The scope of Stranger Things season 4 will be bigger than anything the show has attempted before, but how has the scale of the series changed over the years? Releasing its fourth season on May 27th, 2022, the cult series Stranger Things debuted to critical acclaim in mid-2016. A huge success for streaming service Netflix, the sci-fi horror series was a combination of small-town mystery and nostalgic coming-of-age dramedy. The Stranger Things season 4 trailer shows how large that scope has gotten, with a Hawkins takeover looming on the horizon.
The appeal of Stranger Things was unique in a crowded streaming marketplace, making its outsized success no surprise. Despite starring a group of lovably nerdy kids as its central heroes, Stranger Things had a dark edge that will only continue, as evidenced by season 4’s available footage. In addition to this, the series has always played its horror elements dead straight. Despite featuring plenty of comic relief, the show also took its characters seriously, with Stranger Things stalwarts like Winona Ryder’s harried single mom Joyce Byers and David Harbour’s brooding Hopper providing gravitas. In contrast, the kid characters added ample moments of charm and character comedy.
However, the appeal of Stranger Things transformed as the series progressed, with a gradual shift in tone and scale occurring between each season. The Stranger Things season 4 footage available has only emphasized how the series’ scope has changed, making good on executive producer Shawn Levy’s promise that the installment will have an “epic, cinematic” feel. How has the scope of the series transformed until this point, and is a bigger version of the show better than a smaller Stranger Things season 4 according to the reception of recent seasons?
Stranger Things’ Slow, Steady Season 1
The first season of Stranger Things looks vastly different than what’s presented in the season 4 trailer, showcasing how the series has changed over time. Season 1 was a slow burn mystery that hid its smaller budget by drawing out its action, and taking time to establish its small cast. There were sci-fi and horror elements to Stranger Things from the pilot’s cold open onwards. Still, the series drip-fed the more out-there elements slowly throughout the first season and mostly stuck to character drama — despite constantly hinting at a bigger picture conspiracy. This approach conserved its budget, while also making the human drama as compelling as the sci-fi action. There were some side characters — though not too many— and Stranger Things season 1 mostly focused on three storylines: the kids, Hopper and Joyce, and Nancy and Jonathan. Despite sweet moments like Nancy and Jonathan’s tentative romance, Stranger Things season 1 was, by the creators’ own admission, inspired as much by the dark kidnapping drama Prisoners as ET and The Goonies, and this inspiration is reflected in the slow, thoughtful, and occasionally somber season.
Stranger Things’ Faster (But Not Bigger) Season 2
Stranger Things season 2 was one of the show’s best-received outings, as it amped up the pace but introduced precious few new cast members. Instead, the series spent most of the season fleshing out existing characters. Most of the new additions (like conspiracy theorist Murray Bauman) existed to facilitate an existing plotline (like getting Jonathan and Nancy together). Billy, Max, Dr. Owens, and Bob Newby made up most of the new arrivals. However, the action of Stranger Things season 2 was still limited almost entirely to the small town of Hawkins, meaning the expanded cast never made the show feel too big or ambitious. There was one exception to this, as Stranger Things season 2 brought Eleven to Chicago for a standalone outing. The much-maligned Lost Sister episode, which introduced Kali and was broadly dismissed as an unnecessary detour for the season, could be seen as a harbinger of things to come. Scenes from Stranger Things season 4 show that the action will be more at the forefront than in season 2, but it also looks like the characters will experience some challenging arcs.
Stranger Things’ Busier, Bigger (& More Chaotic) Season 3
Stranger Things season 3 was the most sprawling season so far, as it introduced dozens of new characters and killed off most of them in short order (Stranger Things‘ local newspaper staff perhaps being the most blatantly under-written throwaway figures of the season). Although its action was technically still limited to Hawkins, season 3 also jetted off to Russia in the end and almost leveled the small town via the Mind Flayer’s massive monster form. This means the scope of Stranger Things increased dramatically, despite its setting staying the same. While all of these new faces set up the events of Stranger Things season 4, it didn’t do any favors for the third installment.
This chaotic outing of the series also attempted to follow separate plot lines revolving around Robin, Steve, and Dustin’s story, Joyce and Hopper’s story, Mike and El’s story, Jonathan and Nancy’s story, and Billy’s solo plot making it an overstuffed and messy season. The biggest problem with Stranger Things season 3 was the show adding too many minor villains and side characters, detracting from the screen time of the main characters and rendering their interactions less believable as a result. In particular, Mike and El’s forced breakup betrayed a clumsiness and broad, caricatured writing that jarred with the believable awkwardness of their adolescent interactions in seasons 1 and 2. So, while season 3 upped the ante on the suspense and action necessary for the season 4 Hawkins takeover, it didn’t really translate well for its prior’s plot.
How Stranger Things Season 4 Is Going All-Out
The new Stranger Things season 4 trailer demonstrates just how much the series has changed with the addition of a new villain who unleashes the entire Upside Down on Hawkins. The upcoming season will be an expansive one, split into two parts, with the first premiering on May 27th, 2022, and the second on July 1st. Now that the group has been split up, an Upside Down creature named Vecna (who might’ve been human at one point) announces his vengeance against the township, revealing his plans to level the city in a hostile takeover. This is a vastly different picture to the one painted in season 1, proving just how much the scope of the series has grown.
There have been mostly one-offs between a few Upside Down monsters and Mike’s gang of misfits throughout the series. Season 4 will see the entirety of the alternate dimension wreaking irreversible destruction on their fair city. Some of this action was teased with Stranger Things season 3’s Mind Flayer. The massive beast made his own small army out of Hawkins’ unwilling citizens and attempted to do what Season 4’s villain is promising. While season 3 provided more outright action sequences than its predecessors, Stranger Things season 4 sees all-new creatures swarming around Creel House, and, inevitably, Hawkins as a whole.
Will Stranger Things Season 4’s Excesses Ruin Its Legacy?
If Stranger Things season 4 follows in the footsteps of Season 3’s overstuffed chaos of season 3, it will cement the notion that bigger is not necessarily better for Stranger Things. The series will need to slow down its pace to account for this bigger scale to avoid another busy, un-involving outing. Stranger Things season 4 increasing its scope may be bad news for the show, proving that its more intimate moments of character development come second to new characters and big set-pieces in recent seasons. However, as the Stranger Things season 4 trailer states, every beginning has an end, and without the planned takeover, a slow burn could risk cheapening the build-up.
While Stranger Things season 4 tells an epic adventure story that spans the globe (thanks to Hopper’s Russian exile) and stays true to the central cast of believable characters, there is another problem with the scope of the upcoming outing. The creators announced that the season is introducing many more new characters, which may have been exciting if Stranger Things was not also expanding its reach. This is not to say that the new cast members, including Robert Englund as the new Stranger Things villain Vecna, are not welcome additions to the series. However, when Stranger Things season 3 lost its focus due to new characters and an expanded setting, it became fair to worry about the tone of the fourth season, whose creators promise plenty of new arrivals and a massive, international “epic” scope that includes the new villain’s war on Hawkins.
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