COMMENTARY

How to fix "Stranger Things" for its fifth and final season

Like Will, Mike and Jonathan, the Netflix show desperately needs a trim

Published July 7, 2022 6:00PM (EDT)

Millie Bobby Brown as  Eleven in "Stranger Things" (Courtesy of Netflix)
Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven in "Stranger Things" (Courtesy of Netflix)

The fourth season of "Stranger Things" ended with a bang – a reported more than 1 billion hours of viewing – and a whimper: the telltale dust of the Upside Down drifting gently upon the town of Hawkins like delicate ash from a ruptured volcano. It was not Mount St. Helens that blew, but a gash that appeared in the earth, rending the real world and allowing that monster-y dimension, the Upside Down, more entry. 

But not everyone was impressed. Critics and viewers alike found this season of the Netflix show at times thrilling, and at other times, a very frustrating watch.  

Beloved characters seemed to behave out of character. The show fell back upon old, easy habits, and brought back Hopper from the dead (or, the USSR) for no real reason other than to show he's buff? Like Will, Mike and Jonathan, the story needs a haircut, desperately (listen: some of us lived through the '80s, and sure the hair was big but it was never that bad). How can "Stranger Things" be fixed for its fifth — and allegedly final — season?   

We have a few suggestions

RELATED: The lure of "Stranger Things"? It's not the '80s – it's forgotten childhood freedom

Get rid of the love triangle early

Stranger ThingsJoe Keery as Steve Harrington, Natalia Dyer as Nancy Wheeler and Maya Hawke as Robin Buckley in "Stranger Things" (Courtesy of Netflix)Start with the trim. A maddening part of this season was how, especially initially, closely bonded characters seem inexplicably angry with each other. This manufactured drama includes the relationship between (real-life couple) Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), which has somehow derailed. Now in California, Jonathan is smoking a lot of pot and wants to go to community college, not college with ever-uptight Nancy. Long distance is always hard, but the destruction of Jonathan's character is disappointing. 

"Stranger Things" loves to make martyrs of its men.

Enter redeemed Steve (Joe Keery). He's changed from the popular boy bully of Season 1. He's great with kids. He's saved the world. A lot. And maybe he's finally mature enough for Nancy. But is that really what fans want? "Stranger Things" loves to make martyrs of its men, and Steve appeared to be in danger this season (I sent my tween son, a Steve fan, a meme that read: "If Steve dies, we ride at dawn"). It's gratifying he was spared, but the stringing along of his maybe getting back together with Nancy is grating. 

Of all the characters, Nancy has the most romantic tension with Robin (Maya Hawke). Whatever happens, put us out of our misery early, please. 

Handle Will's coming-out in a thoughtful way

Stranger ThingsFinn Wolfhard as Mike Wheeler and Noah Schnapp as Will Byers in "Stranger Things" (Ursula Coyote/Netflix)In another stringing along news, is Will gay? "Stranger Things" wants to have it both ways, queerbaiting with the young character, coded as a "sensitive" boy and seen by the others as different, especially since surviving the trauma of the Upside Down, but the show does not directly address . . . anything. 

Given the time, it's understandable that Will (Noah Schnapp) might not have role models or support, but the show's scene of him sort-of disclosing to his brother Jonathan, who is nothing but loving and accepting, feels antiquated. What would be best for young viewers who might be questioning their identity as well as best for the character himself is for the show to be clear. Even if Will has to stay closeted for his own safety, "Stranger Things" doesn't have to dance around queerness. That makes it feel shameful. 

If Will does come out to his friends, we can only hope the show handles it sensitively and thoughtfully.

Where'd the bullies go?

Stranger ThingsNatalia Dyer as Nanacy Wheeler and Mason Dye as Jason Carver in "Stranger Things" (Courtesy of Netflix)Some major threads were dropped this season, including the Satanic panic that gripped Hawkins like Saskatchewan, Canada in the early 1990s, and the ones who took up the torches and pitchforks of the misdirected, moral outrage: the high school jocks. Led by wealthy Jason (Mason Dye), the boyfriend of the murdered Chrissy, the athletes have made the Hawkins outcast kids their target, specifically obsessed with their Dungeons & Dragons group, the Hellfire Club. 

By repeatedly introducing new characters only to kill them, the story can suffer from low stakes.

But with the leader of that club now tragically dead, along with the leader of the jocks, will the bullies stop? There are few things scarier than a white American boy who believes he's been wronged, and a scene where one of the jocks pins down Erika (Priah Ferguson), a very young Black girl, is distressing. So is the fact that the scene is not returned to for some time.

Erika escapes, but what happens to the rest of the team? Will they continue to seek vengeance in Season 5? Or are they just going to State and pledging Beta?

More screen time

Stranger ThingsEduardo Franco as Argyle in "Stranger Things" (Courtesy of Ursula Coyote/Netflix)"Stranger Things" has done a good job each season of introducing new characters. It's not easy for an established friend group to expand, but the kids of Hawkins and the viewers of the show have welcomed the newcomers with open arms. This season, we have Argyle (Eduardo Franco) the most adorable stoner to ever mess up your pizza order, and equally lovable Eddie (Joseph Quinn), the metalhead with a heart of gold. 

Argyle in particular did not get enough screen time. At the close of the second half of the season, the main characters line up on the hillside in a kind of "Red Dawn" tableau except for Argyle who . . . is picking mushrooms in the woods? This pizza boy deserves better. He's a nurturer, after all. When Will, Jonathan, Mike and Eleven plan her attack, he sets immediately to work cooking a pizza to give them strength. And that's essential care. 

Have consequences

Joseph Quinn as Eddie Munson in "Stranger Things" (Netflix)Eddie met a tragic end this season. One of the characters was bound to, and yet by repeatedly introducing new characters only to kill them off (RIP Barb, Bob and Billy), the story can suffer from low stakes. A thrilling aspect of shows like "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Peaky Blinders" was that any character, including a major one, could be killed off at any time (some: more than once, like Buffy). I held off watching the last few moments of "Peaky Blinders" because I so feared Thomas Shelby wouldn't make it. 

The secret weapon of "Stranger Things" is not secret anymore. Nor is it particularly interesting.

"Stranger Things" lacks that kind of investment. We were worried about Steve, but we also knew it wouldn't go there. For the show to really make an impact, it's going to have to go there. It can't just keep bringing people back (as wonderful as David Harbour is). A pattern the story has fallen into the last couple seasons is to introduce new "bad" men like Billy and Eddie, redeem them, then kill them. As moral arcs go, it's rather obvious. 

It makes the most sense, story-wise, for Will to be the death of the final season. He may have escaped Vecna from the very beginning (remember how he sang "Should I Stay or Should I Go?" over and over — and music repels One?). He was the first to go into the Upside Down; he might be the last. 

The danger of having Will die is that this lands squarely in the "bury your gays" trope, an outdated and overused device where queer characters are killed, particularly if they've found love, peace or happiness. 

Another idea? Max.

Sadie Sink in "Stranger Things" (Courtesy of Netflix © 2022)

No battle came close to Max's war.

Max (Sadie Sink) ends Season 4 in a coma, the half-hearted way to off a character. Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) stepping into her mind and finding only dark, wet nothingness may indicate Max won't come back. But that doesn't seem like the Duffer Brothers' style. It seems far more likely that Max will wake up, and make some kind of monster contact while she's in her "A Nightmare on Elm Street" dream warrior state.

We don't need another hero

Stranger ThingsMillie Bobby Brown as Eleven in "Stranger Things" (Netflix)The last suggestion for the final season of "Stranger Things"? Eleven needs to stop being the inevitable hero.

At first, it was surprising and moving: this tiny, abused little girl standing up to big bullies, overpowering them. But it's not a surprise anymore. Eleven has powers. Frustratingly, her powers keep changing, almost as inconsistently as her sentence construction. (She can heal or resurrect people now?)

When you have a superhero who can end every battle, the tension dries up like that swimming pool in the Upside Down. The secret weapon of "Stranger Things" is not secret anymore. Nor is it particularly interesting.

What would be much more interesting is if a character like Max rises to take Eleven's place as the closer. A person without superhero augmentation, without powers beyond inner strength, love and her friends. The best part of this season of "Stranger Things" was, unquestionably, Max escaping Vecna. That overwhelming emotion was missing from the last half of the season. No battle came close to Max's war.


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Sure, Eleven doesn't exactly win at the end of Season 4. But she doesn't exactly lose either: all her old friends are alive, if in danger. If "Stranger Things" doesn't explore Eleven really losing, it's missing a huge opportunity, as it is if the story doesn't do more with a complex and compelling character like Max.

To close out this dark fable of childhood, we don't need another hero. At least, not of the "super" variety. We need a human girl, a survivor, kicking ass. 

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By Alison Stine

Alison Stine is a staff writer at Salon. She is the author of the novels "Trashlands" and "Road Out of Winter," winner of the 2021 Philip K. Dick Award. A recipient of an Individual Artist Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), she has written for The New York Times, The Guardian, and others.

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