Stranger Things 4 review: Level of horror, no character
A balanced Dungeons & Dragons party is fundamental to creating an enjoyable gaming experience. Yes, you want to make sure you have powerful fighters who can deliver a variety of melee or ranged attacks, magic users, and definitely at least one person with a healing spell. You want a range of stats for non-combat games so conversations with innkeepers can go smoothly and potential dangers and pitfalls can be spotted at a glance around the room. More importantly, you want a band that will be fun together, one who could unexpectedly work together to achieve their ultimate quest, whatever that may be.
The first season of stranger things – which relied more on dungeons and dragons than the next two – illustrated a good balanced party. The core group of kids played well (and their official in-game character sheets certainly highlighted a well-calibrated party). And no matter how you split the characters, there was great chemistry and wonderful moments with the characters. But each successive season of stranger things moved away from the D&D aspect – and also from that ideal party.
As the Duffer Brothers bring Dungeons & Dragons back to stranger things 4, group dynamics are weaker than ever. Even though the terror is in full swing, the charm of the characters is completely sucked away, replaced by relationships that just don’t work well together but are somehow forced to.
[Ed. note: This review contains some slight spoilers for the first half of the fourth season of Stranger Things.]
Season 4 of stranger things begins with our usual parties spread across the world, their relationship strained at best. Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) and her sons Will (Noah Schnapp) and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) have moved to California, taking Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) with them. Hopper (David Harbour) is imprisoned in a Russian prison. The Hawkins children hold the fort at home, but competing interests have separated the usual core of friends from each other. Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Mike (Finn Wolfhard) are still as committed to D&D as ever, but Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) is joining the basketball team in addition to his tabletop interests.
Meanwhile, Max (Sadie Sink) is still processing the death of her half-brother and has isolated herself from her friends, sullenly listening to Kate Bush on her walkman. The older Hawkins teens work hard, with Steve (Joe Keery) and Robin (Maya Hawke) employed together again, now at the local video store, while Nancy (Natalia Dyer) serves as editor of the school newspaper #girlboss. And just to add some fun into the mix, there are two new characters: stoner Argyle (Eduardo Franco), who is Jonathan’s new (and possibly first?) BFF, and metalhead Eddie (Joseph Quinn), head of the high school Hellfire Club. (aka the Dungeons & Dragons club).
All seems calm on the monster front until a teenager is found brutally murdered. As the police are quick to point fingers, our band of brave heroes (rightly so) suspect things are happening in the Upside Down. Indeed, a monster has somehow awakened and haunts its victims giving them terrifying hallucinations and preying on their worst fears and memories. The kids of Dungeons & Dragons call him Vecna, a nod to one of gaming’s most fearsome villains. this season’s gruesome deaths will tickle your imagination.
Each season of stranger things certainly increased the brutality, giving the characters an even more terrifying threat to face. But the series doesn’t seem to level personal bonds to the same extent. After the wonder of the first season, each successive season floundered a bit, though some characters ended up forming unexpected connections. Steve taking over as the team’s babysitter in Season 2, for example, or his getaway to the mall with Robin, Dustin, and Erica in Season 3, were two highlights from the past. But Steve’s contagious charisma seems to be the exception and not the norm this time around. While her friendship with Robin is a small light in a dark tunnel, it’s not enough to pull everyone out of the slump.
In a season built on physical distance, the groups seem to be assembled at random, by necessity to gather people in the same place at the same time. The characters do not have to to like each other to make a strong story. But they should at least have some sort of on-screen chemistry. Instead, everyone feels like they get along reluctantly, forced to band together even though their stats make them perhaps the least ideal mix of characters to take on a big mission together.
There’s a charm to returning to these familiar characters. We’ve seen them grow up, after all, and while nothing quite matches the newness of the first season, it’s fun to see them all again and see where they ended up – although it’s true that it wears off very quickly when they start behaving in a way that just seems counterintuitive to everything we know about them. Max, who was made miserable by his stepbrother, now thinks he was really cool. Lucas is now a basketball player, which is great! But Mike and Dustin are so mean to him about it, even asking him to skip the big championship game so he can play Dungeons & Dragons with them. Yes, friendships evolve as people grow up, but these kids have been through some tough times together. You hope they were a little friendlier.
The Duffers seem to push the “show, don’t tell” principle to the max. It’s not enough that Eleven is struggling at a new school and not having her powers; we get to see several scenes of her being brutally bullied by the popular kids and trying (and failing) to use her psychic powers against them. We don’t just see Jonathan and Nancy having long distance issues, we have to listen to multiple painful and awkward conversations about how things aren’t working out even though they still, truly, love each other deep down. Even though each episode is over an hour long, the episodes feel packed, but it’s more or less the same thing over and over.
At the very least, the horror is fun, creating some pretty terrifying sequences and vicious kills. The new monster’s mechanics are delightfully eerie as it plunges its victims into nightmarish hallucinations, but it too suffers from terribly cliche dialogue. That’s the downside of having a humanoid monster – what scary things can it say that haven’t been said a million times before? And the new characters add a touch of flavor. Argyle in particular gives Jonathan some much-needed levity outside of his family obligations and strained romantic relationship. Eddie is also a chaotic jumble of contradictions, a bad boy who takes a bunch of misfit kids under his wing, even though he’s still an asshole to them. But these are only two small pieces of work and unfortunately cannot save the rest of their respective groups.
This season’s Adventurer Parties have been randomly grouped together in a way that could theoretically make sense, but falls flat once they come together. For every fun and exciting element introduced, there’s an overwhelming pile of gray slog to wade through. There are some silver linings amid the mush – a few good dice rolls that at least help a party with horrible stats cringe. But overall, the terrible calibration of the party makes those moments few and far between. With a season promising movie-length episodes and running “almost twice as long” as the third season, this is a major handicap. It’s likely that they can at least defeat the monster in Part 2, but will they tell an entertaining and enjoyable story? The jury is still out.
The first part of stranger things season 4 arrives on Netflix on May 27 with seven episodes.