Grab your walkies and hop on your bikes, because “Stranger Things” is back with the second half of its fourth season. It’s filled with twists, turns, and higher stakes; though you wouldn’t know it by looking. This season is passable as a transition point to the fifth season, but leaves something to be desired. Seeking to go bigger, this season feels a bit lackluster.
If you haven’t watched the backend of season 4 yet, you should probably do that before reading further. There will be spoilers ahead.
The addition of more CG spread the special effects thin. You can see the drop in quality over the pared down, practical effects of season 1. [Editor’s note: the majority of creature effects for Vecna himself, minus the vines, were indeed practical.] The decision to go mini-series with the length and number of episodes makes the plot feel rushed. There are too many story elements coming in from all sides.
Season 4 brought several new threats to the mix. The arrival of Satanic Panic in Hawkins surrounding Dungeons & Dragons. Sinister General Sullivan (Sherman Augustus), hellbent on finding and destroying Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown). And finally introducing the big bad of the series: 001 aka Henry (Jamie Campbell Bower), revealed to be the first psychic taken in by Dr. Brenner/Papa (Matthew Modine).
Yet none of these do much in the way of inducing fear or worry for the main cast with situations even bordering on the comical. Even riddling the Byers’ household with bullets did little to prove the characters were in actual danger. General Sullivan is always conveniently a step behind because he’s busy torturing people, 001 patiently hand picks throw-away characters to murder, and Joyce (Winona Rider) and Murray (Brett Gelman) are the most unconvincing crime duo of the century.
A Plot Shipped in Packing Peanuts
A comical rescue to save Hopper (David Harbour) breaks the tension of the series completely. Between the eccentric and deceitful smuggler Yuri (Nikola Đuričko), Murray being a competent martial artist, and sneaking into a Russian prison via the old “disguised as prisoners” trick- I couldn’t even begin to find that credible. If it was that easy, Hopper could have just as easily walked out. The idea of Murray and Joyce as covert heroes diminishes Hopper’s pain and suffering significantly.
Season 4 also introduced one of the most charismatic and enjoyable additions to the series. Eddie Munson, a Van Halen-haired nerd and Dungeon Master of The Hellfire Club. Joseph Quinn’s performance is amazing. The relationship that blossoms between he and Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) is adorable. But he’s just as quickly taken away. As the only casualty with character development, the rest of the Hawkins crew seem untouchable by comparison. This, in turn, leaves Dustin without an adventuring counterpart yet again and carrying the burden of death.
Tears were definitely shed, given the stellar, emotional performances of the now-teenage/young adult cast. And, overall, the series was thoroughly enjoyable. But having witnessed the Hawkins Heroes escape certain death with the help of several Deus Ex Machinas, the likelihood of their success isn’t ever called into question.
El, adjusting to life as a normal teenager, regains her powers in order to fight 001, and is now twice as powerful. Was anyone surprised? Despite the clock ticking down to the destruction of Hawkins and Sullivan hot on El’s trail, was anyone really worried? The characters are wrapped in a bubble of safety because eliminating any of the main cast would likely draw too much fan backlash.
The Result of Satanic Panic
The most frightening event in the series didn’t come from any part of the upside-down. Not even from 001. It came from Jason Carver (Mason Dye). After witnessing the death of a friend, he drives up community paranoia and starts a witch hunt after The Hellfire Club. It’s just an innocent D&D group, but Jason convinces worried parents it’s a satanic cult with Eddie as their leader. And while the town meeting sees a mob called to action to search for the kids, only one person happens to see them throughout this supposed sweep of the city.
Meanwhile, Jason and his gang purchase firearms and knives with very real intention to harm. Jason is clearly unable to process what he’s seen, and is very quickly cracking under the pressure. As far as antagonists go, he was scarier than anything involving 001, bringing a danger that felt far more real than anything else. Yet, even cornered in an attic, Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) subdues him in rather classic, hero-second-wind fashion. No danger there.
The only other character harmed is Max Mayfield (Sadie Sink), now in a coma at the end of the season after nearly losing her life. Does anyone doubt she’ll wake up for season 5? Not really.
Perhaps the biggest surprise this season was that our heroes failed in their efforts to stop the upside-down from spreading. This, of course, opens the battlefield for the final fight in season 5. Perhaps that is where the gloves come off and we feel legitimate risk to the lives of the Knights of Hawkins. Outstanding performances aside, it’s unfortunate that this season felt too scared to be dangerous.
Catch seasons 1-4 of “Stranger Things” on Netflix now. Season 5 is apparently being written ‘right now,’ so don’t expect it anytime soon.