the inexplicably resurrected Dr. Brenner, and she could even have slowly regained her powers over the course of the season with loving support from Joyce and Will… or under pressure to do so as they rushed back to Hawkins to save Max.
I also don’t love that at the end of the season El needs Mike to tell her “I love you” before she can fight back against Vecna. I mean, yeah. Young love and angst and all that, but Eleven couldn’t believe in herself without Mike’s love? She couldn’t find it in herself to fight for Max, her best friend, without Mike’s support? Eleven is a great character, or she could be if she were allowed to grow beyond her superpowers and her romantic relationship. I’ve found myself wondering about her name, too. El goes by “Jane” in California. “Jane” is the name Terry gave her. She could easily have been “Elle” if that was the identity she was happiest with. But despite this, everyone—including me—continues to use the name given to her jointly by Brenner (011) and Mike (“El”). I wonder if she will ever get the chance to actually be Jane, or if she’s going to be psychically fighting monsters forever.
Do you agree that Eleven’s storyline was full of missed opportunities? What do you want to see from her in season five?
Next up: Will!