Stranger Things, one of Netflix’s most popular original series, returns for its fourth season after a considerable (read three years) wait. Duffer Brothers want you to ignore the time-gap though. Although the kids (if they are still that, as many of them are adults) look noticeably older, only six months are supposed to have passed in-universe.
Anyhow, after the whirlwind finale of season 3 and all that happened with the Mind Flayer, many of our heroes are scattered. Eleven or Jane Hopper (Millie Bobby Brown), who lost her powers thanks to the biggest beastie in the Upside Down, is living in California with the Byers. Jim Hopper (David Habour) as we know was revealed to be alive but is stuck in the hostile Soviet Union.
The rest of the major characters, Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin Henderson (Gaten Matarazzo), Lucas Sinclair (Caleb McLaughlin), and others are still at Hawkins, though. They all continue to have their personal struggles.
Lucas gets to enter the cool guys club and wins the basketball championship, and Mike and Dustin join Hellfire Club, a group of weirdos who bond over tabletop RPGs (if only they had video-games) and lure in Lucas’ sister Erica (Priah Ferguson). Max (Sadie Sink) is still not over the death of her brother Billy (Dacre Montgomery). Eleven, meanwhile, is being bullied at her school and Will is helpless to protect her.
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But this is Stranger Things and while it does teen or coming-of-age drama well, its selling point is horror elements that are sufficiently creepy but also pulpy, campy. There is the new addition Grace Van Dien’s Chrissy Cunningham who introduces the spooky stuff this season. She is haunted by visions of her dead family and a grandfather clock that seems to ticking right up to the time of her death. Before she meets her end, there is a nightmarish creature that only she can see. A scene involving her is the most gruesome the show has ever been.
Is the creature something completely unrelated to the Upside Down and belongs to another hellish dimension or it is in some way associated with the Mind Flayer, who is not dead, after all. Reanimating apparently dead characters would not be new for the show. In the very first scene itself, we see Martin Brenner (Matthew Modine), Eleven’s “Papa”. It is a flashback, but is he really alive?
Stranger Things 4 offers entertainment aplenty. There are several thrilling moments and for the first time the show is entering a truly-spine-chillingly scary territory. The interplay between the character remains fun and homage to old-timey horror and other genre movies are nice. I am not a big fan of the way Duffer Brothers have co-opted elements from legends in the horror genre and called it “homage” (I used to call the show Familiar Things in the first season), but this time the references are more subtle, except in one case. This season, there is also a good balance between humour and darker moments.
But all those good bits are offset by painfully bloated runtimes and uneven plotting, but mostly the bloated runtimes. The episodes are long, and, I promise you, they do feel long. This has been an issue with many a Netflix series, but Stranger Things 4 makes everything else take a backseat in that department. It is as if the writers are sadists and do not want you to enjoy the show, even as they offer some excellent writing at times. Stranger Things 4 behaves a lot like an erratic teenager, like one of its heroes, in fact.
When it works, it works wonderfully. When it doesn’t, it is the most frustrating thing to watch this year. The final two episodes of Stranger Things 4 arrive in July.