At a time when web-series episodes are getting shorter in duration, Netflix’s Stranger Things has gone the opposite way, and in its fourth season, the episodes are more than an hour each, with the seventh episode clocking in at over 90 minutes. With other platforms releasing an episode a week to build up anticipation, Netflix has gone all guns blazing and released seven of the nine episodes as Volume One in a single shot. Even the platform’s iconic ‘Ta-Dum’ intro has been remixed into a spooky one to match the theme of the series. All these decisions might have been thought risky, and yet, it all works to make the fourth season of Stranger Things bigger, scarier, and better.
The kids are back, and this time, they aren’t as naive as they were when the first season premiered in 2016. Over the years, they have become stronger and wiser, but given the horrors that they have witnessed, the group dynamics have been affected, naturally. After big developments like the death of Billy, Hopper’s capture by the Russians, and the end of the Mind Flayer, things aren’t quite the same for our gang of boys and girls. PTSD, grief, drugs, long-distance relationships, the urge to fit in, best friends drifting apart, bullies, loss of power… almost every primary character is dealing with something terrible. When unnatural deaths start rampaging the town of Hawkins once again, the gang has to put their past behind, reunite and make sure they do what it takes to protect themselves and the town.
It’s not just the runtime; the scale and magnitude of the series have gone up exponentially. What started as the story of a town’s inhabitants now covers events happening in different timelines, cities, and countries involving many new characters. Given the gap between the last season and this one, the quick recap before the first episode comes in handy. Even still, it takes us a while before we are able to sink into the retro world of 1986 Hawkins where the favourite pastime of young adults is to rollerskate.
A pleasant surprise comes in the form of the show’s tryst with horror which has now become more terrifying. We get to know that the Mind Flayer from the last season was a mere pawn and that there’s a whole cavalry in the ‘upside down’. This time, we see the kids facing off against a sentient, humanoid creature that they name Vecna, a character from the fantasy role-playing game, Dungeons and Dragons.
What makes the latest season the best in the franchise is how, despite the possibility of it being all over the place thanks to the multiple subplots, the creators have figured out a road map to link and bring them all together. Even the menacing Vecna has a humble beginning that later episodes shed more light on, and it is a mark of the groundedness of this franchise.
At a recent conference, the series’ creators, Matt and Ross Duffer, revealed that they think of Stranger Things as their “Game of Thrones season” and we can see why. Like the hit HBO series involving events transpiring across different terrains, and involving different characters, Stranger Things Season 4 too brings back characters who have split in various directions. Joyce and Murray plan on bringing back Hopper from Russia; Mike and Dustin join a new club headed by the eccentric Eddie Munson who gets involved in the matter of the mysterious homicides; Max has broken up with Lucas who is now an integral part of the school basketball team; Eleven, meanwhile, is coming to terms with the loss of her powers. Oh, and this season also stars Tom Wlaschiha (who played Jaqen H’ghar in GoT).
The biggest strength of the franchise is how convincingly it makes us buy the unlikely story of kids containing and solving world-shaking crises. The new season builds upon this, and this time, government agencies get involved too. With so much ground to cover, the runtime feels warranted. Even the flashback sequences from 1979, featuring a younger Eleven, which were considerably slower and dull when compared to the rest of the story, end at a brilliant high point as it connects to the current timeline and even paves the way to the second volume of Season 4.
The new season is also likable in how it infuses episodes with the perfect dose of humour and emotions so unique to the Stranger Things franchise. Given how scary elements are dialled up to 11, it’s difficult to not get reminded of the various horror classics that this season shares plotlines with and that’s not a bad thing at all, given how this gets incorporated into the core idea of this season. As always, the set work, props and costumes are on point and relevant to the 80s vibe. We spend some more time in the ‘upside down’ and the CG is probably the best we have seen in the web-series format.
On the whole, the first volume is a fantastic addition to the franchise, which sticks to what fans want and love from it while stretching the limits of the story to accommodate a new, unique villain. Volume Two is set to come out on July 1, and I say, bring it on!
Created by: The Duffer Brothers
Cast: Winona Ryder, David Harbour, Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobby Brown, Gaten Matarazzo, Caleb McLaughlin, Natalia Dyer
Streaming on: Netflix