The original season of Stranger Things remains the high water mark of the franchise’s genius in combining science fiction, horror and children’s adventure with aplomb. If you think Season 3 got a little out of hand with its storyline, Season 4 doubles down – but in a good way.
One thing that was clear at the end of the inaugural season: the element of suspense and fear of the unknown can’t be repeated. Season 2 showed that they realised that and tried to maintain a balance between giving viewers more of what they liked from before and trying to adapt to the various pitfalls that it entails.
Clearly, Season 3 had to be different in more ways than one – the gang is growing up as well, so their problems are different as well. The premise is daring and over the top but kudos for understanding that the series needed to evolve.
What’s not going to change, is its devotion to all things from the 80s, including a homage to one of the greatest horror flicks from the era. As with past seasons, even if you have no affiliation with the zeitgeist of that era, you certainly can appreciate the devotion to recreating it.
One hill that the writers have conspicuously chosen to die on, is retaining its ever-growing cast of characters. With some notable exceptions, its payroll is growing quicker than the Mind Flayer ever did in its attempt to take over the town.
Stranger Things has often relied on splitting the groups up to facilitate multiple story threads, which allows characters screen time to develop and to play off each other before they complete their respective journies. Every group re-convenes with knowledge in tow to face the final boss.
The storylines didn’t always work in Season 3, but it seems that the writers have managed to find the right combination with Season 4 – with new characters, of course. More often than not, the new characters are interesting and charismatic and they pull their weight as part of this now-massive franchise.
Meet Argyle (Eduardo Franco), Eddie Munson (Joseph Quinn), Peter Ballard (Jamie Campbell Bower) and Jason Carver (Mason Dye), who I think are the best new characters for Season 4. You can even make the case that they are crucial members of their respective story threads.
Argyle’s positive personality is as infectious as his long, flowing locks, and he does some heavy personality lifting for his group of ‘outcasts’ – Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard), Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) and Jonathan Byers (Charlie Heaton) – who are arguably the most boring triumvirate that you can possibly piece together. I must admit that it’s quite surprising that character development for three key figures in the OG cast ground to a halt – they even forgot Will’s birthday – but I suppose some trade-offs are inevitable when trying to create a story with so many players in it.
The proverbial jackrabbit in this season’s hare coursing is Munson, the guitar-playing Dungeon Master with a nerd-on-edge personality and a biopic-level resemblance to Iron Maiden’s Steve Harris. Munson joins a list of broken characters that hide behind a facade and grows on you as the episodes fly by. It also helps that he has chemistry with most of the cast, especially Chrissy Cunningham **(**Grace Van Dien).
Carver is the classic high school jerk – I mean jock – that publicly appears to hit all the right notes with his all-American boy schtick. But it seems that he’s a meanie underneath it all, though we have no clue how much of it is down to his inability to deal with grief and how much of it is just him being a jerk. It’s an ambiguity that really sells his character.
But if we needed to highlight a standout performance from a new character then that has to be Ballard’s bang-on portrayal of a big brother figure who looks out for Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) during her time at Hawkins Lab. He does, however, have a seriously sinister vibe – is he or isn’t he a villain? Even with the limited screen time, he’s arguably the most memorable character this season.
Special mention also goes to the villain Vecna; while previous antagonists were faceless CGI creations, Vecna is the most human-like of them all, and a literal face truly does add another dimension to the relationship between the gang and their tormentor. Vecna not only fills the gaps in the Stranger Things lore, he is also a far more menacing nemesis than the rest of them combined.
What’s striking is that these new characters play a big part in shaping their respective arcs, almost as though they were conceived by design as plot devices. Given how Season 4 has been set up to jump from one storyline to another, it’s strong characters like Ballard that temper the schizophrenic tone of the series, drawing your attention long enough that you don’t stop to ask questions.
Questions like: Why do so many aspects of Stranger Things seem so throwaway now? Why has Number 8 become irrelevant? What about Will’s inevitably unrequited love towards Mike that causes all the antagonism between them, and yet never gets any closer to being fleshed out or resolved? Are writers sleeping on Jonathan and seemingly phasing him out of the story, possibly because Will has become more and more irrelevant? I’m being a little presumptuous, of course, because chances are they’ll be resolved in Season 5.
However, there is an upside to key characters like Mike and Will becoming marginalised – Dustin and Lucas get their time of the day and more of the spotlight. Lucas is now part of both the lame guys and the cool kids and spends the season trying to resolve his identity. Dustin, in particular, has been tearing it up since Season 3 and Season 4 firmly establishes him as the spiritual anchor of the series, epitomising the qualities that are needed for its protagonists to survive the horrors thrown at them, season after season.
But to nitpick and focus on these issues would be to do the show injustice – Stranger Things has never claimed to offer anything more than a wild ride and they’ve delivered in spades – the new hijinks and villain reveal are enticing enough on their own to keep us engrossed. The concluding episodes can’t come soon enough.
Stranger Things Season 4 is streaming on Netflix. The final two episodes will air on 1st July 2022.
Stranger Things Season 4
Verdict - 8/10
A true return to form. It's not quite as gripping as the first season but it's certainly the most entertaining one.