Stranger Things 4 Volume 1 returns us to a very different Hawkins, Indiana. The Byers family, along with Eleven, have relocated to California. The boys have entered high school. A new police chief has replaced Hopper. Lucas is on the varsity basketball team. Erica plays Dungeons & Dragons. But by the end of the first episode of Volume 1, we learn that nothing has really changed in Hawkins after a cheerleader is brutally murdered by a mysterious assailant.
Spoiler Warning: This review of Stranger Things 4 Volume 1 contains spoilers. Tread carefully.
Our characters are separated for the entirety of Stranger Things 4 Volume 1. Mike is visiting El and Will in California on spring break. Joyce and Murray journey to Russia in hopes of saving Hopper. And, of course, the core group back in Hawkins finds themselves facing off against a new big bad.
For the most part, I think the show handled the three separate plotlines well. Each episode in Volume 1 is longer than in previous seasons, but they didn’t feel long. I do think that the Russia subplot dragged a bit, and we didn’t spend nearly as much time in California as I would have liked (please give Will and Jonathan more to do in Volume 2), but otherwise the pacing was fairly well balanced between the different locations.
The new big bad from the Upside Down in Stranger Things 4 is a creature that the boys have dubbed Vecna. Vecna is considered one of the greatest villains in D&D; he also happens to be the main antagonist in the campaign Mike and Dustin are playing in the first episode, “The Hellfire Club”. In the world of Upside Down, Vecna uses psychological attacks to torment his victims before breaking all of their bones and removing their eyes. It’s an extremely gruesome way to die, and I really feel that Stranger Things upped its horror quotient with this season.
Vecna’s first victim in Hawkins is cheerleader Chrissy, who is tormented by visions of her mother. Based on the dialogue during the visions, and given how Max finds Chrissy being ill in the bathroom at school, it seems that Chrissy has body image issues. During “The Hellfire Club”, she seems agitated and jumpy; Max spots her coming out of the counselor’s office looking upset, and later when Chrissy is in the woods, she startles at every sound. By the end of the first episode, Chrissy has been killed.
One thing I’ve always felt that Stranger Things did exceptionally well was to capture the overall vibe of the 1980s. The third season perfectly encapsulated the grandeur and allure of the local mall (an aspect of my childhood I sorely miss – New York City doesn’t really have the space). The fourth season has chosen to focus on the “satanic panic” of the ’80s, which primarily centered around the popularity of D&D.
The main suspect is Eddie Munson, the leader of Hawkins High School’s official D&D club, and the Dungeon Master who was running the campaign. The only real evidence against Eddie is that Chrissy was killed in his trailer, but that doesn’t stop the crack team that is the Hawkins Police Department from naming him as the prime suspect. Nor does it prevent Chrissy’s boyfriend, Jason, from rounding up a hunting party to enact vigilante justice when he feels that the police aren’t doing their jobs.
It’s a little disconcerting how accurate some parts of this show still are, that a basic white dude who thinks he’s right can whip an entire town into a frenzy to go out hunting teenagers and law enforcement officials just let him. (Stranger Things 4 Volume 1 is really out here saying #ACAB and they’re not even wrong.) I had hoped, that after he saw his teammate killed by Vecna, he would realize that there was no way Eddie could have done it. But he was already predisposed to believe that Eddie was practicing Satanism, and that only confirmed his suspicions.
The Hawkins plot about Vecna is by far the most compelling of the three. There is nothing about this storyline that isn’t amazing, from the addition of Eddie to the core group to playing with the character dynamics to literally everything about Max. I loved Vecna’s character design, and with him looking more human than previous Upside Down monsters, it adds a further element of mystery to what’s going on.
Max is the standout of this season. From the very beginning, something seems off about her, and it isn’t just because she and Lucas have broken up. I love that she is getting more into the sleuthing, and the gut-punch when she connected the dots and realized that she was Vecna’s next victim was hard to stomach. Her speech at Billy’s graveside in “Dear Billy” was heartbreaking. But that entire scene in the Upside Down is probably my favorite of perhaps the entire series; the cinematography, the tension, the music – everything was spot on.
Meanwhile, life in California isn’t as great as El and the Byers clan might have hoped. El is being seriously bullied, Jonathan seems to have lost all ambition, and Joyce’s new job isn’t very glamorous. El has been lying to Mike about how bad it is, and things come to a head when Mike comes to visit and the lies start to unravel. And that’s not even taking into account the flashback at the beginning of the season that implies Eleven murdered a bunch of people at the age of, like, seven.
Stranger Things isn’t just about capturing the vibe of the actual ’80s, but also the vibe of ’80s pop culture. There were not-so-subtle nods to Nightmare on Elm Street and Silence of the Lambs (which actually came out in 1991, but still) as well as E.T.. And El’s bullies felt very over-the-top – particularly at the skating rink, where everyone joined in, even the DJ – but I believe it was meant to be an homage to Carrie.
A big part of Volume 1 is about trauma. All of Vecna’s victims have experienced some kind of trauma, and part of his attack is trapping them in that moment. And it seems that a key component of El activating her powers has to do with trauma as well. The bullies don’t manage it (even though El does full-on break a girl’s nose with a roller skate), but when Owens approaches her and offers to help her get her powers back, he takes her to the somehow still alive Brenner. If the sight of a presumed-dead abuser wasn’t enough, he immediately and without warning drops her into some very traumatic childhood memories – such as the massacre in the lab.
The show gives you enough hints, I think, to realize that El wasn’t responsible for the massacre. Even in the original flashback, Brenner is knocked unconscious and only finds El after the fact. And while El is perfectly capable of violence when necessary, it’s almost always been to protect the people she loves.
But the point is that you’re never really sure. El smacking Angela in the face with a roller skate is meant to make you pause and wonder if she is guilty of such a despicable act. They plant the thought right off the bat and then spend the rest of the episodes slowly chipping away at it.
Many fans speculated that Vecna may have been one of the children in the lab, and as soon as Peter started talking about One, I suspected that it was him. But the reveal that Peter is One is Victor Creel’s son is Vecna was so well done that I’m not even mad that I didn’t completely figure it out. It’s there in the brilliance of Vecna’s design; he looks very spider-like, and then we find out that Peter was obsessed with spiders.
I love how many questions this raises about Brenner’s work. I mean, we knew that there were other children like El after she found Kali in season 2, but there were so many in the lab. It also makes me wonder how and when Brenner began his project. Was he always on the lookout for children with abilities? Or did he meet Peter (who seems to have been born with his powers) and decide that’s what he wanted to focus on?
What does this have to do with the Upside Down? Did the Upside Down always exist? When El knocks Peter into it, it looks very different than what we’re used to seeing. And the weird, broken-looking castle that Max is taken to in “Dear Billy” also does not resemble the alternate Hawkins we’ve seen before. It makes me wonder if maybe Peter had a lot to do with constructing the Upside Down Hawkins.
Will, Jonathan, and Mike’s adventure deserved way more screen time than it was given. That one-shot shootout scene in “Dear Billy” was phenomenal. Stranger Things isn’t exactly an action-heavy show but it didn’t even seem all that out of place. I actually liked how useless the two agents seemed to the boys, and then as soon as they’re in danger they turn into John McClane.
Argyle, along with Eddie, is a great addition to the overall dynamic. “Jonathan’s stoner friend” could very easily have been a one-note character without much depth, but Argyle’s comedic relief is sorely needed in a lot of these scenes. He acts exactly the way I would expect a normal person to react when confronted with all the ridiculousness the Byers boys have been dealing with for years.
Our third and final subplot is Hopper’s great Russian adventure, which culminated in Joyce and Murray staging a daring rescue. While this arc was great for Hopper’s character development, it was my least favorite of the three. There are many things for which I’m willing to suspend my disbelief, particularly in a show like this. But Hopper’s survival after the gate was destroyed in season 3 is still kind of hand-waved. Not to mention, there is only so much damage that the human body can sustain and still function, and I feel like Hopper passed that pretty early on.
I also felt that the Russia storyline went on a little too long. I honestly think that it would have been better if Hopper’s escape attempt had been successful, and Yuri’s “betrayal” had come after the fact. I do understand that they wanted to end Volume 1 with Joyce and Hopper’s reunion. Maybe the idea of Hopper being alive could have been introduced later in the season.
And I cannot get over the fact that Tom Wlaschiha played a corrupt prison guard. Again.
I love how they switch up the group dynamics every season. When they split off, they don’t always go with the same people. The Robin/Nancy alliance was great, because these two didn’t get to interact at all in season 3, except briefly at the end. I loved getting to see Max hanging out with the Dream Team that is Dustin, Steve, and Robin. The chemistry and camaraderie among the older teens when they were stuck in the Upside Down was fantastic. Will, Mike, and Jonathan meeting Suzie was inspired.
I really like the exploration of deteriorating friendships. I can say, as someone who grew up in a small town, that sometimes the friends you make in kindergarten stay with you through high school – mostly because it’s easier that way. But it’s also completely realistic that they would start to drift apart from each other. It’s most obvious between Lucas and the others, as Lucas has gained different priorities – priorities that Dustin and Mike don’t understand.
A side note here about the continuing greatness that is Steve and Robin’s friendship: I love the two of them so much. Their banter is some of the best on the show, and they even have inside jokes. (I cackled when Tammy Thompson showed up at the pep rally.) After their conversation about her crush on fellow band member Vicky, Steve is very careful not to out her, even to Nancy and Dustin, the two other people he is arguably closest with.
While we’re sort of on the subject, if they don’t make Will queer, I don’t know what they’re doing. This season makes it fairly obvious that Will has a crush on Mike – the painting, the way he’s upset that Mike doesn’t write him as much as he does El – but there are other things, too. I mean, Will does a school project on Alan Turing. But it’s also the way he worries so much about El but doesn’t do much to help her with her bullies; he’s worried about drawing too much attention to himself.
Stranger Things 4 Volume 1 is really just some absolutely stellar television. It’s hard for a show to keep topping itself, and most of the time it’s difficult to best the first season, but I do believe that season 4 is probably my favorite. It’s darker, it’s deeper, it’s funnier, it’s more human. I cannot wait to see how this season ends.
Other Things I Wanted to Talk About But I’ve Already Gone Too Long:
- The death knells are tolling for multiple characters. Max, Steve, Nancy, and Eddie could all potentially be in danger. I don’t want to lose any of them.
- There were throwbacks to every season! The basketball players holing up in Benny’s Burgers, Max’s drawings reminiscent of Will’s from season 2, and the Tammy Thompson appearance.
- Robert Englund as Victor Creel was sheer perfection. I love that they continue the ’80s movies cameos.
- That scene where Nancy was talking to the police about Fred and the gang rolled up in Steve’s car was hilarious.
- I saw some theories that Robin was being coded as autistic, mostly based on her conversation with Nancy where she talks about not understanding social cues.
You can view Farid’s reaction to episode 7 below!
Author: Jamie Sugah
Jamie has a BA in English with a focus in creative writing from The Ohio State University. She self-published her first novel, The Perils of Long Hair on a Windy Day, which is available through Amazon. She is currently an archivist and lives in New York City with her demon ninja vampire cat. She covers television, books, movies, anime, and conventions in the NYC area.
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