With the drop of the second half of Season 4 of Stranger Things the Duffer brothers’ creation remains a powerhouse of pop culture for a number of reasons. It is a fantastic hit of dopamine that makes all of us feel better. What if that isn’t enough? Is a darker Stranger Things Season 5 what we need?
Pulling Punches and Running Up Hills
To its already heady mix of engaging characters, absorbing intrigue and turbocharged nostalgia this season has introduced a scene that will forever in the pantheon of pop culture. And let’s give its due: Max’s confrontation with Vecna is good entertainment. Screw that; it’s great entertainment, its constituent elements combining to create something far more powerful than the sum of its parts. The episode’s heavy-handed but effective foreshadowing, Vecna’s booming, Candyman-like voice, the composition of each frame of Max’s desperate run, Kate Bush’s strident but haunting melody; together the end result is a raw, electrifying sequence that bypasses rationality and overloads the cerebral cortex on a wave of pure emotion. And yet…
… And yet Max lives. After all that, faced with what could have been fiction’s most bittersweet near-escape, the directors pull the punch at the last minute. Was I glad she survived? In a vague, rather noncommittal way I suppose. But more than that, I felt slightly cheated. I felt I’d glimpsed a chance at some truly hard-hitting storytelling, only to be forced to settle with the merely engaging instead.
Perhaps this shows a wider problem with the show. The series certainly isn’t beyond showing some pretty grim stuff. Barbara got the short end of the stick. The Mind Flayer’s assimilation of the infected is pure nightmare fuel. Yet this still all occurs within the rigid confines of a classic, ‘good overcomes evil’ storyline. So long as you’re one of the main cast of protagonists, you’re golden. If you’re one of them and you do die, you’ll do so sacrificing yourself for your friends in a suitably epic manner.
This is fine so far as it goes. People want fantasy, people want happy endings. But the problem with the archetypal good-will-triumph narrative is that it becomes harder and harder to sustain with each passing season. There’s only so many times Hawkins’s own Goonies can save the day before the formula becomes just that – a formula.
Lovecraft, Stephen King, and a Graveyard of Lost Worlds
Which brings me to the Stranger Things Season 5, which has been confirmed as Stranger Things’ last. No doubt it’ll be a blast, but it doesn’t take a crystal ball to see how it’ll play out on a broad level. We’ll see a few noble deaths, there’ll be The Final Confrontation, probably an explosion or two, then things will wrap up with good times and ice cream for the survivors. We’ll laugh, we’ll cry, then we’ll all go home. But after those credits roll, I’ll still come back to this season – to Max’s escape in particular – and wonder, ‘could it have been different?’ Could that have been a turning point? Could Stranger Things have become something where the good guys didn’t win?’
Possibly. There’s certainly scope in some of its plot elements to do so. For as much Spielbergian schmaltz as there is in Stranger Things, there’s further, darker areas to explore, particularly the show’s indebtedness to all things Lovecraft, from its themes of alternate dimensions to its Cthulhu stand-in Mind Flayer. Because Lovecraft is practically the standard-bearer of the non-happy ending. Death or madness is often a dubious ‘best’ outcome for the characters in his stories, his protagonists – if they remain sane by the end – often doubting whether any of what they experienced was real. Rarely do they save the day in any proactive sense, but rather merely delay the inevitable, or turn out to have been little more than hapless bystanders.
Going full Lovecraft could have been, or could yet be, the way for Stranger Things to get off the good-guys-win merry-go-round of each season. With the threats from the Upside Down seemingly never ending (first the Demogorgan, then Demo-dogs, then the Mind Flayer, now Vecna), a situation could be imagined in which it turned out that truly closing the Upside Down was an impossible task from the start. Everything our plucky protagonists fought for simply brought the world a little more time.
In the apocalyptic prose poem Nyarlathotep Lovecraft talks about ‘corpses of dead worlds with sores that were cities’ as the Old Gods sweep through the cosmos. Stephen King’s Novella N first appearing in his collection Just After Sunset is heavily Lovecraft and weird fiction inspired – is about a character convinced that a few stones in a field are all that are holding back a similar fate befalling his world. He speculates that behind that wall there might be a whole graveyard of ‘dead universes’; his just happens to be next in line. In a darker Stranger Things timeline, perhaps the Upside Down could be understood in a similar context. Rather than its opposite, perhaps the Upside Down could simply be the universe next to that of ours, behind which lies hundreds, thousands or millions of equally dead dimensions that all fell to entities like the Mind Flayer. In each season more beloved characters would fall, eventually resulting in a pyrrhic delaying of the inevitable (El in suspended animation, holding back the Upside Down for as long as she draws breath?) that leaves the precious few survivors broken and bereaved.
The Stranger Things Season 5 We Need/Deserve
This would make for a Stranger Things substantially – perhaps too substantially – different to what we have now. The show’s humour and upbeat notes are key elements of its appeal. But perhaps going so dark could be a clever twist that only Stranger Things could pull off. For Stranger Things has become the pinnacle of American culture’s obsession with the 1980s, and it’s hard not to feel cynical about it at times. More and more this obsession comes across as an exercise in head-burying, a yearning for a supposed golden age in the face of substantial problems right now. It has become toxic nostalgia.
So imagine if Stranger Things Season 5 were to flip the script. In the world of Stranger Things, vast and terrifying forces are unleashed by blind opportunism and technological meddling. How much truer is this to our world? The internet and the rise of social media giants has resulted in populism and a deluge of misinformation. Economic globalization has turned an aggressive and authoritarian China into a world power. Energy politics has brought war back to Europe, with famine now threatening the Global South as a result. Above it all, the effects of climate change are getting worse year by year, affecting millions with each flood, drought and heatwave. If Stranger Things Season 5 had the courage to tell a horror tale – a tale about barely surviving or even succumbing to an evil, not overcoming it through… good vibes and great music – it would undoubtedly bum out many fans. But it could also be a call to action; a slap in the face to remind us that nostalgia offers no real escape from our problems. Only by embracing the suck, by acknowledging the hard road ahead of us, could we turn our full efforts to running up our own hill and making sure our own world doesn’t go completely upside down. Or hey, maybe I’m just speculating about one sequence too much.
James is a freelance writer based in not-so-jolly old England. When he’s not scrounging for his next writing gig he’ll be watching old horror films and wishing it was the 90s again.