When the history of Gen Z television is written (and what a fascinating work that will be…) the opening chapter must surely be dedicated to Stranger Things. The Duffer Brothers’ nostalgia-inflected sci-fi smash began in 2016 with a cast of unknown children, who, as the years have gone by, have grown up and into superstars. And as the show’s audience has matured, so too has its tone. Now, returning for the final instalment of its fourth season (or “chapter” as they insist on calling them) Stranger Things is a fusion of supernatural thriller and serial killer horror, but still the same youthful romp it’s been since day one.
Chapter Four has so far, in the seven episodes released in May, been a big return to form for Stranger Things, after a saggy third season and a lengthy hiatus. That’s despite its characters, the core gang, being scattered across the globe. As things pick up here in the last two episodes, Mike (Finn Wolfhard) and the Byers brothers (Noah Schnapp and Charlie Heaton) are in California, while Joyce (Winona Ryder) and Murray (Brett Gelman) are in Siberia, searching for Hopper (David Harbour). “Guess you got my message,” says Hopper, when they finally reunite. “Oh, no, I’ve just always wanted to visit the Soviet Union,” deadpans Joyce, their chemistry fizzing off the screen.
Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), meanwhile, is underground somewhere in the Nevadan desert. Enemies are closing in: not just Jamie Campbell Bower’s arachnoid Vecna but the US military and a heavily armed vigilante mob in Hawkins. And if the good-cop/bad-cop of child behavioural psychiatry (Paul Reiser’s Dr Owens and Matthew Modine’s Dr Brenner) have their way, it’ll be on Eleven to save the world. “You eased her into it nice and gentle,” Owens tells his colleague, with a raised eyebrow, after they reveal that only Eleven can stop Vecna. “Not ominous at all.”
The greatest strength of Stranger Things has always been its casting. Guessing – and it is always a guess with child actors – which kids will be able to carry that childhood charisma over into adulthood is a very specific skill. But, without exception, Stranger Things has aced it. This fourth series has offered a huge breakthrough to Sadie Sink as tortured tomboy Max, and her effortless cool continues into the finale. But really these final episodes are all about Millie Bobby Brown’s Eleven. “I came here to try and understand who I was, to see if I was the monster,” she tells Dr Brenner. “And now I know the truth: it is not me, it is you.” Eleven has always been the existential enigma at the heart of the show, and finally she is getting some clarity on who, and why, she is. Sidelined for much of this season in California, stripped of her powers, she’s back with a bloody-nosed vengeance.
The first episode of Stranger Things, back in the naïve innocence of 2016, was 49 minutes long. This series finale is 150 minutes long. It’s an episode that is not just feature length, but epic – longer even than Apocalypse Now. The desire to further blur the line between cinema and television (especially with movie theatres in terminal decline) is natural, though the sprawling scope of this series of Stranger Things would, possibly, be usefully tamed by a tighter running time. All the same, the Duffer Brothers know how to construct a climax, as the reunited gang do battle with Vecna back on the home turf of Hawkins, Indiana. “I have this gnawing feeling that it might not work out for us this time,” Robin (Maya Hawke, another great casting) tells Joe Keery’s Steve Harrington. “But if we don’t stop him, who will?”
There is no need for Stranger Things to be as good as it is. It’s marketed towards a generation who are happy scrolling through 10-second videos of their classmates dabbing, or 10-hours-long Fortnite streams. They could’ve simply phoned it in, and yet what they’ve created is a lavish yet intimate drama, blending almost every genre – from comedy to horror to romance – into a show that is a near faultless crowd pleaser. This excellent penultimate season of Netflix’s golden goose is the perfect antidote to lowest common denominator television: a show that offers much more than its audience asks for.