It has been a long while since season 3 of the Duffer Brothers’ hit series ‘Stranger Things’ premiered on Netflix. Three years have passed since the last season and so much has changed. The characters have all grown up now with the younger set moving on to high school, Joyce (Winona Ryder) takes her family – Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), Will (Noah Schnapp), and Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) – to California to start anew, the rest of the group have stayed in Hawkings, Indiana, while (as the trailer suggested) Hopper (David Harbour) has found himself in Russia.
Volume One, the first seven episodes of season 4, is one gigantic set-up with the characters all spread out in different locations around America and the world. The first three seasons had everyone split up but just within the confines of Hawkings (except that one season when Eleven went to the city and met Eight) but the world of ‘Stranger Things’ has gotten bigger now. In Volume One alone, the story shifts between Hawkings, California, Russia, and later to the open road, Alaska, Nevada, and Utah. While the largeness in scope truly makes the world of ‘Stranger Things’ bigger and the world-building richer, what it does is take away from what made the first three seasons so enjoyable.
The hustle and bustle of previous installments meant that the split-up characters eventually bump into each other as they must face a terror from the Upside Down, the shadow world parallel to ours where monsters exist. With such distance between the characters, it’s hard to create that sense of narrative intimacy. There was always some level of joy when the younger set collided with the young adult set – Jonathan, Nancy (Natalia Dyer), Steve (Joe Keery), and later addition Robin (Maya Hawke) – and then later on with the older set of Joyce and Hopper and the parents.
But there’s not much of that here. That sort of narrative interweaving only really happens in Hawkings and it quickly happens because the characters know each other already and have been through this before. As the Upside Down throws another horrible monster into the fray, this time a powerful creature named Vecna, those in Hawkings quickly band together to solve the case.
That’s when the show really and truly feels like ‘Stranger Things.’ Cut up into four parts – Hawkins, California (split into Joyce and Murray, played by Brett Gelman, and the younger set) and Russia with Hopper – the show feels a little disjointed. It doesn’t help that they split them up into five stories by the halfway point. For the first time in three seasons, I wasn’t interested in all the stories. I actually wanted to skip parts and just focus on one part, which was Hawkins.
By the fourth season, you can tell that the Duffer Brothers and their creative team have run out of steam for some characters. For Joyce, Hopper, Jonathan, Will, and Mike, there doesn’t seem to be anything new to do with them (or even interesting). You can even see this as Jonathan, Will, and Mike start to have less and less scenes as the season progresses. Joyce and Hopper must deal with an external struggle, a tangible goal, and while it does not test Joyce’s character to a point of any real change, Hopper has just one and this is explored only by the last two or three episodes. Prior to that, it’s just trying to survive in Russia.
And while Eleven is poised to be the show’s central figure, her character must endure a necessary trial to get her abilities back but plays out a story we’ve all seen before in one shape or another. It feels more like Eleven’s storyline was meant more to introduce somebody new.
It’s in Hawkins where the show really feels like the show we’ve come to love and it’s there that I want to focus all my attention. It’s in Hawkins, with Nancy, Steve, Robin, Dustin (Gaten Materazzo), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), Max (Sadie Sink), Erica (Priah Ferguson), and new addition Eddie (Joseph Quinn), where the mystery of Vecna is truly explored, experienced, and felt.
It’s in Hawkins where the heavy themes are truly explored like radical conservatism and surviving trauma, which are handled in a way that shows their frightening aspects but also still done with a good mix of seriousness and humor. The monster is not that important, though the show manages to pivot that thought later in the season in an interesting way, but his presence is necessary because that’s the impetus for the fun stuff to happen – when the Hawkins group tries to solve the mystery, working together and using past experiences to rationalize their findings. It’s the stuff that pays tribute to old 80s and early 90s movies like ‘The Goonies’ and ‘E.T.; and ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’ and the like that gave the show its working DNA.
And on a personal note, I just love how pivotal a Kate Bush song becomes in two episodes of the season. Amazing use of music, as always.
Hopefully, when Volume Two arrives in July, episodes 8 and 9 will interweave the stories again to give us the show we’ve come to love and prepare us for the announced fifth and final season of the show.
And hopefully, they won’t make us wait another three years before we can properly say goodbye.
All episodes of ‘Stranger Things 4‘ Vol. 1 are now streaming on Netflix. Vol. 2 will premiere on July 1, 2022.
‘Stranger Things’ Season 4 Interviews: Darker Journeys, New Faces, and Vecna of The Upside Down
11 Scenes from ‘Stranger Things 2’ that Gave Us Chills
All Grown Up: A Review of ‘Stranger Things 3’
Close Encounters with Eleven: Q&A with Netflix ‘Stranger Things’ Star Millie Bobby Brown