It’s been a long wait since we got the last season of Stranger Things but it has finally come to an end. We return to our motley crew of rebellious teenagers as they face teenage angst, being accepted in high school, and an interdimensional threat. You know, normal teenager stuff with some 80s flair. Yet, the latest season sees our crew split up across the United States as a new threat arises to haunt the innocent town of Hawkins. Can the story keep up the momentum after almost three years?
Jumping back into the world of Stranger Things took a bit. We catch up with what has happened in the meantime since the events of the original. There’s a lot that happened off-screen which the show tries to make up for with a quick catch-up. One thing that does become a bit of a hindrance for the earlier episodes is that after splitting them up in the last season, most of the time is spent on them once again reuniting. It does feel like the beginning could’ve been shortened at times, but they were at their own mercy from how they ended the last season.
The thing that sticks out this time around is that we have a very clearly defined bad guy early on. While the Upside-Down will always be this malevolent force behind everything, we get introduced to a more humanoid creature, which will later be called Vecna. While visually stunning with the practical suit, it doesn’t quite live up to the Flayed from last season with his more humanoid appearance. He’s still intimidating and the concept of how he uses his abilities to prey on people’s regrets is certainly a nightmarish concept. The way he kills his victims adds to the horrific body horror at play this season.
Yet, as early as we find out who our main threat is this time around, it does feel like it takes a while to get to a point where the conflict arises. We get an entire sequence on Eleven being bullied at school, which was terrible and highlighted the challenges she was facing given her past. It serves a much stronger purpose later on but it does feel like it dragged on a bit. Her reaction towards it also serves as a red herring for a later reveal, which softens the blow on the event a bit. It just depends on if you stick with it until the end.
The issue early on is that there are just way too many characters at this point which leads to some getting left behind along the way. The original cast returns but we also have the new characters of Eduardo Franco as Argyle and Joseph Quinn‘s Eddie Munson–who are both fantastic additions to be fair. We even have the return of Matthew Modine and Paul Reiser as Martin Brener and Sam Owens respectively. While it didn’t grow by too much, we already have a big cast of characters and sadly the one that gets lost in the shuffle is Noah Schnapp‘s Will Byers and Charlie Heaton‘s Jonathan Byers. They have conflicts that tie into the story but it just feels like they got sidelined quite a bit this time around, especially due to them being mostly sidelined to keep the plot moving.
However, while saying that, once the plot of Stranger Things gets going; it really gets going. The first episode ends on quite the cliffhanger, which sadly highlights the drawback of its binge model as that would’ve kept people talking for quite a while. It also highlights that this might be the scariest of the seasons so far, as while we had body horror last time around, it was more gross than scary. This time, there’s actual tension built up as we get inside the heads of the various characters before their eventual fate catches up with them.
An interesting highlight was the deep dive into the era of “Dungeons & Dragons is worshipping satan” and integrating it into the escalation of the plot. We actually get a conflict with their parents, especially as the Upside-Down starts seeping more into their world. The series is at its best when we spend time in Hawkins, where the actual threat is unleashed and it builds up this horror-mystery concept around the events. Yet, we are not only busy spending time in California but also in Russia.
There was no secret that David Harbour‘s Jim Hopper survived the events from last time and it was great to see him take the character down a darker path. Considering what he went through, the elephant moment being an absolute nightmare on screen, and how it ties back to the Cold War plots from the last season. The plot in this does build up some great tension but in the episodes provided it’s unclear how it’ll connect back into the overarching plot. So, we’ll see how the final two might pull it back into the main plot.
The issue the series faces early on is that it needs to set up many different elements to bring it all together by the end. While a bit of a drag early on, the ending is the highlight of the season besides the amazing episode “Dear Billie” with an amazing performance by Sadie Sink as Max Mayfield. Even Eleven’s little side adventure that starts off as this strange setback for her character comes together in the finale in a big way, which had me rewatch the final moments to just see what I may have missed. I am quite excited to see how this lead into the final two episodes and the eventual final season.
The new season doesn’t reinvent the wheel. The iconic music and 80s Amblin-inspired cinematography return at full force. The new characters bring something fun to the table with Eduardo Franco being quite the standout comic relief. There is some effects work that did stick out and highlight how the pandemic has slammed the VFX industry, but with any other show, it doesn’t take away from the overall experience. Stranger Things is something special and continues to be that, it just needed a little this season to get that usual flow going.
It may be a bit of a disjointed start but it pulls it back together by the end. With only two more episodes set to release in July, it’s unclear if the true season finale can pull off the same, especially with the final episode being over two hours long. Still, the setup with Vecna may be of its interesting, and knowing that the fifth will be its final season creates a really interesting atmosphere on how they continue beyond this season. So, be sure to check it out and avoid as many spoilers as possible.