Over the first three seasons, Stranger Things has become my adventurous little time capsule. It makes me wonder what it would be like to grow up in the 1980s when phones were just phones, before the internet complicated everything and the existence of Jake Paul hadn’t bummed everyone out quite yet.
On May 27, Netflix released seven episodes of season four, labeling the installment “Volume 1.” The newest batch of Stranger Things continues as a return to a familiar place and view into the past. Though viewers may need to suspend some extra disbelief to get past the visual age difference of some of the core characters from the prior season, they’re in for some fun once they do.
Season four opens with the gang, now in high school but living on opposite sides of the country due to circumstance in the season prior. Joyce, charmingly played by Winona Ryder, has sensibly moved her sons Will and Jonathan, along with newly adopted Eleven, to California to escape the seemingly cursed town of Hawkins, Indiana. Mike, Dustin, Lucas and Max remain in Hawkins, finding their way through the minefield of their freshman year of high school. At the same time, Mike’s older sister Nancy runs the school paper and America’s favorite himbo, Steve Harrington, mans the counter of a Family Video.
Right away, the series creators, the Duffer brothers, set the wheels in motion and get the show moving into its proven formula. The first couple of episodes lay out season four’s spooky plot and call both groups of familiar characters to action.
Once again, this season has Eleven running from the powers at be as opposing government forces vie for control of her super-abilities. At the start of the season, she has lost her powers but ultimately decides to go with the group of mad scientists who helped cultivate her powers as a child in hopes of getting them back. I found this subplot one of the few bloated sections of the recently released seven episodes. Millie Bobby Brown’s performance as an angsty and emotional Eleven comes off as a bit too performatively loud this time around. To be fair, Brown is called on to do some heavy lifting in developing her character’s arc this season as Eleven attempts to deal with things like guilt, trauma and feelings of isolation.
Eleven’s decision to take off and get her powers back to save the day worries the California crew (and a visiting Mike), who set a course across the American southwest to find and save her.
As Jonathan’s new best friend, Eduardo Franco plays a newly added character, Argyle, who is part of this California plot. Franco’s performance could not be more fun as the dopey — yet endearing — pothead whose thoughts lumber out of his mouth in a stereotypical Southern California accent.
The antagonist forces of the first part of season four are the scariest yet. This time, the villain is much more personified and preys on citizens of Hawkins who’ve been undergoing trauma. It works well as differentiation from forces of seasons past while still holding to the ingredients of Stranger Things that fans adore.
The standout performance of this recent bundle of episodes is Sadie Sink in episode four “Dear Billy.” I wasn’t expecting such nuanced acting chops from her — especially at this stage of her career — but in this episode, she delivered.
It shouldn’t come as a spoiler, as it was revealed in a trailer in February of 2020, but I was excited to see the return of Hopper, played by David Harbour. The end of season three left us to believe Hopper was dead, but instead, he was captured by Russians. Harbour’s character is the love child of the badass and “every-man” archetypes, and just like in every season past, Harbour commands the audience’s attention every time he’s on-screen. You can’t help but love him.
Throughout past seasons, the series has plotted separate arcs forward until they ultimately meet at the respective season’s climax. This season continues to employ this formula and avoids any staleness.
Though Volume 1 of Stranger Things finds ways to keep things fresh, it’s not exactly the groundbreaking television some may have considered season one. It sticks to its proven formula and serves as a comfortable return to a familiar place. As a viewer who’s kept up with the series thus far, the first seven episodes of season four have provided the common elements I expect, and left things on a cliffhanger that has me excited to see what happens next.