Hawkins, Indiana’s youngsters have returned for the show’s most spectacular season ever.
As the now much taller teenage heroes of Netflix’s sci-fi/horror mega-hit Stranger Things struggle to uncover the newest dark mystery afflicting their little Indiana town in the third episode of the forthcoming fourth season, skateboarder Max (Sadie Sink) offers a sobering comment. She explains that they just know this is unlike anything they’ve ever seen. “Something new.” To Max‘s credit, she’s somewhat correct.
Stranger Things makes some major alterations to its formula for the first time since its breakout first season. The program takes its plot to a variety of locales outside of Hawkins, and it splits its characters into groups that remain separate for the first seven episodes of the season. It also amps up the show’s horror themes by introducing a major villain who is more akin to Freddy Krueger than the Lovecraftian, beast-like monsters of previous seasons. Stranger Things 4 seems like a true sequel, not simply a slightly reworked version of the previous installments.
However, the upcoming season may not be as different as Max and the show’s creators, the Duffer Brothers, would have us think. It nevertheless manages to strike a delicate balance between spook-show plotline and smaller coming-of-age stories full of puppy love and teen angst. And it still has moments where individuals create crude sketches of a nightmare vision they saw and then reassemble the sketches in a puzzle-like form to discover a crucial clue that might rescue Hawkins, if not the world. The Duffers haven’t fully reinvented the wheel here; they’ve simply made it scarier and more massive. That’s true in a variety of ways. I’ve watched all seven of the episodes that will be released on Friday, and six of them are at least 73 minutes long. Episode 7 runs for an hour and 38 minutes, or roughly the length of a Stranger Things movie. The second half of the season, which will consist of only two episodes, will premiere in July, and we already know that at least one of them will be over two hours long. Season 4 may not be the strongest season of the program, but it is without a doubt the most-watched.
In case you forgot, Season 3 finished with evil destroyed and the door to the show’s wicked other realms, the Upside Down, closed. A post-credits stinger clearly implied that Police Chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour) had somehow survived and was imprisoned in an underground lab explosion. Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) joined the Byers family – mother Joyce (Winona Ryder), eternally unfortunate younger brother Will (Noah Schnapp), and overprotective older brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) – as they all migrated to California, once again without a father figure.
The Duffer Brothers are smart enough to realize that reuniting everyone right away would feel like cheating, so they’ve divided up the show more than ever this year. Season 4 follows three unique tales throughout most of these seven episodes. Mike (Finn Wolfhard) pays a visit to Eleven (now known as Jane) and the Byers boys in California, where they are dealing with previous traumas, adolescent troubles, and, later, unscrupulous government officials looking for Eleven. Meanwhile, Joyce and Murray (Brett Gelman), a conspiracy theorist, are attempting to determine whether Hopper is still alive and, if so, what happened to him. (Murray supporters will rejoice to see that Gelman’s screen time has grown dramatically this season.) Finally, the remaining members of the gang in Hawkins are looking into a fresh series of terrible killings that has rocked the community and may be linked to the area’s spooky heritage. Eleven eventually has her own story arc, as she is transported away to a new place to confront horrific events from her history that she has walled off within her own head.
The Hawkins Group is the most enjoyable of these narrative lines, owing to the fact that it has the show’s most engaging characters. Steve, played by Joe Keery, is as lovable as ever – a noble lunkhead with a golden heart. Maya Hawke, who stole the show in Season 3 as the newly introduced Robin, has no intention of doing so this year. She gives another delightful performance as Steve‘s motormouthed BFF, a girl who can go from whining about how difficult it is to find a date to debating matters of life and death to grumbling about how badly her bra hurts her boobs without missing a beat or taking a breath, all without missing a beat or taking a breath. Robin remains the finest, and pairing her with the more restrained Nancy (Natalia Dyer) for extended periods of time shows to be a wise choice. Max completes the group, and he’s more vital to the story this season than he’s ever been. Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), whose “little brother/big brother” connection with Steve continues to be a source of constant humor; and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), whose burgeoning popularity causes conflict with his nerdy buddies.
Stranger Things 4‘s main nemesis is Vecna, and it’s up to the kids in Hawkins to defeat. Vecna owes a lot to the aforementioned Mr. Krueger and other 1980s slasher legends. He’s a gnarly-looking demonic creature – think Freddy Krueger crossed with one of Hellraiser’s Cenobites, with a dash of Pirates of the Caribbean’s Davy Jones thrown in – who is preying on Hawkins’ high school students. Vecna hunts for troublesome teenagers, puts them in a trance-like state, and then murders them horribly. He’s significantly scarier than the Demogorgons and Mind Flayers of previous seasons – and far more fascinating as the season progresses. The dilemma for our heroes is that no one knows why or how he came to be here. Our heroes track Vecna‘s existence all the way back to 1959, long before Eleven mistakenly opened the doorway to the Upside Down for the first time. It’s a more intriguing mystery than what the show served up in Season 3, and it marks the advent of a more mature and scary Stranger Things.
The Hopper plot, on the other hand, is far less fascinating, since it sometimes feels like a humdrum adventure story from an entirely other (and far less brilliant) program. It’s honestly a drag to go through at times, largely because what Hopper is doing this year in the series strips him of his strongest personality attributes, particularly his weathered swagger. Harbour isn’t even given a solid line of conversation until the fifth episode. Other characters aren’t faring as well this season as either. Jonathan has devolved into a pothead who worries that if they continue together, he will keep Nancy back. Overall, Mike and Will have very little to do. This season introduces a slew of new characters, but only a few stand out, the most notable of which is Eddie Munson (Joseph Quinn), a long-haired, battle-jacket-wearing Dungeons & Dragons deity who takes Mike and his pals under his wing.
The program is as well-made as it has always been. (This season, the behind-the-scenes crew hasn’t changed much, with both the Duffer Brothers and Shawn Levy directing many episodes.) The debut episode builds to both a basketball championship and a massive Dungeons & Dragons battle, then seamlessly transitions between the two in a way that reminds you why Stranger Things is still one of the most rewarding and popular series on television. Season 4 masterfully incorporates footage from earlier seasons, emphasizing how lovable the show’s young protagonists are and how much they’ve gone through since we first saw them as bright middle schoolers. The 1980s ambiance that has always been a key part of the show is still there, albeit it’s a lot less neon-drenched and mall-focused than it was in the third season, enabling the characters to recover their power over the environment. On the soundtrack, the needle dips are a little less visible and a little more subtle.
All of this adds up to a season that doesn’t quite replicate the show’s lightning-in-a-bottle appeal or reach the heights of Season 2, but the enormous swings it makes give it an advantage over Season 3 and put it on a more stable footing as it moves into its fifth and final season. This is especially true when you examine the astonishing discoveries of the current season’s seventh episode, “The Massacre at Hawkins Lab,” an epic, twist-filled episode that shows how the season’s main mystery, which first appears like a solo affair, links into the show’s larger narrative. The answers are incredibly rewarding, and they set the setting for the largest and most riveting battle in Stranger Things history. Mike comments at one point during the season, “Looks like it’s going to be up to us again.” “It’s usually like that, isn’t it?” Will simply responds. The youngster has a valid argument.
While the deep dives into the series’ past and episode run durations that aren’t exactly binge-friendly may turn off casual viewers, those who have loved Stranger Things from the beginning should be enthralled by Season 4’s most exciting turn of events. It’ll be difficult to wait until July for the last two episodes to be released. And it’s realistic to imagine that the wait for the final season will be much more difficult.
Stranger Things Season 4 Vol. 1, which includes Episodes 1 through 7, will be published on May 27, followed by the last two episodes on July 1.