The first season of Stranger Things (2016) started off so small compared to everything that came after. The Duffer brothers were fresh to the scene, a relatively unknown creative team that sought to make something new that would purposefully stand on the shoulders of giants. As the years went by the budgets and productions have grown, but season four feels like a different sort of beast. This season is Stranger Things unhinged, nothing holding it back, no holds barred. The cast is bigger than ever, where even side characters have side characters. Locations are strewn all across the world, no longer land locked to Hawkins and its surrounding forests. Episodes clock in at over an hour a piece at the least, with a finale that’s a long movie by itself.
It can be said that, given the direction of the story, the extra time makes sense. The first two seasons ended with characters reuniting, but Season Three shuffled everyone away from each other. It’s been eight months after the mall fire. It only took three catastrophes to nearly kill off her entire family before Joyce decided it was time to pack up and move, taking her, Will, Jonathan, and Eleven off to the suburbs of California. Hopper, having already been revealed as having survived his near-death experience in a post credits scene, is cooling off in a Russian prison. Meanwhile, everyone else is still in Hawkins, trapped within their worst nightmare yet: High School.
There’s a new group of jocks to play the role of villains, after every previous jock went on to redeem themselves. There’s a cheerleader and bullies galore, but the monster of the season doesn’t care if you’re a jock or a nerd, whether you play basketball or Dungeons and Dragons. He will haunt your waking nightmares just the same.
While all of the seasons have had some degree of horror, the Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) inspiration definitely allows for the show’s horror themes to really stand out. There are the sudden hallucinations, the distorted chimes of the old clock, the voices calling out from the shadows, the quickly deformed bodies, bones breaking, eyes gouged out of their sockets. Stephen King-esque subplots flesh out background characters, taking stereotypes and giving them just enough backstory to imply more beneath the service. Plus, there’s a cameo from Robert England himself that’s a fitting role for the actor, while also playing against expectations for the kind of character he’d be asked to portray at the same time.
Along for the ride are new obligatory 80s references and stereotypes. There is nothing inherently wrong with celebrating nostalgia, or bringing back classic stereotypes, but there is an art to their execution. Anyone can just make references. The trick to making them special is how they’re incorporated into the story. Stranger Things as a show covers a wide range of reference drops, often wearing its inspiration brightly on its sleeve, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. What makes this season more interesting is how the stereotypes and cultural references intersect with the lore and story of the show, and in the process how that combination creates something new.
That’s not to say that this season is safe from the obvious or lazy. There’s a scene straight out of Clarice Starling’s first visit to Hannibal Lector’s prison cell, done practically shot for shot. The movie Nightmare on Elm Street is directly referenced to explain the bad guy of the season. A stream of high school bullies straight out of Stephen King’s Carrie (1976) is there to set up another storyline before disappearing into the background. The actual prop sword from Conan the Barbarian (1982) just happens to be on the floor and is wielded in proper form.
And yet it does manage to blend in with the established lore of the show, and weaves inspiration and story together to build upon that mythos to a striking finale that is more meaningful than just hero versus monster. There’s another season in the distance, a finale that looks like it will be too busy resolving character arcs to worry about what 80s film it’s going to borrow from this time, but for now Season Four is plenty on its own. It’s a massive story, spanning continents, held up by an abundance of great performances, that delivers a thrilling ride, flavored by nostalgia.