Stranger Things Season Four, Vol. 1 is WILD, y’all!
(This post will be utterly spoiler free up until I give you a bold warning, below!)
I didn’t meant to do it, but somehow I managed to binge all nine hours of Stranger Things Season Four within a single 24-hour period this weekend. Honestly, I just couldn’t turn it off, even if it meant almost completely sacrificing a day of sleep.
For a moment early in the season it seems like Season Four shared the same weakness as the past two seasons: The Duffers are convinced their breakout stars need their own storylines, which often feel like entirely separate shows within the show.
For a few episodes, it does feel like this story has become too big, too discursive. The core quartet of boys are fractured across multiple plots, and there are even more plotlines that don’t include them or Eleven.
Even as the plot feels bigger than ever before, Season 4 finally acknowledges that the show has never been about singular stars. It’s not a show about Eleven, Hopper, or even Hawkins. It’s about how your circle of friends grows and changes as you change how you define yourself. It’s about how things that used to be scary are now commonplace, and how the newest hurdle in your life always feels the highest.
Stranger Things could’ve become a horror anthology series returning to Hawkins again and again without our core cast of misfits. However, this time it really feels like a story about the misfits (like S1 did) as much as it is about the horror around them… and what caused it. The show’s ever-growing ensemble of actors makes it work the best it has since Season 1 (which I crushed on back in 2016).
Be warned: Stranger Things Season 4 is bloodier and scarier than any of the past volumes. There are fewer jump scares, but more outright gore and onscreen violence.
Also, the first few minutes of the first episode focus on the aftermath of graphic violence that might be triggering for some viewers – this week, especially. It received a special content warning in the states, but we didn’t get it here in New Zealand. If you’re sensitive to images of violence against children, you can safely skip from the big “knockout” blackout at the 7-minute mark to the end of the opening credits. You’ll see the same scene again in a less disturbing fashion later in the season.
(Continue reading if you want very minor spoilers about the characters and their arcs as of the beginning of the season.)
(Okay, here come the spoilers! They are mostly for Episode One and general character arcs. I haven’t even begun to touch plot spoilers, I promise!)
We already knew from the end of Season 3 that Stranger Things Season 4 would have to focus on at least three plots – life in Hawkins, the Byers Familyn (now including Eleven) moving to California, and Hopper’s disappearance.
As it turns out, things get even more fractured than that. Luckily, that puts the full ensemble in play, plus a few terrific additions… but, it starts out as so many plots.
In Hawkins, Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard) and Dustin Henderson (Gaten Matarazzo) remain total outcasts, now adopted by a high school D&D group called “The Hellfire Club,” headed by the unpredictable metal-head Eddie Munson (Joseph Quinn). They find an unlikely buddy in Erica Sinclair (Priah Ferguson) while their friend Lucas Sinclair (Caleb McLaughlin) pulls away from them.
Lucas is still down for D&D sessions, but he’s also on the edges of the cool crowd as a benchwarmer on a basketball team headed for championship lead by Jason Carver (Mason Dye).
Max Mayfield (Sadie Sink) is on the outside of their orbit, still deeply in grief about her brother’s sacrifice last season as she tries to avoid therapy sessions with the school psychiatrist while dealing with an insecure home life.
Meanwhile, Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer) has been relegated back to the high school newspaper duties, where she jousts with ambitious junior editor Fred Benson (Logan Riley Bruner).
Steve Harrington (Joe Keery) is a lonely satellite to this high school universe, acting primarily as the straight sidekick and devout ally to closeted lesbian Senior, Robin (Maya Hawke), as they both pine over unattainable love.
Did you forget about our California Byers? Mike is off to visit them for Spring Break and they’re all doing awful. Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) is recovered from The Upside Down but is missing his connection with the gang, while Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) masquerades as the maladjusted Jane Byers. Brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) rarely emerges from a cloud of pot smoke with new buddy Argyle (Eduardo Franco), and mom Joyce (Winona Ryder) is just barely keeping her head above water selling encyclopedias and occasionally phoning her paranoid buddy Murray Bauman (Brett Gelman) between his karate classes.
Meanwhile, Jim Hopper (David Harbour) is somewhere cold and snowy being guarded by the duplicitous Dmitri Antonov (Tom Wlaschiha).
Oh, and the government’s hunt for Eleven brings them to the doorstep of former director Sam Owens (Paul Reiser), as well as to some other shady figures we’ve met before.
Got it? Good, because things start getting mixed up right away.
Stranger Things Season 4 succeeds because it trades characters and crosses plot lines like none of the prior three seasons have managed. Every one of the groupings above either loses a character or merges into another plot, producing some unlikely combinations. A fantastically tense mid-season climax at the end of Episode 4 snaps things into focus, even as some plots get farther afield.
That gives different actors time to stretch out and shine. Millie Bobby Brown and David Harbour have always been the centerpiece of the show, but here they’re relegated to driving much of the backstory while other actors take on more active roles.
The most valuable player this season is unquestionably Sadie Sink. Much of the season centers on her performance in a way Season 1 centered on Eleven – through a series of quiet internal moments and reactions. Sink delivers impressively, showing us a full-formed world around Max instead of just playing her as depressed and petulant. Now a veteran of Taylor Swift music videos, Sink is given the best music cue of the season to sync with her character arc. She plays the hell out of it. You’ll think of her face every time you hear the song for the rest of your life.
Maya Hawke has less to do as Robin is merged into the wider cast, but given the chance to bump up against other characters she delivers constant comedy (but also a surprising amount of steely reserve). And, newbies Joseph Quinn, Logan Riley Bruner, and Eduardo Franco deliver delicious over-the-top caricature so our in-the-know main cast has something silly to bounce off of, as Brett Gelman continues to do for Winona’s now well-grounded Joyce.
If there’s one plot here that rings a bit false, it’s the cult-like, hard-partying atmosphere of Jason’s basketball team. Mason Dye does what he can with the thinly written Jason, who is “bad boy as high school Romeo and junior evangelical preacher.” Unfortunately, in addition to the thin character, Dye looks too old to be a high schooler in this world (even though he is younger than Heery in real life). None of the actors on the basketball team do him any favors as scene partners.
Even the usually reliable Caleb McLaughlin feels wooden in the team scenes. Some of that is certainly a character choice, as he warms up when he’s with the nerds, but it makes the team sequences unbearable and tonally inconsistent as they veer back into the main plot.
The same cannot be said for the absolutely manic performance from Joseph Quinn as outcast Eddie Munson. If the basketball plot is laborious, Quinn’s Munson manages to keep things light. He taps into the familiar vein of those scary high school freaks of the 80s, before the rise of the internet and the permeation of gun culture. He’s a terrifying Ozzy Osborne worshiping dungeon master, but beneath the facade he’s as lost and alone as every other teen in the cast. What seems like it will be a tiresome caricature keeps revealing new texture as the season wears on.
Then there’s Hopper. David Harbour has to bear the weight of a lot of laborious set-up apart from the rest of the cast, but Tom Wlaschiha’s slimy Dimitri gives you someone to love to hate until the plot blossoms. While it still feels the farthest out to the side of all the stories, by the close of the season it manages to deliver several rewards. It also sustains and air of mystery as other plotlines dive into major reveals.
And make no mistake – the gloves are off when it comes to revealing secrets this season. Everything you always wanted to know about Hawkins but were afraid to ask is on the table, with a surprising turn from Robert Englund as a key figure in unveiling the mystery of the town and its curse.
I could say more about one other performance while I loved, but it’s too big a spoiler!
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t call out the always delightful Natalia Dyer, who has delivered us four seasons of the best Kitty Pryde we’ll never actually have.
If things feel a little too spread out in the first three episodes, episodes four through seven are a sprint you won’t be able to turn off. This is a season that manages to pay off almost everything that felt stretched too thin at the start. Between the closure and the terrific cinematography and special effects, this feels like a single movie that’s just 11 minutes shorter than the original theatre cuts of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
(I have one more comment on something minor, but it includes larger interpersonal plot spoilers!)
Stranger Things leans farther into its textual queerness this season, not only with Maya Hawke’s Robin but also with Will Byers.
After much speculation about Will not being interested in girls in past seasons, Season 4 finds both the script and Noah Schnapp himself leaning heavily into the implication that Will is gay and harboring feelings for his best friend Mike even though he knows Mike and Eleven are star-crossed lovers.
It’s not just that he’s been painting an epic gift for Mike that he carries with him everywhere. It’s not just the way he recoils from the nudge of a cute girl in class. It’s every subtle bit of physical acting from Schnapp, who plays the suddenly strappingly-large Will as being uncomfortable in his own body in every setting that isn’t sitting next to Mike.
In a show full of romance beats for every one of the returning teen characters save for Erica, Will feels specifically excluded. It could still pan out that Will is asexual or aromantic and fixated on Mike as his one true friend. But, there’s something there.
Contrast that with Robin, who gets to open the show with straight-up lusting over her current crush, totally supported by a sympathetic Steve. Getting these moments of “guy talk” between Robin and Steve is pure gold, and a beautiful bit of inclusivity in giving a closeted queer character a space to be herself. We later see Robin join Nancy’s plot, but instead of playing it for false hints of homo-erotic tension, we simply get two young women being badasses.
I think that’s possible because Robin is allowed to be fully realized with Steve, so we don’t have to assume her every scene with another girl is spent invested in a secret crush. (Even if that still might happen.)
Between these two beats, Lucas struggling to join the cool crowd, Max battling depression, and Jonathan stuck in a haze of weed smoke, the inner lives of these characters feel both deeper and more vibrant than we ever could have expected from a retro genre show – and that’s a huge part of what makes this season so great.