Stranger Things Season 4 Vol. 1 – An Exercise in Excess (Spoiler Free Review)

After three long years of waiting, partially due to an obvious global setback and partially due to a longer production schedule, Stranger Things Season 4 has finally been released.  Or at least the first 7 episodes have.  Volume 1 serves as essentially the first and second acts to a season far more brutal and complex than we’ve seen thus far.

While many have complained about the “bloated” runtime, for the most part the story does justify the extra time.  There are a lot of moving parts, a lot of character arcs, and a lot of revelations from the past.  So here is our very spoiler free breakdown of the first 7 episodes of Season 4!

Life Sucks…For Everyone
Whereas Season 3 began on a largely optimistic note, 4 begins as everyone is still reeling from the events of the Battle of Starcourt.  Between the losses of Hopper and Billy, and the Byers family (along with Eleven) moving out to California, everyone is either mourning someone, missing someone, or both.  And Eleven being bullied constantly by a self-appointed queen bee isn’t helping either.

ST 1
Mike coming to visit her in California is supposed to be the highlight of her Spring Break, but she’s embarrassed and ashamed for him to know that she’s being bullied so much.

We’ve watched the thrilling and exciting events of the first three seasons play out, but at its core is a collective trauma that all the characters (and people of Hawkins) are feeling at large.  And in true Stranger Things fashion, this season is also very character driven.  They all get moments to shine, but one particular standout is Max.

She’s always been a character that was more reserved and hid her feelings beneath a veil of sarcasm and stoicism.  And given her home life, it’s not surprising why.  But in this season, she’s forced to confront her own demons and she’s much more vulnerable than she’s ever been before.  Sadie Sink gives it her all, and honestly if there’s any actor from this season who deserves an Emmy nomination it’s her.

She never liked Billy and honestly wished for him to be gone, but once he is, she’s left with guilt and

Part of what comes with having such an ensemble cast is that different characters will create their own mini ensembles with each other, and grow together or apart.  Jonathan goes full stoner (which isn’t that different from real life apparently) with a new character Argyle (no doubt a nod to Die Hard) while Lucas is leaning more towards his basketball jock crew than his previous D&D party.

But one of the more interesting and wholesome developments is the blooming friendship between Robin and Nancy.  One of the strengths of the show is that it does a decent job of introducing newer characters and really assimilating them into the aforementioned ensemble.

Demonic Serial Killer
Following the Demogorgon, “Demo-dogs”, and the Mind Flayer himself, Season 4 delivers on a creepy supernatural villain from the Upside Down.  Referred to as “Vecna” (another D&D reference), this demon of sorts has the ability to invade people’s minds and show them traumatic images from their past.  This emotional and psychological torture eventually results in their brutal murder, when their body is twisted and distorted in grotesque ways.

ST 2
All the previous villains were quite monstrous. But what sets Vecna apart is his almost humanoid appearance. It makes him seem all the more cunning, diabolical, and intentionally evil.

His whole M.O. does seem very Freddy Krueger, especially how people in the real world see his victims being tossed around the air, much like Tina in the original Nightmare on Elm Street.  So it’s all the more fitting that one of Vecna’s first victims (who survived) is played by the one and only Robert Englund.  He’s only in one scene of one episode, and while it’s very much “borrowing” from Silence of the Lambs, he’s absolutely chilling.

ST 5
The man, the myth, the legend!

Stranger Things has always walked a fine line between horror and sci-fi, but these 7 episodes really dial the horror up to 11.  Vecna’s victims’ death scenes are truly grisly to witness, and the response of the townspeople taps into the very real (and very misguided) “Satanic Panic” that existed in the 80’s, particularly around D&D.

From Russia, With Why?
Much like Season 3, the only storyline that feels out of place and tacked on is the Russia one.  We promised no spoilers, and this really isn’t one because it’s all over the marketing, but surprise Jim Hopper is alive!  Early on Joyce and Murray embark on a subplot to try and rescue him from a Soviet gulag, and it has absolutely nothing to do with anything else going on.

Now let’s be clear, we’re not saying that everything about this subplot is bad when judging it independently.  Granted Murray goes a little too far into slapstick for this comic relief existence, but there are genuinely interesting and compelling character moments for Hopper as his present conditions force him to reflect on himself and everything that led him there

ST 3
For those who felt the Hopper was immature and self-centered in Season 3, he very much comes to terms with that here and

The issue is that each episode keeps cutting back to this subplot that literally has nothing to do with anything else going on.  And while some complain about the long runtimes, dropping this storyline, or at least condensing it to just take an episode or two would help to solve that problem.

Honestly, it feels like the series has always struggled with what to do with Joyce after Season 1.  Back then her singular focus and determination to save Will is what defined her, and now she’s on this random mission to Russia while much larger things are happening back in Hawkins.

This show has always had multiple plot threads going, but they’ve never felt as disjointed as this.  Watching Joyce and Murray go to Russia felt like watching Daeneyrs in Essos, while all the other Game of Thrones characters were back in Westeros, doing something totally different.

These scenes feel like they’re from a completely different show.

Hopefully, the final two episodes somehow tie this thread together with the rest of what’s going on.  Although, if the tie-in is just that Hopper, Joyce, and Murray show up for the finale, it will not have been worth all the time and energy devoted to this plot.

Overall, this first Volume is much darker and more disturbing than what we’ve seen thus far.  Between the gore, the violence, the brutality, and the runtime, they’re going all out.  It’s a slight improvement over Season 3, and a major improvement over Season 2.  But again, this is a series that peaked in its first run and at this point, it’s just trying to stay above mediocre until its 5th and final season…

What did you think of Stranger Things Season 4 Volume 1?  What do you think will happen in the final two episodes? Let us know in the comments!

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