I previewed the first six episodes of the fourth season of Stranger Things, after a forced marathon to review all previous episodes. I remembered little and nothing, especially of the third season, of which I only remembered how much I didn't like it. The subplot of Russian spies and the whole silly teenage love story hadn't struck me at all. The second viewing went better and I enjoyed the episodes more, but I still looked at the preview episodes with a certain skepticism.
NB: Just when I had finished my mini-marathon, Netflix also released the seventh episode, longer than the others and conclusive of Volume I of the fourth season. The vision of the latter for me has changed the cards on the table a bit, as well as forcing me to rewrite part of the article by lengthening the time (sigh).
Stranger Things Season 4: so many stories, so many characters, so many doubts
Where does Stranger Things want to go? Is it a series about the supernatural mixed with real life? A real fantasy? A teen drama, a bit like the one inserted in the episode of the Griffins where everyone was young and beautiful and there were charming werewolves? All that remained was to devote himself to the binge watching of the new episodes to understand it. And I did it without holding back, practically finishing them all in one day, eating chips and keeping the lights off (a bit to increase the tension but also because certain scenes are so dark that it is necessary to understand something).
The fourth season of Stranger Things adds new characters without removing almost any of the previous ones, indeed recalling old names that we thought were gone forever. The result is a Woodstock of people, a bunch of storylines which intertwine but remain largely separate. Eleven, Will, Joyce and Jonathan are in California at the start of the season, while the remaining group of young protagonists have stayed in Hawkins, and their lives are quite different. Eleven's everyday life has turned into that of a poor victim of bullies, who constantly torment her in high school, due to her strangeness and introversion. She no longer has the ESP powers, lost at the end of the previous season during the final battle, and this makes her completely unable to defend herself: she does not respond, does not react except by trying to use telekinesis to hit classmates, failing miserably. The beginning of the fourth season is therefore quite depressing as far as she is concerned, as well as a real crescendo in the style of Carrie in which one is led to hope that magically returns to be able to make the bullies fly stuff and crash. Not a very educational thing to think about, in essence it is natural to hope that there is some healthy violence. Little by little Eleven understands her role in the battle against the dark forces and is again recruited into a secret laboratory for shock training. Very shocking. What she will have to face (and discover) is not at all pleasant and again her character finds herself acting as a guinea pig and trying to rebel. A decent step back, which I hope will be overcome in Volume II, as I really disliked her new storyline. The final episode of Volume I, however, clarifies our ideas and is of great emotional impact: I really liked it a lot. It didn't shock me or surprise me that much, but it's really a pretty sight.
The other characters are in better shape, or worse depending on the point of view. Adults, in this case Joyce and Murray which in fact are often less mature than a baby club, are fully entangled in the sub-plot of the Russians, which here acquires even more space. Maybe I'm watching The Americans right now, but this time I didn't mind this geographical deviation. The scenes in Russia are, as per the tradition of the TV series, colored a bluish that suggests that it is so very cold there (if they were in South America it would be all yellowish). And of course there is Hopper, as we understood almost immediately. Thin, hardened by adversity and ready to fight, I really like his character, but he hasn't done much defined yet in the episodes that I previewed, except in the grand finale, where he really gives his best. There is much to be built in the second Volume, but it looks really good.
And all the others? The group that includes my favorites, including Dustin, Steve, Maxie, Nancy, and Robin, are the ones who are actually involved in the main storyline, which appears to have come straight out of Sabrina mixed with The Haunting of Hill House. You will see it for yourself after a few minutes of viewing: the new enemy looks more like an evil poltergeist, and then a demon or a ghost, compared to the beasts of previous seasons. Everything is based on the curse of a poor man chosen by the demon, who begins to have migraines, then nightmares, visions and eventually dies horribly with no great ability to escape. Once marked, in a kind of Final Destination, there seems to be no escape from that destiny. Their investigations lead the boys to visit haunted houses, asylums and cemeteries, in perfect style of the TV series I mentioned and from which this season seems to be taking inspiration. Whether it's a bad thing or a good I don't know how to judge it, the fact is that the atmosphere seems different to the episodes of the past years and I didn't mind for everything. It is obviously all connected to the Upside Down and the logical thread is there, but the change of pace cannot be denied: the monster here has a very visible intellect ... and cruel.
But the new threat failed to put me as anxious as the previous ones, probably because (for now) it affects one victim at a time and isn't even visible to the naked eye in the real world from the others. Not a great stage effect, right? Even in this case, however, it is too early to speak, since many elements are far from clear and are explored in the finale of Volume I thanks to the seventh episode and I guess later in the unpublished ones. The first six are still more than enough to enjoy the atmosphere of classic demonic horror, seasoned with a real witch hunt by the citizens of Hawkins, fed up with the whole mess and determined to blame the real culprits: the players. of D&D of course.
What I particularly liked is the good balance between the various storylines and the presence of very well-balanced and unobtrusive romanticism as in the third season. In short, there is more to think about, but there is still plenty of room to let you understand the feelings of the various protagonists: well done! On the other hand, I tolerate less the fact that everything is (again) left in the hands of a handful of kids, this time even without the help of the 2-3 adults present, and I find it really hard to believe what they can discover on their own. Not that he's asking Stranger Things for realism, mind you. The plot armor then it has reached really sensational levels and it is something that I can never bear in TV series and movies. I pray the season finale doesn't infuriate me, from that point of view.
The acting is at the level of previous seasons. I appreciate many of the cast members and I find that among the younger ones there are really credible and funny actors, like Gaten Matarazzo o Joe Keery. Brett Gelman it makes me laugh every time it appears on the screen and it's a certainty. Some characters are definitely flatter than others, including Lucas and Jonathan, but it's more of a problem with how they're written: it almost seems like they're there by chance and every few minutes the writer remembers to make them do something relevant. I have to admit I'm not a fan of Millie Bobby Brown. But maybe it's the character of Eleven that I can't digest, due to its constant fluctuations between despair and anger. I sincerely hope for something that amazes me about it in the last few episodes, since seeing her defenseless and at the same time so aggressive and frustrated, I was not amused. The difficulty of her past must be understood, which worsens with every flashback we see, but I would like to see a growth of the character that is not just a "now is able to move whole mountains!".
Photography and music are as always very accurate and it is evident how attention (and money) are poured into the production of Stranger Things. The soundtrack is even better than in previous seasons and I really liked it a lot. Creatures in CGI are meh: not that they're ugly per se, it's their design that doesn't convince me 100%. They are still a bit of a scare when they appear out of nowhere on the screen, but it's other components that inspire more anxiety, like flickering lights, ticking clocks, or dodgy ambient noises.
The final judgment? I do not know. Judging a series by seeing only the first Volume is obviously impossible, you can only get a general idea. The fourth season of Stranger Things aims high, fielding many actors and numerous (too many? I would say not) storylines at the same time and leaving out the teen romance that had so much bothered previously. It builds a good foundation for an interesting development in the finale and everything is yet to be played. My opinion improved a lot after watching the seventh episode, which, while not upsetting me, entertained me, moved me and clarified a lot of ideas. I can't wait to see the last two, very long, episodes.