Netflix’s most popular ongoing series’ latest season affirms the show’s strengths and weaknesses.
It’s difficult to recall how sneakily Stranger Things came upon us on July 15, 2016. Like so many Netflix releases, the stream launched the series with surprisingly little effort to grab people’s attention. However, throughout that summer weekend, the buzz quickly built to a roar. By the end of July, the show had become Netflix’s hottest property. Six years later, it is the streamer’s flagship title.
Thus, Season 4 needs to not just live up to the accomplishments of previous seasons. It has to equal the hype and expectations that come with being number one. The good news is that much of this season captures what people appreciate about the show. The bad news is it also struggles with much of what has disappointed viewers.
The show’s ongoing insistence on separating the characters from each other is this season’s biggest demerit. Amongst the best things about the show is the interplay between the characters. It’s what sold fans on season 1. While the call sheet has grown since, the chemistry remains Stranger Things’ biggest asset. Breaking the cast into small pods where three characters investigate this aspect of the supernatural on one side of Hawkins while the rest go to the video store is not the issue here. Instead, those are good opportunities to highlight existing relationships or build new ones. For example, it’s how the show developed Steve (Joe Keery) and Dustin’s (Gaten Matarazzo) friendship. That’s a move that made both characters better as a result.
The issue here is geographical splits that keep portions of the cast entirely separated for most of the season. Characters like Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), Will (Noah Schnapp), Mike (Finn Wolfhard), and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) are some 2,000 miles away in California. Meanwhile Joyce (Winona Ryder) and Murray (Brett Gelman) are globetrotting on their own mission. Their quests being largely devoid of the supernatural while dwelling in the land of government conspiracies do not help matters. Viewers upset with a certain Cold War power’s treatment last season will find plenty more to complain about here. Add in a shadowy organization within the government that makes all previous Stranger Things shadowy organizations seem downright realistic by comparison and things only get worse.
Things in Hawkins are far better. For one, the separations are more of the pod variety mentioned above or based on actual consequences from previous seasons. Only Lucas’s (Caleb McLaughlin) new role with the basketball team feels especially manufactured. The show never slows down enough to sell us on his split loyalties. Nor does it explain why the basketball team members never seem to go home. On the other hand, McLaughlin does well–and does it largely without words–selling the pain of his situation. He desperately wants his friends to support his new interest, but they can’t seem to stop thinking about themselves long enough to notice.
For another, Hawkins is where the storylines that bring viewers back to Stranger Things unfold. The series’ most active and thoughtful supernatural threat yet, Vecna—who looks a bit like a less beefy greyish version of Swamp Thing—wastes no time in making his presence known. That said, the show wisely teases out who or what Vecna is. Most viewers will get how the creature chooses victims almost immediately, but that’s a minor revelation. There’s plenty more going on with this antagonist. After the mindless brutish Demogorgons and the crafty but unspeaking Mindslayer, Vecna feels like a smart break with formula that revitalizes the format without breaking what works.
[Season 4 monster] Vecna feels like a smart break with formula that revitalizes the format without breaking what works.
Hawkins is also where the Duffer Brothers and their writing team—including returning scribes Paul Dichter and Kate Trefry and new addition Caitlin Schneiderhan—catch the show’s best metaphor to date. Jason Carver (Mason Dye), the basketball team’s captain, quickly establishes himself as the kind of person who invokes God’s role in winning basketball games and means it. After Vecna’s first acts, Jason begins to rally the citizens behind the idea that the Devil himself is cursing Hawkins. And what better vessel of possession could there be in the 80s than, of course, Dungeons and Dragons.
Satanic Panic was certainly all the rage when in the 80s, so this element makes perfect sense in context. However, it also painfully echoes the present, where Q-Anon conspiracies of child molestation rings run wild. Where certain sects of Americans call their neighbors baby killers, not as a rhetorical device but because they genuinely believe that about their fellow citizens. The residents of Hawkins finding themselves moved to this viewpoint by a teenager feels like a sly joke on the part of the Duffers. Dye definitely sells the role. He has the energy of a young Tom Cruise if Cruise ever combined the hustler slickness of his early 20s with his demented Taps character.
The returning cast proves strong, too. Heaton seems the most off in the early going, but there are story explanations—including a burgeoning interest in THC—that at least partially explain why. Maya Hawkes, such a delight in Season 3, fully comes into her own as Robin. Her inclusion in the group also gives Nancy (Natalia Dyer) a similar age woman to play off. That’s something that hasn’t happened since season 1 and Dyer’s performance is better for it. This season is also Max’s (Sadie Sink) biggest showcase to date. Actually, that’s probably the biggest story of this season.
The show may have begun as a tale of four tween boys and the arrival of a supernatural girl Eleven. However, even Eleven seems to take a back seat to Nancy, Steve, Max, and Robin in this season. The quartet does an excellent job with the focus, so, on that basis alone, the show doesn’t suffer. However, there is a sadness in arriving at the end of this portion of Season 4 (two more episodes are set to air in July) and seeing separated and peripheral the characters first came to love are in this narrative. Big success has let Stranger Things go much bigger, and that’s great for the show in many ways. In others, though, it feels like it pushed the series ahead of its leads before anyone got a chance to say goodbye.
Stranger Things Season 4 hops on its bike May 27 on Netflix.