TV Review:  Stranger Things (2022)

TitleStranger Things
Release Dates: 2022
Season: 4
Number of Episodes: 9

The supernatural/horror/thriller/drama Stranger Things returns after a three-year (pandemic-delayed) gap with new adventures for a growing team of residents of the fictional town of Hawkins, Indiana.  After diminishing returns in seasons 2 and 3, season 4 feels like a return to form that comes close to greatness of the debut season.  With a large cast of characters, the season is longer in both the number of episodes and the length of individual episodes to tell all their stories, so it can feel sprawling and uneven at times, but I personally feel the more the merrier.

The show reflects a bigger budget and more ambitious scope than previous series lending it a more cinematic feel. It also has more intense gore and horror elements than previous seasons. New cast member Joseph Quinn stars as the season’s breakout character Eddie Munson, leader of the Hellfire Club at Hawkins High School where the nerdy outsiders bond over Dungeons and Dragons’ campaigns.  Sadie Sink returns for her third season as Max Mayfield getting a chance to really develop her character and show off her acting chops.

My review continues below with spoilers, so beware!

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Season 4 is set during spring break at the end of March 1986, just 9 months after season 3.  The child actors have aged considerably more than their characters and it shows, which is understandable (although I’m not clear why Nancy and Jonathan, who were old enough to drive in season 1, are still in high school almost 4 years later).  The story for the season is told in three basic, interweaving plotlines, and unlike previous seasons the characters in each plot don’t really meet in person for most of the series to the point that they work together virtually at the show’s climax.

The first and strongest plotline is set in Hawkins where Eddie becomes the prime suspect of a series of murders of teenagers.  Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), Max (Sadie Sink), Nancy (Natalia Dyer), Steve (Joe Keery), Robin (Maya Hawke), and Erica (Priah Ferguson) team up to help Eddie, and learn that they are facing a new and bigger threat from the Upside Down in the form of a powerful being they name “Vecna” (Jamie Campbell Bower). Vecna haunts his victims through visions and nightmares and Max becomes his next target.  Appropriately, Robert Englund of Freddy Kruger fame makes a great cameo appearance.  A haunted house setting and a mystery dating back to the 1950s are central to this plot thread.

Meanwhile, Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), Will (Noah Schnapp), and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) have relocated to California where Mike (Finn Wolfhard) visits for Spring Break.  Eleven is not adjusting well to her new school and the loss of her powers culminating in a standoff with a particularly vicious bully. This brings her to the attention of two factions of government officials, one who wants to help her and one who wants to kill her.  She reluctantly reunites with the evil Dr. Brenner (Matthew Modine) to regain her powers at a secret lab. The treatment requires Eleven to revisit suppressed memories of a horrific massacre at the Hawkins Lab in 1979, revealing a gruesome past that ties in with Vecna and Hawkins’ initial contact with the Upside Down. Mike, Will, Jonathan, and Jonathan’s stoner friend Argyle (a hilarious Eduardo Franco) go on a road trip in order to track her down.  While they were major characters in previous season, Mike and Will unfortunately feel scaled down in this season.

The final plotline is the least satisfying especially since it is a loose thread of Season 3’s ludicrous plot of Soviet military scientists secretly building a lab under a shopping mall in Hawkins (which somehow seems less plausible than a midwestern town repeatedly being terrorized by monsters from an alternate dimension).  Jim Hopper (David Harbour), believed dead at the end of season 3 is actually in a prison camp in the remote Kamchatka Peninsula in the USSR where the Soviets have also brought back some Demogorgons to torment the prisoners.  Learning that Hopper is still alive, Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) teams up with Murray Bauman (Brett Gelman) to bust him out of prison.  This plot is stretched out over the entire series which makes sense in a way, because rescuing someone from the USSR would take time, but also serves to keep Joyce and Hopper away from what is happening to their children back in the U.S.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t allow for Ryder and Harbour to use much of their great acting talents while somehow also being way more of the annoying Murray than this show ever needed.

Nevertheless, all the plots do come together in a satisfying manner which each of the three teams playing a part in the final battle from different parts of the world. The extended length of the episodes allows time to develop a lot of lore and many great character moments, especially in the Hawkins location.  Vecna is definitely a bigger and scarier threat than we have ever seen before.  And with a cliffhanger ending, the show is set up for an even bigger battle versus the Upside Down in the fifth and final season.

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