It’s been a long time between seasons for Stranger Things. For reference, COVID-19 wasn’t even in our vocabulary when the last season came out. To make up for this almost three-year gap, Netflix has thrown everything it has at its flagship series. Stranger Things 4 is bigger in every way, but does that make it worth the wait?
Since last time, our cast of loveable teens has grown up and Stranger Things has grown with them. Season 4 is a darker and more mature season than we’ve seen before, but it still retains that fun ’80s nostalgia that we’ve come to expect.
Entering season 4, the gate to the Upside Down is closed. Friends, family and superpowers were lost. Time has passed and everyone has tried their best to move on.
The Hawkins crew has moved to high school. Lucas is a basketball star, much to the displeasure of Mike and Dustin who prefer to spend their days playing epic Dungeons & Dragon games with the school Hellfire Club. Max is still dealing with the loss of her step-brother, Billy, and her ongoing grief has fractured her relationships with her friends.
Steve and Robin remain a dynamic duo, pining over girls together while slinging tapes at the video store. Nancy is on the career path, working at the school paper while she debates what to do about college. Her other half, Jonathan, is also questioning his future, particularly his long-distance relationship with Nancy, now that he and the other Byers live on the West coast.
Not all the Byers have taken to their new California lifestyle. While she’s saved the world multiple times from the monsters of the Upside Down, Eleven learns she is no match for the bullies at high school. She has the support of Will, who seems mostly happy with his new situation, albeit a bit lonely. But without her superpowers, El struggles to stand up for herself.
Joyce, meanwhile, is working from home (what a novelty!) but still manages to get into her share of mischief after receiving a mysterious package from Russia.
Speaking of Russia, we knew early on in Stranger Things 4’s marketing that Netflix hadn’t pulled a Jon Snow on us with Hopper’s demise. So we’ve got his Cold War-style prison storyline going on as well.
Lastly, it wouldn’t be Stranger Things without the Upside Down and season 4 reels us back into that grim place with a horrific murder mystery.
If all that sounds like a lot to keep up with, you’d be right. This season is simply stuffed with different story threads to keep track of.
It’s lucky then that season 4 comes with a super-sized runtime. There are seven episodes in Season 4 Volume 1 and all of them are over an hour. Even with that extra time, there are simply so many characters spread across different locations that it’s hard for every storyline in Stranger Things 4 to remain equally engaging.
But after a fairly leisurely introduction in episode 1, it becomes clear pretty quickly how much Stranger Things has grown up over the break.
Creators the Duffer Brothers continue to do an excellent job at pulling the rug from under us just when you think you know the rules of the game.
We’ve spent three seasons in the Upside Down but Stranger Things 4 still finds new ways to thrill and surprise. The mythology is more complex, the horror is more gruesome and the villain is more terrifying.
Stranger Things‘ new big bad, Vecna, is unlike anything we’ve seen in the Upside Down before. It has a supernatural presence akin to something like Pennywise or Freddy Krueger and is a fearsome addition to the show.
This season isn’t afraid to go further into the spookiness. There are sequences that definitely give off slasher vibes, which is something new and quite fresh for the series. However, Stranger Things 4 still manages to balance this with a level of ’80s horror nostalgia, that’s just as fun as it is creepy to watch.
There’s something oddly comforting about watching Stranger Things 4. There’s a level of familiarity and nostalgia that makes watching this show feel like you’re coming home to old friends. It only took one episode to remind me that, yes, I would gladly die for each and every one of these characters.
The cast, as usual, give impeccable performances across the board and it’s a delight to see them in action again. Maya Hawke and Joe Keery in particular retain their fan favourite status and Sadie Sink bears a lot of the emotional weight of the season.
Stranger Things 4 also isn’t afraid to be ambitious and it has the budget to back it up. The visual effects have noticeably received an upgrade, the production value is higher and there are more locations and new characters than ever before.
Stranger Things has always benefitted from Netflix’s binge model, but now that the episodes have become so long, it sometimes feels like too much of a good thing. It also makes Netflix’s decision to split the season, with just two movie-length episodes coming in Volume 2, a weird one.
All that aside, it’s hard to deny it’s nice to have Stranger Things back.
The fourth season is a return to form in explosive style with a slow-burning supernatural mystery, gripping ’80s horror and more from the characters that you’re dying to hang out with.
Thankfully, we don’t have to wait another three years for more.
Stranger Things 4: The verdict
Pros: Intriguing supernatural mystery, return of beloved characters, great performances.
Cons: Episodes feel overstuffed with long runtimes and too many storylines.
Watch it if you like: IT, Fear Street Trilogy, Yellowjackets, Super 8.
Stranger Things 4 Volume 1 releases on Netflix on May 27. Volume 2 will be released on July 1.
Lifehacker Australia was provided screeners by Netflix for this review.