When season three of Stranger Things ended with a mall-based battle to the death with a many-tentacled beast from the Upside Down, it was hard to imagine how the Netflix show’s creators could top such darkness and horror. You don’t have to get too far into season four’s epic-length episodes, though, for them to show you just how they’ve managed to raise the bar once again.
We rejoin the gang in 1986, six months after The Battle Of Starcourt and in a period of relative calm. The Byers family have moved to California with Eleven (played by Millie Bobby Brown) in tow, and are settling into a new school and work routine. Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) has found a new bestie in Argyle (Eduardo Franco), a local stoner who becomes his comedic sidekick this season. Will and El, meanwhile, are navigating being the social outcasts – the biggest chaos in their lives is dealing with bullies and Eleven coming to terms with having lost her powers.
Back in Hawkins, Indiana, the rest of the crew are also tackling the challenges of teenhood and the fallout from last season. Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) has joined their new high school’s basketball team in a bid to find acceptance, while Mike (Finn Wolfhard) and Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) are new members of The Hellfire Club, a D&D group led by longhaired metalhead Eddie Munson (Joseph Quinn). Max (Sadie Sink) has withdrawn from the group as much as possible as she struggles to deal with the trauma of having watched her stepbrother Billy get devoured by a Demogorgon in the mall.
But, this being Stranger Things, the springtime lull doesn’t last too long. Soon enough, a teenager is found brutally murdered, and mass hysteria and panic washes over Hawkins. The residents are right to be scared, but it’s only this group of kids who really understand why – something supernatural has stirred once again. Enter Vecna: the creepiest, most terrifying ST villain so far, and one who helps put the lore of the show into the context of something much bigger than what’s unfolded in previous seasons. If its citizens are scared that the town is cursed, history seems to suggest they’re right.
Show creators The Duffer Brothers have said they “peel back the layers” of Stranger Things mythology in this season, but they also give us deeper looks into the backstories of some of our favourite characters. The episodes’ long run-times (none are under an hour) allow this to be done in tandem with pushing the story forward without everything feeling crammed in.
There are some storylines that advance slowly, though. Hopper’s fate in Russia unfolds at a snail’s pace, as does Joyce’s arc. In the first four episodes, Will feels like a third wheel to El and a visiting Mike in more ways than one – the former protagonist now feels sidelined to a bit part. The same can’t be said for Max, who takes centre-stage this season with excellent performances from Sink: first as a troubled teen suffering in silence and, later, as a person in peril from something truly monstrous.
While there are some gripes to be had with the penultimate season of the show, it still packs in all the terrifying thrills you’d expect, deftly blending horror and sci-fi to maximum effect while still allowing for some laughs among the bleakness. It’s a finely-tuned formula that’s given us yet another sublime season and, hopefully, one more to come.
‘Stranger Things’ season four, part one is now streaming on Netflix