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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Stranger Things: Season 4, Part 1 Review

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The following is a spoiler-free review of Stranger Things: Season 4, Part 1, which consists of seven of Season 4's nine episodes. Part 1 premieres on Netflix on May 27, with the final two episodes debuting on July 1.

Season 4 is the first season of Stranger Things to be released in two parts, and it quickly becomes pretty obvious why. This season is big – not just in terms of its episode runtimes, but in what co-creators Matt and Ross Duffer are trying to accomplish by spreading the story out across various locations and characters and even introducing an effective new villain. It’s incredibly ambitious – and are there a few moments where you can feel it struggling under the weight of that ambition? Sure. But for the most part, it very much works by leaning on a lot of what’s paid off in previous seasons while also taking some exciting new swings that prevent it from feeling like a greatest-hits rehash.

The Duffers have called Season 4 their “Game of Thrones season,” and while that’s led to some unflattering jokes regarding the way the HBO hit fumbled the ball in the endzone, it’s an apt comparison in the way the entire season bounces across various storylines. The Byers and a still-powerless Eleven are in California, poor Hopper’s in a Russian prison, and the Hawkins crew is, well, still dealing with Upside Down shenanigans in Indiana. In a lot of ways, that tri-pronged structure gives Stranger Things a needed shake-up, and each storyline successfully brings its own intrigue.

Stranger Things Season 4 Gallery

The Hawkins arc feels like classic Stranger Things, but with an added level of maturity. Look, the kiddos aren’t exactly kiddos anymore, and these high schoolers are now seasoned in the art of supernatural investigating. The way they unravel the mystery of Hawkins’ new threat is consistently satisfying, and is a credit to something Stranger Things has always done well: it’s never felt like it’s being coy or withholding for the sake of it. There’s a mystery to solve, yes – there always is – but the storytelling is far from lazy in regards to how that mystery unfolds.

The Hawkins crew is smart, and as they pull on the various threads of what’s unfolding in their traumatized town, it’s always fast-paced and incredibly satisfying to watch. Plus, it’s got some team-ups that we’ve already grown to love – Dustin and Steve, lookin’ at you – while introducing some surprising new ones, like Robin and Nancy. Oh, and new character Eddie, played charismatically by Joe Quinn, is a welcome addition who fits seamlessly into the group.

Hopper’s storyline, though, is something else entirely – in fact, there are moments where it feels like a different show altogether, but that’s not a bad thing. It’s no doubt the bleakest portion of the season, but it’s also beautifully shot and refreshingly action-heavy. Plus, it gives David Harbour some emotional moments to shine as Hopper goes through his most difficult journey yet. The best part of the California arc, meanwhile, is Millie Bobby Brown’s continually great performance as a very-much struggling Eleven and the much-awaited revelations about her past. The other parts of the California storyline, like an attempted buddy-comedy in a couple of the later episodes of Part 1, mostly feel pretty out of place in the larger scheme of things, despite their attempts at comedic relief.

So, yeah, it’s a lot! And the episodes’ runtimes accommodate; five of them clock in around an hour and 15 minutes, the seventh is a whopping hour and 40 minutes long, and the shortest episode among them is still an hour. But, surprisingly, the scripts are incredibly tight. Never once do they feel over-indulgent, or like the story’s jogging in place. In fact – and bear with me here, because I can’t believe I’m saying this either – it feels like some of the earlier episodes could’ve been longer. Every scene in each storyline does something to move the needle forward, and on one hand, that’s exciting. On the other hand, none of the more emotional developments (and there are quite a few) are given much of a chance to breathe.

In particular, the Hawkins portion contains some genuinely scary sequences, especially in Episode 4.

Plus, that branching-narrative style of storytelling can lead to some pretty jarring instances of tonal whiplash, particularly in the latter half of Part 1 when some storylines get more serious and another gets sillier. But, taken on their own, none of the arcs are weak ones. In particular, the Hawkins portion contains some genuinely scary sequences, especially in Episode 4, “Dear Billy,” which is the best episode of the bunch. Hell, it might be the best episode of Stranger Things yet.

Historically, the fourth episodes of Stranger Things seasons are generally regarded as the moment where shit hits the fan, and “Dear Billy” is no exception. There are sequences where it switches from a big-budget action movie to a chilling supernatural horror flick with more than a few homages to some ‘80s classics, but what elevates all of it is Sadie Sink’s portrayal of Max. Her performance would make or break the dramatics in “Dear Billy,” and luckily, it very much makes it, with Sink gracefully carrying the weight of all that Max is dealing with this season – including our aforementioned new villain, Vecna.

There's not much we can say about the new big baddie without getting too deep into spoiler territory, so let's just say he looks freakin' badass. The creature itself is a stunning achievement of practical effects from the master himself, Barrie Gower, the same makeup artist behind Game of Thrones' Night King and the radiation victims in Chernobyl, and the series never takes any shortcuts that would have him obscured in shadows. There are moments where the camera lingers on Vecna, and every excruciating detail – every gross little nook and cranny of his face – can be seen. It's never cheesy or fake-looking; instead, it's terrifying. Having a sentient villain, too (as opposed to the host- or food-seeking hunks of meat from seasons past), adds a welcome, extra level of horror.

In fact, everything looks quite a bit sleeker this season, in a good way. The effects even manage to step it up a notch from the already-impressive Season 3 – especially since this season spends much more time in the Upside Down – and there are some gorgeous landscape shots, particularly around the desolate Russian prison. It also allows each episode director to get clever with some of the transition shots between storylines, occasionally revealing some nice visual parallels among them.

Stranger Things Season 4 Location Posters

Those visual spectacles are just one reason why each episode in Season 4, Part 1 feels like its own little movie (and the last, super-sized episode feels like an actual movie). In fact, I wouldn’t even recommend binging it; it is a lot of Stranger Things to take in at once, especially since the two-part release structure is very much lopsided in favor of Part 1, which has seven episodes compared to Part 2’s two, and we have five weeks to wait between those releases. But, heck, I know most of you won’t listen to that suggestion, so I’ll just tell you you’ve got a lot to look forward to in that binge.


Part 1 of Stranger Things Season 4 sets up its most ambitious season yet, and despite a few moments where you can feel it struggling under the weight of that ambition, it largely works. The performances – particularly David Harbour, Millie Bobby Brown, and Sadie Sink’s – are all top notch, new baddie Vecna is appropriately terrifying, and there are some gorgeous special effects. Not every plotline in these extra-long episodes works as well, but none feels unworthy of the time spent. We’ll have to wait and see if Season 4 sticks the landing as a whole with the final two episodes in July, but for now, we can say that this batch of episodes was well worth the wait.

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