Stranger Things (Season 4, Part 1)
The newest batch of episodes from the Netflix hit are starting to show their stretch limits
Despite many predicting the “end” of Netflix as it has begun to see a decline in subscriber growth, the streaming pioneer and giant still has sizeable IP and projects to pull from. One of their biggest franchises only seems to keep growing and has delivered the first part of their newest season: Stranger Things (2016-).
Stranger Things part 1 of season 4 finds our heroes split off after the events of season three. We have a group headed by Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) and Will (Noah Schnapp) in California struggling to start a new life, while the old band in Hawkins, Indiana undergoes their own challenges relating to puberty, changing interests, and trauma from seasons past. Inevitably, shenanigans from the Upside-down seeps forth again, only this time seeming to take on an incorporeal form.
Brothers Matt and Ross Duffer continue to helm this 80s nostalgic series, and their skill behind the camera is still evident. The seamless editing and pin-perfect camerawork continues to make me thirst for a wider variety of projects from the siblings. The Duffers also continue to smartly add different tones and themes to each season, with season 4 clearly drawing heavily from Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and Hellraiser (1987). Season 4 thus returns to the horror roots of the first season, dusting away the campy and colorful season 3, which, while criticized by many, was a rather enjoyable escape in the middle of 2020’s pandemic summer. The Duffer’s, though, seem to be veering away from the horror of the unseen from the first season, to one that is much more focused on gore and blood to shock viewers. Along with this more disappointing visual-shock choice I was disappointed to see an increasing reliance on pointless jump-scares that are completely beneath their skill set.
Throughout each season, the Duffers have grown more ambitious with the scope and scale of Stranger Things. This is of course laudable if it is serving the story. The compactness of the first season was a reason why it worked so well in capturing viewers. By splitting up, crowding, and expanding the characters and plot in season 4, the Duffers seem to be slowing and watering down the essence and punch of their story. As such, we have an interminable number of side-plots and missions that are clearly filler with characters that the Duffers have no idea what to do with. This is especially frustrating since the Duffers are expanding their ensemble even further, but none of the new characters connected with me much save for Argyle (Eduardo Franco) who provided some winning comic relief.
A problem that many of Netflix’s successful franchises have run into is the rinse and repeat cycle of their structure. This has happened with the Spanish hits Money Heist (2017-2021) and Elite (2018-), and it is starting to happen with Stranger Things. One is seeing the familiar beats and patterns that each season of Stranger Things embarks upon and begins to see the skeletal structure as predictable and repetitive. Albeit a redundant structure can sometimes work when surrounded by intriguing character arcs. However, the characters in Stranger Things seem to be stuck in their development, neither moving forward or backward, but simply existing and charming viewers thanks to their built-in likeability from seasons past. Even an attempt to explore Eleven’s past feels like the Duffers are scraping the bottom of the barrel for new things to say. Thankfully, the Duffers are graced with their ace young cast who have aged wonderfully into their roles and have become increasingly talented with each successive season, it’s only a shame that their characters are stunted in these new episodes.
Stranger Things has become such a popular and likeable show that it can basically coast off its legacy for these new episodes. You are willing to revisit these characters and the cursed town of Hawkins no matter the circumstances, however, after the nostalgia wears off you begin to see a lack of a clear heading from the Duffers, who seem to be splintering and patching tangled storylines for the sake of making new content. I found the ending of season 3 to be a rather touching capstone to the Strange Things storyline, however, just as with the 1980s film franchises that the series so often calls-back to, the series is starting to devolve into a series of stale and unnecessary sequels that are finding it increasingly difficult to find new excuses to revisit its characters.