Forget GoT and the MCU—the fantasy epic of our time is set in Hawkins, Indiana
By Rick Ferguson
SPOILER ALERT: If you have yet to start or finish Stranger Things 4, then come no further! For death awaits you all with nasty big pointy teeth.
I just finished binging Stranger Things 4 and that was some of the most epic fucking shit I have ever seen. Yes, you can make the usual bitchy arguments against it. The episodes are too long and overstuffed. The Duffer Brothers are too sentimental and have cloaked the main characters in impervious plot armor. Eleven seems to possess whatever powers she needs at the time, up to and including the power of resurrection. There are plenty of nits to pick.
But really, shut the hell up. Thanks to the deadly toxicity of today’s online commentariat, we can’t have nice things. No matter how objectively great is a piece of pop culture, some extremely online asshole will shit all over it: for being too woke, for not being woke enough, for not being as good as X, for being too frivolous, for being too serious, for upsetting beloved tropes, for adhering too strictly to those same tropes. Those of us of a certain age remember when you could only talk about the latest movie or television show with your friends. Believe me, we were all the better for it. If you need any more proof that social media is a net disaster for humanity, forget about what it has done to our politics. Look no further than the harm it has inflicted upon the Star Wars franchise. Or consider that the most powerful force online is alternately Elon Musk or Zack Snyder’s army of Snyder-bots.
So, fuck all that; let’s focus instead on the epic awesomeness of Stranger Things 4. After such a long Covid-imposed layoff--three years passed between the ST3 and ST4 release dates—I was primed for a letdown. Aren’t those kids all like 35 years old now? Would I even still care whether or not Eleven’s powers return? Whether Hopper is alive or dead? Whether Will is gay or straight? The show was a great diversion, but I wasn’t exactly pining for its return.
What ST4 reveals, however, is that the Brothers Duffer have been playing the long game. Taking their cues from two of the 20th Century’s greatest storytellers—the two Steves, Stephen King and Steven Spielberg—the Duffers have set their sights on epic storytelling that can stand alongside the giants of fantasy fiction. Think The Stand, or The Dark Tower. Think ET. Think the original Star Wars trilogy. Hell, think Lord of the Rings. That’s the field upon which the Duffers have chosen to play. During the first three seasons, the brothers stood on the shoulders of those giants. With ST4, they have taken their place alongside them.
Take in microcosm Chapter 7, “The Massacre at Hawkins Lab.” In that episode, crucial backstory ties the events of ST4 with the events of ST1: Namely, that the Upside-Down version of Hawkins is frozen in time on the date November 6, 1983. That’s the same date that One, AKA Henry Creel, massacres all the other “specials” at Hawkins Lab, and the date that young Eleven opens the first gate to the Upside-Down and exiles One into it, where he becomes Vecna. The Eleven we meet scared in the woods in the series debut has just fled Hawkins Lab after those events.
We learn also that the Demigorgon and the Mind Flayer were never the series’ big bads—it was Vecna all along (cue “Agatha All Along”-like theme song). We now have a unifying series story arc, into which the show’s first three seasons fit snugly. And we have a new layer of guilt for which Eleven must contend: She may not have massacred her fellow specials, but she did inadvertently create Vecna. Whether the Duffers planned the Vecna reveal from the beginning or effectively retconned it into the rest of the show, it’s an astounding piece of storytelling.
Intercut with this epic reveal is Hopper’s escape from his Russian prison. Going into the season, I was skeptical of this subplot. Hopper’s narrow escape from death at the end of ST3 seemed the worst kind of plot armor, and Hopper’s meandering arc during the first few episodes of ST4 only deepened my suspicions. But Hopper’s escape from the prison’s monster pit was so brilliantly staged, choreographed, and edited for maximum suspense that I laughed out loud with sheer delight. And his long-delayed reunion with Joyce gave me all the feels.
In one episode, then, we get kickass worldbuilding, deep character development, and precision action filmmaking. Note also how effectively the brothers have deepened and leveraged the psychology of its main characters to drive this season’s plot. In addition to Eleven’s longstanding trauma and guilt, ST4 hinges on Max’s trauma over her relationship with her abusive brother, Billy. Throw in Nancy’s lingering guilt over Barb’s death in ST1, Lucas’s growing pains and desire to fit in, plus Dustin’s hero-worship of the awesomeness that is Eddie Munson, and you have a show firing on every cylinder. If any character is given short shrift in ST4, it's Mike, who is mostly sidelined until his big “Love—True Love!” speech in the season finale.
Really, what other current or recent fantasy IP can stand against Stranger Things? Not Game of Thrones, which collapsed under the weight of George Martin’s dithering and its show-runners inability to write their way out of their own box. Not Star Wars, which not only wrecked its movie game with a disappointing sequel trilogy, but also squandered its Mandalorian goodwill with the unwatchable Book of Boba Fett and the listless nostalgia of Obi-Wan Kenobi. Not the Harry Potterverse, which now consists solely of several pointless Fantastic Beasts films and JK Rowling’s anti-trans tweets. Not even the mighty Marvel Cinematic Universe, which has mostly spun its wheels since the glory of Avengers: Endgame, can compare.
ST4’s closing image of Hawkins itself invaded by the Upside-Down sets the stage for a final season that rivals Tolkien himself. I can imagine an ST5 propelled by its own epic quest into its own upside-down Mordor, with Eleven, Mike, and company undertaking an arduous journey for a final confrontation with Vecna. Maybe the show will screw the pooch. But the Duffers have earned our trust by delivering a fourth season that blew away all expectations. From this fantasy fan’s perspective, Stranger Things now stands alone.
Rick Ferguson is the author of The Chronicles of Elberon fantasy trilogy. Rick is also a globally recognized marketing expert with appearances in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Advertising Age, Fast Company, the Globe & Mail Canada, the Guardian UK, the Financial Times India, MSNBC, and the Fox Business Channel. He has delivered keynote speeches on marketing principles and best practices on six continents. He is also master of time, space, and dimension.