Review: ‘Stranger Things Season 4 Vol. 1’

Netflix's Hit Series Returns In Extra-Large Fashion, But Its Nostalgic Charms Remain The Same Size

The last new season of Stranger Things was in July 2019. It’s hard to even remember a pre-pandemic world anymore, much less a TV series that, fun as it might be, has been gone for three solid years. The landscape is also entirely different for Netflix, but let’s just say that the arrival of Stranger Things season 4 couldn’t come at a better time for the struggling streamer. But as much as things have changed for us in the real world, the Duffer Brothers’ hit sci-fi/horror nostalgia fest is more of the same, just a lot more of it. The charms and gruesome horrors are still there and as effective as ever, but with seven episodes all hovering around feature film length, and three distinct locations separating the characters, the sheer size and scope is enough to test even the most devoted fan.

Three years may have passed for us, but it’s only been six months for the surviors of the Battle at Starcourt Mall. The distance between everyone has never been greater. Joyce (Winona Ryder) has left behind the nightmares of Hawkins, Indiana for an idyllic suburb in California, bringing along Will (Noah Schnapp), Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton). Everyone is missing someone else. Eleven, coping with the loss of her powers, is struggling without Mike (Finn Wolfhard), and faces bullying from the cool kids at school. Joyce still believes Hopper (David Harbour) sacrificed his life.  Of course, we know different. And Jonathan discovers that being in a long distance relationship with  Nancy (Natalia Dyer) really sucks.

In Hawkins, Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) is on the verge of joining the cool clique as a part of the basketball team, although his relationship with the sullen Max (Sadie Sink) has suffered. Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Mike are deep in their nerdness as part of The Hellfire Club, a Dungeons & Dragons group led by punk rocker Eddie Munson (Joseph Quinn). Meanwhile, Nancy is a dogged reporter for the school paper, but she’s really feeling that gap between her and Jonathan. Much closer to her is ex-boyfriend Steve (Joe Keery), who along with Robin (Maya Hawke) are now chummy chummy co-workers at a video store. And if you think the Duffers don’t use that to make as many movie references as possible for eagle-eyed viewers, you haven’t been watching long enough. Of course they do!

There are other new additions, including the The Binge‘s terrific Eduardo Franco doing what he does best, playing a goofy stoner. With so much going on, a lot of humor has been sacrificed, which is why some of the comic relief characters are more vital than ever this time. I would include Priah Ferguson who once again steals every scene she gets as the Queen herself, Erica Sinclair, Lucas’ know-it-all, smart-mouthed sister. She comes through in the clutch more than once and is a treat every single time. Remember, “You can’t spell America without Erica!”

Episodes can feel overstuffed as the plot leaps from Hawkins, to California, and finally a Russian gulag where Hopper fights for his life. Hopper’s storyline feels especially disconnected, like it should’ve been part of a series of prison escape short films rather than a piece of this larger whole. It still has a considerable amount of thrills, and Harbour is great at revealing the rugged Hopper’s sensitive side. He’s a character who, perhaps more than any other, cares deeply for the people in his circle, and we get some touching moments where he gets to express that. In-between a lot of brutality, some double-crosses, and near-death encounters, of course.

Your mileage may vary depending on your favorite characters, or combinations of characters. Personally, I love the duo of Lucas and Max, and it’s good to see Sadie Sink getting an increased focus. She and McLaughlin have really easy chemistry, which makes the problems between their characters tough to watch. But at least Lucas and Max are moving forward and becoming different people as they get older. We also see a slight tweak in Robin’s personality, having found a new best friend in Steve who knows her biggest secret. Perhaps as a defense mechanism, she’s more of an awkward chatterbox this season due to some tension with Nancy over her closeness to Steve.

In the case of Eleven, I had some real difficulties accepting what feels like a step backwards for her. Maybe it’s fatigue of everything that went down at Hawkins Lab, but seeing the returns of Paul Reiser and Matthew Modine instantly bored me because of what I knew it’d mean for Eleven. Considering everything she’s done and been through on the outside, seeing her reduced to terrified, subjugated Eleven is a drag. That said, season 4 does expand on our knowledge of the Lab, including the introduction of Jamie Campbell-Bower’s “Friendly Orderly” who is at the center of one of the better lingering mysteries.

The massive expansion in Stranger Things isn’t just about episode runtime. Remember when the show first started and the Duffers had to get clever when it comes to big visual effects sequences? Well, worries about the budget are definitely no longer a concern. It’s clear Netflix has thrown feature film money at each episode, and to be fair, the Duffers, Shawn Levy, and Nimrod Antal make tremendous use of the freedom that affords. The Upside Down is more terrifying than ever, there are more detailed monsters lurking, and all of them are right out in the open. It makes for more exciting, thrilling action when shit really hits the fan in the super-sized finale, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss the underdog spirit the show used to have when episodes were under an hour.

Stranger Things season 4 Vol. 4 hits Netflix on May 27th, followed by Vol. 2 on July 1st.