It’s been nearly three years since Netflix’s hit series Stranger Things last graced our screens; it’s also been a lifetime since then, as that was the last normal summer before the pandemic hell of the last two+ years. While we’ve been living through some hellish times in the real world, with Stranger Things Season 4, the characters of Hawkins, Indiana are once again going through their own personal hellscape.
The end of last season left every character traumatized by the events that took place at Starcourt Mall. Whether it was from watching the brutal murder of Max’s (Sadie Sink) step-brother Billy (Dacre Mongomery) by the Mind Flayer or learning that Hopper (David Harbour) had allegedly died in the explosion that closed the portal into the Upside Down, no one left Stranger Things Season 3 unscathed. Max – understandably! – seems to be suffering the most; while their relationship was strained and Billy was a bully to her, his murder was nonetheless incredibly traumatizing for a twelve-year-old to witness.
Stranger Things Season 4 picks up one year after that finale, with the first three new episodes showing us how the characters have settled into their new normal. Joyce (Winona Ryder), Will (Noah Schnapp), Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), and El (Millie Bobby Brown) are settled into their new home across the country in Lenora, California. Joyce has a job that allows her to work from home. Jonathan is doing nothing with his life, and happily so. Will and El are freshmen in high school – Will is doing just fine, while El, on the other hand, is being severely bullied.
Back in Hawkins, Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) are all part of The Hellfire Club, a Dungeons and Dragons group, with Lucas also being a bench warmer on the Hawkins High basketball team. Nancy (Natalia Dyer) is still doing her journalism #girlboss thing at the school paper. Steve (Joe Keery) and Robin (Maya Hawke) are working at a video store, still bonding over their mutual love of women. Max is…well…going through it. Since Billy’s death, her home life has fallen apart. She’s suffering from PTSD, headaches, and nightmares. Her step-father left her mother, forcing them to move into a trailer park. In typical Stranger Things fashion, this makes Max Season 4’s protagonist.
Every episode this season goes above and beyond in every aspects. When Netflix revealed the episode runtimes, I have to admit I was hesitant. The thought of sitting through an episode that clocked in at an hour and forty minutes was daunting to say the least. And I know you’re wondering, “But Sydney, don’t you go to the movies?” Of course I do – and a theater I have no problem sitting through something that’s feature-length, because I wasn’t raised in a barn and don’t take my phone out during the showing. Watching something that long at home is a whole different story, but I digress. The point I’m trying to make here is that every second of these early episodes is jam-packed with content to keep the audience fully engaged.
The first three episodes in particular do a wonderful job of setting up Stranger Things Season 4’s arc. They introduce two new characters, Chrissy Cunningham (Grace Van Dien) and Eddie Munson (Joseph Quinn), both of whom affect how the season moves forward. They also introduce the season’s villain: Vecna (Jamie Campbell Bower), the newest demo-creature to emerge from the Upside Down.
Stranger Things is at its core a sci-fi series, but its latest season drives the drama into horror territory. Vecna is simply, in both appearance and act, the worst of the show’s villains thus far. He resembles The Creep from Creepshow, but, with tentacle-like appendages that feed off of his victims, Vecna has a far more nauseating appearance (and who even thought that was possible?). He’s actually nightmarish. Vecna is capable of possessing his victims, forcing them to relive their deepest trauma over and over again until he decides he’s going to make them a part of him and kills them in the most gruesome way possible. It’s hard to watch as he snaps his victims’ bones and explodes their eyeballs, all with his mind. I can’t remember the last time I watched something and had to cover my ears to avoid hearing the nauseating cracking of bones.
It’s the writing that leads Stranger Things‘ into deeper, darker territory, broadening the show’s lore and pushing the story forward. One particular standout scene is Eddie introducing the idea of Vecna during a game of Dungeons and Dragons. The scene follows the golden rule of writing – only tell the audience what they need to know; only do so when they need to know it – and sets up Stranger Things‘ Season 4’s bit-by-bit reveal of its antagonist’s true villainy. It also helps that the show’s extraordinary cast delivers fittingly appropriate performances. These episodes’ special stand-out is Mille Bobby Brown, portraying everything Eleven struggles with as a young girl still looking to just wants to fit in after never before having had a place where she belonged. We’ve known from the get-go that Brown is an exemplary talent, but these episodes remind us just how goddamn good she is.
When so much is happening throughout the first act of a season, it’s easy for things to get lost in the crossfire of events, for the pacing to feel off in some places. Thankfully, that’s not the case here. The first three episodes of Stranger Things‘ new season show that sometimes, bigger is indeed better.