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Stranger Things season 4

I never bothered reviewing the 3rd season of Stranger Things because I didn't really have strong feelings about it one way or the other. Season 3 was a bit of an improvement over season 2, but both were a resounding "meh" for me. The first half of season 4 is also kind of "meh", but I think that it's worth talking about this time around because it both succeeds tremendously where seasons 2 and 3 failed, but also then kind of ruins any goodwill that it had built up.

The fundamental problem that I have with Stranger Things after the first season is that a continuation of this same story simply doesn't need to happen. The first season worked so well, in large part, because of its intriguing mysteries. Aside from sequel bait, all the important questions and mysteries of season 1 were solved, and the first season felt satisfactorily resolved. If this show was going to have sequel seasons, then I think a more anthology-like approach would have been more appropriate, with each new season telling a new story, with new characters, confronting a completely new and unrelated horror, and solving completely new and unrelated mysteries.

By continuing with the same story, the audience gets to bring everything we know from the first season into the new story. Even though seasons 2 and 3 went in their own directions and took different inspirations compared to the first season (season 1 being kind of Twin Peaks meets E.T., season 2 being inspired by Aliens and Terminator, and season 3 being a play on a Body-Snatchers concepts), neither season 2 nor 3 introduced anything tremendously new. There wasn't much mystery because the workings of the Upside Down, the mechanics of the demogorgons, and the machinations of the secret government labs were all established. Season 3 shakes things up a bit with a body-snatchers plot and an ending that actually destroys the status quo and moves our characters forward with their lives, and is perhaps the only reason that season 3 did not feel quite as stale (for me) as season 2 did. But the fundamental problem was still the same: we've seen all this before, more or less.

Season 4's "monster of the week" approach feels fresh and new.

This is where season 4 kind of shines. It's new monster, Vecna, isn't just another demogorgon. He's something that feels completely new and threatening. His motivations are unknown, and despite being explicitly inspired by Freddy Krueger, the mechanics by which he operates are completely new compared to the previous monsters. This finally gives our characters an actual mystery to solve. For the first time since season 1, the threat of Stranger Things is finally mysterious and unknown again.

Unfortunately, season 4's plot isn't as simple as being a "monster of the week" story featuring Vecna. Netflix still has to stretch this out over an entire season of streaming television. In fact, they're splitting it up across more than the usual 8 episodes, and dividing season 4 into 2 "volumes". The first volume is 7 episodes, which vary in length from 1 hour to almost 2 hours. This means they have a lot of screen time to fill up, which means they need a lot of subplots. The fact that the characters separated and some moved to California at the end of season 3 means we have at least 2 stories running simultaneously -- one subplot with our characters in California, and another subplot with our characters back in Hawkins.

It's the story in Hawkins, involving Vecna, that is the most interesting. It is the one with the mysterious new monster, all of the real threat (both monster and human), and the majority of the characters. This rightfully gets the majority of focus and screen time, but it's still really only about 2 or 3 episodes' worth of content -- 1 episode to identify the threat and set the stakes, a 2nd episode to investigate the threat, and a 3rd episode to confront it. It could maybe be stretched out to 4 episodes due to the complicating factors of the "Satanic Panic" Dungeons & Dragons witch-hunt. Perhaps this season could have been better suited to a feature-length movie than a full mini-series?

Promotional posters highlight the multiple plot threads.

But there's about 3 or 4 other subplots going on as well, since the California storyline gets split up 3 ways. It starts out as a reunion between El and Mike, with Mike flying out to Cali to visit El, Will, and Joyce. But Joyce gets a letter suggesting that Hopper is still alive, so she promptly leaves with Murray for her own subplot, which eventually joins up with Hopper's subplot in Russia. But things also go south with Mike and El, and they get separated into 2 subplots as well. Even in Hawkins, there are 2 or 3 threads that weave in and out of each other, which creates a lot to keep track of, and a lot to distract from the main monster story about Vecna.

Worse yet, the mysterious nature of Vecna doesn't stay mysterious for long. El's plotline ends up answering all of the questions about Vecna, in a tidy, 11th hour exposition dump, while also presumably answering un-asked questions about the nature of the Upside Down and the monsters that inhabit it. Everything has answers, no real mysteries remain -- not only for this particular season, but for Stranger Things as a whole. The entire show has been wrapped up in a nice little bow. But yet there's an entire half a season of story left? Unless there's some massive twist out of left field, I just don't know what else is left for this season to say other than to simply wrap up the trivial, incidental threads of plot, and then end Stranger Things once and for all.

Hopefully this season is the end of Stranger Things, because I don't know how long this story can continue to be stretched before it breaks completely.

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