After a near three-year hiatus, Stranger Things is back! The greatest horror sci-fi series has returned to Netflix for a supersized penultimate season – only this time it’s darker, more gruesome and goes even deeper into the world(s) than ever before. With our beloved crew spread across Hawkins, California and Russia, a new villain emerges that poses the greatest threat they’ve seen yet!
With this season being split into two volumes, a decision I wholly back after having viewed the released episodes, this review will only be covering the first seven episodes… aka Volume 1. I will also remain extremely vague so as to avoid any and all chances of spoilers.
Through each season, the world of Stranger Things has continued to expand with new characters, locations, threats and story arcs. However, no season has displayed more growth than this one has. Set a year after the events of season three, this narrative follows the characters we know and love across a variety of locations around the US and even around the world. With all these character arcs occurring in different locations, I was worried that some of them might feel a little too disconnected or be difficult to follow and keep track of – especially as until now, every main event and every character has been in Hawkins. Thankfully, that disconnect is absolutely not the case – the Duffer brothers’ writing talents are on full show as they expertly balance every arc to ensure audiences get developments in every narrative at the perfect moment. Every single character is on an interesting path, a brilliant display of writing that ensures no matter whose journey is being focused on, it’s a thoroughly interesting watch.
The first episode is very much used to recalibrate audiences on where our favourite characters are in their respective lives, especially since they’ve all changed so much. It’s almost like the calm before the storm, a tactic that’s been used effectively in seasons past. I enjoyed the slower pace of this episode, giving us time to get acquainted with some new characters and get hooked in to what’s to come. With hints at something ominous lurking beneath the surface, it doesn’t take long before the brutal horror of this season takes full control and thrusts the story deeper than ever before. I consistently found myself enthralled in all the information we were uncovering about various characters’ mysterious pasts, and the depth at which places like the Upside Down were fleshed out. So much so that I watched every episode in one sitting – something that’s certifiably insane since it’s almost nine hours of content. But nonetheless, it shows the strength of the stories being told and how they’re all impeccably well-paced throughout.
Never did I feel bored or wanting something more from any specific narrative. The characters all service the story and the story services all the characters. Sure, you can probably poke little holes here and there at scenes that could have been stronger, but any gripe is minor and inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. Filled with shocks, surprises, twists and turns around every corner, the storytelling is just masterful.
Tension… tension is something that has been handled and executed brilliantly in previous seasons. That is still the case here as these episodes had me on the edge of my seat more times than I can count. From individually tense moments that have your heart in your throat, to episode-long arcs that have you become an emotional wreck by the end, this season will certainly test the resilience of its audience. Anyone thinking their children might be old enough for Stranger Things this year – guess again. There is more violence, terror and unsettling imagery in this season than all others combined, which says a lot for the menacing nature of our villain. It delivers on all the spine-chilling horror people have come to expect. The intensity grows and grows until it all crescendo’s in one of the biggest and most revealing episodes yet. I’m not discussing specific episodes here (that can be saved for my spoiler review) but I will say that the fourth and seventh episodes are two of the most spectacular chapters in this entire story.
The sci-fi horror may be an important component of the show, but on the other end of the spectrum, the loveable nature of Stranger Things and its characters is just as much of a core element… if not even more important. The flourishing character relationships, fun 80s hijinks and moments where we get to see these kids just be kids are some of the most iconic and memorable parts of seasons passed. Think the The NeverEnding Story moment in season three – it’s beats like that that really give this show its heart, and I can confirm that heart stays beating despite the much more grim tone. There are pure moments of joy spread throughout the season that really elevate the tone and do well to balance out the dark and dreary atmosphere. Whether it be moments of banter between characters or hilarious one-liners from the show’s comedic standouts, the Duffer brothers never forget to inject a lighthearted touch where necessary.
The various character relationships and contrasting dynamics are what make the series so entertaining. By mixing and matching all the different personalities, the Duffer brothers create an infinite number of fun scenarios. For instance, the pairing of Steve (Joe Keery) and Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) is one that continues to bring the goods – their back-and-forth banter brings along some hilarious moments. Likewise, Robin (Maya Hawke) and Nancy (Natalia Dyer) get to interact and spend some time together, making for a great pairing I had a blast watching. I’d say the most interesting assortment of characters in this season are the Hawkins crew, followed by the California gang and the Russia team. It’s not that those other characters are much less fun, it’s just that there’s a greater collection of personalities in Hawkins to create more fun dynamics and unique interaction.
As this season has seen a lot of growth in the narrative and characters, there have also been a number of performances that have drastically stepped things up a notch. Firstly, Sadie Sink is next-level incredible as Max. Every scene in which Sadie gets to act her heart out and display some raw emotion is fantastic. She really bought her A-game and made Max one of the most compelling and strong characters of the season. Of course, the likes of Joe Keery (Steve), Natalia Dyer (Nancy), Gaten Matarazzo (Dustin), Caleb McLaughlin (Lucas) and Noah Schnapp (Will) are as great as they’ve every been, still locked in to their characters and hitting every emotional and comedic beat with ease. Once again, Millie Bobby Brown is given a lot to do and she knocks it out of the park. Eleven’s journey through this season is not an easy one – the character faces a tonne of difficulties adjusting to life without powers, and Millie is exceptional across every one of her scenes. Of course I don’t have the time to list everyone who is great, because there are many more, but those are the ones who stood out the most.
As for the new additions, there’s some good and some not so good. For instance, I absolutely loved following Eddie Munson (Joseph Quinn). The eccentric nature of the character caught my eye in the opening episode and I had a blast watching him every step of the way. He just had this electric personality that felt so refreshing amongst the rest of the crowd. On the other end of the spectrum, I couldn’t stand a single second of Argyle (Eduardo Franco). I’m sure he made a good impression with a number of audiences, I just didn’t think he bought anything valuable to the story or the comedy. The stoner comedy vibe he was giving off just didn’t fit with everything going on and I could’ve done without his presence.
In the end, I could go on for a lot longer discussing Stranger Things 4: Volume 1, but for the sake of brevity and avoiding spoilers, I’ll save further points for my inevitable spoiler review. Also because this review has been hard enough to write without spoiling anything. So far, season four has been nothing short of phenomenal and I’ve loved every single minute of it. The scope of the series has expanded well beyond the boundaries of Hawkins, with the narrative becoming a lot more dense and packed with new characters and more branches to follow. Stranger Things fans are bound to love this season, jam-packed full of horror, thrills, laughs and chills – with an appropriately dark, twist-filled story to go along with it. Grab the tissues, find a pillow to hide behind and prepare for the greatness that is Stranger Things‘ penultimate season.