Season four of Stranger Things bumps up the gore as it considers the anguish of growing up. By Clem Bastow.
Although the fourth season of Stranger Things has been heralded as the “most horrifying yet”, I wasn’t holding my breath. After all, hype runs thick and fast in the lead-up to a new season of Matt and Ross Duffer’s – aka the Duffer brothers – Netflix hit. But by the time the baby’s cot burns and screams mingle with pulsing modular synths from composers Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein, I had moved much closer to the edge of my seat.
Stranger Things – initially an exercise in the “eight-hour movie” screenwriting that has proliferated in the streaming era – has grown in narrative heft and episodic largesse with each season. “Volume 1” of Stranger Things 4, the first seven episodes, dropped this week; the final two will arrive in July’s “Volume 2”. (The first four were provided to review.) It’s not an accident that each season has a naming convention, Stranger Things 2 and so on, that seems more movie franchise than episodic television. The Duffer Brothers’ and producer Shawn Levy’s commitment to cinematic storytelling means this season’s episodes start at an hour and 16 minutes in “Chapter One: The Hellfire Club” and get longer from there. The season’s finale is reportedly two-and-a-half-hours long.
Perhaps they need the time: there’s a lot to unravel in the fictional town of Hawkins, Indiana, since Billy (Australia’s own pin-up poet, Dacre Montgomery) was torn apart in the battle of Starcourt Mall back on July 4, 2019. Eleven’s (Millie Bobby Brown’s) powers have faded and she’s now living the hell of high school in small-town California with her adopted family, Will (Noah Schnapp), Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) and Joyce (Winona Ryder).
Back in Hawkins, Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) have joined The Hellfire Club, a Dungeons and Dragons party run by burnout student Eddie (Joseph Quinn, a soulful addition). Lucas is torn between his nerdy friends and newfound social cachet on the basketball team. Max (Sadie Sink) is mourning her brother Billy’s death. Steve (Joe Keery) and Robin (Maya Hawke) are still working at the video store and… you get the idea.
This season offers a confident stride into more grown-up ghoulishness as well as some engaging real-world parallels, such as the moral panic surrounding D&D’s alleged Satanic overtones. The first time a hapless Hawkins resident is dispatched, it’s genuinely shocking. On repetition, these new horrors begin to feel a little shopworn: we have seen slack-jawed faces of existential terror like these in too many contemporary horror movies. This may be the beginning of the series’ A Nightmare on Elm Street era, but its scares lack the expressionistic inventiveness that Wes Craven and his production team magicked up for the 1984 classic. It’s a shame, because elsewhere this is the show’s most formally inventive season yet, making great use of transitions, cross-cut dialogue and woozy cinematography.
The series is given a camp charge by the arrival, in “Chapter Four: Dear Billy”, of Robert Englund – the original Freddy Krueger himself – as the tormented Victor Creel. That the show introduces him in a retrograde insane asylum is certainly a commitment to throwback narrative values; mental healthcare has not seemed like this much of a prison since 1986’s The Boy Who Could Fly. However, the “nuthouse” setting, no matter how clearly it is presented in a negative light, undoes some of the season’s more nuanced exploration of the mental anguish of grief, depression and bullying.
This tension runs throughout: a desire to represent the past as it was captured by the contemporaneous screen works that inspired the creators, while acknowledging the harm of many of those representations. It doesn’t always strike a balance. This is comfortably the sort of old-school storyworld where Russian bad guys sneer things such as “This man does not deserve the peace of death!” Given this hokey depiction of the Motherland of cinematic yore, Tom Wlaschiha – not ordinarily known for his hamminess – is clearly living it up as prison guard Dmitri.
There are less geopolitically troubling ways in which these cinematic touchstones are foregrounded. Paul Reiser’s affable Dr Owens is haunted by the “bad guy in ally’s clothing” quality of the actor’s great slimeball, Aliens’ Burke. These deep veins of media nostalgia are mined by design, though the stars have fun undermining the expectations that may be inspired by their stunt-casted presence.
Though plenty of scholarship has already been devoted to Stranger Things’ narrative, generic and cultural impact, it’s the show’s retro aesthetic that looms largest in the collective imagination. As Stranger Things becomes a commercial juggernaut, it’s easier to see where the writer-directors’ vision ends and the merchandising strategy begins. What young person in 2022 truly desires a Stranger Things Lite-Brite kit? What older person has any fond memories of the aforementioned light-up plastic pegs? I write that as someone who both owns and rides the Schwinn Bicycle Company replica of Lucas’s Predator BMX cruiser in series three. In a moment of near-parodic branding catastrophe, the Duffers allegedly had a “total meltdown” when images attached to a tie-in Monopoly game – about which, The Hollywood Reporter’s sources alleged, the Duffers were not consulted – spoiled important series four plot details. Perhaps this is the price that must be paid for the new season’s cost of a reported $US30 million an episode.
At the heart of this maelstrom lies the series’ young cast, now sprinting towards adulthood. There is something effortlessly moving about seeing these plucky kids grow up before our eyes. The show is never better than when it explores the woes of adolescence and its grasp of class is especially graceful, and often very funny: asked why she can’t drive yet, Robin shouts, “I’m poor!” Schnapp – the youngest of the central friends – finds something bruised at the heart of the former “Will the Wise”. Hawke and Keery’s screwball chemistry as the ultimate odd couple, marching band lesbian and fallen-from-grace jock, has only deepened. Priah Ferguson, a hoot as Lucas’s little sister Erica in series three, is back for good. Brown and Sink convey the heartbreak of late adolescent outcasts with breathtaking naturalism. As a collective, these young actors offer Stranger Things’ truest “Spielbergian” quality: kids who are complex, ratty and deeply loveable.
Like the golden era blockbusters that inspired them, it is tempting to view the Duffer Brothers’ creation as a cynical cash grab or a bloated exercise in recapturing lost youth. In its metatextual Easter eggs – junk food you’ve forgotten the taste of, jingles and songs that have been lurking in your memory for decades – Stranger Things often has the whiff of easy sentiment. If series four leans a little heavily on flashback and montage, these devices are woven together – along with a stunning song choice I am not legally allowed to reveal – in a powerfully resonant crescendo to “Chapter Four: Dear Billy” that reminds the viewer of the Duffers’ true mission.
Stranger Things 4 is an exercise in nostalgia in the truest sense, concerned less with how much fun it was to play first-edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons than with what we all lose as childhood ends. No amount of beloved songs, bouffant hairdos or breezy images of BMX-bound freedom can mask the pain of growing up.
Stranger Things 4 “Volume One” is now streaming on Netflix.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 28, 2022 as "The horror of nostalgia".
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