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Bigger, Bloodier, Longer, Eerier: Yes, You'll Want to Binge 'Stranger Things' Season Four Right Now

After a three-year absence, Netflix’s 80s-set sci-fi hit is back — in slasher mode, venturing out of Hawkins and proving just as addictive.
By Sarah Ward
May 27, 2022
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By Sarah Ward
May 27, 2022
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When The Duffer Brothers, the siblings who brought the world Stranger Things and gave Netflix its biggest hit yet in the process, announced that their obsessed-over and adored series was returning for a fourth season — a reveal made all the way back in 2019, just months after the third season released — they did it in the only way they know how. "We're not in Hawkins anymore", the video heralding the news advised. Even when dropping 45-second videos comprised solely of graphics and moody tunes, the Duffers' fondness for filtering their show through classic pop-culture references remained firmly intact. 

So it is that Stranger Things 4 ventures beyond its trusty small-town setting, and in several directions. It keeps those nods and winks to flicks and shows gone by streaming steadily as well. This fourth go-around, seven episodes of which arrive on Friday, May 27, ambitiously expands in other ways, too — not quite so many that you'd need seven Dungeons & Dragons dice to count them, but enough that it's noticeable. It's bigger and longer, with no episode clocking in at less than an hour, one in the first batch running for a feature-length 98 minutes, and the final two not set to release until Friday, July 1. Its teenage stars are bigger and taller as well, ageing further and faster than their characters. The show has matured past riffing on early-80s action-adventure movies, such as The Goonies; now, it's onto slashers and other horror films, complete with new characters called Fred and Jason. And with that, Stranger Things also gets bloodier and eerier.

It's still the show that viewers have loved since 2016, when not even Netflix likely realised what it had unleashed — and no, that doesn't just include the demogorgon escaping from the Upside Down. But growing, as Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown, Godzilla vs Kong), her boyfriend Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard, Ghostbusters: Afterlife), and their pals Will Byers (Noah Schnapp, Waiting for Anya), Dustin Henderson (Gaten Matarazzo, The Angry Birds Movie 2), Max Mayfield (Sadie Sink, Fear Street) and Lucas Sinclair (Caleb McLaughlin, Concrete Cowboy) all visibly have, comes with a few pains. The Duffers give fans more this time around, entertainingly so; however, the flow of the season's super-sized episodes and sprawled-out narrative threads is often askew. But that's hardly the worst problem to have — and pressing "next episode" instantly when each set of credits rolls remains as easy as ever.

Eleven and company all do have worst woes to deal with. Six months after the battle of Starcourt, Eleven lives in Lenora Hills, California, with Will, his brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton, The Souvenir Part II) and their mother Joyce (Winona Ryder, The Plot Against America). There, the weather is sunny yet little is rosy. The former government test-subject writes otherwise in letters back home, but high school is an onslaught of mean-girl bullying, which spills out violently when Mike visits over spring break. Eleven's powers have also vanished, and she's haunted by the loss of Jim Hopper (David Harbour, Black Widow) — as is Joyce, who now sells encyclopaedias from home.

Life isn't any better in Indiana. More accurately, it's terrifying and insidiously grim. A pre-holiday Mike has joined the high school D&D club with Dustin, as run by metal-loving outcast Eddie Munson (Joseph Quinn, Small Axe). So has Lucas, but he's also on the basketball team, trying to work his way up the social ladder. Haunted by her brother Billy's (Dacre Montgomery, The Broken Hearts Gallery) death in season three, Max refuses to fit in anywhere, but needs the gang's help when a new form of evil seeps out of the Upside Down and starts leaving a body count. Also ready to assist: Steve Harrington (Joe Keery, Free Guy) and Robin Buckley (Maya Hawke, Fear Street), who've graduated to working in the Hawkins' video store, plus the school newspaper's new star reporter Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer, Things Seen & Heard).

And, in Russia — because that Hopper is alive and definitely isn't in Hawkins was revealed between seasons — frosty bleakness is status quo. But the stranded Hawkins Police chief remains as stubborn as ever, even shackled in a Soviet gulag. Obviously, he's determined to regain his freedom.

Stranger Things 4 is many things: a reminder that high school is hell, and just being a teenager is torturous, too; a musing on trauma and the way it carves through hearts and souls, as slasher flicks tend to be; an escape caper; an enormous love letter to horror master Wes Craven, a wonderful stab of casting included; and another book in the show's superhero story. One of its most frustrating aspects: the way it throws around that S-word, because everything has to be a superhero tale these days (see also: the clearly Stranger Things-influenced Firestarter remake). This series has always been at its best when it's embracing two other genres, sci-fi and horror. Ramping up the latter, and using it to explore the chaos of being caught between childhood and adulthood, is season four's savviest touch. While it isn't particularly new or inventive, it cuts deep, mining the pain of making mistakes, being forever changed by life's ups and downs, and grappling with the realisation that some wounds truly are forever.

As a result, for all of its efforts to roam beyond its original setting, Stranger Things' fourth season feels more like itself on familiar ground, unsurprisingly. That sensation helps give Sink one of the season's best performances so far — its weightiest and most textured, too — complete with a stunningly deployed 'Running Up That Hill' by Kate Bush as her personal soundtrack. It's also in Hawkins where the stakes are greater, the plot tighter and the diversions funnier, in no small part thanks to Matarazzo's still-stellar timing, Keery leaning as hard on Steve's comedic vibe as he has since season two, and Hawke making every Robin moment an utter delight. There's no place like home, after all, including when that town is a cross between Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Sunnydale and Twin Peaks.

Although they're both 90s references, rather than hailing from the Duffers' beloved decade prior, the blood of Buffy and Twin Peaks have long pumped through Stranger Things' veins. That feels especially the case in season four, which is also the most melancholic yet — but with a clearly vast budget, as made plain by the special effects that the Duffers and fellow directors Shawn Levy (Free Guy) and Nimrod Antal (Predators) have at their disposal. And, with all that dripping 80s nostalgia, of course, because it wouldn't be Stranger Things without it. The expected but never derivative winks and callouts to the decade's screen touchstones keep coming, naturally, like they too are spilling out of the Upside Down.

Also flowing faster than Dustin's one-liners, Steve's glorious locks, Eleven's steely stares, Joyce's nervous energy and the horrors of season four's new Lovecraft-esque big bad? The can't-stop-watching thrill of having Stranger Things back, slinking into its darker trip — ups, downs, occasional awkwardness and all — and binging compulsively.

The first seven episodes of Stranger Things season four hit Netflix at 5pm AEST / 7pm NZST Friday, May 27, with the remaining two set to follow on Friday, July 1.

Images: Courtesy of Netflix © 2022.

Published on May 27, 2022 by Sarah Ward
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