One can only wonder what it would be like to travel back to 2016 and watch the first season of “Stranger Things'' with the hindsight of 2022.
When I first watched the inaugural season, I would have never guessed just how much of a cultural milestone the show would become. There is no denying that the series is responsible for our recent fascination with 1980’s nostalgia. It’s especially interesting to think about how much the show has changed.
The first and second seasons of “Stranger Things” play out more like a mystery with elements of horror and science fiction. However, Season 3 played out more like an action-adventure film: dealing with Russian spies invading Hawkins underneath a shopping mall, all the while a giant, King Kong-sized, flesh monster runs amuck. Clearly, we are past the days of a missing boy and a Demogorgon.
Season 4 of “Stranger Things” very much continues the trend of the previous season, as the first seven episodes are more bombastic, gruesome and longer than any season before it. We find ourselves in the spring of 1986, and everyone is off on their own adventures. I do mean that quite literally, as this season is essentially split into five different stories. While this sounds like a bad thing, it actually keeps the season much more engaging. The writers understand just the right amount of time each story needs to get the ideas across, and the scenes are delivered perfectly. Just when one story is maybe getting a little too much focus, the writers move onto the next. All around, the pacing this season is better than ever. Each episode will leave you on the edge of your seat, despite the lengthy runtimes.
Without a doubt, the highlight of this season, like every season before it, is the characters. The show continues to not only give us some great interactions with established characters but introduces some amazing new ones. New faces, such as Eduardo Franco as Argyle and Joseph Quinn as Eddie Munson, are standouts this season. The Steve and Dustin dynamic is once again on full display here and they shine in every scene they’re in. Also, the addition of Robin, played by Maya Hawke, being part of the core gang is even better than one would expect. Sadie Sink really gets to shine here as Max, having a great deal of weight to carry following the death of Billy at the end of the third season.
The only returning cast members not doing much for me were Finn Wolfhard and Noah Schnapp. They’re not bad, but it’s one of those situations in which the writers clearly don’t know what to do with them. It was a weird choice to have the two most boring characters stuck together for the whole season.
One thing I certainly wasn’t expecting from this season is just how violent it is. Even before this season, “Stranger Things” has had its gruesome and mature moments at times. But since the show is beloved among some younger audiences, the writers have held back for the most part. In this season though, the horror elements are amplified, and this is coordinated with the show’s newest villain, Vecna.
By the seventh episode, you learn a good deal about this villain’s origins. Even before we’re given these details, Vecna makes for easily the most intimidating and interesting antagonist thus far. The creators described him as a “Freddy Krueger type” and that’s very much an accurate description. This is also ironic because there is a very noticeable cameo by Robert Englund, the actor who played Freddie Krueger in the movie “The Nightmare on Elm Street.”
However, with all these pros, the cons are still as present as ever. For starters, while the separate storylines are balanced well, they’re not all equally interesting. Unfortunately, this season continues to make Eleven’s story the least interesting. She went from being the series’ most engaging character to feeling more and more like a crutch for the writers. It should be noted that Millie Bobby Brown still delivers a great performance. It’s unfortunate that she is cut off from the rest of the cast in these seven episodes. While there are still four hours worth of episodes left when the final two episodes drop on July 1st, it’s unfortunate that the whole cast probably won’t be together until the finale, which is exactly what they’ve been doing since Season 2.
Another major issue I’ve noticed is the show “being a little too big for its britches.” We know for certain that “Stranger Things” is renewed for one final season, but I have a strong feeling that this season will suffer from some issues the previous had. Mainly that as the show gets too big, it starts to lose the charm of Season 1’s more humble beginnings. Season 3 definitely was gigantic in scale, but the writers knew to at least keep the show grounded in Hawkins. But now the series has kind of gone off the rails in terms of scope and lost a lot of its niche charm.
Much of this season, especially Eleven’s storyline, is centered around an oncoming war with the Upside Down. The whole U.S. military is getting involved: there’s shootouts, car chases and prison escape plans. While it’s all entertaining, each episode just feels less and less like the show’s former self. One could say that they’re leaning into the idea of 1980’s excess, but it just feels like they’re going bigger because they can, not because it’s necessary to the story.
Overall, despite glaring issues, it doesn’t change the fact that this season is still highly entertaining. While the scale might be a little too big, it’s impressive that the series is able to keep the viewer’s interest throughout.
If you’ve been a loyal fan since the beginning, and want more “Stranger Things,” then more is exactly what you’re going to get. More of the characters you love, more of the adventures you’ve enjoyed, but also more of the issues that have plagued seasons prior. Even if there were parts of this season that left something to be desired, this first batch of episodes will have you counting down the seconds until episodes eight and nine finally drop on July 1.