It’s trendy to dunk on Stranger Things now for its diminishing returns, but I’m much more interested in it than the latest unnecessary Star Wars prequel since it’s not stuck in a narrative cull de sac. The first seven of nine premiered the same week as Obi-Wan Kenobi. Since that’s airing weekly, I can review it later anyway without being late. SPOILERS for season four except the two episodes they haven’t released yet are on the other side of this break. The main draw for this review is that you can read it in a fraction of the time it takes to watch all these!
Each episode reportedly cost $30 million. Good for the Duffer Brothers, but maybe this extravagance is why Netflix isn’t profitable anymore? I’d hate for it to be the reason Netflix abruptly shut down its in-house animation studios mid-production. For the price of one episode, Netflix could easily save Legends Of Tomorrow. They’re Legends Of Frugality that deliver maximum bang for buck! That said, this season looks to have put every penny to good use.
This season got delayed due to the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. Just like GLOW, filming its fourth season was halted mid-production after a couple episodes. So why didn’t Netflix also arrange to finish the final season of GLOW? Surely it’s the more affordable 80’s nostalgia show.
I thought this was supposed to be the final season, but apparently the fifth season will be its last plus a secret spinoff. This season’s episodes are extra long because they’re so dense with content. Whereas the Defenders series often felt padded out with mundane detours just to fill up an hour, what filler this batch has is more dynamic. The shortest is sixty-three minutes & the longest so far is ninety-eight. The irregular expansive runtimes make it hard to binge, which I’d argue is mostly positive.
While having all episodes available to watch at leisure used to be a benefit, Netflix twisted this into pressuring subscribers to watch entire seasons immediately. Rather than relaxing viewing schedules, it made people anxious about finishing on time. Spoiler paranoia is rampant. Instead of nurturing its originals, Netflix became obsessed with churning out as many as possible. It let shows be lost in the shuffle after their debut weekend rather than growing an audience over time. If vierers didn’t finish within a soon enough period, a beloved show could get axed. I’m not saying it’s impossible to binge this season, just that it seems less likely that most will. Releasing it when many have an extended Memorial Day weekend could offset this. Stranger Things is the exception to the algorithm’s rule. I wonder if there will be internal backlash to it prioritizing narrative to bingability though.
Season four starts with a flashback of young Eleven apparently massacring everyone at the facility she was being kept in. (This was preceded by a sensible warning in light of the latest school shooting in Texas.) Considering how nonchalant she was about killing pursuers in season one, it’s not totally out of character. The retcon makes me wonder where Kali/8 was. Wasn’t she canonically in the Hawkins lab contemporaneously with Eleven? These scenes don’t suggest a breakout happened earlier.
Set a year after the previous season, the kids are split between Indiana & California in 1986. While they make both locations distinct, it’s still disorienting early. There’s conversations skillfully cross cut between locales. Then this technique is applied to events happening simultaneously in Hawkins High. It works well. The geographic rift puts stress on Eleven x Mike Wheeler & Nancy Wheeler x Jonathan Byers. These pairings would still be on the rocks even if they were together, as demonstrated by Mike but not Nancy flying out to California for spring break.
Eleven, going by Jane Hopper, is ostracized by her mean peers at her new Lenora Hills school. Fortunately for them she no longer has her powers to wreak Carrie vengeance upon them. Since her socialization has been so stunted, I wonder if she might’ve been better off in special ed classes. Her grammar remains stilted, akin to how I’d expect my kitty to speak English if she was so inclined.
The Hawkins Dungeons & Dragons club is named The Hellfire Club because they’re The Avengers & X-Men nerds. They get custom club shirts which seem too professional for the era & too audacious to be worn in school. I still don’t find it amusing to watch people play D&D, but it puts in better effort than The Flash. Its Dungeon Master, Eddie Munson, has been held back for two years for being insufferably obnoxious about the game.
Lucas Sinclair tries to continue doing D&D while on the basketball team, which causes great strife when there’s a tournament scheduling conflict. Although he scores the winning basketball goal, he’s chagrined his little sister won the campaign as his last minute substitute. (Max Mayfield would be the more obvious choice but sarcastically declines out grief anhedonia. Or she understandably didn’t want to wear the Black Queen ensemble.) He wants to be a nerd & a jock yet can’t because High School Musical hasn’t informed the world teens can have more than one interest yet.
Robin Buckley struggles with asking out the cute marching band ginger, Vickie (Amybeth McNulty of Anne With An E), for fear of being rejected & ostracized for 80’s homophobia. She’s not even out to the rest of the Hawkins Scooby Gang either because her emotional support himbo, Steve Harrington, respects her secret. It also appears that speculation about Will Byers being gay may be true. This is the painting he made for Mike.
Dividing the cast means even more supporting players are introduced. They have room to humanize them before horrible things happen to them. Chrissy Cunningham the bulimic cheerleader is haunted by hallucinations. She’s gruesomely killed whilst trying to buy drugs from Munson to allay these visions. He gets blamed for murdering her in a D&D ritual by her brokenhearted basketballer boyfriend, so the 80’s setting is more than just window dressing here. (This Satanic Panic phenomenon seemed to be gaslighting the public in advance of Catholic Church sex abuse scandals coming to light. That element is absent from this fiction.) Meanwhile the US military suspects Eleven is remotely assassinating again. These assumptions aren’t unreasonable given the information afforded both.
Instead of being vaporized, Jim Hopper was merely blasted to the Russian side of the portal. Just like Red Guardian, Hopper finds himself inside a gulag. (Is David Harbour’s jacket brilliant or tacky.) He & a gleefully greedy gulag guard, Dimitri Antonov (the former Jaqen H’ghar, Tom Wlaschiha) try to get Joyce to pay a ransom to send him stateside. Joyce Byers in goggles smashes a suspicious non-Matroyshka Russian doll (Is this Netflix cross-series synergy? Season two was fun despite the East Berlin plot abruptly ending.) with a paint can pulley drop. I love how Joyce’s impulsivity contrasts with her laidback sons.
Vecna is more human in both form & speech than previous Upside-Down monsters, whose inhumanity was a big part of their intrigue. He looks like a Resident Evil Tyrant but with Frddy Kruger’s power. Robert Englund plays Victor Creel (not to be confused with Victor Creed), who took the fall for Vecna killing his family Amityville Horror-style in 1959. Nancy & Robin get the scoop on him by pulling a Lois Lane at an asylum that’s surprisingly reputable for the genre. While the kids call their walkie-talkies Cerebro, Vecna’s means of plugging into the minds of traumatized teens fits better. He was a fan of levitating before Dua Lipa existed! Vecna snaps all the bones in his victim’s bodies & scoops out their eyes, which leaves their corpses looking like like horrifically goofy results of running full speed into a trompe l’oeil painted onto a boulder. He uses their death energy to open up portals.
“Dear Billy” is the season’s best example of horror on multiple fronts. The trailers made it look like Max was developing telekinesis. The scene is actually her being attacked by the invisible Vecna. The climax of Max fleeing from him him through a crimson astral plane of horrors is one of the season’s tensest sequences. It was one of the rare times I thought a series might kill a prominent character despite strong plot armor. Kate Bush saves lives!
Rather than smuggling Hopper out of Kamchatka, Yuri the jokey Russian smuggler pilot betrays everyone. Murray Bauman revealing that he’s only a karate black belt against teenagers is both silly & appropriate for his comic relief sidekick. Talking it out that he could still probably overpower a adult without karate skill, however, sounds reasonable to me. The resulting lopsided mid-air scuffle where Yuri shifts the plane’s gravity to compensate for his lack of finesse was fun.
The end of season three set up a novel status quo where Eleven could no longer be used as a Deus ex machina to thwart the Upside-Down. So this season backtracks on that to restore her psychokinesis. I’m not fond of Dr. Brenner miraculous having survived getting his head being chewed off by a demogorgon with only a thin scar. They already used up their allotment of improbable resurrections! He doesn’t even seem necessary since Dr. Owens doesn’t need him to operate the NINA project.
Eleven’s white experiment swimsuit with blocks evokes stormtrooper armor, which reinforces how Millie Bobbie Brown resembles non-buff Natalie Portman. How have they not been cast as family in anything yet? Martie Blair as young Eleven shows there’s already a new generation of clone. Feel old yet?
The cast is humongous, so splitting them up into different adventures was practically a necessity. The meatiest one is in Hawkins with the Kamchatka quest in second. The least interesting subplot is Eleven trying to get repowered. It’s a drag until episode seven when it turns out to be a Trojan horse for villain backstory delivery. They probably could’ve done without the house full of feral Mormon younglings, but I don’t mind them doing an extended comedy bit since the West Coast team is dull. Can we at least trade Mike for Dustin Henderson’s super-hacker girlfriend, Suzie Bingham?
I suspected something was up when Jamie Campbell Bower got top billing in the end credits as “friendly orderly” in episodes before a friendly orderly appeared. Once you’ve played King Arthur on a cable series, you’re too important to squander on a bit part. It turns out he’s Henry Creel, who used his mental powers to torture his family as a child in 1959. He’s also the fabled 001. He manipulate Eleven into removing the power dampener in his neck. So it was him not Eleven who massacred the rest of the subjects. It’s kind of a cop-out to have Eleven’s repressed history of violence actually a brand new character’s fault. It’s unclear why he didn’t kill Dr. Brenner too. Eleven furiously banishes him to the Upside-Down where he becomes Vecna, which reminds me of Hellraiser II’s Dr. Channard. So that explains some plot holes while possibly making a few new ones.
For someone who broke his ankle to remove his manacles, Hopper is pretty spry. Just once I’d like to see a hero’s injury overcome their adrenaline. He survives gladiatorial combat with one demogorgon, which is scarier than lots of demogorgons, by throwing a hot spear into its mouth. Is that fatal to them? Requiring less disbelief suspension is Murray becoming an unlikely action hero. It does make Joyce feel like a third wheel though.
Shirtless Steve Harrington goes King Kong on the mynocks nomming him after he got sucked through the water-gate! He bites one, so does that mean he’ll become monstrous? Or will that just not help the extradimensional rabies of their bites? Regardless of his fate, Steve remains Nancy’s better boyfriend option since I can barely remember Jonathan’s mopey personality.
Nancy can’t find her guns in the Upside-Down version of her house because they don’t exist there yet. If there’s no three year delay for communicating through electrical signals, why is there one for physical objects? Why & how does this parallel dimension copy them anyway? The kids cleverly get them back to the Rightside-Up through a portal in Munson’s trailer. Before Nancy can leave, however, Venca attacks her with #JusticeForBarb flashbacks & his origin. That’s the cliffhanger. Will Scott Clarke & Kali return to rescue her?
The last two giant-sized episodes drop on Canada Day, so I can’t tell you whether this season sticks the landing yet. You’ll just have to return for a future blog if my opinion is of any interest to you. At least Netflix isn’t trying to confusingly claim the next two are a separate season like they did when they split up She-Ra. Thus far it feels like an improvement over the third. It’s a much better horror show than CAOS & Hemlock Grove. I don’t mind the episodes being longer because it this American horror story is coherent & engaging.