This is a spoiler-free review of Stranger Things 4 – Volume One.
There’s a lot that’ll be discussed about this first part of the fourth season of Stranger Things. One thing that sticks out right away is the absolute length of the first part here. Originally, it seemed like we were getting 4-5 episodes for the first half, then another 4-5 for the second half. The episode distribution here is a bit different, it’s 7 episodes and then two supersized episodes for the second part. This first half is quite the saga, with the shortest episode being 63 minutes long. If you didn’t get to meet your favorite characters throughout the first three seasons, they all get their time to shine here.
That length is a double-edged sword though. At some point in the season, it feels like it drags a bit. There are so many characters running around in various locales, that it’s slightly hard to keep up. The Duffer Brothers and the rest of the creative team all have pretty tight scripts that might’ve benefited from more episodes and shorter runtimes. That’s a small downside when you consider the massive scope of what they’re doing in this fourth season. It’s the culmination of tons of separate stories with fleshed-out characters that we’ve grown up with. If it’s weird seeing these kids grow up before our eyes, the show doesn’t follow the same tone with them as it did before. Gone are the Goonies-Esque adventures, they’ve been replaced by absolute terror and peril for the people involved.
There are still moments of brevity and light-heartedness, but they’re fewer and farther between than in previous seasons. This is really the Empire Strikes Back of the Stranger Things universe.
Not For The Faint Of Heart
We’ve entered the “homage to slashers” phase of Stranger Things and I’m all for it. The fourth season is easily the most terrifying with plenty of moments to make you jump and your skin crawl. From the very first episode, there’s a feeling of dread while watching the show. There’s always something bubbling under the surface, even during the most tender and heartfelt moments. The terror ratchets up when the villain, Vecna is explained more throughout this first part. The way he stalks his victims is reminiscent of Freddy Krueger from A Nightmare on Elm Street. For fans of that series, we even get an appearance from Robert Englund as Victor Creel.
Creel is central to the plot of the fourth season, and Englund brought his A-game for the scenes he’s in. Every time he’s on-screen, he demands your attention. Englund puts forth one of his best performances ever here. It’s eerie, and one that’ll stick with you long after the show is over. He’s a man that’s been tormented, driven to the point of insanity, and his eyes are gone. All that’s left are the visions of his horrific past. Englund is much more than a glorified “horror cameo” here.
The visuals also have a major upgrade here. With the budget for each episode going up to about $30 million an episode, that money was put to fantastic use by improving the visual effects and how the cast interacts with them. I’m not sure if they used a similar StageCraft design to The Mandalorian, but it sure feels like that. The digitally created areas feel more lived-in, more real. The upside-down also has a creepier look that doesn’t feel as empty as it did in previous seasons.
A Truly Great Villain Among The Best Versions Of All The Other Characters
As for Vecna, our main villain, he looks and sounds great. He’s as terrifying as he looks, with a commanding presence over all the proceedings in Hawkins and wherever else the characters go. The real highlight for this season is making you absolutely detest some of the side characters. Whether it’s their actions or just the way the actors play them, some of the side antagonists are almost as awful as Vecna. He might be a fictional beast, but bullies and disinformation spreaders are things we deal with in our daily lives. It’s a nice reminder that sometimes the worst villains are the most realistic ones. Here, with two of the characters that Eleven and Lucas/Dustin have to deal with, it’s the case.
Some of the other new characters are fantastic additions. Joseph Quinn (Eddie), Eduardo Franco (Argyle), and Tom Wlaschiha (Dmitri) all add new wrinkles to the existing character’s storylines. Eddie is the leader of the Hellfire Club, a new D&D club that Mike, Dustin, and Lucas are part of. Argyle is a friend of Jonathan’s in California that is delightfully paranoid and a huge stoner. Finally, Dmitri is someone involved with the prison that Hopper is kept in. That’s all I’ll say, but by the end of this Volume 1, you’re going to love all three for hugely different reasons.
The cast from the first three seasons returns here with Winona Ryder (Joyce Byers), David Harbour (Jim Hopper), Millie Bobby Brown (Eleven), Finn Wolfhard (Mike Wheeler), Gaten Matarazzo (Dustin Henderson), Caleb McLaughlin (Lucas Sinclair), Noah Schnapp (Will Byers), Sadie Sink (Max Mayfield), Natalia Dyer (Nancy Wheeler), Charlie Heaton (Jonathan Byers), Joe Keery (Steve Harrington), Maya Hawke (Robin Buckley), Priah Ferguson (Erica Sinclair), Brett Gelman (Murray), and Cara Buono (Karen Wheeler).
Some Characters Still Get The Short End Of The Stick Though
It’s a thankless job for the writers of the season (Duffer Bros Ep. 401, 402, 407 Caitlin Schneiderhan 403, Paul Dichter 404, Kate Trefry 405, and Curtis Gwinn 406) to juggle all of these plots and characters. When it comes to the group, we get a lot more to work with from Max, Nancy, Steve, Robin, Hopper, Dustin, Murray, and Eleven. That means that other characters like Mike, Will, and Jonathan get left in the dust. It’s not that their plot is uninteresting or unimportant, but it definitely has less screen time than the others. This is all building toward an explosive conclusion, so hopefully, they’ll be more involved in the second part, but here, they don’t get much to work with.
Mike’s character is also just as unlikeable as in previous seasons, but they make a better case for him redeeming himself here. it can’t get any worse than how he treated his friends throughout the first three seasons. For the returning cast members, Natalia Dyer definitely gets an upgrade to her material. In previous seasons, Nancy has been more in the background, but here, especially in the finale for Part 1, she’s front and center. Brett Gelman also gets way more to work with as Murray and is involved in one of the best fight scenes in the opening seven episodes.
A Fitting “Opening” Act That’ll Make For A Hellacious Wait
This fourth season of Stranger Things shows the evolution that the show has undergone. It’s gone from light-hearted and somewhat small stakes to grand, globe-trotting adventure with four or more intersecting narratives. It’s a cultural phenomenon for Netflix and a huge achievement of storytelling in a streaming world. This fourth season is easily the best that they’ve had to offer, even through issues with pacing and some characters getting more shine than others. Volume 1 ends on a strange note that’s similar to The Empire Strikes Back, but with a bit more hope than that. It’s a thrilling seventh episode that goes through basically everything that makes Stranger Things special.
There are homages to the past, the present, and even the future in this seven-episode run, but it’s one that sets up for a hopefully equal level of insanity and action. Like the 80s, this one only gets more dangerous, decadent, and self-aware as it goes on. You don’t want to miss Volume One of Stranger Things 4.
Watch Volume One of Stranger Things 4 on Netflix on May 27th, 2022. Volume Two comes on July 1st, 2022.
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