Once again, Matt and Ross Duffer are back to pay glorious homage to the campy, fun of 1980s’ horror films. The last time we caught up with Mike, El and friends, they had seemingly ended the threat of the Upside-Down with the defeat of the Mind Flayer. Though, it came at a traumatic cost for some, which we’ll be sure discuss. Dacre Montgomery’s Billy Hargrove made for a deeply compelling, and ultimately sympathetic, villain for the third season. One that definitely struck an emotional cord with fans, addressing issues of familial trauma, self-identity and parenthood. It brought a good blend of catharsis and closure along with some heart-wrenching losses.
Safe for a loose plot thread or two, we felt that the series could have ended there on a bittersweet note. You know, quit while you’re ahead. So when we heard the show was making a comeback this year, we approached this season with a certain amount of trepidation. Could the Duffer’s nostalgia train be running out of steam? The answer is a deafening Demogorgon-roaring no! “Stranger Things” is back with a bold new direction, a more mature narrative and genuinely unnerving scares!
In case you didn’t know, the Duffers have decided to split this season into two volumes with the first one consisting of seven episodes and the second volume concluding the season with two. Not unlike “Money Heist” or “Better Call Saul”. Is it a creative choice we love? Well, no but we will say that it does make perfect narrative sense. Mostly due to the fact that this season is dramatically heavy.
For real, there are so many character conflicts and developments happening at the same time, it feels like we need a breather. From Max’s trauma with Billy’s death to El painfully failing to adjust to normalcy to Mike and Dustin feeling like they’re losing Lucas to the Jock Side of the Force. In this season, the tone feels a little less like “The Goonies” and more like “The Breakfast Club”. Believe or not, writing teens is not easy. More often than not, characters quickly devolve into angsty, horny caricatures spouting cringe-inducing dialogue.
With the benefit of strong creative control though, the Duffer Brothers continue display an impressive intrinsic understanding of their characters. Their past informs their present decision, which is incredibly rewarding for long-time fans. That being said, it’s not all a complete mope-fest.
There’s still plenty of levity to go around with Dustin’s bromance triangle between Steve Harrington and a charismatic leader of the Hellfire Club, Eddie Munson, and Joyce playing detective with Murray to find Jim Hopper. Meanwhile, he plans a daring escape out of Kamchatka in a fashion befitting cheesy 80s’ action films. One minor gripe we have would be Nancy and Jonathan’s subplot. Which feels a lot like an afterthought, at least in this volume.
We’re holding out hope that the Duffers have a natural next step for their relationship but for now, it doesn’t exactly intrigue. The web of intersecting stories never feel disparate or irrelevant though because it all feeds into the central conflict of Vecna.
Speaking of Vecna, he is easily the most dynamic and frightening antagonist we’ve seen thus far in the “Stranger Things” universe. Where the Demogorgon was a mindless beast and the Mind Flayer an impersonal hive-mind, Vecna is far different from the two. He’s deeply invested in his prey’s personal lives and goes to great lengths to psychologically torment them. The fear, the despair and the anguish he inflicts, it’s all very intentional with Vecna. The Duffer Brothers drew clear inspiration from horror icons like Pennywise and Freddy Krueger to create something that feels terrifying, if not familiar. It’s a great change of pace from the other, non-humanoid invaders of the Upside-Down.
One aspect that “Stranger Things” has always excelled in is its ability to build tension, until it reaches an insane fever pitch. The final episode of the first volume, “Dear Billy”, is a prime example. As the world closes in around our characters and the jaws of danger and death tighten, you begin to develop a looming sense of dread. At any point now, any one of our goofy fan favourites could bite the dust. Even the moments of comedic relief are tainted with this lingering unease that lasts throughout the entire episode. It’s just the perfect balance of comedy, drama and horror. We were emotionally exhausted by the end. Simultaneously anxious to get our hands on the second volume while also glad we had some time to recover till July.
It certainly helps that the special effects department is firing on all cylinders this season. Each episode comes in at a whopping $30 million per episode and it shows. The majority of effects making up Vecna consist of practical makeup and prosthetics, which severely enhances the creep factor this time around. Oh, and the deaths…ya’ll ready for what’s coming. We’re talking about gruesome body horror that would surely get John Carpenter’s twisted nod of approval!
This season delivered some standout performances as well. Millie Bobby Brown’s El has never been more vulnerable and isolated with her coping with her lost years in the cruel jungle that is high school. She captures the ennui and growing pains of teenhood brilliantly. Tapping into El’s past trauma from the loss of Hopper and her abuse at the hands of Dr. Martin Brenner.
The most memorable of the lot though has got to be Sadie Sink’s Max Mayfield. Sink’s depiction of survivor’s guilt is phenomenal. Much like Lucas, we long to see her return to interpersonal communion, away from the shadow of Billy’s death. Will she finally find the strength to push through and reach out? That is a journey worth exploring on your own. Just be ready to have a box of tissues with you near the end.
The fourth season of Netflix’s “Stranger Things” opens with a stunning first volume. Building on the solid foundation of its previous season to improve nearly every aspect of what makes this show great,, with the addition of a gripping slasher horror motif. The Duffer Brothers have never shied away from complex themes. This season is a shining testament to their unwavering dedication to tell a poignantly human coming-of-age story amidst supernatural chaos, with characters growing ever more in depth and novelty powered by a cast that delivers in consistent quality.
If you haven’t had a chance to catch up with the series, there’s still some time before the second volume hits. For now, you can catch the first volume of the fourth season of “Stranger Things” on Netflix on the 27th of May!
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Netflix's "Stranger Things" Season 4 Review
The fourth season of Netflix’s “Stranger Things” opens with a stunning first volume. Building on the solid foundation of its previous season to improve nearly every aspect of what makes this show great, with the addition of a gripping slasher horror motif. The Duffer Brothers have never shied away from complex themes. This season is a shining testament to their unwavering dedication to tell a poignantly human coming-of-age story amidst supernatural chaos, with characters growing ever more in depth and novelty powered by a cast that delivers in consistent quality.
- Netflix's "Stranger Things" Season 4 Review