I’ll be perfectly honest. I was seriously dreading the first volume of Stranger Things 4. This is not to say I dislike the series at all. Quite the contrary. The first season, now six years old, was one of the most engrossing television programs I’d seen in a long time, but any story can only sustain itself for so long. Despite my enjoyment of Season 2 and 3, I couldn’t help but notice the cracks starting to show as the show changed. With Season 4, I expected those fissures to widen, taking into them all that I’d loved from the first season. Instead, as I started to watch the program, those fissures were slammed shut.
Stranger Things 4 is perhaps the most well-constructed entry since the original. It continues the series formula of each group of characters going on their own adventures, thrusting its lively ensemble into a wild adventure that only grows wilder with each episode. Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) travels to Russia to rescue Jim Hopper (David Harbor) from a secret prison. Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) struggles with a life without her powers and a strained relationship with Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard), who comes to visit her at her new home in California along with Joyce’s sons Will (Noah Schnapp) and Jonathan Byers (Charlie Heaton). All while this is going on, Hawkins natives Dustin Henderson (Gaten Matarazzo), Lucas Sinclair (Caleb MacLaughlin), Max Mayfield (Sadie Sink), Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer), Steve Harrington (Joe Keery) and Robin Buckley (Maya Hawke) investigate a series of strange killings that they soon discover are related to the alternate dimension known as The Upside Down.
Is It Interesting?
The young actors have grown much since Stranger Things began, something the show not only acknowledges but also uses in the story. The pre-teens are now entering high school, causing their group to fracture and bringing in a whole new series of pressures. Lucas for instance is growing more interested in sports, which sees him hanging out with his friends less and less. The characters who started the series as teens are now entering college and post-college lives, which brings about the struggles of early adulthood. A major plot point in Stranger Things 4 is Jonathan and Nancy wanting to go to different colleges, leaving both wondering if their relationship can, or even should, survive such a change. Those who began the series as adults are now older, exhausted, but more committed to the relationships that began back in Season 1. Throw some monsters and government conspiracies into the mix and you got the makings of a very interesting and lively tale.
A big selling point for Stranger Things 4 was that the characters would leave the town of Hawkins, an experiment that thankfully pays off very well. I was initially very skeptical of Jim Hopper’s story of being trapped in a Russian prison, feeling this was too big a departure from what came before. This story however turned out to be perhaps my favorite of Season 4. The prison not only proves to be a very claustrophobic environment but also Hopper’s friendships with his fellow inmates provide great insights into his character. It also becomes clear early on that Hopper shares the prison with one of the monsters of the previous season, something he’ll have to face sooner or later.
Who is Vecna?
Rest assured, we still get plenty of Hawkins, and a whole new monster along with it. Each season has tried to keep threats from the Upside Down fresh, one of the things the show has done pretty well at. The first season featured a lone interdimensional predator hunting the people of Hawkins, the second had a malevolent intelligence laying siege on the town, and the third took a page from Invasion of the Body Snatchers with residents of the town being taken over. Stranger Things 4 pays tribute to another classic property from the 80s, in this case, A Nightmare on Elm Street. This latest villain, Vecna, is inspired by Freddy Krueger, killing his victims during vivid waking hallucinations. As if the inspiration from Nightmare isn’t obvious, Freddy Krueger actor Robert Englund even plays a role in this season. Vecna is the first supernatural villain in the series to regularly engage with the characters through dialogue, which makes the threat seem a lot more direct and personal than in previous seasons.
The scenes where Vecna terrorizes the young heroes are one of the highlights of Stranger Things 4, thrusting the characters into bizarre, hallucinatory and visually creative sequences that never fail to impress. It’s these scenes that continue the show’s distinct visual style that has thankfully held since Season 1. To top it off, the scenes are pretty damn scary. One sequence features a character being lifted off the ground and killed in front of a witness in an obvious homage to a similar scene from Wes Craven’s 1984 film. The enduring likability of the young cast only raises the stakes.
The Hawkins lab conspiracy is back in the forefront, which gives viewers an interesting glimpse into Eleven’s past. Stranger Things 2 tried to shed some light on other kids in Eleven’s group with mixed results. Here, the show is more successful, detailing Eleven’s life in captivity and her strained relationships with the other subjects in her group. The show also takes the opportunity to further explore the relationship between Eleven and ‘Papa’ (Matthew Modine), something that was more hinted at in the first Stranger Things. Thankfully, this too is handled well, making these segments among the more interesting, and revealing, of the season.
Is the Cast Too Big?
One of the things that worried me especially was the growing cast. A big weakness in the otherwise well-done Stranger Things 3 was the characters weren’t as well-rounded as in the first two. Will Byers, the focus of the first two seasons, had next to nothing to do in the third, acting as more of a prop while the adventure unfolds around him. However, as this season continued, it quickly became apparent that it does a much better job at balancing its characters than Season 3. Now everyone has something to do, and the relationships between the characters are just as compelling as the science fiction and horror elements. Eleven has to deal with both bullying and adjusting to a life without telekinesis, which not only strains her relationship with Mike Wheeler but also leaves Will Byers feeling more neglected. Max struggles to come to terms with the death of her unhinged brother as she and Lucas try to rekindle their relationship. Jonathan Byers fears he is dragging Nancy Wheeler down, while Nancy starts to realize she may still have feelings for former flame Steve Harrington. The list goes on.
Another element that had me worried was the humor and whether or not the show could maintain a consistent tone. As Stranger Things wore on, the more comical elements of the show gradually became more and more prevalent, often at the expense of tension. Make no mistakes, there are plenty of moments meant to tickle the funny bone of viewers, especially from the new character Argyle (Eduardo Franco) who serves as the comedic relief and stoner best friend to Jonathan. Despite this, the humor in this season is far less overbearing, resulting in an overall more even tone. Once the story gets going and the stakes start climbing, the show pretty much commits to keeping things tense. There are still some examples of ill-timed humor, but not nearly as much as the previous season.
Is Stranger ‘Things Season 4’ good?
The creators of Stranger Things have said they plan to end the show on season 5, and honestly, I couldn’t be happier. I couldn’t be happier because I love this show, and like any other show, it can only sustain itself so long before the ideas become stale, the characters become worn, and all the charm and invention of what came before fades away. Thankfully, the first chunk of the 4th season manages to learn from errors that were made, showing that everything that made that first season so great is still here. The humor is still there but is portioned more appropriately. The expanding cast is given more to do so no one falls by the wayside. The villain is a fresh new threat for the heroes to contend with. It just works. If Stranger Things was never your cup of tea, there probably isn’t much here that will win you over. If you’ve been with these characters since the beginning, however, there is a lot here to love, and a lot to be excited for in this first volume. We now just have to await the conclusion of Stranger Things 4 before we even think about Stranger Things 5.
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