Friday, 1 July 2022

Stranger Things 4

March, 1986. Six months after the Starcourt Mall disaster, the town of Hawkins, Indiana is still struggling to return to normal. The gang who have repeatedly defeated incursions into our world from the parallel universe of the Upside Down are split between Hawkins and a new home in California, whilst Sheriff Jim Hopper is missing, presumed dead. However, a trail of clues leads Joyce Byers to realise he is still alive and in prison in the Soviet Union. A new spate of murders in Hawkins leads the authorities to believe a satanic cult is at work in the town, but the truth is that the Upside Down has once again found a way of worming into our world...and this time it wants to stay for good.

Back in 2016, Stranger Things felt like a breath of fresh air. A show rooted in nostalgia that also remembered to bring to bear some original ideas, some great characterisation and a soundtrack to die for. When it came back for the sequel, it took a cue from James Cameron by ramping up the visual effects, the stakes and the emotional throughline of the story to make something outstanding. For its third go-around, the show faltered a little with some silly storylines and some iffy characterisation (remember when Hopper suddenly turned into a massive arsehole for a whole season for no reason?), and a vague sense that maybe the writers were running out of ideas, but rallied at the finish to deliver something very enjoyable.

Going to the well for a fourth time is dangerous. You might come up with something so terrible humanity as a collective whole might recoil from any memory of it existing (or worse, or even worse). You might come up with something that is clearly stupid but also highly enjoyable. Or you could strike out and make something genuinely terrific.

For its fourth season, Stranger Things has decided to really up the ante. Which is a tall order since for both previous seasons it already upped the ante quite a bit. So this time around they smash through the absurdity barrier with budget (several episodes cost more than $30 million apiece), cast size (there are 20 regular and major castmembers, and around a dozen more with important roles) and episode length (the season finale is a bum-numbing two and a half hours, and only one episode is under 70 minutes). If Stranger Things was a network show with 44-minute episodes, its fourth season would be 17 episodes long, but condensed down into nine. It's a lot of television and a lot of show to watch.

The show does its best to pull off its huge scale by emulating The Lord of the Rings, which to be fair if you're going big or going home is definitely a good template to use. The season sets up a new, powerful and singular enemy with "Vecna" (not his real or assumed name, but part of the ongoing Dungeons & Dragons IP-referencing approach which Wizards of the Coast is absolutely loving) and our titanic cast has to split into three subgroups to deal with him and other assorted subplots the show has been generating. Team 1, consisting of Eleven, Will, Jonathan, Jonathan's wholly superfluous stoner friend and a visiting Mike, is out in California where the Byers clan is desperately trying to pretend that everything is fine. Joyce and Murray soon abscond, forming Team 2, who decide to embark on a two-person rescue mission to Kamchatka in the Soviet Far East to rescue the missing Hopper, who was (somehow) captured by the Soviets and taken to a prison. This is actually far more ridiculous than even a brief plot summary can do justice to.

Then, back in Hawkins, Team 3 (Dustin, Lucas, Max, Nancy, Steve, Robin, Erica and New Guy Eddie) get involved in investigating a series of grisly murders which, thanks to a nice tie-in with the real-life Satanic Panic that gripped Americans over Dungeons & Dragons (albeit several years later than in reality), get turned back on them and they find themselves in the frame for it. Obviously new big bad Vecna is behind these events and, once everyone gets on the same page, they decide to take the fight into Mordor the Upside Down to try to vanquish him once and for all.

It's a classic structure and it gives us the prodigious cast of characters - which at times it feels like even George R.R. Martin would frown over and make him reach for the murder pen - plenty to do, especially because the writers also continue giving each character personal crises, romances, thwarted crushes and challenges to overcome. This is all laudable - character development is obviously a good thing - but it does tie in to making this season stealthily almost twice as long as the first, and contributes to sometimes stodgy pacing and some very weird plot transitions. At one point three of our heroes are imprisoned and being systemically choked to death by evil tendrils of doom, and it's a good twenty minutes before the writers have rotated between other characters to get back to them, which is not great for tension.

What remains great are the performances. Previous seasons had put the lion's share of work on a few players, like Millie Bobby Brown and David Harbour, but this season everybody knocks it out of the park. Caleb McLaughlin, who was ill-served by the last season, has a great arc and a fantastic emotional moment in the finale, Noah Schnapp gets an equally brilliant moment of emotional catharsis, Natalia Dyer gets a crowning action moment of awesome and Joe Keery gets plenty of fanservice moments which threaten to topple over into cheese, but his charisma keeps it on track. The MVP of the season is Sadie Sink as Max, who gets easily the season's most powerful scenes (with backup from Kate Bush) and maybe the most emotionally bruising ride for a character we've ever seen the show pull off. Only Charlie Heaton as Jonathan is left really hanging with nothing to do, and I think bringing back Matthew Modine as Dr. Brenner was a mistake since he has nothing really major to accomplish except to reiterate his love of making Eleven go through trauma and whine about how it's justified (especially as it means less time for Paul Reiser as Dr. Owens, who was basically Brenner's replacement). Yeah, we got that in Season 1, thanks.

It's to the show's credit that it manages to spin all these plates and move things forward, but the pacing is uneven and sometimes stodgy. I'd have been happy dropping entire subplots and characters if they serve no role here (give Charlie a year off, say he's at college and bring him back for the final season), and certainly condensing others. The Soviet storyline in Season 3 was ludicrous and its sequel in Season 4 is only marginally more interesting, with new arrival Tom Wlaschiha (late of Game of Thrones) doing some heavy lifting to keep this story vaguely compelling. Also, we already have an American Murray, I'm not sure why we need a Russian clone of him as well, who's even more annoying. The fact that the Joyce/Murray/Yuri side of the Russian story is played almost entirely for comedy whilst the Hopper/Enzo side of is played for gritty prison tropes and outright horror is also grating. Stranger Things has terrific form for balancing comedy and horror, but Season 4 definitely feels like it drops the ball a few times with tonal mismanagement.

Stranger Things does a lot right with its fourth season but it also does a lot wrong, particularly as it winds up. It's bum-numbing finale in particular feels off, recursively pushing a character to the brink of death and then wimping out at the last minute (the exact same character they did it to earlier), making sure that only guest stars or people we hate are killed off for real, and then deploying the exact same method of plot resolution that we already saw in previous seasons (it's not a massive spoiler to say that Eleven is involved). The only big shift here is the producers knowing that they have a fifth and final season greenlit already, so we actually get a full-scale cliffhanger this time around, one that does promise to go really big...but that's for a while down the road.

Stranger Things' fourth season (****) is still a big-budget spectacle, watchable and often fun, with great characters whom it's fun to spend time with. It also struggles to balance its huge cast and myriad subplots satisfyingly, and when given the opportunity to do something new or shocking, it decides to fall back on safely emulating tropes and repeating plot points from earlier, better seasons. But if the shine is starting to fade on the show (and ending it after five seasons feels very wise), there's still a lot here to enjoy. The season is now available in full worldwide on Netflix.

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