The biggest flex of “Stranger Things” Season 4 is the hit series’ control over Netflix. Divided into two parts, Volume 1 drops on May 27 followed by Volume 2’s final two episodes on July 1 (the series finale clocking in at a whopping 2.5 hours). The production value, episode length, effects, and the hefty budget make every episode feel like a feature film, introducing a new, sinister villain and a glimpse into Eleven’s past, answering questions fans have asked for years.
Series creators The Duffer Brothers lean heavily into horror — of both the psychological and body horror variety — this season. Those sufficiently freaked out by the first 8 minutes teased by Netflix are in for a hell of a ride, as the first seven episodes deliver the chaotic evil love child of “A Nightmare on Elm Street” and “Shutter Island,” and are totally worth the three-year wait.
Everyone is on different paths this season, which takes place six months after the Season 3 finale’s “Battle of Starcourt.” Joyce Byer (Winona Rider) has relocated to California with her kids, Will (Noah Schnapp) and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), along with Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) who’s taken her birth name Jane. The rest of the gang, including Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), and Max (Sadie Sink), are back home attending Hawkins High as freshmen. Nancy (Natalia Dyer), everyone’s favorite babysitter Steve (Joe Keery), and Robin (Maya Hawke) are there too. Unfortunately, Hopper (David Harbour) is stuck halfway across the world, alone in a Russian prison camp after somehow surviving the blast through the rift in Season 3.
Still powerless, Eleven attempts to disguise her loneliness and frustration caused by bullies at her new school. Max is also withdrawn, traumatized by witnessing her brother’s horrific death last season. Her depression puts her in the sights of a new monster, Vecna, that claims its victims from within their minds while they physically die in horrible ways.
Vecna rolls like a final boss and might have been quietly setting up shop since Season 1. All of Hawkins’ beasts, the Demogorgon, the Hospital Monster (yes, that’s what it’s called), and the Mind Flayer find their way onto the mortal plane through a rift that starts with an innocent mind before feeding off the physical bodies of their victims. So has Vecna been their puppeteer all along?
The other unseen monster is fear, both figuratively and literally. Eleven must overcome her past trauma at the facility to find her way back to her powers, while the military fear that she is a WMD developed for the Russians and is out to destroy anyone within her orbit. Meanwhile, Hawkins is waist-deep in ‘80s D&D “Satanic Panic” after a Dungeon Master is named a suspect in the death of a local high school student, sending half the town on a witch hunt.
Time also has a lot to do with this final season. Early in the first episode, Eleven mentions that “We are all time travelers if you think about it,” and all of Vecna’s victims see clocks everywhere before the monster whispers “It’s time” into the ether just before their deaths. Even the episodes’ lengthy run times play a role, and Season 4 spends more time in the Upside Down — the alternate dimension that parallels the real world — than ever before.
That extra runtime does make room for quality filmmaking. Both “Dear Billy” (with an incredible performance by Sink as Max, directed by Shawn Levy) and the final Volume 1 episode “The Massacre at Hawkins Lab” (one of three Volume 1 episodes directed by The Duffer Brothers) prove the reported $30 million per episode was well spent.
The show does suffer from some pacing issues, speeding along at points, then screeching to a halt whenever Dustin or Robin are required to blurt out rapid-fire exposition for the audience. It’s an unnecessary plot device, since it’s apparent that danger is nearby every time a body gets deflated and folded like an airbed.
Very little of the season takes place on school grounds, which is a wise choice since most of the main cast now resembles college-aged kids. Brown is digitally de-aged for Eleven’s flashback scenes, but her CGI visage occasionally takes on a creepy clone quality.
Season 4 horror fans will recognize visual references to “Shutter Island,” “The Silence of the Lambs,” and even Freddie Krugers’ deadly sleep paralysis (actor Robert Englund even makes an appearance to punctuate this influence). Other noteworthy performances come in the form of comic relief from Lucas’ sister Erica (Priah Ferguson), Joyce’s bestie Murray Bauman (Brett Gelman), and new characters Argyle (Eduardo Franco) and Eddie(Joseph Quinn).
Length notwithstanding, “Stranger Things” Season 4 Volume 1 is an epic watch, albeit an uneven one. The season finds its footing in later episodes, filling in the holes in Eleven’s past while introducing us to the deadliest villain in the show’s history. In so doing, it moves the series beyond its regular re-enactments of familiar horror tropes to create a lore and history of its own.