It took a while, but the new season of Stranger Things is out, or at least the first half of it. It’s pretty good, though the longer episode lengths (around 70 minutes a pop) plus the geographically scattered characters does mean the plot plods in places, but when it gets going it’s still a lot of fun. I’m looking forwards to the back half of this season and can’t help but wonder how it all ties up in the next.
Assuming, of course, the show doesn’t buckle under the weight of its own mythology.
Stranger Things started out as a relatively small genre story with its hook of weirdness: There’s this mysterious Upside Down version of our world inhabited by the evil Demogorgon. Connected to it is the telepathic Eleven, an experiment-gone-rogue from the local secret lab. It’s a wonderfully streamlined affair: each aspect of the fantastical mystery ties into the characters’ journeys, with each of the main three plots tackling a different part of it.
But, of course, more seasons happened and the world got bigger. We got Demodogs, we got a Mind Flayer, we got Soviets. It’s fun! But now there are a lot more pieces in play and anything that happens has to synergies with what’s already happened. If we had Soviets last season, they need to come back, yeah? Mind Flayer’s the big bad, but we need a good baddie for this season, but we gotta explain why they weren’t in the last three seasons. Plus, plot points introduced in prior seasons have to be continued; we can’t just ignore certain elements that we spent ages building up.
To Stranger Things’ credit, the show does do a solid job of keeping its mythology explained, even if it does result in some of that aforementioned plodding plots. It also neither gets too convoluted nor contrived with explaining things; the show does the work to make it make sense enough without cheapening the audience’s experience.
It’s all a balancing act and as stories and worlds get bigger it gets harder and harder to hold everything together. Kingdom Hearts’ final installment tried to unite its disparate parts and ended up in a borderline indecipherable jumble. Lost jettisoned much of its focus on lore in favor of honing in on its characters, something that very much worked for me. As Stranger Things moves towards its conclusion, and as its tidy genre story has blown up into a globetrotting adventure, the hope is that it doesn’t collapse under its own weight as it tries to bring everything back together. And hey, the first chunk of Season 4 affords me a measure of confidence that they’re doing things well, so I’m along for the ride.