Stranger Things Season 4, Vol 1: Panic & Betrayal
The first seven episodes of the new season of NETFLIX’ Stranger Things has dropped, and of course I binged all of them already. Disclaimer, this is only for the first seven episodes, not the season as a whole and my rating or thoughts about it may change in the future leading up to July 1st’ final two episodes.
*I wrote this is a rush of annoyance after finishing the seventh episode…bare with me.
Unfortunately season four of Stranger Things acts as if the three year hiatus also wiped your memory clean of any moments in the show (especially the key moments). It pretends you are stupid and relies on flashy shots, jumpy editing, and a new batch of side characters to continually draw you down into the upside down of ideas. This season is a representation of how you begin to service the fans with exposition, and not in a good way. The journey is long and over-bloated. Why make longer episodes if you are merely trying to stuff in exposition and overwritten dialogue instead of character growth. Fortunately, Sadie Sink’s Max is the standout. She is finally a fully fleshed character (at least in the first four episodes) and then we move on. This is due to the ensemble that is continually growing, and really not for the better. The Duffer Brothers have always had the ending written in mind, yet the progression of the story is beginning to not benefit itself by any means. Bigger is not always better.
This season a new villain is introduced- Vecna. He is of course, a character referenced in the D&D game that Dustin and friends are a part of (hailed the Hellfire Club). The group is grown up and severely at different places emotionally, which does give the show a dynamic appeal that it has always given this redeeming friend group. We get the chance to see new characters, Robin and Eddie bond with the older members of the friend group. Eddie is chaotic and so is his character’s writing. He is likable in the first few episodes, a choice the DF must’ve finally realized from their mistake with Billy (as the bad boy) in the season prior. However, with the shuffling of spotlight time for characters, Eddie is quickly forgotten. Also several much older adults pose for high school students as part of the club and it is comically pitiful- oh yeah, you’ll never see them again after that. Erica is back (with her american flag of course) which seems to be her only tagline as a character now.
While episode one follows a nice three act structure, the following episodes begin to lose their way in again, dividing up screen time. Eleven is mostly pushed aside for at least two episodes with occasional side-thought flashes here and there. She was the main character, right? Now she feels like a chore for the DB to have her on screen. Sure, Max is now a central character which is fantastic, but the powers Eleven gradually regains do not make sense for her character or her intentions going forward. The kills are plentiful and pretty gnarly. Characters are suspended into the air before they are horribly contorted and destroyed. The effect does carry a certain immediacy of the villain each time, fueling the fear in our ensemble. Eleven’s younger self in the lab sequences are laughably bad for a budget as big as this one. Something I could not stand, however, was the constant use of flashback montage scenes everytime a character audibly or thought about a moment in previous seasons. It’s lazy and not an effective way of communicating an emotion, but hey maybe that’s just me. You’ll see plenty of that.
What is so surprising about this season, or rather a challenge, is of course the new characters. Robin used to be calm and intuitive in season three, and is now a deranged mess of a projection of panic. She loses her way amongst the group and really only has a relationship with Nancy in a small way. I think the most obvious addition is Vecna, (the main villain) infiltrating Hawkins as once again they face a looming threat linked to the Upside Down. While episode seven does reveal who he truly is and clears up any confusion, the same can be said about the future of Eleven and if fate is her ultimate erasure from the show. So, the idea of who or what a monster is within society is a strong correlation to Papa’s lab of children. I realize this season needs time to develop other characters that might not have gotten the chance before, but it does begin to feel like a chore to sit through maybe a few interactions they have with one another before being sidelined to yet ANOTHER character, which of course was my biggest fear going into this season.
The first four episodes are strong. From the first episode you can tell that this season is taking a darker path with its worldbuilding. It plays out like a detective drama and really gets into the grain of the small town of Hawkins. Whereas, the transition of California where the Byers are now living feels short lived and unnecessary. Set pieces are strangely dull and do not carry much visual significance. What makes the town eventually so non-personal is the inclusion of the high school set piece and other meaningless characters. It’s crowded and Hawkins does not illicit that same discomfort as compared to season one, where it was just the kids against the government (Brenner) and you felt a part of their mission. Here, we have quick scenes that throw up exposition at you and expect you to trust the logic in this world now. What you thought you understood about the upside down is now an additional headache to try to keep up with while also following the jumping jack of character groups in each episode. Once a certain character is finally less-tense about his accusations, he is able to move on with the rest of the group? Plenty of scenes are tag-teamed (parallel in a way that while one location is giving exposition about something that happened in the past, the other location is having a character experience or rather spectate). Usually I would be okay with that choice ,however in a show already so over bloated, why? Passive characters were not a thing in the previous seasons, so why start now? Poor Hopper. Remember when he was an interesting character? (I skipped mostly every Russia scene but I will revisit). The story has really lost my trust to see it through to a redeemable finale in (I guess a fifth season?)
I’m frustrated because there are some really cinematic and well done scenes that make me think they are some of the best scenes we’ve seen yet, and even more emotionally impelling, if not muddled down by a weak season of filler. It’s as if the DB have lost their dynamic storytelling and rather have suspended your time into building up cheap scares and “kills”. They are leaning too heavily into the slasher genre, which truly doesn’t care about its characters in the slightest. But isn’t that what made this show so good in the past?