Nearly three years after the release of the third season, expectations were high for Stranger Things 4. Production delays due to COVID-19 raised questions on whether the sci-fi thriller could keep its relevance, especially with the announcement that the new season would be released in two volumes. However, Stranger Things 4 may be the strongest version of the show yet, setting a Netflix record with 287 million hours viewed in the first three days after its May 27th release, as reported by Radio Times.
Volume 1 of Stranger Things 4 picks up eight months after the events of the season three finale which featured a deadly battle against that season’s main villain, a monster from another dimension known as the Upside Down. In the aftermath of that ordeal, the characters—scattered in California, Russia, and their hometown of Hawkins, Indiana—wrestle with the tragedy while attempting to move forward, as does the entire town. This theme of facing trauma is woven throughout all three locations and storylines and is most masterfully depicted in Max Mayfield (Sadie Sink)’s arc.
Max spends much of the season struggling with grief over the death of her stepbrother Billy, who sacrificed himself to save her and her friends. Despite their strained relationship, Max wishes for the opportunity to connect with Billy. Max’s character development stands out this season, and Sink delicately portrays the complex nature of grief and trauma. Another memorable performance comes from a new addition to the Hawkins group: Eddie Munson (Joseph Quinn), the leader of the new Dungeons & Dragons group at Hawkins High. His interactions with the established cast and his reactions to the Upside Down seem natural and genuine to viewers. Moreover, he does not feel like a one-note character and seems instrumental in advancing the plot.
Unfortunately, not all characters are granted the same nuance. Once a central character, Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) is reduced to a mere sidekick, reflecting an underlying problem with the pacing of the season thus far. Even with longer episodes—runtimes average about an hour and fifteen minutes—the division of screen time between storylines and characters feels uneven and could have been utilized more effectively.
That being said, every moment of Stranger Things 4 is must-watch television, thanks in part to remarkable cinematography and a standout 1980s soundtrack. Notably, Kate Bush’s 1985 single “Running Up That Hill” skyrocketed up the charts after its prominent use throughout the season, including in a pivotal scene at the end of episode four. Furthermore, as the season progresses, it is clear how well thought-out the entirety of the Stranger Things universe is. Each episode answers questions fans have been asking since the first season. While the tone is darker this season, the violence is never gratuitous, always playing a specific role in advancing the storyline. The final episode of Volume 1, “The Massacre at Hawkins Lab,” ends on a shocking cliffhanger. The story will continue with Volume 2, set to be released on July 1st. In the meantime, Stranger Things is back and better than ever.
This piece also appears in our June 2022 print edition.