Stranger Things 4–A season that surpasses the first

More than two years since filming and it was well worth the wait.  Stranger Things at last fulfilled its mash-up pop culture promise in its fourth season.  Hidden inside a mix of a B-movie style homage to low-budget horror and Steven Spielberg movies of the E.T. and Goonies vintage, the story finally came full circle in nine big hours over seven episodes.  What do you get when you take 1980s pop culture, a haunted house, a superman lab, more Upside Down, more D&D, not-rabid mynocks, a monster to rival Freddy Kruger, and a huge cast of characters you’ve grown to love (and watch grow up)? The best season of one of the streaming era’s best series.

So let’s dig into Season 4.

The first thing that comes to mind when someone says Stranger Things is probably Millie Bobby Brown’s sci-fi wonder child Eleven.  The only sad bit for her character this season is that viewers didn’t get to see her interact with the other four stars of the show: Finn Wolfhard’s Mike Wheeler, Gaten Matarazzo’s Dustin Henderson, Caleb McLaughlin’s Lucas Sinclair, and Noah Schnapp’s Will Byers.  And those four characters took a backseat for the most part, especially Mike and Will, who really got sidelined, except as part of a well-constructed illustration of bullies and bullyism (via school and a skate party) and how that leads to the next terrorist and serial killer.  Eleven’s story takes everyone back to the beginning, answering some old questions, but still leaving open what, if anything, happened between the final scene in the lab in this year’s seventh episode and Eleven showing up to get Egg-Os at the local grocery store in the very first episode.

The season breaks episodes up into three story arcs.  Eleven’s is the longest and perhaps the one that was the most repetitive and in need of cutting back.  Ultimately the Duffer Brothers, back again to write and direct the series, took advantage of all the Eleven sequences to create a superhero story, one reminiscent of the X-Men comics, The New Mutants, Logan, and Brightburn.  Most of the superhero trope, and viewers’ realization about it, is contained in the seventh episode.

The second story arc is the Parent arc, taking us to a Russian prison, housing David Harbour’s Sheriff Hopper, who got sent there through a portal at the end of Season 3 (Netflix didn’t try to hide that he wasn’t dead).  Along this story path Wynona Ryder’s Joyce Byers is reunited with Brett Gelman’s Murray Bauman, joining a preposterous and convoluted plot to free Hopper.  Worse yet, all the Russia antics are boring and the payoff is underwhelming.  This carved-up and spliced-in sequence reminds viewers the show is still rooted in B movie nostalgia (the 1980s, Cold War, etc.), which translates to giving it a pass when viewers might not do so with similar contrivances in other shows.  But when the show is good it’s great, so the passes are well earned.

The meat of the story is the third arc.  While this is still The Goonies for an older audience, the season overlays a horror origin story mirroring The Nightmare on Elm Street franchise’s Freddy Kruger (complete with an appearance by Freddy actor Robert Englund).  Four characters really stand out this season.  The first again is Joe Keery’s Steve Harrington.  Steve is the show’s hero, and he has the best character arc in the entire series of anyone, turning from the big man on campus, to a guy willing to risk his life for his friends, even befriending and becoming one of the “nerds.”

Natalia Dyer’s Nancy Wheeler gets to shine after the abysmal plot that had her getting railroaded and ridiculed in the workplace last season.  In Season 4 she takes charge.  Maya Hawke’s Robin Buckley, key to the third season’s memorable mall sequences, gets fleshed out even further this season.  When the Eleven and Parents plots start to grow stale, the show is saved by the energy of Steve, Nancy, and Robin, and it gets even better when they join up with newcomer Joseph Quinn as Eddie Munson.

Munson’s story (a metal fan accused of murdering kids) is derived from a real-life murder case in the early 1990s.  Quinn doesn’t let his character get pushed aside by the main cast.  We know he’s not responsible for the murders, and his newness to the strange happenings in Hawkins allows new viewers to get caught up along with him.

Stranger Things has a big cast, and other characters get their moments, too.  Sadie Sink’s Max Mayfield allows the show to tap into how society treats people with social and mental issues.  Caleb McLaughlin’s Lucas becomes the show’s Judas, who gets a chance to redeem himself among his friends.  Just when Gaten Matarazzo’s Dustin was becoming more interesting in Season 3, he gets relegated to a sort of parody of himself this season.  Priah Ferguson, returning as Lucas’s sister Erica, is a welcome breath of fresh air and laugh-out-loud moments.  Newcomer Jamie Campbell Bower is stellar as the quiet orderly, and Eleven’s only friend at the lab.  Other characters don’t get much attention, like Cara Buono’s Karen Wheeler and Charlie Heaton’s Jonathan Byers.

The Duffers seem to have built everything up for that seventh episode, where viewers will ask whether anything they’ve seen is real or not.  Was there even a lab in this season?  Now that we know who created the Upside Down, is the past of the Upside Down–where Nancy is stuck–still the past?  Is the trailer portal a one-way portal?  This is still low-budget fare despite a big Netflix budget for the series–a show like Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, also from Netflix, had better writing and all-around better production value.  Yet the Duffers create one of the year’s best episodes with its fourth episode, “Dear Billy,” a riveting character study and reflection of the times.  Fans of Sabrina will like the similar vibe of this season of Stranger Things as well as fans of the latest Resident Evil movie (reviewed here).  As for its writing, the Duffers could use some editing, but they also pulled together some nice twists and turns–the surprises aren’t so much predictable as allowing the viewers to figure out the mysteries with the characters, which makes it fun.

Just as Sean Astin was a highlight of Season 2 and Maya Hawke the highlight of Season 3, as newcomers to the series Jamie Campbell Bower and Joseph Quinn lit up Season 4.

In an era where Disney sneaks in half-hour weekly episodes of The Mandalorian, it’s worth cheering that Netflix unleashes its entire series at once and doesn’t pay attention to old school episode times that allowed for commercials.  Why should it?  Stranger Things should remind everyone why Netflix is still the best thing about the era of streaming.  Stranger Things is streaming now on Netflix, with the first seven episodes of Season 4 available now, and the next two episodes available July 1.



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