Some shows evolve over their long runs; others clutch to what made them hits in the first place. Stranger Things’ flashy fourth season mostly does the latter, churning through Eighties pop-cultural references at a pace that makes me worry there’ll be nothing in the tank for its final, fifth chapter. Gone is the neon of the shopping mall and Jane Fonda’s workout tapes, replaced by Encyclopaedia Britannica, film strips, snail mail, microfiche and Satanic panic. This is the Eighties of dying technology and Reaganism’s dark, moralising underbelly.
The series picks up about a year after the Battle of Starcourt Mall, season three’s bloody finale, and there’s not a single member of the gang who isn’t struggling for a toehold. Mike and Dustin – Finn Wolfhard looking suddenly very grown-up and Gaten Matarazzo continuing to own every scene with his preternatural timing – have relinquished the possibility of a glow-up and reluctantly settled into seats at Hawkins High cafeteria’s Dungeons & Dragons table. Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) is riding the bench of the varsity basketball team in a clumsy bid for popularity by association, while Max (Sadie Sink), withdrawn after her brother’s grisly end, completely ignores him. Robin and Steve (Maya Hawke and Joe Keery) have traded their part-time gigs at the demolished ice cream shop for new dead-end jobs at the video store. At least their endearing bickering is intact.
But the world of Stranger Things no longer ends at Hawkins’ city limits. Mourning the death of police chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour), Joyce (Winona Ryder) relocates her family to California, far from the Hawkins hell-mouth. Unfortunately, sunshine doesn’t agree with them. Without Nancy’s (Natalia Dyer) studious example, Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) rebrands as a pothead, and Will (Noah Schnapp) turns so reclusive he may as well still be in the Upside Down. And no one is more tortured than Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) – bullied, lonely, and limping along without her telekinetic powers.
The tight-knit gang with a hankering for adventure is strained and traumatised. Instead of the new season’s demon – which critics are under strict instructions not to tell you anything about – threatening their geeky bonhomie, it reunites them. This thoughtful reversal is affecting, but it also means the first few episodes lack what’s always been Stranger Things’ fundamental pleasure: watching kids be kids the way they were in classics like ET and Back to the Future. Silly, plucky, and unsupervised; the way many nostalgic viewers grew up, or wish they did.
It’s bizarre that Netflix is so protective of the identity of the latest big baddie. What series creators the Duffer Brothers have consistently understood is that the size and shape of a demon isn’t the source of its terror – though bigger and with more limbs always helps. With every instalment, the series comes up with freshly terrifying, but deceptively simple landscapes. Take something recognisable, like a tree or a house, and cast it against a nightmarishly vast red sky. Underline it with a heavy synth that pulses like a heartbeat, and you’ve got a moment more petrifying than any monster.
This season doesn’t have the same disco ball glimmer that the giant set of the Starcourt Mall delivered, but it boasts a thrilling soundscape that’s just as rich, if not so garishly in-your-face. Every music cue is dead on, including a menacing getaway scene set to Musical Youth’s rollicking “Pass the Dutchie”. There’s another music cue so hauntingly divine Netflix considers mentioning it by name a violation of their spoiler policy, but you’ll know it when you hear it. Rounding out the soundtrack is an evocative set of sinister audio distortions and hurtling screeches more startling than any jump scare. Plus, noises that are so mundane you’ve maybe never noticed how harrowing they can be: the snip of garden shears, the violence of a sharpened pencil on newsprint, the ominous ch-ch-ch of an egg timer.
Given the pressure Netflix is under, the streamer needs Stranger Things season four to be a hit. It’s already been revealed via trailers that Hopper isn’t actually dead, which feels like a lame way to help the show along. And really, they needn’t be bothered. If you liked Stranger Things before, you’ll like it again this time around. Formulaic TV works when the formula is this good.