‘Stranger Things 4’ Bursts at the Seams With Grander Scale and Darker Terror 

The fourth season of “Stranger Things” brings together much of what makes Peak TV so good and risky. It’s been almost three years since season three gave us a binge-worthy dose of the series’ ‘80s nostalgia and paranormal scares. Now the format of Netflix’s megahit feels like it’s bursting at the seams. Not only do we get seven new episodes for what is the first half of season four, but each episode runs nearly the length of an indie film, at 77 to 98 minutes. Undoubtedly, there are fans devoted enough to drain their brain power for a full binge. But even if you watch at a casual pace, this is still a highly entertaining, meticulously-constructed serving. The plot may be familiar, though not more so than how franchises tend to operate. You know what to expect. What matters is how good they pull it off. For season four, the writing dives deeper into intense themes of adolescence and feeling like an outsider. The relevance is not lost on the studio. An opening note is included before the first episode, referencing the recent, horrific mass shooting in Uvalde, TX, stating that they “filmed this season of ‘Stranger Things’ a year ago. But given the recent tragic shooting at a school in Texas, viewers may find the opening scene of episode one distressing.”

What matters in “Stranger Things” are the characters and how they feel like our guides to a 1980s world that Zoomers can only imagine. This is a darker season that lunges more for horror than spooks. After a flashback to 1979, where we learn that Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) carried out a brutal massacre at Hawkins Laboratory, we are back in 1986. The action picks up not too long after the events of last season which culminated with the Battle of Starcourt. Joyce (Winona Ryder) has packed up and moved to suburban California with Will (Noah Schnapp), Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), and a now powerless Eleven. Going under the name Jane, Eleven finds it hardest to adjust since she suffers the cruel bullying of mean girl Angela (Elodie Grace Orkin). Back in Indiana, Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) are starting their freshman year in high school. Mike and Dustin remain geeky enough to join the school’s D&D outfit, the Hellfire Club. Lucas is fast becoming a jock after joining the basketball team. But when Hellfire Club leader and perpetual flunker Eddie Munson (Joseph Quinn) meets with a cheerleader to sell her some drugs, something horrific happens that signals a new threat has crossed over from the Upside Down. Meanwhile, Joyce receives a package that reveals Hopper (David Harbour) is indeed alive after the events of last season, but now captured by Soviet forces.

You can see why showrunners Ross Duffer and Matt Duffer make use of the season’s longer episode running time for the opening moments. It’s grown into quite the roster to keep track of, and now includes new players. Although the actors are already at or past the verge of growing out of their characters, the smaller dramas can still prove more engaging than the monsters. Max (Sadie Sink) broke up with Lucas and has kept her distance from the gang since the traumatic events of season three. Robin (Maya Hawke) and Steve (Joe Keery) share their love sick woes. Jonathan and Nancy (Natalia Dyer) feel the pain of distance, but Jonathan will of course drop into California to say hi. Nancy distracts herself by becoming obsessed with her work at the school newspaper. Among new characters the most memorable is Eddie, who brings that classic ‘80s metal vibe. Every high school needs a malevolent jock, and now that’s Jason Carver (Mason Dye) who gives bombastic speeches at school rallies. Elodie Grace Orkin’s Angela is also pitch perfect as the bully from hell, cheerfully smashing Eleven’s school project inspired by the presumed death of Hopper. Eleven eventually bashes a roller skate on the bully’s face in one of the season’s first real shockers. Then there are those inevitable tensions of adolescence, like Lucas missing a Hellfire Club D&D campaign because of a game and Mike and Dustin refusing to reschedule.

For a season that clocks in at five hours longer than the last one, the length can feel a bit exhausting because the thriller elements don’t play all that different from your typical “Stranger Things” romp. It can feel like extra conversations and moments have been tossed in to lengthen episodes. Overall the central plot is still goofy fun. Dr. Brenner (Matthew Modine), who we last saw at the end of season one getting attacked by the Demogorgon, is back hunting for Eleven. Another player from the Hawkins lab, Sam (Paul Reiser), also seeks Eleven but because he feels she might hold the key to truly saving us all from the Upside Down’s threats. And what is the new threat? It’s one of those prime, ultra-dangerous entities every villainous ulterior dimension eventually throws our way, in this case a slimy beast Dustin describes as a “dark wizard.” It can possess you and suck your eyes out, crush and contort your bones, etc. By the final, hour and a half-long episode, everyone is reunited and wandering through the Upside Down, with wonderfully trippy visuals. While the other seasons had hair-raising suspense, this one does go more for sheer horror. Cheerleaders levitate like “The Exorcist” before being killed, previously expired characters like Billy (Dacre Montgomery) return as zombie-like specters whenever the new Upside Down monster tries to lure in someone like Max. Now parts of the Upside Down look pulled out of a Sam Raimi B-movie. 

Even with great TV, there can be too much of a good thing. One section of season four that feels like it drags is the entire storyline involving Hopper being trapped at a Soviet prison camp. With the kids battling otherworldly threats, this whole section feels like an excuse to give Joyce something to do. She embarks on a whole journey joined by Murray Bauman (Brett Gelman) that takes them from California to Alaska to behind the Iron Curtain. By the end of the season Hopper isn’t saved just yet, since we need to wait for the second half arriving in July which will reportedly feature a season finale clocking in at over two hours. For now we get lots of cold, saturated moments inside the Soviet labor camp where he’s locked up, along with a few harsh interrogation sessions and potential friends from among the prisoners. In keeping with the more somber tone of this season, this is not the warm Hopper from earlier seasons but a quiet, haunted man. Winona Ryder gets some decent thriller moments like facing off with a Russian pilot in midair with Murray delivering a hilarious fighting stance speech. Inevitably, they both have to crash land the plane into a frozen forest.

When it first premiered, “Stranger Things” was a refreshing exercise in genre and nostalgia. It celebrated the influence of the kind of cinema pioneered by Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis in the ‘80s. A style that had originally been common in feature films like J.J. Abram’s “Super 8” was now extended into a TV show that basked in the details. There’s even a scene this season written solely for the purpose of finding a way to use the classic Lite Brite toy. Now that everyone is doing ‘80s nostalgia, “Stranger Things” is trying to show them up by going even bigger in scale and darker in plot. While the result is a bit of an overkill, it still features this series’ undeniably addictive appeal. The soundtrack continues to use hits from that era to create an effective atmosphere, like Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill (A Deal with God)” for a walk down the hell that is a high school hallway. Of course, the Cramps’ “I Was A Teenage Werewolf” gets thrown into the mix as well. It’s a massive banquet of a show that isn’t even concluding yet. But ambition can’t be faulted when the result is still something retaining plenty of magic.

Stranger Things 4” begins streaming May 27 on Netflix.