I remain in awe of the massive, ever-growing fanbase for Netflix’s Stranger Things—from a sleeper hit in 2016 to emerging as one of the streamer’s finest offerings, this a horror/sci-fi success story unlike any other. The third season was my favorite so far, evolving into a campier, large-scale 80s horror extravaganza. Thanks to the worldwide pandemic, it has been almost precisely three years since we last caught up with Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), Max (Sadie Sink), Lucas (Caleb McLoughlin), and friends. Naturally, a smooth time jump has been implemented to easily explain away obvious growth spurts, awkward voice changes, and adolescent relationship woes. Stranger Things 4 is the show at its most intense and horrific state. A concentrated mixture of Nightmare on Elm Street meets Stephen King’s It, Stranger Things 4 goes back to the genre roots, then amps up the scale and insanity tenfold.

There is no doubt this is the darkest season yet—4 opens with a 1979 flashback set at Hawkins Lab with our old nemesis, Brenner (Matthew Modine) that ends in a literal bloodbath. It doesn’t take long to delve into the eye-exploding, body-twisting delights on offer. Eleven’s backstory is an essential part of this season, so it is quite fitting that we get a glimpse of a pre-show version of her before that familiar title credits sequence rolls out across the screen. For those who may need a refresher, I would suggest watching a YouTube recap since a hell of lot happened back in season 3’s summer of 1985. Eleven was left powerless, moving off to Lenora Hills with Joyce (Winona Ryder), Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), and Will (Noah Schnapp) after the apparent death by means of disintegration of her de facto father figure, Hopper (David Harbour). The rest of her friends stayed behind in Hawkins, heading toward a hopeful but uncertain future after Billy sacrificed himself to take down the Mind Flayer.

Welcome to the Stranger Things world of March 1986. The slight flash ahead in time has seen our characters headed into surprising directions. It is a time of change both mental and physical, and as usual, the coming-of-age angle that this series does so well comes into play. In Lenora Hills, Eleven is a social outcast at school, with bullies ready to pounce when she covers Hopper for their “historical heroes” project; Joyce has been selling encyclopedias over the phone to make money; Will is working on a secret painting he won’t show to anyone; and Jonathan waits for a college acceptance letter in anticipation of attending Emerson College with Nancy. In Hawkins, Mike and Dustin are now in an epic Dungeons & Dragons club at school aptly named the Hellfire Club run by sleazy and intimidating Eddie (Joseph Quinn); Lucas longs to break out of his nerdy loser social status, so he has settled into a spot on the Hawkins basketball team, The Tigers; Steve (Joe Keery) works at Family Video with Robin (Maya Hawke) as the duo bicker about relationship woes and constantly reference movies; and Max is rightfully still in her feelings about Billy’s untimely death, with her grades plummeting as a result. A new evil known as Vecna begins to emerge, taking root over its victims in grotesque fashion…

First, one will begin seeing a loud ticking grandfather clock, counting down their demise. Visions of one’s troubled past and internal torment will haunt them. In less than 24 hours later, the host will be dead. The monster this season is Vecna, whose origins are equally as mysterious as its chilling methods. Immaculate practical effects work brings to life another memorable baddie, while the presence of the age-old Demogorgon is constantly teased. Vecna uses Freddy Krueger-like nightmarish hauntings and Imhotep-esque vibes to paralyze the host in fear. The visual effects this season are top notch, and no doubt cost a pretty penny.

By volume 1’s end, our lovable leads will have faced just about every imaginable monster in the book, including confronting their own adolescence. Exploring character origins in this fourth outing, the Duffer Brothers find a careful balance of exciting action, gripping terror, and sublime emotion. 4 will give fans everything they have been dreaming of during this long hiatus: from roller rinks to a drug dealer named Reefer Rick, Lady Applejack facing down evil, a pivotal Kate Bush song, Steve’s untapped potential as a certified lifeguard and “Hawkins High Swim Co-Captain,” and everything in between. The ominous ever-present ticking clock will thrill and delight audience members of all ages. It must be noted though that this season continues to be very much R-rated in dialogue and the depictions of scary images.

If one really thought Stranger Things would have the gall to kill off Hopper before the endgame, the very first episode sees Joyce getting a strange Russian doll in the mail before smashing it open with a Jerry-rigged paint can. The message inside: “Hopper is alive.” It is no spoiler to say that Hopper plays a key role in Stranger Things 4. There is almost a halfway split in screen time between the craziness with the kids and teens versus the adults scrambling to rescue Hopper from a seemingly impossible scenario. For this viewer, the Russian action is not as seamless as I hoped when tying into the larger storyline with Vecna. However, Volume 1‘s finale has a massive payoff. Par for the course with Stranger Things, there is typically more than meets the eye, and the disparate events tie together in a vibrant display of fireworks. Though I did not yet see the final two episodes this year that will comprise Volume 2, sticking the landing is always something the Duffer Brothers can pull off in their sleep. The finales are the best episodes of their subsequent season, and reflect the convergence of nearly every major character.

The matchups that Stranger Things has done so well between characters continue to be its bread and butter. Dialogue crackles each time Steve and Robin chat about 80s movies and their mutual love of “boobies,” whilst Joyce and Murray (Brett Gelman) spitball conspiracy theories about Russia. New characters, including Mason Dye’s uber jock Jason and Robert Englund’s eerie turn as imprisoned murderer Victor Creel, may not steal the show, but they certainly leave their marks on the show at large. Eddie, leader of the Hellfire Club, emerges as one of the signature roles. Out of these Volume 1 episodes, my favorite characters are Max, Eleven, and Steve, who all appear to have significant growth and journeys. Dustin also steals the show, highlighting Matarazzo’s impeccable comedic timing, as well as the electric babysitter/bestie dynamic he shares with Keery’s Steve.

For a season that emboldens the bond between the Upside Down and the real world, it wears the Stephen King influences proudly on its sleeve. The heaviest inspirations would seem to be both It and Firestarter—the king of horror would be proud. In a perfect world, we would get exactly 11 seasons of Stranger Things, but the end is nigh. Once season 4 concludes, only season 5 remains, as the Duffer Brothers have previously announced. It truly feels to be building towards an epic conclusion. Following a similar trajectory to Buffy the Vampire Slayer—which still stands as my favorite television show of all time—Stranger Things appears to have saved the literal best for last. The time setting up the rich mythology and establishing character-work pays off in spades. I, for one, cannot wait to see how the end of this season plays out. I am anxiously anticipating a major showdown between Eleven and Vecna, and look forward to further exploration of the Upside Down. With war headed to Hawkins, Stranger Things 4 signals the beginning of the end of a phenomenal horror series that continues to surpass its nostalgic roots.

Stranger Things 4 haunts one’s darkest nightmares when it debuts exclusively on Netflix. Volume 1 premieres Friday, May 27th, while Volume 2 comes Friday, July 1st.

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