Stranger Things Season 4 Wants to Do the Time Warp, Again

The three years during which Stranger Things has been off our screens have been so tense and traumatic that many of us feel like a decade’s been taken off our lifespan. And though only six months have passed in storyline chronology, the teenagers of Hawkins, Indiana appear to have undergone a supernatural growth spurt. But in most other ways, the town—and the Netflix series itself—seem to be stuck in a time warp of their own making.

Stranger Things always fed on our nostalgia for the 1980s as a supposed halcyon age before the Internet, smartphones, and social media—a bygone moment of innocence when children ran free both physically and imaginatively, and parents didn’t worry so long as they came home in time for dinner. When it premiered in the summer of 2016, the show’s evocation of analog adolescence threaded through with heartwarming allusions to 1980s pop culture felt at once joyous and poignant. Series creators The Duffer Brothers infused every element of Stranger Things with wistful warmth.The demogorgon from another dimension that menaced Hawkins worked like a darkside version of ET, transforming nerdy weirdos Dustin, Mike, Will and Lucas into a tight, resourceful gang whose Dungeons & Dragons skills and Huffy-riding flair become weapons in the battle against Cosmic Evil. Reviewing the first season, my V.F. colleague Richard Lawson celebrated the way the show sidestepped cynicism and the sort of “pointy irony that might obnoxiously jolt us out of its beautifully rendered world.”

Season four of Stranger Things, meanwhile, reminds me of late-stage Buffy, when the vampire slayer and her Scooby gang grew jaded about saving the world. “Every single night the same arrangement, I go out and fight the fight,” Buffy sang in “Going Through the Motions” from the musical episode “Once More with Feeling.” “I always feel this strange estrangement, nothing here is real, nothing here is right.” The Hawkins gang likewise are getting quippy and meta.

How to keep repeating a winning formula, without it seeming, well, repetitious? Ironically signaling this to the audience is a risky gambit. “You do realize I saved the world twice?” Mike (Finn Wolfhard) snipes at Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) this season. “And yet you still have a C in Spanish!” Dustin razzes back. In another episode, Robin (Maya Hawke) consoles a new character who unwittingly finds himself in the center of their horror story. “We’ve actually been through this kind of thing before,” she says sweetly, pointing to her fellow monster-hunters. “Mine was more human flesh-based and theirs was more smoke-related, but bottom line is, collectively, I really feel like we got this.”

The new season does push deeper into the Stranger Things mythology. Disturbing flashbacks offer insight into Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) and her time in the top-secret CIA laboratory-school under the tutelage of Dr. Martin Brenner (Matthew Modine), a.k.a. Papa. There she honed her supernatural skills alongside a throng of similarly bald-headed warrior children, who seem to have ended up dead at her hands. The revelations leave El (and viewers) wondering if she is a hero or a monster—although the question is slightly academic because she begins the season having lost all of her zap-powers after the Battle of Starcourt in the season three finale. 

With Hopper (David Harbour) assumed dead, Joyce (Winona Ryder) takes El with her and the boys to start afresh, moving across the country to California. You can tell it’s California because the popular kids who bully El at her new school look like they’ve raided the costume archive of Fast Times at Ridgemont High. But for El, it’s more like a Carrie situation. You can’t help rooting for her to get her powers back and zap all those mean girls out of the local roller disco into the Upside Down.

The theme of trauma is woven through this season, which makes sense considering the amount of death and loss these kids have experienced. The monster that emerges this season, whom they nickname Lord Vecna after a Dungeons and Dragons dark wizard, seems to feed on victims’ emotional damage. There’s certainly plenty of it among the Stranger Things gang: Will (Noah Schapp) did time in the Upside Down, Max (Sadie Sink) watched her step-brother die in front of her, El grew up as an experimental guinea pig. While I like this idea of acknowledging the cost paid by the show’s survivors, it’s often written in clunky ways that nudge the show ever closer to cartoony cliches. 

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