Stranger Things Season 4 is the gift that keeps on giving: “Running Up That Hill” is now a Zoomer anthem; Eddie Munson has taken over TikTok; insufferable practical effects nerds like me received the gift of Vecna; we weren’t subjected to that many Will and Mike scenes. It’s an embarrassment of riches. But I don’t want to talk about any of that. I want to talk about something miserable instead: Star Wars.
The Elephant In The Room
Living in a post-sequel trilogy world, Star Wars is generally the last thing I want to talk about. Religion, politics, anything but Rey and Luke and Palpatine. So it made me worried when the Star Wars references started popping up in Stranger Things Season 4. As Eleven started following along in Luke Skywalker’s footsteps, I got nervous she’d be led astray.
I didn’t have to worry. The Duffer Brothers have made 80s nostalgia for eight years now, and they’re getting pretty dang good at it. Rare, in a world of non-stop shameless nostalgia baiting, Stranger Things‘ homage to the Empire Strikes Back elevated Season 4 beyond where I expected it to go.
It’s no big secret that the Duffer Brothers feel a bit of nostalgia for 80s genre movies. When Stranger Things hit the scene, waves of geriatric millennials and Gen Xers rolled their eyes at this seemingly pale reflection of their childhood favorites. But the Duffer Brothers haven’t retreated from the criticism that their show relies too much on 80s references. If anything, they’ve doubled down.
In Stranger Things Season 4, they dove deeper than ever into homage, and the show has never been better for it. While earlier seasons relied mainly on Spielberg, Carpenter, and King for their inspiration, the Duffers finally decided to go full Star Wars in Season 4—and they weren’t exactly subtle about it.
You don’t have to be a pop culture historian to clock Murray’s “I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” or Dr. Owens telling Eleven, “You’re our only hope!” The Duffers aren’t trying to hide the fact that this is a Star Wars season. But it’s not just window dressing, either. In a world where seemingly every new movie brims with empty “fan service” void of any narrative purpose, the Duffers managed to avoid the cliche. Instead, they stitched their nostalgia into the narrative fabric of the show.
Subtlety is dead, and the Duffers made the Eleven/Luke Skywalker connection abundantly clear. She’s a “chosen one” with immense yet hard-to-define powers. She must face a tall, dark, gravelly-voiced monster who has similar powers—only he’s mastered them. When Vecna is first introduced, we don’t see him, instead only hearing a pained wheezing echoing down a hallway.
Vecna. Vader. I think I see the connection here… As I said, subtlety is dead. But the deeper you dig, the more the Eleven/Luke connection grows.
Eleven isn’t the first hero to mirror Luke Skywalker’s Empire arc, and she certainly won’t be the last. She has to go to an isolated place to train her powers with a wise mentor (though I’d much prefer Yoda to Papa, personally). Though she didn’t end up in a swamp, the Tattoine-esque Nevada desert subs in nicely.
This is also the setting for her greatest Jedi moment: The helicopter she ripped out of the air above the NINA Project might as well have been a Tie Fighter.
Luke, You Are My Father
Like Luke, Eleven learns that her friends are in danger. Her mentor warns her it’s a trap and demands she stay, but she ends up going anyway—straight into Vader, I mean, Vecna’s clutches. It’s the climax of Empire and the climax of Season 4, but this is where Eleven and Luke’s stories diverge.
“I am your father.” It’s one of the most famous moments in pop culture history. The demon who had been haunting Luke had been his father—his creator—all along. But after mirroring Luke’s arc up to this point, here is where the Duffers flipped it on its head. Vecna didn’t create Eleven—she created him. The Demogorgon, the Mind Flayer, Vecna: They’re all her fault.
Eleven may mirror Luke in a myriad of ways, but the Duffers have made sure that she’s still her own character, and her struggle is her own. Their love of Star Wars didn’t make them lose sight of her.
Nostalgia is a very fine line to tread. At its worst, it’s not just lazy and hollow, but manipulative. If you use it without any point, it’s more likely to conjure eye-rolls than anything else. But Stranger Things was born out of 80s nostalgia, and the Duffer Brothers refused to let it go. Instead, in Season 4, they hammered that nostalgia even deeper into the fiber of the show, and the results were better than ever.