SPOILERS! LOTS AND LOTS OF SPOILERS!
And now back to our regularly scheduled programming, folks.
So Netflix and the Duffer Brothers dropped Season 3 of Stranger Things just over a week ago. Like the fans we are, America gobbled it up, and now our conversations are about what’s next.
This, to me, is the great tragedy of binge culture.
There are so many more interesting conversations we could be having. What about Billy’s moment of redemption? What about El’s loss of her powers? What about all those goodbyes and especially Hopper’s letter?
Can we talk about how underneath all that toxic masculinity there is just a human being, aching to get out and connect and simply feel things?
Isn’t that beautiful?
And can we please, please, please have more conversations about Erica? That character was written for Bruce Willis at the top of his Die Hard game (check out those lines, kids—from “I don’t have phobias” to “A deadly weapon. Could be useful” to “Listen, Mr. Bunman. I’m not trying to tell you how to do things, but I’ve been down in that shithole for 24 hours. And with all due respect, you do what this man tells you, you’re all gonna die”). You see what I mean. Bruce Willis. And they gave it to a ten-year-old black girl. Can we not all take a breath and appreciate the brilliance of that casting and writing, along with Priah Ferguson’s superb performance?
I mean, it is time for a remake of ALL ’80s action movies with Erica in the leading role.
Those are not the conversations we’re having.
What IS getting talked about is the post-credits scene.
And that sucks.
The Duffer Brothers just pulled off the best season yet of a wildly popular, rip-roaring, crowd-pleasing, yet deeply moving show that is solidly genre (sci-fi/horror). Somehow, we can all get behind this weird-little-show-that-could.
But we can’t seem to appreciate what we have. We want more.
And I blame the post-credits scene for that. Specifically, the misuse of the post-credits scene.
So, a little background. One of the first post-credits scenes in American cinema appeared in 1979 after The Muppet Movie. It was a gag. A droll prank on the audience, complete with Animal screaming at us to go home already.
Post-credits scenes continued, for a long time, to either tie up loose ends between minor characters or to play a joke on the audience.
Action film franchises, though, switched this up. Post-credits scenes, instead of an experiment with form and audience patience, became just another marketing tool. From the Matrix franchise to Marvel, post-credits scenes have become pitches to the audience for the next chapter in a story.
I have no problem with this as long as it’s done well.
And Marvel does it well. Note how after Avengers: Endgame, Marvel left us alone. They didn’t try to sell us anything. They understood that a lot of us were grieving the loss of three characters we had loved and followed for years.
They respected that.
They let us feel it.
Not so with Netflix. Or the Duffer Brothers. Or whoever’s damn fault that godawful scene was after the end of Stranger Things Season 3.
I was still wiping the tears away when the words “Kamchatka, Russia” flashed onto the screen. And I was asked to set aside my grief over Hopper, my sadness for Joyce Byers, my ache for El’s immense loss, and my ongoing grief about Alexei (yes, we need to talk about that, too). I was supposed to stop feeling all of that, gape at a gulag I’d never seen before, feel curious about an unnamed American we never see, and what? Feel sad that a Russian prisoner was fed to a demogorgon?
I mean, of course he was.
Do none of you know what goes on in Russian gulags?
That scene was a cheap trick.
Season 3 was beautiful and moving and fun, and I wanted to enjoy the feelings it left me with for more than TWO MINUTES. The actual final scene was the perfect place to leave our characters. If there is never another season of Stranger Things, I couldn’t ask for a better ending.
We don’t need the artistic equivalent of a robocall, especially at the pinnacle of a great show.
That is just sleaze to the nth degree.
Here’s the problem: the Duffer Brothers gave us a plot, but Netflix is trying to sell it like a story because stories make money off stupid people.
E.M. Forster, who was a much more generous and eloquent writer than I am, wrote that:
The story is primitive … and it appeals to what is primitive in us. That is why we are so unreasonable over the stories we like… Intolerance is the atmosphere stories generate. … The primitive audience was an audience of shock-heads, gaping round the fire, fatigued with contending against the mammoth or the woolly rhinoceros, and only kept awake by suspense. What would happen next?
I understand the instinct to know what happens next. We all have it. We all love having our curiosity piqued.
But artists who are good with character, as the Duffer Brothers are, make us care about the people we are curious about. And that beats out any amount of what’s next. Stranger Things has engaged more than our primitive curiosity. It has also engaged our intellect, our memory, and—as Hopper was finally able to say through pen and paper—our feelings.
There is absolutely no more powerful way to lock down your audience. We are invested, and we don’t need a post-credits scene interrupting those feelings to stay invested.
So please, if you are in the business of story and plot and audience, recognize that the relationship between viewer and character is sacrosanct. That feeling is exactly what you are selling us.
So don’t sell us short.