Stranger Things kicks off its fourth season by going back to the beginning—in more ways than initially anticipated. “What have you done?” Dr. Martin Brenner (Matthew Modine) ominously asks a young Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) in a bloody-good cold open as multiple dead bodies lay around them. The scene takes place in Hawkins Lab before El escaped in the series premiere. What did she do then, accidentally or not, that might’ve set off the events of Stranger Things? The answers trickle in over seven entertaining, terrifying, and overlong episodes about who the heck controls the Upside Down, and how El is connected to it all.
Unwieldy pacing notwithstanding, season four’s first half begins with a spectacular few episodes. The show succeeds in diving into the dark and unintended consequences of El’s powers—the same ones she lost during “The Battle Of Starcourt”—linking it all to Hawkins’ cursed past. By tackling its origins, Stranger Things returns with a potent narrative that ties several loose ends together. It’s a labyrinthine undertaking that, for the most part, has a gradual and solid payoff. After all, the show can’t sustain itself by only giving its protagonists more monsters to battle (how many times must Eleven close a damn gate to the Upside Down?), even if it usually balances that with genuine coming-of-age stories and character interactions.
It’s 1986, six months after season three, and El is now living in sunny California with the Byers. She’s aggressively bullied at her new school; it’s a way harsh storyline with weirdly meaningful ties to her upbringing under Dr. Brenner. Meanwhile, Will (Noah Schnapp) is sullen about being away from his pals. (This is a sincere plea to let Will be happy for a change—and maybe give him a different haircut.) Back in Hawkins, with Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) now a star basketball player, Mike (Finn Wolfhard) and Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) are part of the Hellfire Club. It’s led by Eddie Munson (Joseph Quinn), a key new figure in their world.
It doesn’t take long before suspicious deaths start happening around town. These killings are more brutal and unexplainable than Hawkins has ever seen, leading to mass panic and hysteria. (But at least the adults and cops are a little more involved now.) Easily the most exciting aspect of season four is how it embraces gore like never before. Even the show’s harshest critic will be swayed by that perfect blend of creepy and fun sci-fi. This time, there’s a haunted house, bone-shattering death scenes, a tentacled villain nicknamed Vecna who speaks in a baritone voice, and a huge homage to The Nightmare On Elm Street in how Vecna functions. The Duffer Brothers’ own superpower is reveling in ’80s horror nostalgia. And the duo is on top of their game here.
However, all these thrills are watered down by the bloated runtime. Volume 1's finale is almost 100 minutes long. The show continues to demand patience from its audience after a three-freaking-year wait. If it wasn’t obvious already, major storylines inevitably simmer down because of that runtime. Here’s looking at you, Joyce, because when will you get the meaty material you so deserve? Winona Ryder is both comic relief and an emotional anchor, but the lack of an engaging plot for her is the biggest grievance of season four. It’s only rivaled by the crawling progress of Hopper’s (David Harbour) Russian captivity.
In contrast, Sadie Sink takes centerstage. A forlorn Max has grown distant from everyone after her stepbrother Billy’s (Dacre Montgomery) death. The isolation entangles her in some terrible situations. No pun intended, but the actor sinks into her role and ends up delivering the best performance of the gang, especially in the outstanding fourth episode. After Fear Street and Stranger Things, we may have a burgeoning scream queen on our hands.
Max seeks help from Lucas, Dustin, Steve (Joe Keery), Nancy (Natalia Dyer), and Robin (Maya Hawke) as they form a little A-team. Mike’s visit to California also ends in mayhem, forming what we’re going to dub the B-team: Mike, Will, Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), and his new stoner friend Argyle (Eduardo Franco) embark on a dangerous road trip to get back home. Joyce and Murray (Brett Gelman)—shall we C-team them?—go off on their own adventure, but to say more about it borders on spoiler territory. El is steered away by Dr. Owens (Paul Reiser) to try and retrieve her powers.
Stranger Things once again rushes to its beloved, trusted narrative device: Splitting up everyone on different paths until they all converge for a common goal. The youth in Hawkins venture into the creepy Creel House, the abandoned home of town pariah Victor Creel (Robert Englund, putting in a fantastic cameo), for answers about Vecna. The A-team’s gripping arc becomes season four’s backbone, involving suspenseful supernatural elements, nerve-wracking trips to the Upside Down, unexpected bonds, lots of Robin one-liners, and yes, good old Dustin and Steve banter. Everyone’s heartfelt dynamic enhances and grounds chaos around them.
By the time the finale rolls around, a desperate update is required on the B-team, which later makes another unlikely addition. There is some overdue resolution to Joyce and Hopper’s respective journeys, setting up the second half nicely. Yet the show isn’t able to maintain a strong division of its various subplots, at least not until episode seven. This brings down the enthusiasm ever-so-slightly. To its credit, the lingering pace doesn’t translate to any boring moments. Stranger Things still injects an enthralling backstory into its well-established universe. It’s an indication that the final two episodes of Volume 2 (dropping on July 1), despite its movie length, will only elevate season four.