Bloody Disgusting’s “Stranger Things 4” Volume 1 review is spoiler-free.
It’s been six months since Hawkins’ Battle of Starcourt, but it’s been two years since “Stranger Things” season three. The passage of time is felt when we pick up again with our favorite Hawkins residents. Many of which are now scattered across the globe. It results in a massively scaled story, one so big its episodes are super-sized, and its season split into two volumes. While “Stranger Things 4” Volume I demonstrates a darker, more mature season that embraces horror harder than before, it struggles with its sheer scope and ambition.
“Stranger Things 4” juggles multiple locations and storylines at once. In Hawkins, Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard) and Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) have joined the Hellfire Club, a Hawkins High School Dungeons & Dragons club led by perpetual senior Eddie Munson (Joseph Quinn). Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) is desperate to maintain his childhood friendships and interests while attempting to assimilate with the popular jocks on the basketball team. Meanwhile, Max (Sadie Sink) has retreated socially, her domestic life wholly upended by the events at Starcourt mall.
Elsewhere, in California, Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) and Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) deal with the hells of high school as new students. Jonathan Byers (Charlie Heaton) turns to pot with new buddy Argyle (Eduardo Franco) to flee from relationship anxieties with Nancy (Natalia Dyer). Then there’s Hopper (David Harbour), trapped in a very hostile Russian prison.
Each separate location brings separate story threads, all tackling various subjects and themes, from high school bullying to peer pressure to Satanic Panic paranoia gripping a town to even top secret rescue missions requiring a bit of espionage. The cast of “Stranger Things” has grown immensely since its inaugural season, and season four commits fully to giving every member of this sprawling ensemble cast a complete arc. Even the newcomer Quinn injects infectious energy as the metalhead plunged into the deep end of Hawkins’ newest nightmare. That’s good news, especially for our favorites, but how it juggles the expansive story threads means that some will fade into the background for long stretches. “Stranger Things 4” is so densely packed with history and story that it’s no longer an easily binge-able show.
Maturity connects all storylines. It’s in the way the now older high school students struggle with identity as they approach adulthood. It’s in their reflections on relationships and loneliness. And it’s especially in the way past traumas can no longer be buried or overlooked; healing requires hard, painful work, and it’s the only way forward in many cases. This season, the past plays a fascinating role, adding new layers to character histories and bringing many surprises for long-time fans.
That maturity brings a much more cunning threat from the Upside Down, the sophisticated and ruthless Vecna. Through Vecna, the central influence of A Nightmare on Elm Street is interwoven throughout the season. Vecna’s tactics almost too closely mirror Freddy Krueger’s, right down to his first target. For horror fans, it means they’ll likely connect the dots to key Vecna motivations before the story reveals them. Freddy Krueger Easter eggs, ominous boiler rooms, a Robert Englund appearance, and more round out the mileage “Stranger Things 4” milks out of its source inspiration in Volume I.
As engaging as the darker, more horror-forward approach is this season, it struggles with stakes. While the stakes are pretty high and bloody for peripheral characters, and even the overarching war, it fails to instill any sense of real suspense any time its central protagonists face danger. A ticking clock for a couple of prominent heroes never feels as urgent as it should; we never buy that death is a real option for them. So much has been invested in these characters over four seasons, but four seasons’ worth of Upside Down battles makes it easier to recognize the familiar patterns of battle wins and narrow misses.
Because we’re so deeply entrenched with these characters, it makes it easier to overlook the strain the ambitious scale places on the season, even if there’s a lack of tension in some of the more perilous sequences. We know there’s ultimately no real danger to our protagonist in question, but it’s offset by how much we’re rooting for them anyway.
The standard season formula sees its characters begin in separate places, only converging near the end once the supernatural mysteries click in place to unveil the big picture. The series is most often at its best when all the plot threads diverge into one, gathering our plucky heroes together. “Stranger Things 4” Volume I presents so much build-up with its characters splintered into more factions than ever that it’s tough to gauge as a whole. As of now, season four zips along through thrilling set pieces and wildly different story arcs at a rapid enough clip to keep you entertained and invested, even as you begin to feel the immense weight of its ever-growing mythology and repeating patterns.
“Stranger Things 4” Volume I arrives on Netflix on May 27, 2022.