Stranger Things Season 4 review: The most grown-up chapter yet
Ivan Radford | On 27, May 2022
Volume 1 of Season 4 is streaming now. Volume 2 of Season 4 will premiere on 1st July. This spoiler-free review is based on the opening two episodes of Season 4.
Stranger Things has always been defined by its nostalgia. Rooted in an affection for 1980s culture, it’s a throwback to the days spent absorbing Spielberg and Steven King during the halcyon childhoods of a certain generation. As the show has continued to grow in scale and scope, it’s had a force even more challenging than the nefarious beasties of the Upside Down to contend with: the passage of time itself. More than two years after it was last on our screens, the show is back for a fourth season, and it’s more obvious than ever that the young cast at its heart are getting older and older.
We pick things up a year after the Battle of Starcourt Mall that closed out Season 3, a tentacular finale that sent Sheriff Hopper (Jim Harbour) scurrying off-screen – but, it turns out, not to the afterlife but simply to Russia, where we find him kept prisoner by nasty soldier types. Mourning him, Joyce (Winona Ryder) ups sticks and moves her Hawkins household to another strange land: California, where Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) finds himself falling in with weed-smoking wayward types, Will (Noah Schnapp) looks more and more like a traumatised ghost, and Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) finds herself bullied and alone without her telekinetic powers to give her self-esteem, strength or a way to fight back.
The neon-tinged arcade sci-fi fun of the previous instalments feels like it’s been burnt away by the sun-washed, daytime melancholy of all these growing pains. And yet there’s still a playful continuation of the Dungeons & Dragons metaphor, as Mike (Finn Wolfhard) and Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) still meet up with the “Hellfire” club to battle demons, finding solace in the rules of warfare and the comfort of teamwork. But even this is under threat, as Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) attempts to find another way to fit in with a wider group by joining the school basketball team. Meanwhile, Robin (Maya Hawke) and Steve (Joe Keery) have graduated from the ice cream kiosk to a VHS rental store and complain about love life woes as much as they bicker playfully.
The cast, even as they get older, remain a uniformly fantastic ensemble, finding new nuances even as they continue to flex comic timing and charming charisma. But while Millie Bobby Brown’s isolated hero commands out sympathy, it’s Sadie Sink who emerges as the MVP of this season, haunted by the loss of her brother last season. It’s a heart-wrenching turn that sets the tone for a season that gets increasingly dark, as a new threat stalks the corridors of Hawkins with a stomach-twistingly gruesome MO – and Nancy (Natalia Dyer), now editor of the school newspaper, serves up some gripping procedural detective work.
Leaning more and more into serial killer horror than sci-fi, the result is a surprisingly scary outing that deliberately leaves us as disoriented as its characters, each one having to confront bigger stakes but on their own rather than together. It’s a deliberately fragmented instalment (at least at first) that, judging by its opening episodes, manages to do the unexpected – step away from merely repeating the nostalgic trappings of its past and mature into something genuinely nightmarish. Far from stay in an upside-down limbo, this is a show determined that its actors won’t be the only thing ageing up. Stranger Things’ penultimate season is set to be its most grown-up yet.