The escapism of 'Stranger Things’ Season 4 just hits different in 2022
You’ve waited a long time to go back to Hawkins — three years to be exact (or a whole pandemic, a few collapsing democracies, a Capitol insurrection, an ongoing war, etc, etc, etc). Certainly, Stranger Things Season 4 Volume 1 rewards that patience by welcoming you back with an over-abundance of what we've always loved about this cult hit since 2016.
But a question haunts the show’s return in 2022, after audiences spent the past three years of its absence surviving our own Upside Down reality: Can Stranger Things' plucky 1980s nostalgia survive the vibe shift, or offer any resonance or escapism from the world we live in right now?
In most ways, the answer is a resounding yes. After watching six of the seven episodes releasing on May 27 (with the final two only coming out July 1), Season 4 eventually gets you back into that all-consuming escapism the show is best known for. But similar to our beloved cast of kid characters now very much on the other side of puberty, there's initially an unavoidable awkwardness to it all.
Can Stranger Things' plucky 1980s nostalgia survive the vibe shift of the world we live in now?
Much like a gangly teen revisiting some cherished piece of childhood sentimentality, there's an inherent sense of loss that comes with going back to a thing that's stayed the same even while you've been irrevocably changed. I spent a good chunk of the first four episodes wondering whether the writing was always this absurdly corny, or if I'm just too broken inside now to swallow it. Were the extremely convenient plot shortcuts and contrived storylines always this obvious, or am I simply too jaded in 2022 to afford Stranger Things the same suspension of belief I could give it in The Before Times?
But the rough start of Season 4's first several hours (each episode clocks in at a near feature film length, at approximately an hour and fifteen minutes) is more than just mismatched vibes. The show seems to expect its casual mainstream audience to have done a lot of homework before pressing play, assuming we've kept every minute detail of the goings-on at Hawkins' top of mind during the show's three-year hiatus.
In reality, though, most of us can barely keep track of everything that's happened in the real world since 2020.
While Netflix's exhaustive recap packs in as much plot-per-second as possible, it still feels like you're in perpetual catch-up mode, to the point where I actually paused for even lengthier recaps courtesy of Youtube. Those weren't enough either, though, since you not only need to remember everything from Stranger Things' myriad storylines, but also the many facets of its lore, each side character in its ever-expanding cast, every emotional beat they've ever experienced, Season 3's after-credits scene, ideally some popular Reddit fan theories, multiple rewatches of the Season 4 trailer, breakdowns of said trailer, and for good measure its creators' tell-all analysis of that trailer.
It's impossible not to feel lost, really. Especially because you need to balance all that mental labor with being introduced to an additional 5-10 new characters of significance, along with the approximately 5,027 individual subplots being set up for them.
What can't be missed, however, is that a lot has changed in Hawkins since we left it, with our core gang of friends and their families more physically and emotionally divided than ever.
El (whose real name was discovered to be Jane in Season 2, ICYMI) lost her powers after slaying the Mind Flayer and closing yet another portal to the Upside Down. She's now struggling to live a normal kid life while hiding out from the CIA in California (kind of, if you consider just casually attending high school under her full, real, legal name in a different state as "hiding out") alongside the Byers family (that's Joyce, and brothers Will and Jonathan) since her adoptive father, Jim Hopper, is presumed dead. But actually, to nobody's surprise, he is indeed still alive and being held captive in a very bad news Russian prison.
Meanwhile the Wheelers remain back in Hawkins, with Nancy continuing to girlboss at her student-run newspaper as her not-so-little brother Mike and his friend Dustin flourish in their high school's Dungeons & Dragons club made up of freaks and geeks. Sadly, new varsity basketball player Lucas finds himself increasingly on the wrong side of the eternal battle between jocks and dorks. Most unfortunately of all, his now-ex girlfriend Max isolates herself from all of them to cope with the trauma of losing her complicated brother Billy after he sacrificed himself to the Mind Flayer to save them last year.
Whoof! Imma need to catch my breath.
Mind you, this is just an incomplete, bare-bones summation of where we first meet our main characters in Season 4, glossed over in Episode 1 at lightning speed like a laundry list. God help you if you blink or glance down at your phone and miss a single second of that speedrun too, or the additional onslaught of new stuff that also waits for no one.
Somehow, the hours-long glut of exposition fails to even include the name and story of Hawkins' brand new villain, which is by far Season 4's strongest element. The new baddy in town, Vecna, is an explicit allusion to Freddy Krueger, as an invisible yet inescapable threat mercilessly killing the small town's most troubled teens. Aside from the heavy influence of Nightmare on Elm Street, there's an abundance of Carrie, Halloween, Last House on the Left, Jaws, Cheech & Chong, and even Silence of the Lambs references too (that last one's a bit ahead of this time, but we'll allow it cause it's for a rad scene).
The tonal shift to more spooky paranormal 80s slashers is a welcome change after so many re-hashes of Demogorgon-type sci-fi monsters. All the VFX around the tentacled Vecna are phenomenal, combining CGI with vividly tactile practical effects that take you back to the pinnacle of horror movie prosthetics seen in classics like Hellraiser. The mounting undertone of a Satanic Panic-y, West Memphis Three-esque true crime subplot also brilliantly captures the real-world social fears and horrors that dominated everyday life during this era.
The Hellfire Club's metalhead Dungeon Master Eddie Munson brings a fun flair to the established core friend group. But like much of Season 4's script, Eddie sometimes comes across as a parody of a parody of an 80s movie stereotype with very little to ground him as anything more than a necessary plot device. That's in spite of the efforts of Game of Thrones actor Joe Quinn, who, like the rest of the young cast, does his damndest to bring some relatability to the often cringe-y, absurdist artifice of this season's dialogue. He also reads a bit like Billy 2.0, a newer and better model of the chaotic-yet-alluring outcast who was the only main character Season 3 actually axed.
Season 4's slasher vibes make this indisputably the freshest the series has felt since it was released in 2016 — though it's a little oxymoronic to call a different genre of 80s nostalgia "fresh." The story soon picks up into a fever pitch of peak Stranger Things, with a narrative so irresistibly compelling that it becomes a compulsory binge.
Season 4's slasher vibes are indisputably the freshest the series has felt since releasing in 2016 — though it's a little oxymoronic to call a different genre of 80s nostalgia "fresh."
Still, for reasons that are the wider world’s fault rather than the show’s, I found myself more than once struggling to give in to that mindless enjoyment.
It's hard to ignore the show's occasionally cute take on Cold War Russia while my phone's being bombarded by news notifications about real-world Russia's all-out war against Ukraine, full of atrocities investigated as crimes against humanity. Then at one point, a character goes on an epic rant about how the evil in the Upside Down is like a virus that'll just keep coming back stronger and smarter each time it's seemingly defeated. Suddenly, instead of being mercifully transported to a time when COVID-19 didn't exist, I'm right back in cold hard reality, googling the latest variants of the IRL virus projected to infect 100 million people by winter after already claiming over a million lives in the U.S.
With all that's going on in the world, it's sometimes hard to give the overstuffed storytelling of Season 4 the amount of investment it demands. The effects of trauma are clearly intended to be a major theme. But again, that clashes with the show's core campiness. The distance created by that artifice, compounded by the way the narrative is stretched in a million different directions, makes it hard to find any genuine resonance with how It attempts to tackle the characters' collective grief.
It's no wonder Stranger Things' co-creators, the Duffer brothers, have repeatedly been positioning Season 4 as their "Game of Thrones season" to describe their attempt at the HBO hit's expansiveness (which seems ill-advised considering the poor taste that monster hit left in fans' mouths after the last season, yet I digress). But it reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of their own show's appeal — along with the large swath of its fanbase.
Unlike the HBO show based on a fantasy book series notorious for its massively in-depth lore and worldbuilding, the Stranger Things universe just isn't that deep, and far too ill-equipped to handle this sheer volume of Things. Sure, this is certainly the show's most sprawled out narrative yet, with about three to four main character groupings divided into separate plotlines spread across at least three distinct locations (good ol' Hawkins, the wild west of California, and a very hostile Cold War Russia).
But honestly, who watches this stylistic trip down 80s memory lane out of a desire for yet another massive extended universe of IP with a puzzle box mystery narrative engine fueled by online fan theories?
Actually if you can remember back to 2016, Stranger Things stood out precisely because it was a return to simpler times for mainstream entertainment — a wholesale rejection of the Game of Thrones and Marvel-ification of everything. We cherish the show because of the unique intimacy of Hawkins' self-contained world, and a story centered on your average everyday small-town childhood friend group somehow overcoming a mysterious interdimensional threat through the kid-brain logic of a fantasy board game.
All that said, I commend the show's creators for refusing to remain stagnant, for taking big swings when it could've easily just rested on its laurels. I'm also sympathetic to what is undoubtedly at least partially the product of needing to work around COVID constraints and delays.
Regardless, Season 4's multi-tentacled, two-part release undermines Stranger Things' greatest strengths, while leaving it vulnerable to its greatest weaknesses.
Season 4's multi-tentacled, two-part release goes against the grain of Stranger Things' greatest strengths, while leaving it vulnerable to its greatest weaknesses.
By cutting the breakneck momentum of its full binge short, Netflix nerfed one of the show's most potent superpowers: being so voraciously consumable that you don't really have time to think about it all too much. A two-month hiatus feels like an ill-advised invitation for viewers to reflect on its superficialities, from plot points that don't make a lot of sense to shallow emotional beats that prioritize homage over a character's dimensionality.
Relatedly, counter to titles like Game of Thrones, Westworld, and the many Marvels, Stranger Things actually isn't known for having a super well-established fan community itching to dedicate gobs of its energy and attention to analyzing it after watching. I'm not entirely convinced its foundation can sustain that kind of fandom structure, or that its narrative is airtight enough to withstand the level of scrutiny a subreddit would subject it to.
That expectation is diametrically opposed to the show's success as an exemplar of Netflix's revolutionary content strategy of foregoing traditional broadcast TV's week-to-week release to instead prioritize unthinking consumption in a single sitting. Shows like Stranger Things are literally designed to encourage viewers to gulp it all down as fast as possible, then move right along to the next Netflix binge for more empty calories.
But who knows! Season 4 may very well change that. Having not been granted access to the final episode of Volume 1, I can't say whether it leaves off on a cliffhanger enticing enough to achieve its lofty Game of Thrones ambitions. With the fifth and final chapter of Stranger Things on the horizon next, though, I just hope this cultural phenomenon has a softer landing than the last one.