There's plenty riding on Stranger Things season 4. A lot has happened in the nearly three-year gap between the wildly popular Netflix show's previous and latest installments, with Netflix experiencing increasing competition from its rivals and, more recently, negative press amid the company's numerous financial and subscriber-based issues.
Stranger Things' return, then, might provide some respite for the troubled streaming giant. The 80s-inspired sci-fi horror series is arguably Netflix's biggest show ever (Squid Game may argue against that) so the arrival of its fourth season should deliver some much-needed positivity for the beleaguered company.
Unsurprising as it'll sound (to diehard fans, at least), Stranger Things season 4 is another triumphant and absorbing entry in the Duffer brothers-created franchise. Its combination of expansive world-building, revelations about the series' lore, sparkling cast additions, emotional and heart-wrenching story beats, and an injection of even more horrifying and haunting elements will please hardcore and casual fans alike. There are a couple of missteps – mainly with its multi-narrative format – that prevent Stranger Things season 4 from becoming the series' most definitive season yet. But, by and large, Stranger Things 4 gets a lot more right than wrong, delivering a highly satisfying season full of thrills, spills, and some very gory kills.
We're not in Hawkins anymore
Set six months after The Battle of Starcourt Mall, i.e. the season 3 finale, Stranger Things 4 finds our heroes truly separated for the first time. The Byers family – with Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) in tow – have relocated to California. Meanwhile, the rest of the Hawkins gang remains in the fictional Indiana-based town; the youngest members of the group enroll in Hawkins High School. Detective Jim Hopper (David Harbour), presumed dead following the climactic events at Starcourt Mall, finds himself alone and imprisoned somewhere in Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula.
Despite being thousands of miles apart, each group struggles to deal with the fallout of their traumatic showdown with The Mind Flayer. Throw in the complexities of trying to fit in at high school, forced labor in freezing Siberian conditions, and the death of their loved ones, and season 4 is laced with hardships for our heroes. It just so happens that, with the group divided and at their most vulnerable, a new and terrifying supernatural threat emerges from the Upside Down with ambitions of conquering the world on the fourth try. As the authorities struggle to get to grips with the terrifying events that unfold, it's up to Eleven and company to reunite, solve another mystery – this time involving the infamous Creel House – and try to destroy the Upside Down once and for all.
With season 3 released in July 2019, and the slightly convoluted nature of the plot synopsis above, there may be some trepidation among viewers about how they'll fully re-immerse themselves in Stranger Things' world.
Pleasingly, the show's fourth season does a stellar job of getting us up to speed on its major players (and what they've been up to) in the gap between seasons 3 and 4. Episode one provides some well-executed exposition that reacquaints audiences with each character, dispensing with any unnecessary plot minutiae to allow season 4 to get to the good stuff – namely, its foreboding and mysterious storylines, character development, and thrilling action – sooner than you think. It's a welcome creative decision on the Duffer brothers' part and one that makes for a seamless transition back into the franchise after its Covid-induced hiatus.
Satisfying as this reintroduction is, it takes some time for the show's multi-narrative format to really hit its stride. The Duffer brothers have regularly described Stranger Things 4 as their Game of Thrones season – an illustration owing to this season's long episodes and multi-story structure. For a show that needs to be more expansive and ambitious with each passing season, such ambition is born out of necessity.
The problem with this format, however, is that longer episodes don't always make for a more engrossing story. There's the potential to meander or contain filler material, and Stranger Things season 4's early entries do occasionally feel slightly padded. The storylines set in California and Kamchatka, for instance, feel sluggish and overstuffed compared to the narrative playing out in Hawkins and don't benefit from the splintering of the main gang following the season 3 finale.
Veering between genres – namely, from horror to humor – in the same scene feels a tad janky, too. Sure, comedic moments are obligatory to ease the tension, and, given Stranger Things is as known for its jokes and awkward humor as it is for its supernatural terror, you'd expect season 4 to contain some funny elements. You can see the reasoning behind breaking up the potential monotony of sticking to one genre, but swiftly jumping between them in certain scenes disrupts the flow of the tales playing out during these sequences. The Joyce and Murray sub-plot is a prime example of this, occasionally alternating between a tense drama and an eccentric buddy cop adventure that's a bit disorienting.
Stranger Things 4 is at its best once its numerous storylines begin to merge. And, once they do, it's a genuinely thrilling spectacle. The detective-style story that surfaces as the groups (and viewers by proxy) dig into the history of Creel House, Eleven's and Hopper's pasts, and the wider context of the Upside Down, brings a freshness to proceedings despite previous seasons feeling similarly investigative. Throw in the globetrotting and cross-country road trip feel of season 4, a captivating and suspenseful raising of the stakes, and the natural camaraderie between the main cast, and the eventual intersection of this season's narratives subsequently help drive Stranger Things 4 forward in fascinating fashion.
Counting down to the endgame
With Stranger Things barrelling towards its conclusion – the series is getting a fifth and final season – it seems high time the Duffer brothers start delivering on their promise of providing answers to the series' biggest secrets.
So fans will be delighted to hear that Stranger Things' latest season makes good on those assurances. Season 4 sheds new light on a number of longstanding fan questions (and theories), rewarding viewers with explanations and answers to queries that date all the way back to season 1 – and, in some cases, moments that pre-date its pilot. Each secret is diligently handled; their yarns spun out effectively to provide context to certain characters' backstories and the history of the Upside Down.
That isn't to say that Stranger Things season 4 relegates its action sequences or horror elements to the background in favor of revelatory content. The show's latest installment is jam-packed with adrenaline-fuelled combat sequences and gruesomely detailed scenarios – moments that are sure to be unforgettable in the short and long term.
Season 4's combat scenes – close-quarters or long-range – are brutal, intense, and frenetic affairs. That's to be expected, what with previous seasons providing similarly frenzied sequences. Stranger Things 4 ups the ante compared to its predecessors, though, bringing a ferocity to events that magnifies the underlying threat facing our heroes.
A lot of that threat is provided by the arrival of a brand-new villain. Vecna is a genuinely terrifying foe for Stranger Things' main cast to face, an antagonist who's menacing and nightmarish in equal measure. Without spoiling too much, it's clear to see why Nightmare on Elm Street's Freddy Kreuger was a chief inspiration for Vecna. Add in a dash of The Exorcist's Pazuzu and Hellraiser's Pinhead – plus surprising references to abilities or powers seen in The Matrix and X-Men – and Vecna is a formidable enemy who wouldn't look out of place in a classic body horror or slasher-style movie.
That slasher film tone is a thread that's always running just beneath the surface. From tense chase sequences and suspenseful hide-and-seek style moments, to jump scares and other spooky (and spoiler-ific) elements, Stranger Things 4 is the most mature entry in the series yet.
Playing the part
The show's increasingly R-rated material owes a lot to its largely young cast getting older, a facet of Stranger Things' production that gives its creative team the freedom to double down on its shock value.
Stranger Things' maturing cast also allows the series to explore fresh character dynamics and richer themes. Selling those aspects authentically is down to its talented cast. They all bring their A-game to provide greater emotional resonance, witty retorts, and a relatability to the wholly human issues that they face. You know, outside of the Upside Down-specific elements of the show, anyway.
Stranger Things' returning actors are a joy to watch, but It's those joining season 4's cast who shine brightest, adding fun and fresh dynamics to each group and altering their makeup in intriguing and humorous ways.
Joe Quinn's Eddie Munson is arguably the stand-out of the show's new regulars. His slightly unhinged but funny portrayal feels right at home among this vast collection of geeky but likable characters. Eduardo Franco's Argyle pushes Quinn's Munson close as the series progresses – he'll certainly be in the running for the 'best stoner character in a film or TV show' award by season 4's end – while Matthew Modine's highly satisfying return as the sinister Doctor Brenner helps Brown deliver her most emotional and commanding performance in the series so far.
Speaking of character reunions, the eventual merging of Stranger Things 4's numerous plots gives rise to the return of some of the most beloved team-ups in the show. Surprising no one, Dustin and Steve's odd-couple bromance makes a welcome return. But there are opportunities for new partnerships to emerge as season 4 plays out – Natalia Dyer's Nancy Wheeler and Maya Hawke's Robin Buckley giving us the character team-up we didn't know we needed.
Stranger Thing season 4 is an explosive, mystical, and electrifying entry in Netflix's hugely popular franchise. The show's wonderfully seamless blend of drama, horror, action, and comedy has never felt tighter and more conducive than it does here. And its unveiling of secrets that fans have longed to learn about makes for startling but ultimately satisfying viewing.
It's not without its faults, and those occasional stumbles, particularly from a plot perspective, prevent Stranger Things' latest season from usurping the very first entry as the best installment yet. Still, there's plenty here to enjoy and revel in, and diehard fans will certainly feel that the three-year wait for a new batch of episodes has been worth it.
To paraphrase Vecna himself, Stranger Things' triumphant return ensures that Netflix's suffering has temporarily come to an end. The streaming giant has many obstacles to overcome to win back subscribers and shareholders' support but, for a few weeks at least, Stranger Things season 4 can turn those frowns – ahem – upside down.
Stranger Things season 4 volume 1 arrives on Netflix on Friday, May 27. Part 2 launches on the streamer on Friday, July 1.