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A balanced Dungeons & Dragons party is a fundamental part of creating an enjoyable gaming experience. Yes, you want to make sure you have strong fighters who can provide a variety of melee or ranged attacks, some magic users, and definitely at least one person with a healing spell. You want a range of stats for the non-battle parts so that conversations with innkeepers can go smoothly and potential dangers and traps can be spotted from a glance around the room. Most importantly, you want a group that will be fun together, one that might unexpectedly work together to succeed at their ultimate quest, whatever that may be.
The first season of Stranger Things — which leaned on the Dungeons & Dragons of it all more so than the following two — exemplified a good, balanced party. The core group of kids played off each other neatly (and their official in-game character sheets certainly highlighted a nicely calibrated party). And no matter how you split up the characters, there was some great chemistry and wonderful character moments. But each successive season of Stranger Things has moved away from the D&D aspect — and also away from that ideal party.
While the Duffer brothers bring back Dungeons & Dragons in Stranger Things 4, the group dynamics are weaker than ever. Even if the terror comes in full swing, the charm of the characters is completely sucked away, replaced by connections that just don’t work well together but are being forced to somehow.
[Ed. note: This review contains some slight spoilers for the first half of the fourth season of Stranger Things.]
Season 4 of Stranger Things kicks off with our usual parties split across the globe, their relationships fraught at best. Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) and her sons Will (Noah Schnapp) and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) moved to California, taking Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) with them. Hopper (David Harbour) is trapped in a Russian prison. The kids in Hawkins hold the fort back home, but differing interests have separated the usual core group of friends from one another. Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Mike (Finn Wolfhard) are still just as committed to D&D, but Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) joins the basketball team in addition to his tabletop interests.
Meanwhile, Max (Sadie Sink) is still processing her stepbrother’s death and has isolated herself from her friends, moodily listening to Kate Bush on her walkman. The older teens of Hawkins are all hard at work, with Steve (Joe Keery) and Robin (Maya Hawke) employed together again, now at the local video store, while Nancy (Natalia Dyer) is off being a #girlboss school newspaper editor. And just to add some fun into the mix, there are two new characters: stoner Argyle (Eduardo Franco), who is Jonathan’s new (and perhaps first?) BFF, and metalhead Eddie (Joseph Quinn), head of the high school’s Hellfire Club (aka the Dungeons & Dragons club).
All seems quiet on the monster front until a teenager is found brutally murdered. While the police are quick to point fingers, our plucky gang of heroes (rightly) suspects that things might be stirring in the Upside Down. Indeed, a monster has somehow awakened and is haunting its victims by giving them terrifying hallucinations and preying on their worst fears and memories. The Dungeons & Dragons kids call it Vecna, a nod to one of the game’s most fearsome villains. If last season’s gobs of flesh melting didn’t get you, then perhaps the gruesome deaths in this season will tickle your fancy.
Each season of Stranger Things has certainly upped the brutality, giving the characters an even more terrifying threat to face. But the show doesn’t seem to be leveling up the personal connections to the same extent. After the wonder of the first season, each successive season floundered a bit, though there were certain characters who ended up sparking unexpected connections. Steve taking over as team babysitter in season 2, for instance, or his escapade in the mall with Robin, Dustin, and Erica in season 3, were two past highlights. But Steve’s infectious charisma seems to be the exception and not the norm and this time around. While his friendship with Robin is a small light in a dark tunnel, it’s not enough to pull everyone else out of the slump.
In a season built on physical distance, the groups seem haphazardly stitched together, out of a need to get people in the same place at the same time. Characters don’t have to like each other to make a strong story. But they at least should have some sort of on-screen chemistry. Instead, everyone feels like they’re begrudgingly getting along, obligated to band together even though their stats make them possibly the least ideal mix of characters to be taking on a grand mission together.
There is a charm about returning to these familiar characters. We have seen them grow up, after all, and even if nothing quite matches the novelty of the first season, it is fun to see them all again and see where they’ve ended up — though admittedly, that washes off very quickly when they start behaving in ways that just seem counterintuitive to everything we know about them. Max, who was made miserable by her stepbrother, now thinks he was actually really cool. Lucas is now a basketball player, which is great! But Mike and Dustin are being so mean to him about it, even asking him to skip the big championship game so he can play Dungeons & Dragons with them. Yes, friendships evolve as people grow up, but these kids have been through some shit together. You’d hope they were a little more sympathetic.
The Duffers seem to be taking the principle of “show, don’t tell” to the utmost max. It isn’t enough that Eleven is having a hard time at a new school and doesn’t have her powers; we have to see multiple scenes of her being viciously bullied by the popular kids and trying (and failing) to use her psychic powers against them. We not only see Jonathan and Nancy having long-distance issues, we have to listen to multiple painful and awkward conversations about how things aren’t working out even though they still love each other, really, deep down. Even with every episode having a run time of over an hour, the episodes feel packed, but it is more or less the same thing over and over again.
At the very least, the horror is fun, building up to some pretty terrifying sequences and vicious kills. The mechanics of the new monster are delightfully eerie as it plunges its victims into nightmarish hallucinations, but it, too, suffers from terribly cliche dialogue. That’s the downside of having a humanoid monster — what scary things can it say that have not been said a million times before? And the new characters add a splash of flavor. Argyle in particular gives Jonathan some much-needed levity outside of his familial obligations and tense romantic relationship. Eddie is also a compellingly chaotic mess of contradictions, a bad boy who really just takes a bunch of misfit kids under his wing, even if he’s still kind of a dick to them. But they’re just two small working parts and unfortunately cannot save the rest of their respective groups.
The bands of adventurers this season have been grouped haphazardly in ways that could theoretically make sense, but fall flat once they actually come together. For every fun and exciting element introduced, there is an overwhelming mushy gray pile of slog to wade through. There are a few glimmers of hope amidst the mush — a few good dice rolls that help a party with horrible stats at least squeak on by. But overall, the terrible party calibration makes those moments few and far between. With a season promising movie-length episodes and a run time “almost twice as long” as the third season, that’s a major liability. It is likely that they will at least be able to defeat the monster in part 2, but will they tell an entertaining and enjoyable story? Jury’s still out on that.
The first part of Stranger Things season 4 hits Netflix on May 27 with seven episodes.