'Stranger Things' Season 4 Vol 1 review: Biggest (and longest) season yet
Courtesy of Netflix
Taking a page from the “Game of Thrones” playbook in terms of scale and scope, the penultimate season of “Stranger Things,” which is getting split into two “volumes” with the first seven episodes hitting the service May 27th and the other two July 1st, is building towards an “Avengers: Endgame” level event where the stakes of the characters and the lowly town of Hawkins couldn’t be more dire. It’s also the longest (and yet) the shortest season. Delivering nine episodes as opposed to the standard ten (which varied in length, but seldom ran over the 50-minute mark), “Stranger Things” season four volume 1’s mid-season finale clocks 98-minutes, which is longer than some of the streamer's popular movies. With numbers like this, it’s hard to fathom why Netflix didn’t experiment and attempt a weekly rollout, giving more time for folks to discover (and appreciate) this season’s nuances as opposed to rushing through it in fear of having its biggest secrets spoiled.
Still, the new season is brimming with passion and energy, but even in the six years that’s passed since we met Eleven, nobody (not even the brass at Netflix) could have predicted where this behemoth was headed. Now, the Duffer Brothers have been given the keys to the visual effects kingdom, no longer held back by budget worries or star agreements, they can go for broke, and each episode looks like it’s spent the money wisely. With that kind of creative freedom, it’s no wonder “Stranger Things” has upped the ante, introducing a harrowing villain named “Vecna” who is to this series what the Night King was to “Game of Thrones.” Netflix has asked advanced reviewers not to reveal the specifics of Vecna’s ambitions, but it’s safe to assume this baddie has a deep connection with the formidable Upside Down.
“Stranger Things” season four picks up six months removed from the now infamous Battle of Starcourt where the primary gang has been separated. It’s 1986 and the Byers clan, Joyce (Winona Ryder), Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), Will (Noah Schnapp) and newly adopted Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) are living in California. For Eleven, the transition couldn’t be harder and the struggle to fit in amid a squad of sniveling and cruel bullies is real. Meanwhile, in Hawkins, Mike (Finn Wolfhard) and Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), now freshmen in high school, have found their niche in the Dungeons and Dragons club run by the season’s newest and more fascinating addition, Eddie (Joseph Quinn) whilst Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) is trying to get style points for being on the school’s basketball team. Mind you, he’s a benchwarmer.
Then there’s Max (Sadie Sink) who has drifted away from the group after the death of her brother Billy (Darce Montgomery). At least the older teens maintain a semblance of normalcy: Nancy (Natalia Dyer) is still crushing the school newspaper circuit; Robin (Maya Hawke – reminding us why we love her) wants to ask the cute girl in band on a date but doesn’t know how; and Steve (Joe Keery) utilizes his job at Family Video to pick up chicks. And yes, “Stranger Things” season four explains how Hopper (David Harbour) managed to evade death at the end of season three and found himself shackled to a chain gang in the Soviet Union.
It’s a smorgasbord of information unloaded in a short amount of time and if you’re a massive “Stranger Things” fan (like yours truly) perhaps that won’t be a crutch, but those who passively watch to keep up with conversations might be asking themselves why each episode has the length of feature-films (the season finale in volume two has a reported runtime of 156-minutes). To their credit, season directors-Duffer Brothers, Shawn Levy, and Nimrod Antal-keep the action moving as it ratchets the tension for whatever the hell is coming down the pipeline in the final season. It’s obvious the show is jampacking the expositional legwork so it doesn’t become a hitch later, but that does come with a price. Intermittent subplots and editing can appear rushed, especially as it bounces between Hawkins, Russia, and California. Couldn’t each location have received a dedicated chunk of the season so it wouldn’t have felt so cluttered? Regardless, the filmmaking tactics have significantly improved as has the scare factor. If you thought past seasons had gory deaths and nightmare fuel, season four doesn’t shudder and parents of younger fans should be warned this is equivalent to the cinematic leap from “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” to “Goblet of Fire.” Not saying that’s a bad thing, but you should be prepared.
The new season of “Stranger Things” isn’t short on thrills or comradery either, reminding fans why they’ve stuck around this long, and the Duffer Brother fill their coffers with vintage nods to classic ‘80s pop cultural moments and slick needle drops. Though it might be hard, especially as this season’s budget is pushing $30 million an episode, to remember this show’s emotional core is about a group of small-town pals who rallied to save their community (and themselves) multiple times. The Spielbergian mantra isn’t lost even as the creative playground (and star power) has grown considerably. What the future has in store is anyone’s guess, but “Stranger Things” hasn’t lost its touch and certainly hasn’t forgotten where it came from.
STRANGER THINGS Season Four Volume 1 hits Netflix Friday, May 27th.