Home » ‘Stranger Things 4’ Vol. 1 Review – A Hefty Return to Hawkins

‘Stranger Things 4’ Vol. 1 Review – A Hefty Return to Hawkins

by Chris St Lawrence
Eleven holds Mike Wheeler's hand and laughs as he struggles to skate in a neon bright 80s roller rink while Will Byers follows between them in season 4 of STRANGER THINGS on Netflix.

For season 4 of the Duffer Brothers’ hit 80s nostalgia trip series, it’s more than just back to Hawkins. This time, instead of focusing in on the strange happenings in small-town Indiana, the story takes on a much more far-reaching size and scope. Long story short, Stranger Things 4 is a fully operational mystery machine that churns onward following season 3 and the summer of 1985, offering more than a few thrills and chills for those who’re already on-board with its increasingly ridiculous premise. 

Stranger Things 4 kicks off with our beloved characters entering their freshman year of high school split across the country. While the Byers and El adapt to their new lives in California, the rest of the gang remains in Hawkins – their relationships tested by the events of the Battle of Starcourt and the hardships of a cliquey high school experience. By means both physical and emotional, the alumni of Hawkins Middle AV Club (and company) find themselves divided, but are forced to come together when a sudden series of mystifying murders turns the town Upside Down. 

The latest big bad commands a name that sounds as mysterious as it does made-up; a powerful witch that dominates the alternate world beneath their feet, Vecna brings new elements of complexity to the evils of the Upside Down. He’s not a mindless killer like the demogorgon or demidogs but a calculated predator that preys upon the guilty and tortured. 

Playing into Vecna’s chocie of victim and his manipulative use of visions, Stranger Things turns his preference for those rife with trauma into a major theme of this fourth season. The writing team pulls in events from all three preceding seasons to haunt its characters – both leading and supporting – and cranks up the creepiness. It’s a kind of unifying connection between seasons that adds to the character’s continual growth – forcing them to learn and move beyond their attitudes of seasons past.

Aside from his anchor in familiarity, Vecna’s new flavors of strangeness are not for the squeamish; unlike the victims of the Upside Down we’ve seen so far who generally succumb to relatively consercative possession and “traditional” wounds, those who face the wrath of Stranger Things’ latest antagonist suffer a much more horrific fate. A departure from the relatively safe maulings and puncturings of seasons one through three, the show now takes a decidedly long step into the realm of body horror, crossing a line that has only been slightly hinted at until now.

Lucas, Steve, and Dustin witness Max Hargrove get possessed and levitate in the air with new powers in front of her brother Billy's grave in an empty cemetery in season 4 of STRANGER THINGS on Netflix.
Caleb McLaughlin, Sadie Sink, Joe Keery, & Gaten Matarazzo in ‘Stranger Things 4’. Courtesy of Netflix

In many ways, the series has decided to grow with its audience: six years, three seasons, and 25 episodes have brought millions of viewers to the fourth season of Stranger Things, and it’s grown progressively darker and gorier with each installment. While it was always relatively mature with its eye for things sexual, the show’s primary focus on mysticism has shifted from magical to chilling.  With a much darker eye for violent violation of the human form and battles with traumatic experiences, Stranger Things is no longer just about friends vs a scary monster. 

Perhaps unintentionally, some of this comes from just the simple aging of its main heroes. Taking place a mere two years after the disappearance of Will Byers, Stranger Things 4 now features a cast that has aged six years. In the case of lead actress Millie Bobby Brown, that’s the difference between a twelve-year-old and an eighteen-year-old. The result is a crime of ensemble costuming, hair, and make-up that rivals Dear Evan Hansen; striped shirts, awkward haircuts, and hunched over shoulders can only do so much to hide growth spurts and entirely different faces of the lead cast. 

High school scenes exhibit the worst side-effects of this problem, taking nearly 20-year-old actors and forcing them to play the emotional immaturity of a freshman. For some, it will fit right into the 80s nostalgia and Stranger Things charm, yet it will leave others questioning why the show didn’t just incorporate a time gap between consecutive seasons. 

Such a jump, however, would mean skipping crucial years of 80s pop culture iconography that the Netflix original has long trived on. But, perhaps most interestingly, Stranger Things 4 seems the least interested in the tokens of its present pop culture. 

If the show’s original popularity preyed upon the nostalgia-hungry zeitgeist of 2016, what does Stranger Things 4 look towards to bring it back to the top of trending charts internet-wide? 

If the buzzing headlines of a two-hour and a half hour finale weren’t enough, one look at the show’s list of episode run-times might clue into Stranger Things’ latest weapon. Each over an hour in length, the Duffer Brothers have cooked up a season of monstrously sized episodes. Even with splitting time between at least four distinct plots across five major locations, each standalone episodic unit feels more complete than in seasons past with extra time to spare for the show’s shining character work. 

With some of its longer entries nearing (or exceeding) feature-length, the show does often trip into over-stuffed territory. There’s a lot going on, and it is easy to lose track of the large ensemble of characters. Less interesting subplots about communists and smugglers also take up considerable runtime but never feel quite as essential to the story of Stranger Things as those surrounding El and friends – though they never stray from entertaining.

It’s this trade-off that births the return of fan-favorite Hopper, jailed in an icy Russian gulag, in exchange for a slightly less tight narrative thread overall. It’s the most noticeably different element of the show, but it eventually finds a place in this darker season.

Dmitri the Communist soldier takes in Jim Hopper as a prisoner of war through a secret Russian gulag covered in snow in STRANGER THINGS season 4 on Netflix.
David Harbour & Tom Wlaschiha in ‘Stranger Things 4’
Courtesy of Netflix

Even when Stranger Things does find step in its colossal size and scope, these new dense episodes make for an all-together less typical series from Netflix; the focus doesn’t seem to be on holding continuous attention even between episodes but rather telling this expansive story in the most digestible chunks possible. What was once the star-child of the binge model, Stranger Things now seems to be fighting for its life to break free from the chokehold of the all-at-once release.

What other explanation is there for separating the season in two halves? With two episodes and nearly four hours of story left after “Volume 1,” this break feels like a necessary breather to let audiences sift through the massive unloading of mysteries and answers. Despite never crossing the line of overwhelming, there’s a lot to take in during the first volume of Stranger Things 4, and Netflix is playing every card they can.

★ ★ ★ 1/2

Stranger Things 4 Vol. 1 debuts on Netflix May 27, 2022

Follow writer Chris St. Lawrence on Twitter: @ey2studios

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