It has been nearly three years since the last season of the Netflix original series “Stranger Things” graced our screens, in July 2019. That time was not wasted. After the success of season three, hints of what was to come for the show’s beloved characters kept rolling in. From casting announcements to the news that the season would be released in two volumes, things felt different this time around. The stakes became higher following confirmation from show creators Matt and Ross Duffer that season four would be the second to last of the show: “The beginning of the end,” as they put it.
With the season’s plot taking place across two countries and spanning decades, it was poised to be either the best season yet or the most scattered.
Lucky for us, the roll of the 20-sided dice has played in our favor.
The first episode picks up roughly nine months after the events of the previous season. While the majority of the original cast of characters have tried to regain normalcy for their lives in Hawkins, Will (Noah Schnapp, “Hubie Halloween”), Joyce (Winona Ryder, “The Cow”) and Jonathan Byers (Charlie Heaton, “The Souvenir: Part II”), along with Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown, “Godzilla vs. Kong”), have relocated to the sunny town of Lenora Hills, California.
Each tries to move on from the effects of the Upside Down in their own way. Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin, “The Boys Presents: Diabolical”) joins the Hawkins High School basketball team, Will learns to paint and Nancy (Natalia Dyer, “Things Heard & Seen”) leads the school newspaper. But then their classmates start dying, and our gang once again ends up in the center of it all as they work to learn the secrets of the creature in the Upside Down that they believe is the source of the killings: Vecna. As they pry into Vecna’s past, some startling revelations about the origins of the Upside Down and Eleven’s powers begin to be revealed.
While Hawkins may be cursed with ever-appearing problems, thank goodness the “Stranger Things” writers’ room is not. The first seven episodes that compose Volume 1 prove that not only do the producers focus on allowing the show to grow and settle in as their young actors grow up, but also that they have a dedication to finishing the show right — having it amount to something more than just separated seasons ending in a rushed finale.
The best features of the season came not necessarily from plot, but more so from how natural the characters feel to audiences at this point. Despite its breadth, the show gives attention to each character without making anything feel rushed or forced. Perhaps the best episode of Volume 1, “Dear Billy,” was successful because it gave such an insightful and nuanced look at Max (Sadie Sink, “All Too Well: The Short Film”) — a character who, as a newer addition, often hasn’t received the same spotlight as the original kids. You can sense how she has grown up and been weathered by the events of the past seasons in ways that all feel natural.
The same goes for the majority of the young cast. The show allows their aging in real life to work on screen. They don’t force the kids into writing that ignores the fact that they are older, taller and more aware as they move through the world now. That is the beauty of this season: There’s a sense that as the years have gone by, the world of “Stranger Things” has become truly lived in. The audience is now just watching the lives of these people go on, rather than feeling like the characters simply exist to move from plot point to plot point.
Even the characters new to this season continue that sense of verisimilitude. Each of these characters is so precise, you feel as if you’ve known them, been in classes with them or smiled at them from across the cafeteria before. Grace Van Dien (“Immoral Compass”) does a spectacular job in her brief time on the show as Chrissy, but the real scene-stealer is Joseph Quinn (“Small Axe”) as Eddie Munson, a super senior at Hawkins High and head of the Dungeons and Dragons club, called the Hellfire Club.
Of course the older cast makes a strong return as well, in particular Murray Bauman (Brett Gelman, “Entitled”), who has some of the funniest moments of the season so far, and Robin (Maya Hawke, “Fear Street Part One: 1994”), whose rapid-fire quips and rants in her scenes with Nancy make for one of the most interesting new duos in the show.
The one character that unfortunately doesn’t quite fit into the picture as neatly is David Harbour’s (“Star Wars: Visions”) Jim Hopper. With so many more moving pieces than previous seasons, something was bound to feel at least a little disconnected, and by the end of Volume 1, that is Hopper’s subplot in Russia. Despite some great acting and moving monologues, a connecting thread between the events in Russia and those in Hawkins, beyond attempts to get Hopper home, has yet to appear.
From Hawkins to California, Utah, Russia, the Upside Down and more, by the end of episode seven, audiences were left with a much bigger picture of what the show has left to give. With the explanation of Vecna’s past comes an explanation of much of Eleven’s past and previous events going all the way back to the first season. To see a show so artfully create this explanation and circle back to things many have forgotten — using them as chances to provide answers while simultaneously setting up a conclusion to the series — is incredibly refreshing. It’s not often that you can see the forethought and artistry of storytelling take place, but here, despite some questions that remain, you can.
Luckily, because of the upcoming final two episodes, to be released July 1, there should be plenty of time (and there will be plenty, with the season finale having an official run time of two hours and 19 minutes) for all the loose ends and questions to be answered before the show heads into its final season.
Until July 1 comes around, eat some Eggos, play some Dungeons and Dragons and maybe don’t go swimming when there’s a supernatural killer on the loose.
Daily Arts Writer Mallory Edgell can be reached at email@example.com