Josh Reviews Stranger Things Season Four (Part 1)
After a pandemic-extended hiatus of almost three years, Stranger Things has returned for a fourth season. (Or, most of it: Netflix dropped the first seven episodes; the final two are being held until July.) This new season picks up about half a year after the events of season three. The Byers (Joyce, Will & Jonathan), along with a now-powerless Eleven, have relocated to California. Mike is coming for a visit, but as soon as he arrives, all heck breaks loose as things explode between Eleven and a group of school bullies, while the military arrive in search of Eleven. Joyce and Murray, having discovered evidence that Hopper is alive, begin a journey to Russia in search of him. Meanwhile, back in Hawkins, a series of grisly murders have the townspeople on edge. Dustin, Max, Lucas, Nancy, Steve and Robin come to believe an evil wizard from the Upside Down, who they nickname Vecna, is behind the killings, but they’re not sure what they can possibly do to stop Vecna without the superpowered Eleven by their side…
I was excited to get back into Stranger Things, but I wasn’t sure at first whether too much time had passed. Had this show’s “moment” come and gone? I also struggled at first to remember where we’d left these characters and their stories. Season three was a long time ago! This was a problem for me with this show even before the pandemic. With Netflix dropping every episode in each previous season on the same day, I’d usually wind up watching the entire season within a week. There was then a 15 month break between seasons one and two and an almost two-year break between seasons two and three. Season three was released in July 2019, almost three years ago. These are incredibly long interruptions that disrupt the momentum of the story!
I decided to go back and watch the season three finale before diving into season four. At first I felt a strange distance from the show; I had a hard time remembering anything that had gone on. But ultimately I was glad to refresh my memory about the show and these characters by rewatching that season three finale; it was a helpful re-entry point for the series.
Having done so, I was happily surprised by how much I enjoyed these seven new episodes of Stranger Things season four! This new season gives us a tense, exciting new adventure. Best of all, I was quickly reminded by how much I love these characters. It was great fun to get to spend more time with them and follow them through these new stories.
There was definitely some cognitive dissonance at first, because the kids have all grown up. I was worried about this back when the show began; that if they didn’t speed up the series’ production, the actors would quickly age far beyond the characters they were playing. That’s definitely happened, and it’s for sure weird. But I got over that more quickly than I’d expected, and I was able to get carried along by the story. (This is far from the first TV show to have high school-aged characters being played by actors who were FAR older.)
One major difference between this season and the prior years is that the episodes are much, much longer than they ever were before. The season three finale (“The Battle of Starcourt”) was almost an hour and a half long. That’s now pretty much the standard for these season four episodes! I’ve read some complaints online that the episodes are bloated and too long, but frankly, the episode length didn’t bother me at all. This show has slowly grown to include a huge ensemble of characters, and I was happy that I felt the season allowed itself to spend time with everyone, without anyone getting ignored or shortchanged. (Well, mostly — we’ll get back to this in a moment.). Also, when you have a show that’s 1) a continuing, serialized story like this one, and 2) one in which a batch of episodes is dropped at once, I found that the episode breaks didn’t much matter. I’d watch as much of the show as I had time to, then pause, whether I was in the middle of an episode or not. It didn’t really matter. So I felt the benefits of the extended run-times far outweighed any negatives.
This was also the darkest, most horrific season of the show yet. There have always been horror elements in the show, but there was definitely more gore and gruesomeness this year than we’d gotten before. We see several teenagers get brutally, horrifically killed by Vecna; we see Hopper getting tortured — these scenes were tough to watch at times! I appreciate that the series is aging-up its content as its young protagonists have gotten older.
As usual for the show, the characters wind up scattered into several different groups, each experiencing their own aspect of the new adventure. I find this structure to be a little frustrating, as I think the show is at its best when the characters are working together (and we, the audience, get to have the fun of watching them all bounce off of one another). But I understand that, from a storytelling perspective, they can’t have a dozen characters together in every scene. And for the most part, I was happy that, while the characters were separated, each sub-group pretty quickly got wise to what was happening and were able to work together.
This was particularly the case for the Hawkins group: Dustin, Max, Lucas, Nancy, Steve and Robin. This was my favorite group to follow this season. Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) has been a highlight of the show ever since season one, and the Dustin-Steve oddball friendship, which has been a source of comedic gold ever since season two, continues to sparkle. I love how thoroughly the show has transformed Steve (Joe Keery) from the jerky popular kid he was when we first met him in season one — Steve is now one of my favorite characters on the show! It’s wonderful to see Max get her most substantial storyline yet, dealing with the trauma of watching her brother Billy’s getting killed last season, and now finding herself the target of Vecna’s curse. Sadie Sink is terrific; she’s so compelling as we follow Max on this terrifying journey; she does so much near-silent acting with just her expressive eyes! I was also happy to see Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) get his most substantive storyline so far: finding himself torn between his old friends and the potential to finally be accepted by the popular crowd, his fellow players on the school basketball team. Robin (Maya Hawke) was a fantastic addition to the ensemble in season three, and I’m glad she continued to have a major role here in season four. It was fun to see her more integrated with the rest of the gang. I liked seeing Nancy (Natalia Dyer) continue to use her brains to help untangle the story. I rolled my eyes a little at her determination to interview the father of a brutally murdered teenager for what I think was the school paper; on the other hand, I loved how she was able to connect all the dots in the second half of the season, investigating the history of Victor Creel. (This show was never more in touch with its Stephen King influences then when the gang was investigating the gothic ruins of Victor’s scary old house.)
I loved the new faces in the Hellfire Club (a wonderful 1980’s X-Men reference), particularly the head D&D nerd Eddie Munson (Joseph Quinn). His introductory scene, in which he’s jumping up on a table in the school cafeteria, felt a bit much to me. But he quickly developed into a fantastic new character who I was really rooting for. I loved when he fully integrated with the gang in the last two episodes, joining them for their jaunt into the Upside Down.
The California storyline was a little more wobbly. It wasn’t shocking that Eleven and Will were having a hard time adjusting to this new locale. But the depiction of the bullying of Eleven at school felt a little over-the-top to me, building up to a very Carrie-esque public humiliation at a skating rink. I assume the show was playing with our expectations that the brutalized Eleven would then wreak telekinetic havoc, just as Carrie did. But it felt somewhat anticlimactic to me that she didn’t… and even more anticlimactic that just when it seems Eleven is in really deep trouble (having crossed a line by bloodying her bully, and getting herself on the police’s radar), all that gets swept away when Dr. Owens (Paul Reiser) rides in to the rescue, and we never see any of those school bullies again. The Will-Mike feud also felt a little overwrought to me. Again, the idea here makes sense, that Will would feel ignored by his former best-friend, and that Mike would have trouble juggling his relationship with Eleven with his other friendships. But I felt we’d already done the latter story in season three, and something about the scenes of Mike-Will tension felt a little forced to me. Also, on a show in which all of the adults seem astonishingly clueless about what’s going on with their kids, Joyce seems to reach new heights of obliviousness to have no idea what’s going on with Eleven… and also to jet off to almost-certain peril in Russia without saying anything to her kids, nor making any arrangement to leave them with any adult guardian.
Poor Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) gets a little sidelined this season, though we got some fun stoner comedy out of him. I wasn’t sure what to make of the show suddenly showing him and Nancy as being on the outs. I feel like we’ve been pulling for them as a couple since the start of the show, but now all of a sudden the show wanted us to root for Nancy and Steve to reunite. It’s an effective love quadrangle, though it feels like back-tracking for the character. I’m interested to see how that all plays out.
I was very happy with the addition of new character Argyle (Eduardo Franco), the jovial, up-beat stoner pizza delivery dude. In a show that already has such a large ensemble, introducing new characters like Eddie and Argyle is risky; it could frustrate the audience that we’re spending time with them as opposed to the familiar characters. But I loved both new additions; a great combination of strong writing and casting.
I wasn’t a huge fan of Hopper’s fake-out death at the end of season three. I’m glad the show doesn’t waste time confirming that he’s alive. I’m glad they took the time to show us in flashback what happened to Hopper, though it still stretches my credulity that, if there really was enough space down there for Hopper to have jumped and survived the explosion, Joyce wouldn’t have looked harder for him. David Harbour is a magnetic performer even when he’s mostly silent, as he is for much of the season. But it’s a bummer to see the big, brash Hopper so humbled; watching him get beat up again and again for most of the season was not fun. (Whatever horrible thing was happening with his foot was just too much for me.) I’m not yet seeing the point of this whole detour of getting Hopper captured and brought to Russia. It feels like narrative time-wasting to me. That Joyce and Murray could actually locate him in his remote, secret Russian prison, and infiltrate that prison, seemed extremely unbelievable, even for this show. Winona Ryder is still so great as Joyce, she somehow makes me buy what’s happening, even as it seems insane. And Brett Gelman has really grown on me as Murray. Here in season four, I found most of his unhinged behavior to be very funny. (Though the joke of an adult fighting kids in a karate class was a Kramer storyline on Seinfeld…) I wish I understood why this captured demogorgon — a vicious, alien monster, was just being used by the Russians to torture and eat prisoners at this isolated prison. Wouldn’t they be investigating this creature?? Also: how & when did they capture a demogorgon in the first place?? (Also, was I the only one who found Hopper’s situation in a Russian prison this season to remind me of where we meet David Harbour’s character in Black Widow??)
It was nice to see both Paul Reiser and Matthew Modine back as Dr. Owens and Dr. Brenner — and allied! I’m glad the show has finally taken the time to go back and clarify Eleven’s history; what was happening to her at the secret facility in Hawkins that Dr. Brenner was running; what went wrong and how she eventually escaped. I could have done with a little less teasing of that this season, though. (We saw those quick shots of the bloody test-subject kids a few too many times to suit me.) I really enjoyed the revelations in the final moments of episode seven about the origins of the Upside-Down, and Eleven’s connection to it. (I’m interested to learn, in future episodes, why time in the Upside Down seemed to stop around when Will was taken in season one.) (I’d also like to know how Dr. Brenner survived the end of season one.)
The production values of the show continue to be top-notch. This season took place across a wider range of locations than ever, but it all looked realistic and believable to my eye. It was fun getting to spend more time in the Upside Down than ever before. The effects on the demogorgon looked terrific, and I also enjoyed the Swamp Thing-esque look to the evil Vecna.
It’s weird to evaluate this season without having seen the final episodes, which will presumably bring closure to many/most of these storylines. This is a bizarre release strategy, holding the final two episodes for several more months. But even without those final two episodes, I was pleased by how much I enjoyed this season! These seven episodes were fun and exciting; I tore through them very quickly! I’m glad that the show still works, even after so much time has passed. I’m eager for the final two episodes, and I hope we don’t have to wait too many years after that for the show’s fifth (and apparently final) season.
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