Episode three of season four, titled ‘The Monster and The Superhero, directed by Shawn Levy (Free Guy) and written by Caitlin Schneiderhan starts off with a harrowing revelation: the government believe Eleven to be the one responsible for the brutal Hawkins murders. What makes matters even worse is not only that El has no access to her powers, but also that she’s in custody. She’s helpless. It’s just another example of efficient timing. With all of these subplots running their course, some in different states than others, some in different countries, the Duffers and co. are finding ways to intertwine the stories at times where tension and suspense work most effectively. It’s as if, at the start of the season, all we had were a messy pile of puzzle pieces on the floor. As we make our way from episode to episode, we start piecing the puzzle together. The image goes from nothing, slowly into something, until eventually it’s complete, and we’re left with a finished product that is just as climactic as it is satisfying (I hope). While there’s still a ways to go until the fog clears, we’re now starting to see the misty silhouette of something deeper on the horizon.
This episode sees the amalgamation of the ‘Hopper, Alive’/’Russian gulag’ storyline, also monikered ‘Joyce and Murray’s off-the-grid escapade’. To keep it perfectly blunt, I don’t see the appeal in keeping Hopp alive. In truth, it seems the Duffers are too scared to kill anyone. And by ‘kill anyone’ I refer to the original ensemble, not fresh-off-the-press villain fodder force-fed into the fray with the sole purpose of tricking the audience into a false sense of insecurity. For a show that just now, in its fourth season, is starting to take risks, it seems regressive to reintroduce a character just to hamfist a subplot so completely disconnected from everything else happening in Hawkins and Lenora Hills, that they do not intersect at all.
Speaking of not intersecting, this episode, as effective and satisfying as it was in pushing the overarching narrative forward, had me wanting the original clique to stop meandering and get back together. Obviously it’s not as simple as a quick plane ride from Lenora Hills to Hawkins, but the introduction of even more subplots to follow, pushing certain characters even further apart geographically, left me more nervous than excited. It’s less about where the story’s headed and more about whether or not they’re biting off more than they can chew.
By the end of ‘The Monster and The Superhero’, Eleven is separated from Mike, thrust on a journey of self-discovery to regain her powers. Joyce and Murray fly from California to Alaska, then to Russia, in hopes of reuniting with and saving a now-captured Hopper. Where there was once a clear-cut trio of subplots, there are now five. Only time will tell whether or not the juggling act can effectively march onward.
Regarding the introduction of this seasons’ C story, what stumps me is how disconnected and anomalous it is from our A and B stories. Stranger Things typically operates in a territory of moderate predictability. More times than not, the story is foreseeable pretty well in advance. While this season retains the show’s standard measure of predictability, it doesn’t necessarily work opposite its favor. It may be predictable, but it’s not cliché. For example, one could safely assume El eventually regains her powers just in time for the war in Hawkins. What makes anyone think a team made up of Dustin, Max, Lucas, Robin, Steve, and Eddie have any chance against Vecna when they couldn’t even defeat a measly demogorgon without her intervention? While this seems likely, it doesn’t mean it’s not the best course of action the story could take. After all, the charisma and warmth of Stranger Things emanates not from its epic CGI-infused battles, nor does it originate from its ‘striking realism’ (wink). Instead, what keeps me passionate about this show is the love and friendship these unlikely heroes have culminated amongst themselves.
Regarding Hopper and everything going down in Russia, I’m left with the question of: what’s the endgame? Presumably, they rescue him, make a daring escape and a timely return to Lenora (or rather, Hawkins), integrating themselves with the A and B storylines, which at that point would form one, single subplot that drives us into the finale. What’s the point, though? There’s no net gain, story-wise. Instead, we retrace back to the emotional climax of season three. It feels redundantly passionless, derivative, and bland.
It was such a powerful moment at its loving realization. Two broken people, who, weathered by unmistakably complex demons in their pasts, were previously motivated by fear of abandonment, but in that moment, facing certain death, were simply afraid of losing one another. Through that fear, they saw each other. The places we’d met them in lost all relevance – Sheriff Hopper; Joyce the Crazed Pariah. The show had built up to that moment. They both acknowledged that one true sentiment, that one truth. The truth that stood clearly amidst the world that crumbled around them in dust and debris. Above that, most importantly, they made peace. In a sci-fi fantasy about a group of kids fighting mythical, Dungeons and Dragons-inspired creatures, it felt unmistakably human. Placed firmly at the tail-end of season three, which, in the grand scheme, left me wanting more, this moment stood as a testament to the caliber of Stranger Things at its best. And sure, it would have been a tough pill to swallow once the credits rolled, not being able to see what would have come of the newfound love, but the sacrifice would’ve given Hopper a relief in death that he hadn’t quite achieved in life. It would’ve left the audience with a poignant portrait of a man who lived in the darkness of his past, only to be liberated by the light of the woman he loved. It was an arc fitting of the drunkard we’d met in season one.
In the long run, keeping a finger on the trigger and hammering the nails in Hopper’s coffin would have sent a far more effective message storytelling-wise as opposed to what we’re currently left with: no one is safe. Especially since this season’s going for a darker-than-usual vibe, what’s darker than fearing for the life of your favorite character? It would’ve made the Max reveal at the end of the episode so much more satisfying. It would have truly begged the question of “is she next?” as opposed to “she may be next but don’t count on it, the Duffers would never”.
Before I go, I feel obligated to mention that everything discussed here could be rendered conjecture as we get further along in the season. At this point, the writers have impressed even the cynic in me, who, over time, has developed a raging adoration for the bittersweet. As long as this season pays as much respect to Hopp as it has in the past, and strays away from rendering the entire subplot a side-mission meant to keep Joyce and co. busy while the kids plot against Vecna, the optimist in me thinks, at the very least, we’ll be fine.