Not many shows today juggle psych wards, Soviet gulags and the satanic panic in a single season — nor should they, one might argue. Nonetheless, “Stranger Things” fans received all this and more on May 27, when volume one of season four premiered on Netflix.
Despite the highly-anticipated return of lovable characters and masterful production quality, this season of “Stranger Things” was just as upside-down as Hawkins, Indiana. Many questions are still left to be answered in volume two, which premieres on Netflix July 1.
Since viewers last saw them in 2019, the rag-tag group of Hawkins teens has, like much of today’s world, been better. After the action-packed season three finale, most of the main characters are left dealing with the adverse effects of a “mind-flaying” monster attacking their town.
The first episode was a reintroduction to all the characters many fans have grown up with. Yet, if fans expected the playful adolescents from the earlier seasons, they were severely disappointed.
Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) and Will (Noah Schnapp) have switched schools after the happenings of Hawkins got even ‘stranger,’ while characters Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Lucas (Caleb Mclaughlin) are left grappling with the social hierarchies of high school.
Meanwhile Max, played by Sadie Sink, is plagued by the loss of her brother Billy, who sacrificed himself to“The Mind Flayer” in the season three finale.
With many characters experiencing bullying and a struggle to belong, the season plays into popular tropes in ‘80s media, drawing similarities to films like “The Breakfast Club” or “Footloose.” However, the references don’t stop there.
The show also makes reference to the satanic panic, a phenomenon originating in 1980 that linked random events to Satan and satanic rituals. Volume one features an entire subplot about the panic’s impact on Dungeons and Dragons, adding to the claim that much of this season felt like a haphazard reminder of what 1980s suburbia was like.
Joseph Quinn (“Game of Thrones”) plays Eddie Munsen, one of the new characters. He is joined by Eduardo Franco (“Booksmart,”) serving as the season’s comic relief by embodying ’80s stoner and alternative culture. At one point, Quinn’s character provokes the town of Hawkins into believing they are under a satanic curse, prompting a mob-like hunt for Eddie.
In continuation of caricaturing the ‘80s, beloved character Jim Hopper (David Harbour) is left stranded in a Soviet Union gulag for six episodes of volume one, adding to the overall outlandishness of season four.
The corniness continues in episode four, when the group discovers that a new monster, “Vecna,” can be beaten through the power of song — yes, really.
This discovery cues a four-minute slow motion montage of a character escaping Vecna by listening to Kate Bush’s 1985 hit “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God),” which was no less cringe than season three’s “Never Ending Story” musical montage.
Though it’s unclear whether the corniness of the new season was an intentional callback to the tackiness of the 80s itself, the plot lines of season four carefully trod the line between ‘strange,’ and ridiculous. Much of the season’s plot centers around the characters attempting to uncover how to defeat Vecna, while other villains lurking within the small-town’s borders only add to the season’s far-fetched start.
The slew of antagonists in season four seems to work to the show’s disadvantage, offering less time for character development and more time for action. In many ways, this is a shift away from the beauty of season one, which perfectly balanced complex character dynamics and a smaller-scale villain.
By episode seven, the group has been to a haunted house, a psych ward and multiple dimensions in pursuit of the monster, making the season feel like a never-ending scavenger hunt.
In episode five, fan-favorite Eleven disappears in an effort to rediscover her lost mind-control powers, which leads to the season finale, where the identity of Vecna is revealed.
No matter how exaggerated the plot may get, the character dynamics in Stranger Things are heartwarming and timeless. Characters Steve (Joe Keery), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Robin (Maya Hawke) continue their cheeky trio bond, carrying the show’s humor through the season’s darker moments.
Season four also grapples with new themes prevalent today, with Robin exploring her sexual identity and hints at Will doing the same.
Despite maintaining the integrity of each of the characters and feeding us with iconic one-liners and “ships,” the plot of season four had little connection to past seasons and seemed like a chaotic preface to the show’s conclusion. All nine episodes of season four exceed an hour in length, with an unusually long two and a half hour season finale, making this the show’s longest season yet.
The show’s creators, Matt and Ross Duffer, announced Feb. 17 that season four will be the penultimate season, with season five concluding “Stranger Things.” The confusing, lackluster end to volume one left many questions and characters still left to be explored in volume two.
Stranger Things season four volume one is now streaming on Netflix.