Netflix’s Stranger Things is known for leveling up its games, brutality, and stakes even higher in each season. After the events of season three’s “The Battle of Starcourt,” where a huge beast with tentacles from the Upside Down terrorised the small town of Hawkins, it was hard and perhaps expected, of the Duffer Brothers to top that mega-finale. But the fourth season returns with familiar and new faces, with bigger stakes, and a villain bigger and more gruesome than the Mind Slayer. Also, the new season references many horror movies, such as Silence of the Lambs, The Exorcist, and A Nightmare on Elm Street. Where limbs break and eyes are gouged, it brings old, evil monsters to the screen.
Six months after the mall-based battle, everything is quiet and calm. But the usual groups are scattered across the country. Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder), her two sons Will (Noah Schnapp) and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) and El (Millie Bobby Brown) moved to California for a fresh start. They settle into their new town and school, but El, known as Jane now, has a hard time adjusting to the new environment and school after losing her powers. She gets bullied by a Regina George-esque character from the 80s. At the same time, Joyce receives a package, which leads her to believe that Hopper (David Harbour) might be alive in a secret prison in Russia. She teams up with Murray (Brett Gelman) and sets off to find some answers to bring Hopper back home.
Meanwhile, in Hawkins, the rest of the group is trying to find their place in high school and tackle the challenges of teenhood. Mike (Finn Wolfhard) and Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) are the new members of a Dungeons & Dragons club called The Hellfire Club, led by Eddie Munson (Joseph Quinn). Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) assimilates with the high school basketball team to find a place where he can belong, instead of being bullied for being a nerd. After Max’s (Sadie Sink) stepbrother dies at the hands of the giant-tentacled monster, she struggles to deal with the trauma and spends most of her time alone listening to Kate Bush on her Walkman. But the springtime break doesn’t last too long before the gang has to save the world again from a humanoid monster called Vecna, who is murdering teenagers in Hawkins. El, her best friends, and the older teens must band together and find the supernatural entity terrorizing the small town.
The penultimate season of Stranger Things is bigger and better. The show, which fundamentally relied on D&D to understand the logistics of the Upside Down, completely forgoes the game in the later seasons. It relies heavily on the chemistry between the characters and moments that are unforgettable and fun, even though the game makes a return in the first episode. While the characters from the first seasons, Will, Mike, Dustin, Lucas and El, are split unevenly and perhaps randomly, the group dynamics are not stronger in the new seasons. Maybe the audience might have gotten used to seeing the world’s greatest babysitter Steve Harrington (Joe Keery) and the kids together. However, this season, the old and the young teenagers are shoved into a group, and it doesn’t seem like they like each other that much and are forced to figure things out together.
The one aspect that the fourth season of Stranger Things struggles with is balancing all the old and new characters. Eddie, the long-haired metalhead, is painted as the target for murdering the teenagers in Hawkins. While his character is chaotic and plunges into the deep horrors of the interdimensional world underneath Hawkins, Eddie never fades into the background. However, some characters didn’t have a proper arc or charm, rather they were written for comic relief or a jock who prefers vigilante-style justice and stirs up trouble by motivating others to be violent. Due to the densely packed storylines, these characters will surely make no impact on the audience.
While Vecna preys on the teenage kids using their worst memories to create hallucinations in their heads, the fourth season focuses on how young teenagers can be torn apart due to their past traumas. Vecna, who is known to terrorize the kids using psychological means, as opposed to the Mind Flayer who physically torments them, the humanoid monster haunts them through their nightmares and fears. Throughout the season, Max is overcome with the loss of her stepbrother and the eventual break-up of her parents. She pushes her friends away because she doesn’t want to feel like a burden to them. She fails her classes, and at night, dreams haunt her of Billy being devoured at the mall. Stranger Things changes things up in this season and reflects on trauma, loneliness, and how healing required tremendous work and support from friends. “Dear Billy” can be read as an allegory for depression, but the highlight is how Max overcomes her fears and moves forward to get better. Sink’s performance is phenomenal, and she carries the weight of the season and shows a more vulnerable side of her character, known to be a bit goofy and moody.
The cunning and evil threat from the Upside Down, Vecna, is terrifying. Far more than the other villains. A monster with claws for hands and its appearance almost resembles Freddy Kreuger, but his true motivations for murdering teenagers are more shocking than ever. For horror fans, they will enjoy the Freddy Krueger and Hannibal Lector inspired episodes. As the season reveals, Vecna and his minions might have been terrorizing the town of Hawkins for a long time. While El and her friends fought the Demogorgons and the Mind Flayer, Vecna seems like a final boss that began his story way before the curse started in the small town. Stranger Things commits by creating new mythology and gruesome, evil monsters that strike fear and increase the stakes of the show.
The first volume of Stranger Things’ fourth season is ambitious, fun, and terrifying enough to keep the audience entertained. The show sticks to the formulae of separating the characters into different locations and bringing them all together to unveil everything at the end. Sometimes, it’s difficult to keep up with the new characters and their arcs, but the few characters that seem important do not feel like they were written to be left behind. The penultimate season packs terrifying sequences of characters hovering in the air and their limbs breaking due to Vecna’s curse, and it blends sci-fi and horror to its maximum thrill and capacity. None of the episodes in the fourth are under an hour, and it seems like the audience will be watching a feature-length movie, and it will surely be an epic battle. The Duffer Brothers created the biggest and the most terrifying villain in the Stranger Things universe to date, and El and her friends will be there to save the day.
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