Stranger Things: Season 4 – Vol.1 is ageing right alongside its core cast – it is getting bigger and more mature. It deepens its roots in its lore while expanding its narrative scopes to a height that only few TV shows reach – only time will time if the series can deliver upon its set up.
Following on from the events of Season 3, the core group of friends have split up as the Byers and Eleven have left Hawkins. In addition, Eleven is dealing with no longer possessing her telekinetic abilities. A new supernatural threat from the Upside Down once again arrives in the town of Hawkins.
Feeling somewhat reminiscent of Game of Thrones, Stranger Things takes its penultimate season to extremely ambitious heights. That includes several different storylines, a vast range of characters and an extremely high production value. Well, not with the clockwork precision that Game of Thrones has but it shouldn’t be expected to. That show had extremely dense source material to work with and it is a near-impossible task to execute. It may have its shortcomings but Season 4 fulfils some essential endeavours. The show seems like it has found its narrative direction as the show has felt somewhat stagnated in the last two seasons – as great as they are. There was easy potential for a slippery slope of this story repeating itself for consecutive seasons but the Duffer brothers have set up some interesting threads that can be explored through to the final season. Having the audience being able to latch onto story elements that can develop and evolve through the course of the series is key and more compelling that a ‘rinse and repeat’ story.
The Duffer brothers appear to have a strong understanding of the majority of their characters, both new and old, as they write them in such a way where it makes it very easy for the audience to connect to the characters. However, that can’t quite be said when it comes to the main centrepiece character – Eleven. There is definite intention to enrich the characters backstory and Season 4 definitely dives deeper into the events that happened at Hawkins National Laboratory. For obvious reasons, I will remain extremely brief.. the resolution that follows the flashback story is one that is extremely clever in its own way but it does steal critical character development for Eleven. Alluded to in a post-credits scene in Season 3 and confirmed by Netflix marketing, Jim Hopper is alive and detained in a Russian facility. For a large portion of screen time, the character doesn’t really grow and he isn’t really given much to do – mostly halting momentum from the correlative storylines.
The true crime of Season 4 is wasting the talents of Noah Schnapp as Will Byers as the character remains in the background after being stuck in the Upside Down in season 1 & 2. During that time, Schnapp showcased some highly impressive acting talent – particularly considering his age at that time. As far as acting goes, the ageing of these characters is particularly distracting as the story is trying to convince the audience that these actors are 14 year old kids in their first year of high school. Despite this, the core group of characters still feel comfortable in their characters and whilst none of them truly stand out, they are extremely fitting. The casting of this series has easily one of their greatest assets as each actor that has been casted in the role has usually brought in an element that is memorable.
While the bright spots massively outweigh the shortcomings of the season, it does need a mention. Stranger Things: Season 4 – Vol.1 is intended to be designed as a set-up for the future and right now it feels very good but ultimately the quality of it will be determined by how it wraps up. Creating fitting endings for ambitious large scale TV series is a complex challenge and the failure to do so is well-documented in TV history. Are the Duffer brothers writing themselves into a hole or is there a sleeve of brilliance that is to be awaited? Time will tell. With the story becoming extremely dense and the world expanding to new levels, every minute becomes crucial to bringing things to a close. The revealed episode lengths may inspire hope but the pacing and use of those minutes in Vol.1 does not. As the show is now dealing with many storylines, it does often make the mistake of spending uneven time unravelling those threads or blending it together in an awkward way.
Besides the episode reveals, the budget reveal for each episode was one of the biggest news points for the new season – which clocked in at $30 million an episode. It’s clearly money well spent for Netflix as the production value is extremely high – probably some of the best work I have seen from a TV series, on a technical level. As the show dives deeper into its horror and gore, the production plays an essential part in establishing and grounding that tone. These thrilling horror sequences are captured through clever uses of lighting and sharp sound design creating some truly suspenseful moments. The photography in this season is incredibly grounded and rarely flashy, it simply supports the tone of the show and gets interesting when it needs to. Such as implementing a long take shot through a dramatic and shaky handheld camera to deliver a sense of urgency in the action set-piece or even just smooth interesting transitions. As for the effects in the film, the prosthetics team have done a fantastic job with crafting a frightening villain and forming a strong collaboration with the VFX crew.
In conjunction with the photography and effects in the film, it is supported by a vast assortment of detailed sets that capture its atmosphere convincingly – whether that be the tundra biome of Kamchatka in Russia or the gritty and dusty Upside Down. As usual, the costuming, make-up and hairstyling are always incredibly detailed and consistent which all contribute to capturing that 80’s era, even hundreds of extras. Sound Design is excellent, up to par with the previous seasons and the editing enhances the universe in which it operates. However, the mixing feels quite flat as there isn’t much depth in its soundscape. Score fits the beat of Stranger Things with effective ambient electronic music that enhances its atmosphere and mystery. There are particular moments where the show will put a bridge in an 80s hit song which elevates the emotion and demonstrates contrast to its composition.
It may feel bloated at times but Stranger Things: Season 4 – Vol.1 strays away from telling the same story once again. The Duffer brothers find a keen direction for the series and now, Stranger Things has everything in the right place for Vol.2 and the final season. It will be very interesting if they can bring this to a satisfying close.