Review: ‘Stranger Things 4’ Drags Despite Hair-Raising New Threat

Stranger Things Season 4, Volume 1
Review
Netflix

It’s been almost three years since we’ve had some new Stranger Things episodes to obsess over, and in Season 4, premiering on May 27, the ’80s-set hit Netflix horror series has something truly scary in store: high school. OK, yes, and there’s a new monster, called Vecna.

Having seen all seven episodes of Volume 1 (this season is broken up between the first seven episodes in Volume 1 and the last two in Volume 2, which premieres on July 1), I’m not as in love with the new season as I have been with previous installments. It doesn’t have the very specific weirdness of Season 1, the assault-on-all-fronts feel of Season 2, or the summer fun of Season 3. That being said, it is still so enjoyable to spend time with these characters again and combat a hair-raising new threat from the Upside Down.

Where we pick up, it’s been six months since the Byers family-plus-Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) moved from Hawkins, Indiana to Lenora, California (and nine months since the Battle of Starcourt Mall), and everyone’s struggling. El encounters severe bullies at her new school; Max (Sadie Sink) isolates herself from her friends while suffering PTSD from watching her brother Billy (Dacre Montgomery) die; Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) and Nancy’s (Natalie Dyer) long-distance relationship is on its last leg; and there’s a growing divide between Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), who has a new social group in the basketball team, and Mike (Finn Wolfhard) and Dustin (the always funny Gaten Matarazzo), who have found refuge from the unfriendly halls of high school in the resident Dungeons & Dragons club.

It’s a gloomy place to begin the season and a major tonal shift from Season 3. It’s hurt by bloated run-times — the majority of the episodes clock in well over an hour, and the finale is reported to be a whopping two hours and thirty minutes — which makes the already slow storyline drag. So much of even just the premiere functions as set-up and splitting the season into two volumes when it needs all the momentum it can get is not the wisest move.

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The stars of the Netflix series look undeniably older and wiser.

Also split up are the characters. (Anyone paying attention to the posters for the show already knows this.) The Hawkins crew includes Steve (Joe Keery, positively oozing charm), Nancy, Robin (Maya Hawke), Dustin, Max, and Lucas; over in California are Jonathan, Will (Noah Schnapp), Jonathan’s new weed-loving friend Argyle (Eduardo Franco), Mike (visiting El over spring break), and Eleven, who eventually goes off on her own solo adventure; and Joyce (Winona Ryder) and Murray (Brett Gelman) on their way to save Hopper (David Harbour) from a secret Russian prison. While the globe-trotting nature of this season is new, it’s not unusual for our heroes to be separated into groups before eventually coming together to fight. This was essential to the structure of both Seasons 2 and 3, though the result here is that nothing is quite so interesting as what’s going on with the Hawkins crew as they’re the ones in the thick of it, going head-to-head with the Vecna.

Speaking of Vecna, the new Big Bad is simultaneously more and less frightening than past monsters. A creature with an almost humanoid appearance residing in the Upside Down, the Vecna preys on the people of Hawkins by invading their thoughts, making them have hallucinations, and taking advantage of their fears until it feeds on them in a remarkably gruesome manner. What’s specifically chilling is that unlike the Demogorgon, Demodogs, or the gross amalgamation of human body parts the Mind Flayer used to take physical form last season, there’s nothing to physically fight with the Vecna since its body is in the Upside Down. This presents a unique and fascinating challenge: how do you fight something that only exists in people’s minds? But the other consequence is that there’s far less action to entertain us. It helps that how Vecna’s powers work is an enticing mystery.

Not that our Hawkins-based heroes aren’t up to the challenge. Nancy Wheeler wields her impressive investigative journalism skills to dig into the case, which is always a delight to watch (when people say they want Batman live-action movies to show him being a detective, what they mean is they want Nancy-levels of investigative work). The vibe in this particular group is one of intrepid determination. They’ve been through this kind of situation many times before and know they can tackle it if they work together. At one point, Nancy, dealing with the aftermath of a supernatural incident, looks over to see that a car with Steve, Robin, Dustin, and Max has pulled up, and she visibly relaxes knowing that back-up has arrived. The camaraderie between these characters is one of the most enjoyable things about this season, and the show as a whole.

Netflix

It’s also great at coming up with new pairings of characters that previously didn’t spend much time together. This season, that manifests in the absolutely wonderful friendship between Robin and Nancy. Unlike last season, which had two break-out new characters in Robin and Erica (Priah Ferguson), the new allies in the form of Argyle and dungeon-master Eddie (Joseph Quinn), are somewhat meh, though toxic-masculinity fueled basketball captain Jason (Mason Dye) is a properly infuriating new human villain. Meanwhile, a standout this season is paranoid private investigator Murray with all the best lines and a hysterical buddy-comedy dynamic with Joyce in their journey to rescue Hop.

If nothing else, these episodes are exceptional for their strong character work. We dive deep into El’s time growing up in the Hawkins Lab, and the answer to getting her powers back doesn’t come quick or easy. But truly anchoring the season is Max, who has a big emotional arc viewers will surely get invested in with a strong performance from Sink. Working through her trauma ties directly into the plot in a major and satisfying way. The caveat is that this largely asks fans to forget just how abusive Billy was when he was alive. It’s hard to believe that her life is worse without him.

As for that nostalgic ’80s culture we all know and love? The mall may have burned down, but a roller rink makes an appearance, and of-the-era needle drops inject energy into every scene. Some songs like “Psycho Killer” by Talking Heads (1977) are obvious choices, but still a blast, while others like Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” (1985) wind up being hugely impactful. And chief among Easter eggs is the Vecna being a riff on Freddy Krueger of A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), as is the actor who played Krueger, Robert Englund starring as alleged murderer Victor Creel. A more sinister side of the ’80s, however, emerges with the unfortunate Satanic Panic surrounding D&D. That could cause some issues for our D&D-loving kids!

Stranger Things, Season 4, Volume 1 Premiere, Friday, May 27, Netflix