Stranger Things 4
The Indiana-set supernatural thriller series is back for a fourth season as the plucky kids, now all grown up, once again fight evil from the Upside Down.
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I’ll say this for the Duffer Brothers, creators of the “Stranger Things” Netflix series: they’re at least smart enough not to invent some new evil for a gaggle of intrepid Indiana kids to face off with every year. That would be rather amazing odds, even for the popular horror/fantasy show.
No, once again they are battling the various denizens of the Upside Down world in season four, the first one to air since 2019. That’s the parallel world of rot and decay, a shadowy reflection of our own where nefarious forces keep trying to encroach into the fictional town of Hawkins, Ind., and wreak havoc on the populace there — especially children and teens.
I adored the first season of “Stranger Things,” a mix of terror and itch-scratching 1980s nostalgia. The second year seemed too much a retread, and the third was a bit dizzying and and all over the map. Russians secretly building a laboratory underneath the local mall where they were trying to blast a hole into the Upside Down world?
And before you ask: yes, if you haven’t been watching the show, or the details just seem hazy, you’d better catch up on some episodes or at least Google up recap videos, because you will be lost without the refresher.
But “Stranger Things 4” seems imbued with renewed energy and a sense of old-school creeper vibes. At least through the first seven episodes, which is all Netflix is allowing critics to see at this point. Those will all be released on Friday May 27, with the final two coming out on July 1.
I think this is supposed to build anticipation, as well as giving slowpokes a chance to catch up before being inundated with spoilers.
I have also been supplied with dire warnings not to reveal any of the big plot points, which I will dutifully abide by. Frankly, there are so many that you could fill a whole article just listing them. This season’s storytelling veers all over the geographical and rhetorical map.
If you’ll remember from last go-round, superpowered mystery girl “El,” aka Jane (Millie Bobby Brown), who was revealed to have been the product of some evil cabal of scientists raising mutant children as weapons, had departed for California along with the Byers family — splitting up the gang and causing lingering tension. As episode one opens, it’s been a year since the events in season three.
El has not been doing well, having become the target of bullies due to her awkwardness. But she’s writing to her boyfriend, Mike (Finn Wolfhard), that things are going peachy. So when he and some of the other Hawkins crew comes for a visit, some nasty confrontations are about to unfold.
Back in Indiana, teens are being haunted by terrible waking dreams featuring a shadowy figure who comes to be known as Vecna, who has a tendency to crack and twist their bodies like brittle branches.
Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and the other nerds soon find themselves targeted owing to their love of playing Dungeons & Dragons in a group called the Hellfire Club, during a time when fantasy games were seen as the latest bogeymen warping youngster’s brains. Their dungeon master, an older outcast name Eddie Munson (Joseph Quinn), becomes the linchpin for these neurotic communal fears.
Max (Sadie Sink) appears to be in line to become Vecna’s next victim, so the gang rallies around her and searches for the newest gateway into the Upside Down. This includes smart do-gooder Nancy (Natalia Dyer), self-described ladies’ man Steve Harrington (Joe Keery) and his new pal, Robin (Maya Hawke), who worked with him at the mall food court, and becomes the latest add-on to the crew.
Meanwhile, fellow geek Lucas Sinclair (Caleb McLaughlin) has joined the basketball team and is tempted to switch teams to the cool kids, led by the squad captain who’s leading the vigilante effort against teen-killers.
And Joyce (Winona Ryder) and oddman ally Murray (Brett Gelman), team up for their own continent-hopping adventure that also supplies most of the comic relief, which may have something to do with the disappearance/presumed death of Hopper (David Harbour), Hawkins’ resident grumpy cop and adoptive dad of El.
Gosh, that’s a lot of names to keep track of, and I haven’t even included the various siblings, parents, helpful deadheads, G-men, scheming scientists and various other figures who factor into the season.
One thing the show is definitely suffering from is character sprawl. It started off with a core of likeable youngsters at the center, with various older youths and adults filling out the background. Then, subsequent seasons introduced new characters and worked to pump up the supporting characters with backstories and depth.
(How Ryder, whose character could have easily been written out of the series at least two seasons ago, continues to receive top billing is beyond baffling.)
Even more new folks show up in season four, and the result is episodes are festooned with “moving pieces” sequences where it feels like we’re just keeping tabs on folks. And, though the bloody violence rate is as high as ever, the show’s not killing them fast enough to keep up and the storytelling has gotten cluttered.
God bless “Game of Thrones,” where no single figure was ever too big to finis.
Will (Noah Schnapp), the sensitive kid who was the central target of the evil in the first two seasons, in particular seems lost in the shuffle. Meanwhile, Max, the tough and surly girl from the wrong side of the tracks, is repositioned as the emotional center of the show.
So far, each episode is clocking in around 75 minutes, or about one-third longer than season 1’s average. It’s reported that the final episode alone is 2½ hours long
Still, even if the season is a bit chaotic the energy level never flags. Everything moves at a fast clip as we dive even deeper into the mythology surrounding the Upside Down and why it’s linked to Hawkins. Vecna is a seriously terrifying villain whose own origins are explored, and El’s time as a lab rat gets dug into through a series of experiments-slash-flashbacks involving “Papa,” an icy scientist played by Matthew Modine.
I’m hoping the last two episodes will stitch all these many stray threads into a satisfying outcome to the landmark scary series. Based on what I’ve seen, “Stranger Things 4” is a welcome return to the thrills that first made the show such a hit.