Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | May 25th, 2022
Stranger Things, Season 4, Volume 1 (Matt Duffer/Ross Duffer, 2022) 3 out of 4 stars.
The gang is back, if not quite together, our characters scattered across the country, the globe, and occasionally other dimensions. And while their adventures may lack the whimsical power of the delightful third season, they still thrill and chill when needed, delivering a robust backstory—as well as new legends—to explain the mythos and mystery of the Upside Down and Hawkins, Indiana. Offered in two volumes, the first arriving on May 27 and the second on July 1, Season 4 of Netflix’s Stranger Things should please fans of the series, though folks who haven’t watched it recently may want to take a refresher before diving in. It’s fun, but dense, and a deep knowledge of the ins and outs of everything that has come before will help one stay oriented.
We start in the past of 1979 (the present is 1986), with Dr. Brenner (Matthew Modine, Wrong Turn), known as “Papa” to the psychokinetic children in his care, caught in the middle of a sudden, vicious attack from one of those children, which leaves many dead. “What have you done?” he yells to what appears to be a young version of Eleven, who is covered in blood, bodies strewn everywhere. Perhaps she is not the benign innocent we have always thought her to be. Then again, Brenner has always appeared the true evil behind everything, so we’ll wait and see.
From there, we’re off to Lenora Hills, California, where the teenage Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown, Enola Holmes) now lives with Joyce (Winona Ryder, The Cow) and her sons Jonathan (Charlie Heaton, As You Are) and Will (Noah Schnapp, Waiting for Anya). I did not follow my own advice, above, and so I couldn’t remember why this family had relocated, though it all becomes clear soon enough. The most important thing is that the transition is difficult for Eleven (now going by Jane, her birth name), not only because her adoptive father, Hopper (David Harbour, Hellboy) perished at the end of last season, but because she just doesn’t fit in.
Back in Hawkins, the rest of the crew has their own issues, the move to high school difficult for everyone. Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Mike (Finn Wolfhard, When You Finish Saving the World) are still proud nerds, continuing with their Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) obsession, but Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin, Concrete Cowboy) proves conflicted between old friends and his new ones from the basketball team on which he now plays. Max (Sadie Sink, Fear Street) is plagued by remorse over how brother Billy died, nighttime visions contributing to a depression that pulls her further away from would-be boyfriend Lucas.
Meanwhile, Nancy (Natalia Dyer, Yes, God, Yes), ever the aspiring journalist, works at the school newspaper while pining after the distant Jonathan (and he, her, though both seem only halfhearted in their misery). Steve (Joe Keery, Free Guy) still works at the video store, where we left him, alongside Robin (Maya Hawke, Mainstream). They’re now just besties, since her romantic interests lie with her own gender, leaving Steve plenty of room to play the field, even if his gaze sometimes falls, perhaps a little bit, to one-time flame Nancy. Does she return the interest? Maybe.
Once everyone’s current situation is well in place, showrunners Matt and Ross Duffer start the intrigue. As always, they do a terrific job playing with the era-specific details, grounding much of what will follow in the mid-1980s panic over how D&D might turn kids into worshippers of Satan. They give us a new character in Eddie Munson (Joseph Quinn, Make Up), a repeating high-school senior who leads the Hellfire Club, a D&D-playing group of which Dustin, Mike and Lucas are members, though the latter is now leaning into his new role as athlete, meaning younger sister Erica (Priah Ferguson, The Oath) might have to step in as the basketball team heads towards championships. Once the crap hits the fan and people in Hawkins start dying again, as they always do, Lucas’ loyalties will be tested, especially after charismatic basketball captain Jason (Mason Dye, Truth or Dare) convinces the townspeople to blame Hellfire and D&D for the mayhem.
In Lenora Hills, Eleven (or El) is the target of bullies, Will not able to help much. With her boyfriend Mike scheduled for a visit over Spring Break, she does her best to avoid trouble, nevertheless missing the supernatural powers that deserted her after she once again saved the world last time around. She misses Hopper, as does Joyce. One day, however, a mysterious doll arrives from the Soviet Union, addressed to Joyce, and inside is a note claiming that Hopper is still alive. Enter Murray (Brett Gelman, Lemon), whom she calls for help, his arrival bringing both laughter and action.
Soon thereafter, the plot really kicks in, the show cutting almost manically back and forth between Indiana and California, then Nevada, Utah, Alaska, and Siberia. Evil is back, in the form of a demonic wizard named Vecna, who stalks Hawkins teens and destroys their minds and bodies. Dr. Owens (Paul Reiser, I Do… Until I Don’t), fired from the government agency he headed after the fiasco of Season 3’s Soviet invasion, is very much still around and thinks he knows how to bring El’s powers back. That’s just as well, as things have suddenly gone even more sour for her. Off they go, then, further splintering the narrative.
There’s a lot happening here, more, it seems, than in the previous seasons. It’s as if the Duffers know that time is limited as their cast gets older, everyone approaching (or already beyond) the end of their teens. Not only do they jump around in a mad rush from story thread to thread, but each episode is significantly longer than before; the shortest is 63 minutes, and the longest 98! With 7 episodes (out of 9 total) in Volume 1, that’s a lot of watching, even if the bulk of it compels.
It is exciting to see how the creators expand on what they have already built. Though Vecna may be a fresh villain, he doesn’t come out of nowhere, and the more we learn about his origins, the greater the payoff for those hours of viewing. Still, we can feel the effort, the plot bursting at the seams. For every welcome moment of dread and (fortunately) equal moment of comedy, not to mention some cool monsters, there are sequences that remind us of just how much is going on. It’s a lot to remember, but if you’re a diehard, it’s no doubt worth it. I, for one, though exhausted, am still looking forward to July 1 and Volume 2.