Chapter One: The Hellfire Club – | Review Score – 4/5
Chapter Two: Vecna’s Curse – | Review Score – 4/5
Chapter Three: The Monster and the Superhero – | Review Score – 4/5
Chapter Four: Dear Billy – | Review Score – 4/5
Chapter Five: The Nine Project – | Review Score – 4/5
Chapter Six: The Dive – | Review Score – 4/5
Chapter Seven: The Massacre at Hawkins Lab – | Review Score – 4/5
Chapter Eight: Papa – | Review Score – 4/5
Chapter Nine: Piggyback – | Review Score – 4/5
When Stranger Things released back in 2016, it quickly grew to become one of Netflix’s most prominent shows. Combining the best parts of Stephen King, Steven Spielberg and nostalgia-heavy teen dramas, the Duffer Brothers managed to produce an absolute gem.
A year later season 2 came out, with a mostly positive reception (minus that standalone episode involving Eleven’s road-trip, which has quickly been retconned from existence!) while season 3 dropped the ball in a big way – especially upon re-watches as it doesn’t hold up to the same degree.
Ditching a lot of the horror and replacing that with humour and a bright, aesthetically pleasing colour palette, it seemed the Stranger Things of old was long gone.
Compounding these issues is an increasing number of characters, which Stranger Things has added to its already-stacked cast. From small players like Erica and Suzie through to additional adults like Murray, there were concerns over exactly how season 4 would handle them.
With extended run-times, a return to the grimy, dark visuals from the first season and a much more tense and horror-fuelled story than before, Stranger Things delivers a massive return to form after a bit of a slump. And what a return it is.
It’s been 6 years since the first season released and in that time, a lot has changed. For those within the community of Hawkins though, only eight months have passed since the events that concluded the third season. We’re into March 1986 and our characters soon find themselves whisked up on another perilous adventure.
This year, Stranger Things splits its story into three concurrent plotlines, which are interwoven around the 9 episodes. The first takes place in Hawkins where several teenagers are killed in mysterious ways. Among those include Chrissy, the high school cheerleader. Her boyfriend, Jason, is convinced that there’s foul play involved and immediately suspects the Hellfire Club.
Now, the Hellfire club is a Dungeons and Dragons group lead by the charismatic Eddie Munson. Dustin and the others are part of this, minus Lucas who seems to have found a new lease of life playing basketball with Jason and the others.
When Eddie is made public enemy number 1, Lucas is unwittingly swept up in a manhunt as he goes on the run, with Dustin, Nancy, Max, Steve and Robin all attempting to find out what’s really going on.
It soon becomes clear that there’s a puppet master behind the scenes; a powerful being that lives in the Upside Down by the name of Vecna. He has a plan of his own, which soon becomes apparent as the season progresses.
The second plotline involves Mike Wheeler, who heads off to visit Eleven, Will and Jonathan in their new home over in California. Eleven no longer has her powers and she ends up being bullied by kids at school. That is, until she learns what’s happening in Hawkins. Determined to help out, El is taken to a secret facility with Dr Martin Brenner and Sam Owens in a bid to help regain her powers.
The third and final plotline involves Joyce and Murray, who learn that Hopper may still be alive somewhere in Russia. Specifically, in a gulag deep in the heart of the unforgiving Kamchatka. However, this prison holds more than a few secrets, something Hopper soon finds out as the season progresses.
There’s an awful lot going on this year so it’s of no surprise to find the runtimes for most of these episodes exceeding 70 minutes. While that would ordinarily cause the show to drag on, the different plotlines help to keep things fresh across the 9 episodes. That’s not to say there aren’t excessive parts of this story though that could have been tightened up.
The plotline involving Lucas, Jason and the bullies drags on far longer than it should. Furthermore, there are some characters here that really don’t have much of an arc. It’s great to see Lucas given something substantial to do after playing second fiddle for several seasons, but instead we get players like Jonathan and Robin that don’t have a whole lot to do.
This was perhaps to be expected given how many characters the Duffer brothers are juggling, so it’s perhaps a good thing that only a few players slip up.
Thankfully, the majority of characters here do have a decent arc, with newcomer Eddie and Max two of the most significant in terms of depth. Their roles also have a big impact on the plot and how the fight with Vecna plays out but I’m not about to spoil anything here in this review!
One of the better parts of Stranger Things this year comes from its antagonistic threat. With the first three seasons coasting by on the Mind Flayer and whatever this entity wants, actually seeing a face and understanding its motivations helps to reframe the entire conflict and gives the kids some real stakes to play with. There are some definite Nightmare on Elm Street influences here, which is perhaps ironic given Robert Englund actually has a starring role.
What’s also interesting here is the way season 4 eases into the conflict in a relatively straightforward manner. In fact, you could actually skip seasons 2 and 3 entirely and jump straight into this one if you so desire; the third season doesn’t hold up as well after watching this fourth season.
I won’t get into story specifics but one thing that’s particularly egregious here is the subject of plot armour. It’s something that plagues a lot of IPs and very few have managed to navigate this in a way that gives real stakes for its characters. Buffy is one such example of how to do this right. Paradoxically, The Walking Dead is an example of how not to do this, with characters outstaying their welcome long after their respective arcs have finished.
I’m being careful not to spoil anything here but episode 8 in particular is a masterful execution of dread and tension before the final fight. It hints that there’s going to be massive repercussions for what happens. The end result in episode 9 certainly doesn’t hold back but instead of a killshot, this feels more akin to a bullet through the knee. It’s still painful but not quite as effective as it could have been.
I mentioned the visuals earlier and Stranger Things really steps it up this year in terms of every part of its aesthetic. The editing between scenes is fantastic, with neat little cues including burning paper, clouds dissipating into a snowy wilderness and more, helping to give this an artistic edge.
Much will be said about the soundtrack too, including a certain metal song and Running Up That Hill by Kate Bush, the latter of which smashing records and reaching number 1 in many countries.
On top of that, some of the acting this year is fantastic. Lucas really steps it up a gear, as does Max who has a really impressive scene sat in front of Billy’s grave which will go down as one of the more iconic moments of this season.
The rest of the cast are great in their roles too, and it’s nice to see Hopper in particular far better utilized this year. Gone are the fat jokes and angry Dad routine and instead we get a battle-hardened badass.
Given the torrent of bad TV that’s been released this year from big name franchises, it’s refreshing to find a show like Stranger Things break that mould and deliver an amazing season of TV.
Sure, some of the plot lines could have been tightened up and the finale could have been improved (despite clocking in at 2 and a half hours!) but these are minor points in what’s otherwise been one of the better shows released in 2022.
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Verdict - 8.5/10