Three years is a long time for the ephemeral tastes of the pop culture zeitgeist to wait for any next chapter in serialized episodic storytelling, and Netflix’s global hit Stranger Things returns for its fourth season testing whether the masses will return with the same zeal. Trying to ensure that it’s been worth the wait, creators Ross and Matt Duffer are giving faithful fans nine hours of narrative in Vol. I (which encompasses episodes 1 through 7) that might as well be compared to Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy in terms of its ambition with cinematic scale, budget, and disparate narratives coming together for one united purpose. And like that trilogy, this season of Stranger Things works well because of how great it is to spend time with the ever-evolving ensemble of characters. But it also suffers from some episodic bloat trying to serve the vast amount of stories it has going at one time.
The first episode back, “Chapter One: The Hellfire Club,” picks up about six(ish) months after the finale of Stranger Things Season 3. It’s March 1986, and for the first time all of the characters are scattered around the globe. In Hawkins, Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Mike (Finn Wolfhard) are in high school sticking to their outsider roles playing D&D as members of the D&D-centric The Hellfire Club, run by hair metal rebel Eddie Munson (Joseph Quinn). Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) is a benchwarmer on the basketball team with ambition to ascend to the cool kids circle. And Max (Sadie Sink) is emotionally spiraling in the aftermath of brother Billy’s death (Dacre Montgomery). Meanwhile, the older Steve (Joe Keery), Robin (Maya Hawke), and Nancy (Natalia Dyer) are still figuring out their own various romantic entanglements and future paths for themselves.
In California, Joyce (Winona Ryder) has a new house and job, while Eleven (Millie Bobbie Brown) and Will (Noah Schnapp) are in high school. Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) is smoking a lot of weed with his new pizza delivery buddy, Argyle (Eduardo Franco), and fretting about his long-distance relationship status with Nancy. Last but not least, Hopper (David Harbour) is still alive, barely, in Russia, where he’s been imprisoned and interrogated about his knowledge regarding the weird things going on in Hawkins.
“Chapter One” covers a lot of exposition ground by establishing where all of the characters are mentally and physically (all the kids have really grown up), within the context of their new environments and social circles. It has a re-pilot feel in terms of catching audiences up and progressing the story. One thing the Duffers and their writers have always done is mix up the character clusters, and this season is the most striking example of that, with characters like Will and El getting to exist in a strained sibling relationship, Erica (Priah Ferguson) playing D&D with Dustin and Mike, and Murray (Brett Gelman) and Joyce surreptitiously teaming up to investigate a strange package sent to her from Russia. It freshens things up, revealing new facets to the established characters while giving new cast additions, like Munson and Argyle, a way into the story. And by episode’s end, the machinations and terrifying M.O. of the new Big Bad from the Upside Down, Vecna, are viscerally established.
In look and tone, Stranger Things Season 4 is pushing its PG-13 rating more than ever with homages to ’80s horror classics like A Nightmare on Elm Street, Hellraiser, Poltergeist, and others, which inspire the overall aesthetics and level of gore in the season. Stranger Things has always relied on being reference-heavy, remixing what we’ve seen before, and that remains the same this year as well. There’s even a “cursed” Hawkins mythology that gets introduced about a serial murderer character named Victor Creel, which ticks the Michael Myers/Freddy Kruger boogeyman box. If you love this era of horror, then there will be a lot of visual allusions, excellent sound design, and flat-out borrowing that will either pique your nostalgia glands or make you shrug. But the season does get truly scary at times, with more well-placed jump scares, and graphic depictions of what Vecna does once he’s selected victims in Hawkins to pursue. Audience members aging up with the series, and who love horror, will appreciate the mature approach the Duffers have taken with matching the stakes to the increasing ages of the characters. For younger viewers, this might be the season that’s going to incite some nightmares.
The first four episodes, including “Chapter Two: Vecna’s Curse,” “Chapter Three: The Monster and the Superhero,” “Chapter Four: Dear Billy,” dig into separate stories, including the unfolding mystery and threat in Hawkins, Hopper’s bleak incarceration and his scheme to get out, Joyce and Murray determining Hopper is alive and working out how to find him, and then El and Mike’s reunion in California for spring break—with the added revelation of how she’s being bullied by the students there. There are a lot of plots to service and balance, though. It starts out a bit unwieldy, but it starts to coalesce by “Chapter Four,” which is arguably the most emotionally potent of the intro episodes. Sadie Sink really comes into her own this season portraying Max’s grief and guilt, with the success of “Chapter 4” resting on her able shoulders in a climatic episode that has a brilliant mix of emotional stakes, horror beats, and mythology advancement in regards to Vecna.
The clunkiest storylines of the pack are Hopper/Joyce/Murray, just because the Russia storyline is such an outlier to the rest of the series. However, having Rider and Gelman working together as the most unexpected co-conspirators is very funny. And the Duffers are at least making Hopper’s resurrection count. Not abiding by his “death” after the emotional ending to Season 3 is the definition of a bait-and-switch moment that could have been an unforgivable manipulation of the audience’s emotions. But they’re making Hopper suffer for his sins, forcing him to finally ruminate on everything that he hasn’t dealt with since the death of his daughter from cancer. Harbour makes those moments really count, and proves why he is such a keystone character.
The least dynamic episodes of the new batch are “Chapter Five: The Nina Project” and “Chapter Six: The Dive.” After the success of “Chapter 4,” these two feel extra long. An editorial metaphorical weed-wacking would have been welcome. Leaner, meaner episodes should have been in play, especially when it comes to wading through side stories involving an outlandish trip to Salt Lake City, an increasingly histrionic satanic scare thread in Hawkins, and the slow burn revelations in regards to El’s origins in Brenner’s (Matthew Modine) care back in 1979. Like many a series given carte blanche when it comes to episode runtimes, sometimes more isn’t always better, especially when it ends up kneecapping momentum.
The good news is that “Chapter Six: The Dive” and “Chapter Seven: The Massacre at Hawkins Lab,” reward the audience with a lot of answers, revelations, and pay-offs. Outside of the very exposition-dumpy treatment of El’s lab history, the other storylines all have some clever plot twists and discoveries which finally make the Hopper storyline pop, as well as further endearing us to the Scooby-Doo gang vibe that Steve, Dustin, Nancy, Robin, Max, and Lucas are giving off this season. The Upside Down mythology gets a lot of blanks filled in, too, as revelations connect the dots in regards to some of the big unresolved questions that have lingered since Will’s abduction and El’s arrival in Hawkins. Of course, it all ends with a massive cliffhanger which will be resolved on July 1 when Vol. 2 drops the final two episodes.
There’s a lot to love about Stranger Things Season 4, especially when it comes to some of the character progression and the change in vibe which fully embraces the tropes of the best of ‘80s horror. Dustin and Steve remain series MVPs, while Max, Robin, and Hopper come in right behind as scene stealers and outright standouts. Most underserved in this volume are Jonathan and Will, and a bit of El who is often rendered as mostly reactive because of her power down. Brown is a great actress, but she feels mostly hemed in until the final two episodes, which hopefully be remedied when a convergence of all the storylines happens.
Stranger Things Season 4, Vol. I episodes 401-407 launch May 27, 2022 on Netflix
Tara Bennett is a Los Angeles-based writer covering film, television and pop culture for publications such as SFX Magazine, Total Film, SYFY Wire and more. She’s also written books on Sons of Anarchy, Outlander, Fringe and the official Story of Marvel Studios released in late 2021. You can follow her on Twitter @TaraDBennett.
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