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Stranger Things 4 Volume 1 review: Changing up the formula

It’s beginning to feel like the residents of Hawkins, Indiana, just can’t catch a break.

Over the course of three seasons of Stranger Things, the characters in the fictional town of Hawkins have dealt with child abductions, murders, and even a secret Soviet invasion — all while battling supernatural threats from a terrifying alternate dimension known as the Upside Down. At this point, it feels like a relief that Stranger Things 4 — as the fourth season of the Netflix series is being called — finally takes the adventures out of Indiana (far out, in fact) to deliver the darkest, most wide-reaching chapter in the saga so far.

Returning for the fourth season of Stranger Things are series creators The Duffer Brothers, who write and direct five of the season’s nine episodes, along with most of the series’ core cast, which has been growing with each season. All of the expected characters return, both confirmed and hinted at in the nearly three years since the third season debuted, and the adventure takes them both across the U.S. and into the snowy wilderness of Russia as they attempt to both reunite with each other and stop a new, otherworldly enemy.

The cast of Stranger Things holds up lights in a dark attic, gathered in a circle.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Stranger Things has became one of Netflix’s biggest hits — critically, commercially, and in the size of its rapidly expanding budget — since its July 2016 debut, and while the second and third seasons were certainly well received, they received some criticism for treading familiar ground narratively. Relationships between characters changed and new characters were introduced (and in some cases killed off), but for the most part, each season of the series followed a similar formula, pitting the group against leveled-up variations of the same enemy.

That ends with season 4 of Stranger Things, which bucks from tradition in various, mostly positive ways. This time around, the season will arrive in two parts, for example, with Digital Trends receiving an early look at the first five episodes of the season.

Along with changing up the way the season is released, Stranger Things 4 also resets the tone of the series with a much darker, deadly threat that feels distinct from the Mind Flayer and its army of demogorgons and demodogs that tormented Hawkins across prior seasons. It would seem difficult to up the ante after a season involving a monstrous creature made of liquified human flesh and bone, but somehow the new season does so, offering up an even more disturbing threat that feels more closely aligned with paranormal horror in this arc than the sort of sci-fi roots of previous seasons’ major antagonists.

Winona Ryder and Brett Gelman stand in front of a crashed plane in the snow in a scene from Stranger Things 4.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

The new season blows up the geographic boundaries of the series, too, with much of the action in the first half of the season unfolding in the sunbaked Southwest U.S. and frozen Siberian wilderness, in addition to the requisite creepy goings-on among the remaining characters in Hawkins. Those two elements alone give Stranger Things 4 a surprisingly unique feel within the overarching series, and makes the moments when the story does return to Hawkins and dabble in earlier, Upside Down-related events feel more like a welcome return to the familiar than a cheap retread of old material.

Still, with nearly six years elapsing since the series’ debut, Stranger Things does find itself saddled with a frustrating and somewhat unavoidable elephant in the room.

Any series with a young cast is destined to run into trouble when delays occur, as the actors continue to age even when the cameras aren’t rolling. Previous seasons of Stranger Things did a relatively good job of keeping production on the series rolling along at a quick enough pace to keep their young actors looking somewhat believable as middle- and high-school students. Sure, a few of the older cast members pushed the capacity for credulity a bit (nothing new for any audiences that grew up watching Beverly Hills 90210, of course), but the gap between the actors’ perceived age and actual age was rarely so apparent as to be distracting.

Gaten Matarazzo, Finn Wolfhard, and Sadie Sink stand in a crowd during a high-school rally in a scene from Stranger Things 4.

Unfortunately, that also ends with the new season, which found its production period delayed multiple times due to the pandemic and the sort of behind-the-scenes scheduling conflicts that come from having an in-demand ensemble cast.

At this point, most of the series’ core, younger cast members are a difficult sell as high-school students, no matter how much era-appropriate makeup, hairstyling, and costuming (and even subtle visual effects) are put to work on them. Reconciling their perceived age with where they’re intended to be in the story, with regard to both the series’ timeline and their emotional and physical age, takes a little getting used to, and it’s easy to forget that most of the cast members are supposed to be high-schoolers as the show rolls along. This visual disconnect isn’t so powerful that it prevents you from immersing yourself in the story over time, but it can snap you out of scenes now and then — particularly when the narrative brings them back into high-school settings.

If you’re able to trick your mind into believing the cast are years (or in a few cases, a decade) younger than they are, though, the fourth season of Stranger Things offers a level of entertainment and world-building storytelling that makes up for the long wait fans have endured.

Sadie Sink's character levitates over a group of characters in a scene from Stranger Things 4.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Despite the show’s large cast, each of the characters get a surprisingly satisfying amount of time in the spotlight, with some characters who felt overlooked or underutilized in prior seasons even getting extra time to shine in the new season. The events they’ve endured in prior seasons of the series would rattle even the strongest personalities, and Stranger Things 4 does a nice job of exploring how they’ve grown emotionally and psychologically, along with the visual evidence of another year (in Stranger Things time) passing. To its credit, Stranger Things 4 spreads the love for its characters well, serving up big moments and narrative twists and turns for its characters individually without ever losing the sense of community and family they’ve formed while saving the world time and time again.

That’s no easy balance to strike, and despite the events transpiring around the various groups of characters happening thousands of miles apart, the fourth season of Stranger Things maintains a cohesive, singular narrative that doesn’t lose momentum across its first batch of episodes. Whether your favorite character is evading sinister American agents, a sadistic demon, or Soviet secret police, their stories feel intertwined with the rest of the cast, and building toward something bigger than their individual adventures.

It’s hard to believe that it’s been nearly three years since the last season of Stranger Things, but if the final four episodes of the season are as satisfying and entertaining as the first five, Stranger Things 4 will have been worth the wait.

Season 4 of Stranger Things premieres May 27 on Netflix streaming service.

Stranger Things (2016)

Stranger Things
75 %
tv-14 4 Seasons
Genre Drama, Mystery, Sci-Fi & Fantasy
Cast Winona Ryder, Millie Bobby Brown, Finn Wolfhard
Created by Matt Duffer, Ross Duffer

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