Netflix's Stranger Things marks the rare instance in which a property dominates not only the pop-culture conversation but also earns high marks from critics. Now that nearly three years have passed since the last batch of episodes was unveiled and fan interest continues to mount, there's a lot riding on how audiences will respond to the latest season. Stranger Things 4 went into production shortly before the coronavirus pandemic shut down production for months, and while this allowed the writers to craft the entire season before shooting had resumed, fans had grown accustomed to watching a new season roughly every 18 months.
This extended wait means the new season is arguably the show's most anticipated, and yet those three years have allowed audiences to discover new obsessions, with passion for the narrative potentially dwindling. Watching the first seven episodes of Stranger Things Season 4 feels a lot like catching up with old friends, including all the forced small talk and awkward exchanges before the dynamic falls into its familiar groove, for better or worse, while still pushing itself to be bigger, badder, and better.
Six months have passed since the Starcourt Mall was attacked by the Mind Flayer and our beloved heroes have divided themselves across the country. When Mike (Finn Wolfhard) goes to visit Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) in California, a series of typical high school setbacks escalate into reunions with a variety of threats. Meanwhile, Joyce (Winona Ryder) receives a mysterious package from Russia, leading her and Murray (Brett Gellman) on an investigation that could reveal why Hopper's (David Harbour) body was never recovered from Starcourt.
Before diving into any of the actual content of Season 4, it's worth addressing the demogorgon in the room, which is that, while only six months have passed within the series, the young actors are years older, some of which to a noticeable and distracting degree. Understandably, the nature of the series and real-world setbacks means the show itself can't really be faulted for this, and while many of the cast pass for being "teens," the maturation has hit some stronger than others and makes this season feel less connected to what came before it. Additionally, a number of times throughout this season, with the events unfolding around a high school with characters of that age, it can feel a bit like any generic supernatural series that takes place at a high school, a setting that's frequently featured in this specific genre. The dynamics of these characters and their school life, largely in how they can be ostracized by their peers, are integral components that have to be incorporated, but given how appealing these younger characters were to audiences, Stranger Things feels like it loses a bit of charm as the characters and actors age into the territory of contemporaries.
In the world of Stranger Things, six months is a relatively small amount of time to have passed, but between some actors appearing much older, some characters moving to California, and others falling into new social groups, the first episodes of Season 4 almost feel like an entirely different series. While the audience recognizes these characters and elements, various unexplained developments occur to throw off the series' familiar rhythm. New additions to the cast, namely Eduardo Franco as Argyle and Joseph Quinn as Eddie Munson, manage to fit the archetype of '80s characters we've seen in other stories while still managing to put a Stranger Things-style spin on them, improving a variety of dynamics.
However, as has become somewhat of a tradition for the series, it feels as though the entire ensemble was arbitrarily shaken up and randomized merely to showcase new connections and relationships, though they don't start to coagulate until later into the season. The ways in which the groups are initially broken up don't entirely improve on established formulas, so we hope there's some method to creator Matt and Ross Duffer's madness that will become more evident further down the line.
One of the best new dynamics of the season is between Natalia Dyer's Nancy and Maya Hawke's Robin, while Joe Keery's Steve continues to interject himself into that friendship, among others. A good chunk of the series sees Ryder and Gellman off on their own, allowing them to shirk some of their responsibilities of tending to children and offering more comedic moments than Joyce is typically given and showcasing how Gellman has earned a name for himself in the comedy world. Sadie Sink's Max and Brown's Eleven earn the brunt of the more dramatic and torturous elements of the season, adding new shades to Sink's skills while Brown continues to showcase how she's earned such a passionate following and critical acclaim for her abilities.
What might disappoint fans about the upcoming season is that, by the nature of Hopper being transported to Russia, he spends a majority of the season without his familiar allies and those he cares most about. Understandably, Harbour's charm and charisma with costars of any age is a major draw for audiences, and while we might not get those familiar elements, we get to see new shades of the figure. Hopper's often been a reliable hero, somehow managing to pull off the most intense physical feats, yet Season 4 shows a broken and battered shell of Hopper who, despite his best efforts, has to reckon with his own vulnerabilities and insecurities. Ever since Season 1, many fans had hoped to see Hopper and Joyce develop a romantic relationship, which was delayed in Season 2 as Joyce started dating Bob (Sean Astin), and was somewhat stifled in Season 3 by Hopper's more toxic traits making him feel both possessive and entitled to Joyce's affection. Where we see Hopper in Season 4, he makes his passions and commitments clear to his fellow prisoners, though specifically points out that Joyce isn't "his woman," surely alleviating some concerns of audiences that Hopper might be yet another hero who displayed the more chauvinistic elements of such figures.
One of the talking points about this new season is that it's much more horror-oriented than previous episodes, which is evident in the season premiere. Characters are tortured and killed with extreme body contortions, with the violence over the course of the season venturing into R-rated territory. A key component of the amplified horror is the introduction of Vecna, this season's new villain named after a Dungeons and Dragons counterpart. In previous seasons, the Upside Down was explored merely as a dark dimension full of a number of monstrous terrors, none of which had much rhyme or reason for why they were unleashing their violence on Hawkins, Indiana. Vecna adds an interesting wrinkle to the mix of the series, as he's a sentient being who seems to have a grand plan in mind for his heinous acts, though this also marks a big shift from how we've previously seen the threats from the Upside Down demonstrate their brutality. This also means there's a giant piece of the narrative puzzle that is largely kept in the dark, making the unexplainable threat a confounding addition to the season. Possibly hindering both Vecna and the overall inclusion of more horror-centric themes is that it never sacrifices the comedy to do so, and by channeling the genre filmmaking techniques of the '80s, sequences meant to be frightening can come across as campy, undercutting the intimidating elements of Vecna. It's a learning curve that audiences will have to get used to, but the contrast between humor and horror grows less stark further into this new season, and it's merely jarring earlier on.
The first three episodes of Season 4 feel more like fan-fiction of Stranger Things compared to the actual series, as we're inundated with familiar and beloved components that just feel arbitrarily remixed. Luckily, by the time we get to Episode 4, the season really seems to hit its stride with its new character dynamics and the new mythology it sets up. More specifically, the final sequence in that episode brings together the drama, emotions, adventure, and excitement that audiences have grown to love since Stranger Things debuted back in 2016, delivering what might arguably be the most effective sequence in the entire series. Between the peril, the cinematography, the visual effects, the narrative ramifications, and the soundtrack, it marks a turning point for a season that, up until this moment, feels more like a thrown-together tribute to seasons prior than its own adventure. The following episodes showcase that the filmmakers have honed their craft after those initial stumbles, bringing with it some major reveals about Hawkins' history.
With another month to go before fans can see how this season concludes, there's still a chance to go out on a high note. Much like how the Duffer brothers have claimed this season focuses on more horror, they have also promised that this season will start answering longstanding questions. After seven episodes, we've only been given slivers of information about the overall narrative, with the mysteries solved mostly centered around elements only introduced in this season. Given that Episode 7 runs 98 minutes and with reports that the final two episodes of the season clock in at a combined four hours, there's plenty of time left for the series to provide a satisfying ending, though it's entirely possible it could botch the landing. Longtime fans may be left underwhelmed and unimpressed with the initial episodes of this season, yet with Episode 4, everything finds its stride to deliver everything fans have been waiting three years for, and then some. Whatever the future holds for Stranger Things, we're holding out hope for Hawkins, as Season 4 mines its horror veins for all they're worth and dives even deeper into the unsettling arenas of the Upside Down.
Rating: 4 out of 5
Stranger Things Season 4 – Volume 1 premieres on Netflix on May 27th.