Series Review: Stranger Things – Season 4 (2022)

At long last! The fourth season of everyone’s favorite sci-fi/horror/coming-of-age series on Netflix has returned after a whopping three years (more in dog years and more still in Netflix-junkie years). And I’ll be the first to admit, the delays leading to that three-year gap came as something of a red flag for a series that has pretty much consistently declined in overall value thus far; the series is far from the “should-have-ended-after-one-season” drivel that attention-seeking Twitter fiends drool on about, but it remains one with a staggeringly-good first outing, a respectable follow-up, and, let’s face it, an ultimately disappointing third. Even aside from my slowly manifesting disinterest in a fourth effort, I found myself continuously anxious at MANY of the announcements as the release date edged closer: both the growing cast size (despite the abundance of existing characters) and the absurd episode lengths (for a season total of nearly 13 hours) suggested a naive, blind faith in the “mooore… MOOORE” complex we’ve seen so often working its charms on content-craving hoards of fans.

BUT… despite these reservations I let befoul my almost primitive “gimme gimme” excitement I felt after first binging the show’s previous three seasons a few years back, I FINALLY get to say that season four of Stranger Things exceeded my expectations. That’s not to say I don’t have my quibbles here and there, but generally, I thought this was a fantastic return-to-form for this beloved sponge of nostalgia. Set several months after the events of season three – which included the battle at Starcourt Mall (passed off as a “mall fire”), the supposed death of police chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour), very definite death of Billy Hargrove (Dacre Montgomery), and the apparent total loss of telekinetic powers for the wonder-girl Eleven (Millie Bobby-Brown) – we catch up with the town of Hawkins just as a new threat steps out of the shadows, one which will ultimately reinvent the series as a whole.

As is to be expected, this season reinforced the series’ most endearing and binge-inducing aspect… its merry band of characters. With anywhere between 15 and 30 of these faces to juggle at any given point, I thought the writers did a remarkable job giving most of them their due screen time and arcs. Still, when you consistently have four or five sub-plots on the burner at once, there is the occasional jab of script-neglect to one or two of them… this time around, the story of Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Will (Noah Schnapp), Johnathan (Charlie Heaton), and newcomer Argyle (Eduardo Franco) feels like it’s stuck on the back burner. Nevertheless, every other subplot is riveting.

In particular, I think the character of Max (Sadie Sink) is handled exceptionally. After the aforementioned death of her brother Billy, the writers have appropriately made the character and her trauma from the tragedy a huge focus this time around. Max’s grief is explored in a truly honest way, and it furthers the show’s empathetic grounding even in the midst of its fantastical sci-fi hooks. Sadie Sink is tremendous at supporting the extra focus given to her; she gives a subdued performance, often revealing just enough with sideways glances and tactfully-timed line delivery. You can tell she’s going for honesty over grandiosity, and it results in one of the best performances I’ve seen all year.

With its exploration of such mature themes and ideas, it’s only appropriate that this season should have an antagonist to match that energy. The villain we get, a mysterious creature from the Upside Down called Vecna (brought to life with practical effects), selectively hunts his victims like a boogeyman and slaughters them in a fashion not dissimilar to the girl from the Japanese horror staple Ringu. Compared to the series’ other big baddies, like the Demogorgon or the Mind Flayer, Vecna stands out as a much more characterized and memorable villain, while the aforementioned were more akin to hungry killing machines; it’s refreshing to not just get “a bigger monster” the fourth time around.

Needless to say, the ambitions are set high on pretty much all levels, and it goes to show that sometimes, more is more. If there’s one thing to take away from this season, it’s that Hawkins (and beyond) has never been more expansive or deep; it’s a testament to the writing to have a world that has grown so much since its humble D&D-club beginnings, and yet still manages to retread and reinvent itself in interesting and entertaining ways.

Even then, the series seems aware of its limitations. With the promotional material boasting one-liners like, “a war is coming,” tag-lines like, “every ending has a beginning,” and orchestral an arrangement of Journey’s “Separate Ways (Worlds Apart)” splicing the original track with a full orchestra, the beloved show is working its way towards a very, VERY epic conclusion (one we’ll get in season five). Several twisting and turning plots seamlessly converge for the spectacle of a season finale we’ve come to expect from this show, which I found satisfying despite being pretty cheesy and trope-heavy at times.

This season’s conclusion feels… different, though. Whereas the previous finales had a bit more closure, season four is less of a complete story and more an extended prelude for what will ultimately be the “epic conclusion” in the next outing. That’s not a knock, either; this might be the season with the largest impact on the entire series, and I think that’s much for the better. It did exactly what it was supposed to, because I, for one, cannot wait to see what happens next.

Overall rating: 8/10

Published by Jeremy Bader

Aspiring writer, film and music lover, drummer.

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