“Stranger Things” Has Found Its Groove Again

The fourth season of the hit Netflix series recaptures the brilliance of the first.

To accuse Stranger Things of repeating itself is redundant; the show pitched itself as a repeat of sorts, a guided tour through beloved tropes, reorganized and redeployed. When it arrived in 2016, Stranger Things became an instant hit precisely because it proudly declared itself a pastiche of 1980s pop culture. Every frame was dripping with homage. It took known references from the likes of Steven Spielberg and Stephen King and played with them in a way that felt both familiar and fresh. It was escapist without descending into vapidity.

But then the show got stuck in second gear. In Season 2, there was still some fun to be extracted from this kind of ’80s cosplay, but by the time Stranger Things sputtered to its meandering third season in 2019, the momentum felt forced and inorganic. The throwback references were everywhere, but it felt like the only trick in the bag.

How refreshing it is, then, to find that the just-concluded fourth season returns to the brilliant heights of its first. This week, the season was nominated for 13 Emmys, including the major category of Outstanding Drama Series, though notably it picked up no acting nominations. After three years away, the show plunges viewers back into the mysteries of the fictional Hawkins, Indiana — only this time, we’ve moved past a foundation of spookiness and into proper horror. A lot of people die in this one. The deaths are frightening and startling. Meanwhile, the monster-fighting kids we’ve been following have been forced to grow up; they no longer fight with fireworks but use spears and sawed-off shotguns. Stranger Things has rediscovered the magic and delivered an excellent season that could’ve been the capstone to the whole series.

Season 4 sees the core group sprawled across different locations. While Hawkins comes under attack from the mysterious monster Vecna, the vantage point shifts frequently to characters trapped in a Soviet prison while others have to make a road trip across America in a precarious pizza van. The show’s central character, Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), is slowly coming to terms with memories she had blocked herself from accessing. Thus begins an arc that resolves some significant questions for this series: How did Eleven get her powers? How did the Upside Down dimension open in the first place? Who is the big bad of Stranger Things? All of those answers unfurl in Eleven’s memories — memories that prove central to the confrontation with Vecna later.

When I say later, I do mean way later — the season’s runtime has been the topic of much consternation. Stranger Things returned with nine episodes released in two batches. Each episode easily ran over 60 minutes, most hovering around an hour and 15 minutes. The season finale pushed those boundaries further and was longer than a feature-length movie, clocking in at 2 hours and 30 minutes.

Still, if much of the action was unnecessary, it was joyful to watch, thanks to smart pairings of characters and the introductions of standout addition Eddie Munson (Joseph Quinn) and the perpetually high pizza-god Argyle. Meanwhile, the onscreen chemistry between the triad of Steve, Nancy, and Robin made for gripping TV.

The Duffer Brothers clearly had more to play with, considering the budget for this season — a staggering $30 million for every episode. That’s $270 million for Season 4. For reference, Spider-Man: No Way Home cost $200 million. The Duffers clearly wanted every set piece and confrontation to feel like an event, and the show managed to stick the landing on this.

The season is long because for many of these characters, it is a sort of graduation into adulthood.

Netflix’s subscriber base may be cause for alarm for the streamer, but Stranger Things has clearly morphed into its crown jewel. Such is the power of this show that Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill,” a 37-year-old song, went viral and entered the top 10 in the US for the first time on the strength of an emotional scene where it soundtracks the saving of a life (though not everyone loves the Kate Bush renaissance). Even Metallica and Journey have enjoyed bumps from key Stranger Things moments.

But if the action was a thrill to watch — including the most badass metal concert in the history of TV — the show never loses sight of the stakes it set up. The horror in Hawkins has ramped up. The villain kills. Repeatedly and gruesomely. Loyal fans of the show might remember the warm innocence of the first season, when the villain was named the Mind Flayer because of the gang’s affection for Dungeons & Dragons. When Will goes missing in the first season, Eleven flips over the D&D board and uses the back of it to describe what the children term the Upside Down. When they name the evil in Season 4 based on another D&D entity, you get the sense that it’s a last-ditch effort to grasp a terror they can’t quite fathom.

The fourth season’s sprawling runtime allows for more horror, yes, but it also allows for more character exploration. Much of the last two episodes is spent with rotating pairings who reveal to each other the ways Hawkins has changed them: Nancy and Steve, Max and Lucas, Hopper and Joyce, Will and Mike, Will and Jonathan, Jonathan and Nancy. It’s easy to dismiss these two-hander scenes as unnecessary, but they pay off: The season is long because for many of these characters, it is a sort of graduation into adulthood.

This week, we learned that Stranger Things will return in 2024, and for this the Duffers should be invited to the Red Table because that is too long to wait. In this season, Stranger Things found its stride. There is a great risk in wading into the next season with a more expansive story and losing the intimacy that makes the show work. There is greater risk, still, that the actors — many of whom were only 12 or 13 when they started filming this show — are rapidly aging out of these characters. Noah Schnapp was 11 when filming began, and now he is old enough to draw heat from Doja Cat.

Whatever the show’s final season holds in store, the Duffers have shown a deftness in handling the timelines. Though we met the characters at the start of their adolescence, the show’s horror vocabulary has evolved as the Hawkins kids approach the verge of adulthood. This is, perhaps, the best accomplishment of the fourth season: By the time the finale concludes, the problems of the Upside Down have become the problems of the real world, and the horror once only seen by children is the horror everyone sees.●

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