We Need to Talk About the Other Curse of Stranger Things

Lucas Dustin Max on Couch police
Stranger Things S4 – “There really is nothing like it!”

Spoilers for Stranger Things Seasons 1-4. Read at your own peril!

With the much-anticipated release of Stranger Things Season 4 Volume 2, fans got a whopping additional 4+ hours last Friday to call out of work, make themed mixed drinks, order some Surfer Boy Pizza, and conclude the second-to-last season of this cultural juggernaut. From the increased stakes of Vecna’s horrible curse, to the wild emotional beats of Max Mayfield, even the lore-heavy adventures of Eleven, Season 4 provided a myriad of exciting plotlines to explore. It’s safe to say that Season 4 did not disappoint, and we’re all excited for not only a gripping conclusion to the series, but a spin-off as well (keep up the good work, Duffer Brothers!).

There is, however, one thing about Season 4 – and Stranger Things as a whole – that I feel needs addressing. And, no, it’s not a rehashed discussion about that embarrassingly bad Season 2 Episode 7 (Eleven’s Adventures with the Funky Bunch). There’s something we’ve all been aware of since Season 1 that Stranger Things employs to its wild success… until it becomes its failure. You’ve likely talked about it online in group chats or on social media, maybe at the proverbial water-cooler that every job has (but I’ve never seen, so I like to imagine it doesn’t exist).

Stranger Things teaches us a lot of things about film-making and editing, as well as narrative expectations. Perhaps this is why Season 2 Episode 7 is so jarring (we just can’t get away from it!). Nearly every episode of the show ends in the middle of a scene, which encourages the audience to immediately start the next episode. You may not know this is what’s happening, but it’s a clever trick employed to make the show feel like a classic magazine serial where each chapter ends on an intense cliff-hanger or with incomplete narrative details. Stranger Things is teaching you how to watch itself, which helps it undermine or subvert expectations creating increased tension, thrills, and surprises. But, there’s one thing we’ve all been taught since its first season that’s led to white-knuckling, toe-curling sequences that you didn’t even realize were that intense, not until you realized it was too late to remember.

I’m, of course, talking about “The Curse of the Favorite Character”.

Stranger Things Vecna House

First, let’s explain the curse, then propose examples, and finally conclude with why this curse may need it’s own “Running Up That Hill”.

“The Curse of the Favorite Character” is extremely easy to summarize. Every show has a favorite character. Yes, we may fall in love with every character to some degree, and by the end we’re panicked at all times because they’re all at risk of death (unless it’s a show like Gilmore Girls. Then, I guess, you’re just worried what college Rory will attend). I was inclined to say that this is what happened to me while watching Season 2 of MTV’s Scream. That, by this point, I had fallen in love with every single character to equal degrees that I didn’t want any of them to die. Yes, I didn’t want anyone to die, but I did have a favorite. It was Noah. We were a Noah household. Noah was and is and forever will be innocent and every time he was in danger, my wife and I would lose it.

Stranger Things has a similar pension. At some point the audience will fall in love with every character. This is what excellent writing does. And there’s only really one instance where wanting a character to die is exemplary of good writing, and that’s a character built to die. Say, horny, selfish teenagers in a slasher flick, or that one character whose building schadenfreude with every line of dialogue. You can’t wait for them to get what’s comin’! It’s a safe bet to assume any other character you want to die outside of that parameter is because they’re annoying, and even Dr. Brenner doesn’t produce that feeling in me. I like every character in Stranger Things.

Now, imagine every season of a show there was a Noah. Every season of a show has this character that becomes a seasonal, cultural icon. People resonate with this character, or they simply love them. Stranger Things brilliantly has a Noah with each new season and every time they hit it out of the park. Although these characters may not be your favorites, there’s no denying their degree of online engagement is infectious, if at least palpable. For Season 1, it’s Barb. Season 2, Bob. Season 3, Alexei. Season 4, Eddie. Each character stands out on their own, has a presence, is undeniably charming, and instantly memorable. In many ways, these characters transcend their initial expectations, all following a precedent started by their predecessor; Barb. Each character is largely introduced as a hard side-character who slowly develops into something more important or pivotal to either fan engagement or the plot-line itself.

But, each character has something else in common. They’re all cursed. Each and every one of them. They’re subjected to something even more elusive than Vecna’s curse. The aforementioned “Curse of the Favorite Character”! They all die!!

Stranger Things S1-3 Retrospective

No matter what these characters do, they die. This isn’t like a choose-your-own-adventure video game. This isn’t Bandersnatch! Whether you watch the show or not, they’re dead dead dead, and there’s nothing we can do about it. It’s all well and good that Season One started a hashtag trend in #JusticeForBarb but what did it do? Nothing. She’s dead! Eviscerated by a Demogorgon and consumed by the endless tendrils of The Upside-Down! And Bob? Sorry! Demodogs got him! He’s even gotten verbed! People panicked about other characters saying, “I hope they don’t get Bob’d.” thanks to his unceremonious, statue-esque death. I mean, goodness, all he had to do was keep running, or they could have let a Demodog at least catch-up to him naturally if the Duffer Brothers were so committed to his demise. And Alexei? The only man to ever deserve capitalism? So svidaniya! Good luck in the afterlife! Hopefully they’ll have Slurpee’s where you’re going!

This all leads us to Eddie Munson, Season 4’s breakout character. You can’t even find his drip anywhere. That Hellfire Club raglan is on backorder to August and you’re lucky to find one for cheap on the aftermarket. Dungeon’s and Dragon’s is back on the menu at a premium, and we’re living in a world of endless cool. Oh, wait, that is until Eddie sacrifices himself by breaking the one rule we all knew set his fate in stone: “Don’t be a hero!”.

As Eddie severs the trailer tether between worlds, my wife audibly goes, “Come on!!”. And, not in a fun, audience way. No, this wasn’t like watching a Marvel or blockbuster at the theater. This was more like a pleaded “No!” to the writers, not the character. And as Eddie fends off Demobats till his last dying breath, my wife and I aren’t left white-knuckling or toe-curling at all. We’re mostly just annoyed.

Eddie Munson Devil Horns Hellfire Club shirt

It is deeply important for a story to have stakes. There needs to be cost, whether it be actual life or dramatic investment. Otherwise, we might as well turn on the Cocomelon and zone out. Heck, I don’t even think kids are doing that. Let’s go a step further. Let’s just all collectively buy iPads, search “Kinder Egg SURPRISE” on YouTube and let the auto-play rot your brain. It’s okay, Pregnant Elsa Spider-Man Feet Surgery isn’t real. It can’t hurt you.

No, there needs to be cost. That’s what makes storytelling exciting and memorable. That’s, ultimately, what makes Season 4 Episode 4 the breakout hit of Stranger Things. We all genuinely were convinced Max Mayfield was going to die. From tonal inclinations (writing goodbye letters) to atmospheric ques (“for whom the bell tolls”), there wasn’t a single person watching that episode that thought she was going to make it (unless you were spoiled by meme-templates). But, the difference between a character like Max dying and Eddie is that, while Max is an extreme favorite of the show, and definitely becomes one of the strongest entries for watching the series at all, there’s something different about characters like Barb, Bob, Alexei, and Eddie that isn’t quite the same. Maybe it’s their short span with the series (less than 50% of the runtime for each season), maybe it’s their innocent qualities (they really don’t know anything that’s happening at Hawkins until it’s too late!), or maybe it’s just the unique fan-appeal supporting characters receive, there truly is something different about the cost of a lead character like Max or any one of these supporting characters.

Is this just silly-ness? I don’t think so. I was honest in celebrating the Duffer Brothers excellence in character building. In both episodes of our podcast on Stranger Things, both Daniel and I assert the most powerful trait in the Stranger Things library is its brilliant, fully-realized characters. Their prowess for fiction is intensely durable. But, something about Season 4 hit different. When Alexei died, it was sad but my wife and I had a good laugh. “We should have known better!” I said, “He was our favorite! So innocent! So pure!”. But, when Eddie bought the farm, it wasn’t the same. “We should have known better.” I decried, “We willed his death into existence.”.

I understand that Season Five will be playing with a completely different set of rules. Not only does the finale of Season Four end unlike any other season – what-with incomplete story threads and outright feeling more like the middle of a film than the climax to one – but it will be, so far, the last season of Stranger Things. That means everyone’s at risk. Oh, your favorite character is Mr. Wheeler? Sorry pal. He’s toast. But, like the Gears of War franchise, just because a character’s name is Carmine doesn’t mean they need to die each game. By the time Gears of War 3 came out, and it was up to fans to decide the fate of Clayton Carmine, we made our voices heard: let the man live!! And to this day he’s still an exciting, fun, and excellent continued character to the franchise, even if he is a big dork. Grub-killer and all.

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Melvin Benson Cinematic Doctrine Christian Movie Podcast Host

Melvin Benson is the Founder, Editor-In-Chief, and Lead Host of Cinematic Doctrine. He’s written fiction and nonfiction for over a decade with short stories featured on the Creepypasta Wiki and Wattpad. His novelette Ethereal Temptation, a teen drama with a tinge of magical-realism, can be read for free here. His hope is to see King Jesus glorified as far as the east is from the west!

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