Stranger Things season 4 is a return to form for the horror hit

·5 min read

As of this writing, it's been 1,055 days since the last season of Stranger Things, which crashed the July 4 holiday weekend back in 2019.  That's a long time away from the beleaguered burg of Hawkins, Ind. — especially since the last three years took at least two decades to pass. "Today is day 185," writes Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) to her boyfriend Mike (Finn Wolfhard) in the season 4 premiere, marking six months in her new hometown of Lenora Hills, Calif. "Feels more like 10 years." Preach, kid.

Season 3 of Stranger Things was an improvement over the draggy season 2. (I'll pause while those of you who disagree yell at your screens.) Still, the fun felt a little faded, and Hopper's left-turn into toxic masculinity didn't help. So when season 4, volume 1 — seven episodes, all but one over 70 minutes long — dropped in my Netflix press account, I'll admit that excitement was not my first emotion.

What a pleasure it is to be wrong. Fresh locales, appealing new characters, and a rewarding expansion of the mythology give the new season of Stranger Things a jolt of joyful energy, just when the series needed it most.

It's 1986, and the gang is scattered. (Quick note: This review is spoiler-free, beyond what's already been revealed in the trailer and other previews.) Having fled Indiana last season, Joyce (Winona Ryder) is trying to build a new life for her family in California, while mourning the loss of Hopper (David Harbour), whom she saw explode. Will (Noah Schnapp) seems to be doing okay, but Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) has gone full pothead with his stoner bud Argyle (Eduardo Franco), and the still-powerless Eleven is bullied on the regular by a mean girl named Angela (Elodie Grace Orkin) and her cronies.

Stranger Things 4
Stranger Things 4

Netflix Eduardo Franco, Charlie Heaton, Millie Bobby Brown, Noah Schnapp, and Finn Wolfhard in 'Stranger Things'

Back in Hawkins, Nancy (Natalia Dyer) is running the school newspaper and pretending her long-distance relationship with Jonathan is fine. Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) hopes his spot on the high school basketball team will help him graduate into the popular crowd, but Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Mike still wear their "nerds and freaks" status with pride. Steve (Joe Keery) and Robin (Maya Hawke) are working at the video store and commiserating about girls, while Max (Sadie Sink) is withdrawn and depressed, collapsing inward under the weight of her stepbrother's death. As for Hopper, he isn't really dead, of course — he's just doing hard labor in a top-secret Russian prison camp.

Spring break is underway when terrible things start to happen to Hawkins High students, courtesy of Vecna, an undead demon-wizard-thing from the Upside Down who preys on the emotionally vulnerable. Terrified townsfolk turn their suspicions to Eddie (Joseph Quinn), a shaggy-haired, heavy-metal-loving leader of the Hellfire Club, the school's D&D group. Hawkins' burgeoning satanic panic is an ongoing theme in season 4, and Eddie — an amiable goofball in burnout's clothing — is a fine foil for the Duffer Brothers' cautionary tale of mass moralizing. Quinn, a British actor who straight-up crushed my heart as Leonard Bast in Starz's adaptation of Howards End, is marvelously funny as Eddie. His initiation into the horrifying reality of living on top of an alternate dimension, marked by profanity-laced fear tantrums and gallows humor, helps reinvigorate the core cast's dynamics as they embark on yet another supernatural adventure.

Stranger Things 4
Stranger Things 4

Netflix Gaten Matarazzo, Joseph Quinn, and Finn Wolfhard in 'Stranger Things'

The new season gives fans more of what they love — Dustin and Steve's bickering bromance, Priah Ferguson's precocious Erica Sinclair reading fools for filth — but it also throws characters together in amusing new combinations. Logorrheic Robin and no-nonsense Nancy team up to investigate Victor Creel (Robert Englund), who's imprisoned in Pennhurst Asylum for murdering his family. After a mysterious package gives her hope that Hopper is alive, Joyce recruits the ever-skeptical Murray (Brett Gelman, delightfully imperious) to help her track down the sender.

Eleven, meanwhile, is thousands of miles away from her friends, determined to get her powers back — though it means confronting some terrifying, long-repressed memories from her time with Dr. Brenner (Matthew Modine) at the Hawkins Lab. Her mind-work unearths recollections of a kind and encouraging lab employee — character name and actor redacted for spoiler reasons — who took a special interest in young Eleven. It all leads to a satisfying reveal about the Upside Down, though plenty of questions remain.

Stranger Things 4
Stranger Things 4

Netflix Finn Wolfhard, Caleb McLaughlin, and Gaten Matarazzo in 'Stranger Things'

This is still Stranger Things, so there are a few kooky and unnecessary side capers. The dialogue sometimes defaults to Scooby-Doo silly ("Are you out of your mind? Flying solo with this Vecna creep on the loose? No, it's too dangerous!") even as the mythology becomes more complex. Given what their flesh-and-blood frames have already endured, most of these characters would be dead several times over — but never mind that, and enjoy Hopper-as-Great Escape-action-hero, brawling with Russian prison guards and other monsters.

"Everything was, like, way easier," says Steve with a sigh, longing for the old days when they had Eleven and her superpowers to defeat the demons of the Upside Down. But when it comes to TV, easy is often the enemy of good. This season, Stranger Things is working harder and smarter. B+.

Stranger Things season 4, volume 1 premieres Friday, May 27, on Netflix.

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