Some spoilers ahead.
The year is 1986 and the kids are in their teens. The high school drama that ensues is painful to watch, but only because we’ve watched them grow up through the years. Stranger Things 4, directed by Shawn Levy and the Duffer Brothers, is the penultimate season of the beloved science fiction drama and watching it was bittersweet and nerve-racking.
When you watch children fight evil on TV, there’s a sense of invincibility surrounding them that’s sort of a given. It’s very rare that a child gets killed off. They are pure and therefore deserving of victory. But teenagers? They’re rude. They betray their friends. Here, friends do lie and it makes you think they might not actually make it. This is part of the tension that threads through the episodes of Stranger Things 4, Part 1. (Another thread is a banging soundtrack mainly powered by Kate Bush, you’ll see).
Still a Bunch of Nerds
With the gang in pieces, from the get-go you’ll see that the pull of popularity and fitting in is still a major element in the show — they are in high school after all. The most literal execution of this theme is with Lucas, played by Caleb McLaughlin who’s had an undeniably significant growth spurt since last season. The showrunners tie it into the storyline by making him part of the varsity basketball team of Hawkins High School. Now, he’s torn between his team and his oldest friends in town: Mike (Finn Wolfhard) and Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), who are still pretty much nerds and unconcerned about being cool.
Max (Sadie Sink) is also in Hawkins but she’s distanced herself from the group. She refuses to play DND with the Hellfire Club and actively avoids Lucas. While she’s still the same fiery Max from seasons past, she still carries the weight of her brother Billy’s horrific death and is consumed by it every day. This makes Max one of the remaining touchpoints with The Upside Down — apart from El — which leads to a huge, stupendous moment in Part 1.
Speaking of Eleven, she’s moved to California with the Byers family where she goes by the name “Jane” and attends high school with Will (Noah Schnapp). They don’t make a big deal out of it since we see the characters seemingly in the middle of a semester, but this is the first time we’re seeing El as a student, which is kind of exciting. But immediately you’ll see that it’s been no fun for her.
High School Girls Bite, Too
As expected, dealing with high school mean girls is even trickier than fighting the Demogorgon, especially when you’re different. El’s storyline in Part 1 sends a powerful message about the effects of bullying and exclusion — so troubling in fact that, in some markets, Netflix added a warning card in the beginning of the first episode in light of the Uvalde school shooting.
In Chapter 2, she reaches her breaking point from all the bullying after an incident in a skating rink and, with her powers gone, resorts to physical violence. El assaulting her tormentor is morally challenging to watch. In the real world, any violence is condemned (at least in theory) but when you see a well-loved character that must be protected at costs be humiliated by spoiled brats, you root for her and pray her bullies get their comeuppance.
The Duffer Brothers do a good job in making that moment as unsatisfying and appalling as possible. It’s no Karate Kid moment, let me tell you. There’s no cheering for the good guy here, just pure horror, and a salient reminder that we’re not watching a kids’ show anymore. You have to hand it to Millie Bobby Brown, too. In the three-year gap between seasons 3 and 4, we’ve seen her evolve into a young woman, but she really wasted no time getting back into character.
Meanwhile, Mike, who is visiting El for spring break, is perturbed as he realizes his girlfriend has been lying to him about things being great and having friends at school. His relationship with his best friend Will is just as concerning, especially since Will basically just neglected telling him about El’s problems. At this point, Will just looks like he’ll keep playing the victim until the season ends, but let’s see.
It’s a bit infuriating how neither of them step in to help El while she is being bullied (they always approach her after), but I guess the resulting incident paves the way for several key point in the plot, including her reunion with Dr. Brenner.
Bizarre Love Triangles
It’s a bit strange how Jonathan Byers (Charlie Heaton) is written as a stoner this season. His friendship with Argyle (Eduardo Franco) is to blame. I think he’s supposed to be the comic relief for Team Cali but somehow ended up overdoing the task. While it was refreshing to see Jonathan not being Jonathan, this new peer pressured part of him was drawing him away from Nancy.
Enter Steve Harrington. Who is actually around Nancy in season 4 and the actual comic relief over at Team Hawkins. Will they get back together? Eddie Munson (Joseph Quinn) called it when he said, “That’s the most unambiguous sign of true love” his cynical eyes had ever seen. Steve and him (along with Nancy and Robin), have some of the most enjoyable interactions in the show.
You’re No. 01
The villains of Stranger Things are always memorable, but now even more so. Vecna inspires a different kind of horror because his killings hit too close to home — he’s also the most human-like, which is in itself a hint at his origins and motives. By episode 6, it was getting frustrating how El is still isolated and you start to wonder what all that training was eventually leading to. She was going to save Hawkins after all, but when all is revealed it starts to make sense. Kind of.
My biggest question the entire time was why Jamie Campbell Bower was being underutilized as an actor. His role as Peter Ballard reminded me of Julian Richings (outstanding) performance as a weird janitor in Urban Legend. It was nice to be proven wrong in the final episode of Part 1, when all was revealed and seemingly resolved. Now I’m just eager to know how in the hell the Hellfire Club is going to deal with an angry mob of brainwashed townies.
A Love Letter to Analog Times
In an important scene where Nancy Byers (Natalia Dyer) and Robin Buckley (Maya Hawke) are sleuthing for answers in a mental facility, they discover music as a lifeline to the real world. I’m not going to explain what that means in the show, but I will say that it carries a lot of truth in real life. Anyone whose walkman served as the ‘80s equivalent of a cell phone — that is, a crutch and savior from awkward conversations; the thing that gave life as a teen any semblance of meaning — would agree. It’s in these moments that you really feel moved and transported in time.
Most of the non-supernatural issues that come up are mainly because of distance and lack of communication, which is inherent in every “period show” but is somehow extra highlighted in the Stranger Things universe. These are comforts we take for granted in the age of over-connection and incessant speaking. In a way, it’s why the show is so captivating. It makes us nostalgic for a time of mystery and unrefined technology. Unlike season 3, this one is more subtle and nuanced in its portrayal of its most important character — the ’80s. Even the town-wide mass hysteria was appropriate to the era. Maybe it’s because Billy, who is ’80s to the core, isn’t around anymore. Or maybe the character, like El, Mike, Will, Dustin, Max, and Lucas, has simply grown up, too.
The gang could’ve been saved from so much trouble if they had phones on them, but they would have also missed out on so much life. It makes you wonder what sort of shenanigans you could be getting into if only you had put my phone down that one time, or that other time, or that other time. Since this is only Part 1, I’m not making any conclusions but one thing is certain: I am already dreading the end of this series. They’re not kids anymore and I fear some of them won’t make it.