If you ask me, and you didn’t but I’m here so I’ll carry on, the most illuminating way to watch the new and fourth season of Stranger Things (streams on Netflix) is as I did. That is, jet-lagged and recovering from being through two of the most unsettling and anxiety-inducing airports in the world, in Dublin and Toronto Pearson. In that state, my friends, the sprawling, scary, hallucinatory, four-storyline production is a breeze. It’s utterly enthralling.
Stranger Things stopped being a purely lightweight summer delight at the end of Season 3. There was a painful and disastrous battle between our young heroes and the forces of evil, in the person of the Mind Flayer and some Russian no-goodniks. It was a spectacular, complicated altercation and, for all its adrenaline-fuelled antics and twists, it’s when the series stopped being a pastiche of 1980s entertainment and became darker than it had ever been.
Now older and wiser, the kids in the cursed town of Hawkins face off against Vecna, a moody monster who takes aim at troubled teenagers, somehow uses their troubles to put them in a terrifying trance and, once there, they can succumb in terrible pain to his version of death. As much as there are flourishes of eighties-era horror movies here, it’s not where the beauty of Stranger Things resides. There are so many splintered, dysfunctional families and so many direct or indirect hints of toxic violence, that you genuinely feel for the characters in trouble.
At the centre of the new interwoven set of stories is Maxine Mayfield (Sadie Sink), previously an anti-social loner taken in by the core group of characters, but now isolated as she struggles alone with the reality of her stepbrother Billy’s death. The episode in which Max, with help from her friends, manages to transcend all the temptations of depression and isolation – fuelled by the power of the Kate Bush song Running Up That Hill – has an unearthly power. It could be about the young woman overcoming anything, whether it’s drugs, depression or bullying, and it has a melancholy force that is at first heartbreaking and then inspirational.
Then there is the bullying that Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) suffers at her new school in a new environment. Her powers have evaporated and she cannot strike back. In that storyline we get some of the heartache that befalls any young person shifting uneasily from radiant child to uncertain adolescent.
This is not to suggest outright that the series has deep, meaningful heft or searing insight. It simply has the power of good entertainment, abounding with ideas and charm, taking the audience to a place where’s there’s room for wit, horror and acknowledgment of pain. It sticks to the outline of coming-of-age storytelling but never loses sight of the fact that growing up can be awfully painful. And all those monsters are, really, just life happening to you between childhood and adulthood.
Much has been made in media coverage of the sheer untidiness of this fourth season of the series. Many episodes roam idly past an hour in length and the setting shifts between multiple locations. So what? It was uncannily prescient of the creators, the Duffer brothers – although they can’t have known – to set an entire storyline in a Russian gulag, where Hopper (David Harbour) is in captivity. In the context of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the portrait of the grasping, greedy Russian guards is more than piquant.
There is comic relief, a serious dose of the creeps, in the character of Victor Creel (Robert Englund in an excellent cameo), a man imprisoned in an asylum, who might be the first victim of whatever ails the town of Hawkins. There’s teenage angst about love and crushes, and an affection for the theatrics of high-school life that manages to avoid sentimentality. Absorbing, gripping and, yes, bloated, it somehow manages to excavate some truths about the shifting landscape of adolescence.
Now, obviously, you don’t have to be jet-lagged and weary to truly appreciate Stranger Things. My enjoyment was assisted by having my cat Rita sitting in my lap throughout. She’s a huge fan; the sounds and visuals keeping her glued to it. But you do need a certain mindset to see all its sombre beauty and it’s worth searching for that mindset. Two new episodes are coming on July 1 and Rita and I can hardly wait.
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