Courtesy of Netflix © 2022

Is Stranger Things running downhill?

After nearly three years since the release of the series’ third season, the smash-hit global phenomenon that is Netflix’s Stranger Things has once again returned to viewers’ screens.

 

Season 4, Volume 1 — the first instalment of the series’ penultimate season — has already made waves since its release; its dominating conversation worldwide and smashing streaming records as it becomes the biggest debut for a Netflix English-language TV show. During its first three days of streaming, the show clocked in an impressive 286.7 million hours of viewing — a record that had previously been held by raunchy favourite, Bridgerton. And it’s no surprise why. The show has received the blockbuster treatment for its highly-anticipated return, bigger and bolder than ever as it expands upon the canon that was established in its humble 2016 beginnings. With a per-episode cost of $30 million for production, no expense has been spared which has allowed for this supersized season to take itself in directions that before were perhaps unimaginable.

 

the show was able to hold itself steady as opposed to collapsing beneath its ambitious undertakings

 

Though it sagged at times — an inevitability considering the sheer size and scope of this new season, with an expanding catalogue of characters and a plot split between four distinct locations — the show was able to hold itself steady as opposed to collapsing beneath its ambitious undertakings. Despite the episode runtimes seeming somewhat excessive at first glance, their length was surprisingly not felt, a testament to the cumulation of so many interwoven fast-paced, high-stakes arcs that have worked to shape the season. 

 

Volume 1 has also worked to address questions that were posed in the very first episode of the series, offering explanations to some of the most fundamental aspects of the show’s lore that have satisfied fans’ thirst for answers whilst still fuelling curiosity as the series’ end draws closer. Using their new knowledge, eagle-eyed fans have already begun to make links with former episodes. They are spotting seeds that were sown in prior seasons making for a rewarding pay-off (sounds of clocks ticking and chiming in season three? Colour me impressed)! 

 

The irony is almost laughable: how can the same people who have established such a watertight plot also be responsible for such crude errors…

 

However, for such a detail-oriented season that appears to have left no stone unturned when it comes to its plot, some rather careless mistakes were made during production that has left viewers both baffled and amused. One particular moment went viral when fans spotted a familiar date included in the cut: that of William Byers’, one of the show’s central characters, birthday. Given how no mention of his birthday was made during the episode, fans were led to believe, rather heartbreakingly, that his family and friends had forgotten this special day. That was until the Duffer brothers — the show’s creators — issued a statement reassuring fans that it was not Will’s loved ones that had forgotten his birthday, but the showrunners instead, and promised that his canonical birthday would now be changed in order to correct this slip-up. Similarly, it was spotted in a trailer that the headstone for Billy Hargrove, who met his demise at the end of the last season, was inscribed with the wrong name — a mistake that was very quickly cleaned up by the time that particular episode was released. The irony is almost laughable: how can the same people who have established such a watertight plot also be responsible for such crude errors by the time it gets to the cutting room floor?

 

…try to keep up with the ‘Who’s Who’ of Hawkins

 

As mentioned, whilst Volume 1 managed to keep itself afloat, there were unfortunately times when it did fall a little flat. Thus far, this season’s plot has been fragmented into quarters with a distinct set of characters each tackling their own demons (be it physical or figurative) in locations that span not only the Midwest and Pacific states but also the international stage. Despite being balanced relatively evenly in the earlier episodes, as the stakes grew higher for some, attention began to dwindle on others. This made for frustrating viewing when the focus is (albeit reluctantly) brought away from one intense sequence to another that, in comparison, feels like nothing but filler, lacking in the same substance. 

 

This also can be attributed to the fact that the show’s body of characters seems to be expanding exponentially with no end in sight. The core group introduced in the first season has grown at a dizzying rate over the last four seasons, and whilst it is a pleasure to be able to grow to love new faces, it also makes for strained viewing as you try to keep up with the ‘Who’s Who’ of Hawkins. Millie Bobby Brown (‘Eleven’/Jane Hopper in the show) said it best herself: ‘you need to start killing people off.’ 

 

Nevertheless, it will certainly be interesting to see how these separate arcs are brought together, and who will live on to face another battle with the Upside Down, in the season’s conclusion.

Unwavering is the high standard that was set in the groundbreaking first season

 

Notably absent from this season was the lack of reliance upon 80s nostalgia that has previously defined the show, its tone taking a considerable shift away from the (arguably over-stylised) spectacle that was Season 3. Of course, there is no denying that inspiration has been once again taken from the classic horror movies of the time, with notable homage being paid to the iconic Nightmare on Elm Street in the form of this season’s ‘Big Bad’. However, whilst this helps to establish the atmosphere for this 1986 setting, it avoids appearing like a crutch to fall back on as if unsure of its own storytelling. Now, though, it is apparent that the writers are aware that they have their own cultural supernova on their hands, one that defies the need for throw-away lines and forced references that oftentimes take you out of the scene, rather than immerse you in it.

 

The performances this season were, once again, to be commended. Though at times it is noticeable that a handful of the younger stars are struggling with growing into their acting abilities more than their fellow co-stars — as to be expected in the gamble that comes with shaping a show around child actors — the overall performance of this ensemble cast is to be praised. Unwavering is the high standard that was set in the groundbreaking first season. Some of this season’s standouts were Natalia Dyer and Maya Hawke — portraying Nancy Wheeler and Robin Buckley, respectively — whose unexpected, yet complementary, the pairing was a breath of fresh air in an otherwise heavy storyline. Newcomer Joseph Quinn has managed to steal hearts with the hilarious yet heartwarming ‘Hellfire Club’ ringleader, Eddie Munson, and the newfound vulnerability of David Hopper’s Jim Hopper was nothing short of masterful. 

 

there is no denying that this season’s end is going to be as explosive as it gets…

 

However, the MVP of this season is undoubtedly that of Sadie Sink, whose portrayal of the grieving Max Mayfield was a delight to watch. Having made waves in the last year with her widely-acclaimed performances in both Netflix’s horror flick trilogy Fear Street and Taylor Swift’s All Too Well: The Short Film, Sink has come into her own this season. The actress added depth and dimension to a character that, in retrospect, has been severely underutilised since her season two debut. This became all too apparent in Vol. 1’s magnum opus: ‘Chapter Four: Dear Billy’. Sink navigates the epic highs and lows of this 79-minute episode with expert ability, building up to an artful crescendo in the final few scenes that has had viewers around the world on the edge of their seats, all to the perfectly-selected soundtrack of Kate Bush’s iconic 1985 hit, Running Up That Hill. It is now understandable why Winona Ryder called the twenty-year-old actor ‘the next Meryl Streep.’ 

 

So, what’s next? Though easy to forget considering the substantial weight of these new episodes, it is important to remember that this season is not over just yet. Season 4’s second instalment — a two-episode finale that is slated to span almost four hours in runtime — is set to drop on July 1, 2022. Fans who have so eagerly consumed what has already been put forth by this first segment have been quick to form and share their theories for Vol. 2. Speculation is rife surrounding which of these beloved characters will be saying goodbye as they meet an untimely, yet arguably inevitable, end. However, all speculation aside, there is no denying that this season’s end is going to be as explosive as it gets, and with teaser trailers and interviews promising action and emotion alike, it is clear that the beginning of the end has finally begun. 

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