Along with shows like Euphoria, Ozark, and Barry, Stranger Things suffered a major gap in production because of COVID. Those series have all bounced back pretty well in the past year, putting a lot of pressure on Netflix’s $30 million-an-episode flagship show. The extended wait, the massive budget, and the season’s nine-hour run-time all beg the question: Will Stranger Things Season 4 (Volume 1) live up to the hype?
The answer is—for the most part—yes.
The season picks up six months after the bombastic, malltastic Battle of Starcourt, and our favorite ‘80s ensemble is scattered across the country and the globe. Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) has moved her sons Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) and Will (Noah Schnapp) to California, with Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) in tow. The Hawkins crew is split up at home, too, with Mike (Finn Wolfhard) and Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) serving as proud members of their high school’s Hellfire Club, a Dungeons and Dragons squad led by super senior Eddie Munson (Joseph Quinn), while Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) has claimed some space in the popular crowd by playing for the basketball team. Max (Sadie Sink) is still struggling with her brother’s death, Nancy (Natalia Dyer) is applying for colleges, and Steve (Joe Keery) and Robin (Maya Hawke) are causing trouble at a video rental store instead of an ice cream counter. For this mystery gang’s standards, it’s all normal high school stuff.
Oh, and Hopper (David Harbour) is holed up in a hellish Russian prison, but other than that, pretty typical!
Of course, that’s just where everyone starts, and a mysterious new force from the Upside Down threatens the lives of everyone in Hawkins with a truly terrifying method of murder. He’s labeled Vecna, an evil sorcerer who lays wicked curses on his victims, and his character design and acts of violence merit some of the show’s best horror work.
The Duffer Brothers do a very good job of weaving characters into each other’s stories and bringing some major players back into the fold. The return of Dr. Brenner (Matthew Modine) threatens to be a cheap throwback, but his and Dr. Owens’ (Paul Reiser) contributions to the narrative add great depth and set the stage for some daring dramatic setpieces and a chilling new twist villain. Easily one of the most welcome parts of this season is the insistence on digging into Eleven’s backstory to see whether she’s the superhero her friends revere her as or a monster who can’t control herself. There’s a gradual unraveling of emotions and memories that keep the character one of the show’s most intriguing aspects, and Brown shows remarkable range and intensity throughout this acting obstacle course.
Perhaps it isn’t the most astute observation to say that what Stranger Things does best is the same thing which made it such a hit five years ago. Steve, Robin, and Dustin are an indisputable dream team on this show, and their clunky clique is joined by Max, Nancy, and Lucas as they try to defend newcomer Eddie from a more tangible force of evil than they’re used to. Seven characters leave plenty for this one subplot to juggle, but it is consistently the most entertaining, endearing, and emotionally-charged part of these episodes. It might seem unwise to introduce a major new character in the final stretch (and it is in many other cases for this show), but Eddie is a delightful addition who brings out some of the best quirks of the other teens. Nancy and Robin team up multiple times to be the girl and gay best friend duo we never knew we needed; Max faces certain death but is saved by the power of friendship and Kate Bush. This is where the show shines.
Of course, not all subplots are created equal. While those kids are romping around to solve a series of murders, another group from Hawkins labels them and their affinity for fantasy stories as marks of the devil; there’s a Satanic panic storyline here that might be true to the ’80s setting but feels ripped straight from Riverdale, and it overstays its welcome as it threatens to spill over into the season’s final two episodes later this year.
Several confusing choices are made around some of the series’ most beloved characters, the most glaring of which revolve around Hopper. Everyone’s favorite rad sad dad is marooned in a Soviet prison, and though glimpses of him are offered every episode, his presence on screen doesn’t serve much of a purpose until halfway through the season. Though he’s involved in a pretty sick fight scene in the final episode, Hopper mostly lugs himself around in the snow, gets beaten by guards, and reiterates the same hopeless hoopla in melodramatic monologue. It’s repetitive and, honestly, a bit of a waste of Harbour’s time and talent. Unfortunately, Joyce and Murray’s (Brett Gelman) story depends on a sketchy mission to rescue Hopper, so they’re dragged down too.
The less said about the Byers in California (who are joined by Mike for spring break), the better. The boys who were once integral to the show’s narrative barely serve a purpose this season, inexplicably occupying genres ranging from stoner comedy to political thriller. This season does struggle with striking that kind of balance; one minute we’re watching an ‘80s-era Pineapple Express (Fast Times at Ridgemont High it’s not), and the next we’re in a kind of Russian John Wick (it’s also not Red Heat).
On the whole, Stranger Things Season 4 is pretty good. Sometimes even pretty great. It uses every last penny of that gigantic budget to create some of TV’s best audiovisual moments in recent memory, and many of the actors are bringing their A+ game to these penultimate episodes. It suffers from a bit of an identity crisis at times, but when it goes back to the basics of ‘80s teen horror (whether that’s high school or a skeletal murder monster), it’s nothing short of spectacular.