By Stuart Mitchner
“Do you want to feel how it feels?”
—Kate Bush, from “Running Up That Hill”
Three days after the May 24 Uvalde, Texas, school shooting, Matt and Ross Duffer’s Stranger Things 4 opened with a jarring series of shots showing the bloodied bodies of children. Rather than cut the sequence, which is flashed back to in subsequent episodes, Netflix covers the coincidence with an advisory, noting that the season was filmed a year ago, and that, “given the recent tragic shooting,” viewers may find the opening scene “distressing.” Then: “We are deeply saddened by this unspeakable violence, and our hearts go out to every family mourning a loved one.”
The placement makes it possible to relate “unspeakable violence” to both the show and the massacre. However you read it, that’s not a good way to begin the fourth season of a school-centered show, especially not a season as wildly, graphically, and sometimes gratuitously violent as this one. The formulaic statement only sharpens the focus on this season’s excesses and the relative absence of the humor and character and other qualities that made Stranger Things special.
Building to an Ending
In an interview about ST 2 on ign.com, Matt Duffer shared his thoughts on the future of the series. Speaking of “the shows that we really look up to,” Duffer said Breaking Bad was his favorite because “it feels like it was never treading water … like it built to an ending that was very much intended from the beginning. It feels like a very, very complete show, and it just nailed the landing, so that’s the goal and the hope, and it’s really, really difficult. But hopefully we get there.”
Perhaps the fear of “treading water” explains why the Duffers are piling the action on in the new season, as if desperate to cover every base, every horror, every action sequence, every character, with the result that episodes go on too long, the first seven running for nine hours total.
Vince Gilligan and his crew nailed the ending of Breaking Bad by resurrecting Badfinger’s 1972 hit “Baby Blue,” a thrill for anyone who recognizes the descending bass line, a surge of rock-and-roll excitement lifted over the top by a camera movement that shows the meth king lying mortally wounded on the floor of the lab that he and numerous others lived and died for. Pick just the right piece of musical energy, put it in the right place, bring up the volume, and everyone goes away feeling good breaking bad. The exposure also propelled “Baby Blue” into iTunes’ Top 25.
One of the saving graces of the first seven-episode installment of Stranger Things 4 (the remaining two arrive July 1) is Kate Bush, whose music is now reaching millions of new listeners, including those who discover the other songs on the album Hounds of Love (1985). According to billboard.com, less than a week after ST4 was released, Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” was experiencing “a particularly overwhelming spike in streams on Spotify,” rising “by 9,900 percent in U.S. plays” from May 27 to May 30. Since Sunday, May 29, the song had begun “to net millions of U.S. streams on a daily basis … while also selling thousands of copies daily, and as of June 1 was No. 1 on both Spotify’s U.S. daily chart and the iTunes realtime sales chart.” On June 11, there’s a good chance that “Running Up That Hill” will land on the all-genre, multi-metric Billboard Hot 100.
It makes sense that the song would be intimately associated with Max Mayfield (Sadie Sink), one of the new season’s other saving graces and an invaluable addition ever since she arrived in the monster mash of Hawkins, Indiana, from California in Season 2 with her bad boy stepbrother Billy (Dacre Montgomery), who is possessed, murderously manipulated, and then destroyed by Season 3’s reigning monster, the Mind Flayer.
After witnessing the horrors of Starcourt Mall and the grisly death of her stepbrother, Max lives in the helmet of her headset listening to Kate Bush sing the song that rescued her from the spell of a monster of death and disfiguration called Vecna, Kate guiding her, as if cheering her on, “Come on, angel, come on darling,” as she runs for her life, back into her life, “running up that hill ….”
Although I don’t want to write off Season 4 without seeing the last two episodes, my wife and I, both devoted admirers of Stranger Things, have resorted to skimming through scenes dragged down by unnecessary violence: overkill in the Russian prison, overkill in the Hawkins lab, a plethora of horror movie clichés, along with tediously prolonged stretches of boring, “stoner” dialogue in the scenes with the new character Argyle (Eduardo Franco) and his pizza delivery van. There are lame performances (so far) by Noah Schnapp as Will and Charlie Heaton as his brother Jonathan. Although their mother Joyce (Winona Ryder) has some refreshingly funny moments during her mission to rescue Sheriff Jim Hopper (David Harbour) with help from conspiracy theorist Murray Bauman (Brett Gelman), much of that business is also labored and excessive. And while it’s good to see Maya Hawke again, the surfeit of multiple plotlines makes it hard for Robin and Steve (Joe Leery) to recapture the comic/romantic magic of the previous season.
We were on the verge of giving up at one point — it’s hard seeing a show that was so good go so far astray — but we kept watching because of Max and Kate Bush, and mostly to see what happens to the show’s lapsed superhero Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), who has moved to California with Joyce, Will, and Jonathan. Having escaped from the ground zero of horror, Jane Hopper (as she’s now known, after her adoptive father Jim Hopper) is struggling to adjust to life at Lenora Hills High. With her telekinetic powers gone, she soon finds herself being ruthlessly tormented by a bully from hell named Angela (Elodie Grace Orkin).
The torturing of Jane is another form of overkill. Does she really have to be subjected to this depth of humiliation simply to make us long for the moment Jane becomes Eleven and telekinetically demolishes her enemies? What we really long for is the girl from Season 1 who could topple trucks with her mind. The wonder of that first incarnation of El had less to do with her superhero abilities, which come at a cost (nosebleeds and worse), than with the multiple dimensions of her character. Imagine someone containing depths of vulnerable ET-like alien innocence as well as Svengali-hypnotic intensity. Nearly every scene featuring El had a mixture of pathos and power, thanks to the eerie, endearing gravitas she communicated, gently, firmly, sweetly, as she adapted to a strange new reality.
A Trip Worth Taking
The chapter on Breaking Bad in Alan Sepinwall’s The Revolution Was Televised: The Cops, Crooks, Slingers and Slayers Who Changed TV Drama Forever (2012) was written while the series still had eight episodes remaining, which meant that showrunner Vince Gilligan could only speculate on the ending he hoped to achieve. “I feel a great deal of weight, relating to the ending of this series,” he tells Sepinwall, “you want to end at the most proper and interesting and perhaps inevitable moment. You want to do justice to the characters. I don’t feel a need to make anyone happy, but I feel a great need to satisfy the audience. You want everyone to feel that this trip was worth taking.”
No amount of “overkill” can make me doubt that Stranger Things has been a trip worth taking. After saying it’s nice to have the show back again in his May 24 Rolling Stone review, Sepinwall admits that “it would be nicer without having to wade through everything else to get to the scenes that work best.”
Me, I’m thankful for the excuse to listen to Kate Bush again. When I made the transition from book and art reviews to the universe of records and films and beyond, my first subject was her 2006 album Aerial (paired with Chaos and Creation by Paul McCartney, the subject of next week’s column). McCartney is “a gifted human being,” I said, “but Kate is a creature. In other words, she does things witches, elves, alien beings, and ventriloquists can only envy: she goes from singing the sound of the earth to singing the sound of the sky with no regard for little human trivialities like octaves, and before you can catch your breath she’ll be babbling like a brook, laughing along with a blackbird, and dancing barefoot on the moon. She’s a James M. Barrie fantasy come wildly to life as a winged femme fatale: she’s erotic, tender, perverse, maternal, and impossible.”
When she has her powers, Eleven is a creature of similar dimensions. She’s in another realm: think of Prospero’s Miranda or Ariel or Puck in the enchanted realm of Midsummer Night’s Dream, or one of the Shakespeare’s mercurial Imogens or Olivias. There are times when she even has a hint of the nymphet about her, true to the ambience of Humbert’s Lolita ideal, “the little deadly demon among the wholesome children … unconscious herself of her fantastic power” who inhabits “that intangible island of entranced time.”