Arriving on Netflix in 2016, the science fiction horror series, Stranger Things, created by the Duffer Brothers, quickly garnered popularity for its 80’s nostalgia and novel take on sci-fi and light-hearted horror. Set in the fictional town of Hawkins, Indiana, the first season explored the friendship between four young boys: Dustin Henderson (Gaten Matarazzo), Lucas Sinclair (Caleb McLaughlin), Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) and Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard). Their bonds were tested when Will mysteriously disappeared and a girl with psychic powers named Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) appeared amid the supernatural occurrences within their small town.
The show also followed Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder), Jim Hopper (David Harbour), Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer), Jonathan Byers (Charlie Heaton), Max Mayfield (Sadie Sink), Steven Harrington (Joe Keery) and others as they worked to unravel the secrets of a dangerous dimension called the Upside Down and a creature known as the demogorgon. With a similar tone to the 2011 Stephen Spielberg-produced film Super 8 (which was also a nostalgic take on small-town life and featured a cast of kids fighting a monster) Stranger Things has been a wild ride, building up to what should be a big payoff in season four. But it falls a bit flat.
The installment, which debuts this Friday, is split into two parts. Part one sets an immediately darker tone than the previous seasons while vastly expanding the lore of the alternate dimension, the town and Eleven. Set four months after the events of last season, the group is now almost grown up and split up between Hawkins and California as they navigate their biggest challenge yet – high school. Things go terribly wrong when yet another supernatural foe called Vecna emerges. The basic idea is this: a corrupt villain with a particular aptitude for being cruel as a child for some reason grows up to be even more cruel. The central antagonist is overpowered without explanation, is exceedingly evil without any initial reason, and uses supernatural abilities to cheat death.
This chapter of Stranger Things is akin to parts one and two of the Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows movies when it comes to tying together loose ends. The season is more sinister and brooding than the previous ones, with more jump scares and gore, but it’s reduced by a generic background plot. Just when the series seems to have all of the right appetizers for something unique, the main dish is bland.
Beyond the villain, season 4 does have some winning elements: it situates viewers in interesting realities that aren’t what they seem as beloved characters encounter deadly new problems and try to piece together all the clues. While this is an effective way of keeping the episodes engaging, an influx of new characters makes the story somewhat disorienting.
Introducing numerous new characters in later seasons is always risky, as there isn’t much time for fans to build an attachment to them, let alone how they fit into the overall storyline. Here, we’re introduced to Eddie Munson (Joseph Quinn), the leader of Hawkins Middle School’s Dungeons and Dragons club and Argyle (Eduardo Franco), Jonathan’s new best friend and a delivery driver for Surfer Boy Pizza. Balancing such a large cast with multiple storylines that eventually begin to overlap gets a bit messier than usual this season. Established characters with compelling narratives could have benefited from more focus.
In all, this season of Stranger Things does what it needs to do. Classic horror fans and those who enjoy mystery and science fiction will be mostly satisfied. There’s some brilliantly sequenced scenes that are both immersive and aesthetically pleasing, and the older teenage angst is interwoven well within the supernatural chaos. But it’s not quite enough to make it great and there’s likely no way to redeem the dullness when part two comes in July, in just two installments. That said, we’ll hold out hope that the Summer finale and season 5 might provide darker turns, wrap up loose ends and pay homage to what has been one of the best things streamed on Netflix.