12 Things We Loved About Stranger Things 4 Vol. 1 (And 5 We Didn’t)

12 Things We Loved About Stranger Things 4 Vol. 1 (And 5 We Didn’t)
Screenshot: Netflix

After three years, the wait is finally over! There’s no better way to kick off summer this Memorial Day weekend than binging Stranger Things 4 Vol. 1. The Netflix series returns to deliver some long-awaited answers about what happened in the aftermath of last season’s Battle of Starcourt and how evil just won’t leave Hawkins alone.

The Duffer Brothers, creators of the series, opted to release the mega-sized season in two chunks, with Vol. 2 due out July 1. So as a new horror reaches out from the Upside Down, we got a dive deep into the lives of Hawkins’ heroes as they’re brought back together to face their toughest battles yet. While overall we enjoyed a majority of the story’s thrilling new developments and seeing some of our favourite supporting characters take centre stage, there was just a lot to process. We’re breaking down what we loved — and the various things we didn’t.

12 Things We Loved About Stranger Things 4 Vol. 1 (And 5 We Didn’t)

We Loved: Max as the Final Girl

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When what appears to be a death curse begins to take the lives of Hawkins youths, Max (Sadie Sink) finds herself in the crosshairs of an evil that sets in motion the events in Vol.1. There’s something in the Upside Down that’s not done with Hawkins yet and tries to claim Max’s life by playing on her guilt over Billy’s death.

Sink had some time to prepare for Max’s arc this season — she was a stand-out in Netflix’s Fear Street — and she gets to flex her horror chops when she faces Vecna face on. Sink not only nails the horror but also the power in accepting that she needs her friends in order for them to stand a chance against the season’s big bad.

The Robin and Nancy Team-Up

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Maya Hawke gets brought into the fold as a major player this season when Robin and Nancy (Natalia Dyer) join forces to sleuth the mystery of Creel House. Their relationship subverts tropes, and Nancy’s story-chasing strength is complemented by Robin’s resourcefulness, like in the video store when she uses rental profiles to track down the whereabouts of someone who may know where someone important is hiding.

And their vibe is definitely Velma and Daphne when they go to the local psychiatric hospital to talk to the only survivor of a mysterious set of murders that shared similarities to the recent string of deaths in Hawkins. They also get to share a key scene with Robert Englund, which leads me to…

Robert Englund, Guest Star Extraordinaire

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You can definitely see how the Nightmare on Elm Street great gets homaged throughout the season, as Vecna uses waking dreams to stalk his victims like Englund’s titan of horror, Freddy Krueger. Additionally, his cameo is a purposeful one with an interesting connection to the overall arc of the story. Thanks to the scenes he shares with Nancy and Robin, his character will go down as an all-time guest-starring role.

Lucas’ Glow-Up

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Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) breaks away from his friends as he turns to healthier coping strategies to deal with trauma and the heartbreak after Max ends their budding romance. Friends growing apart is a really relatable theme, but while Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Mike (Finn Wolfhard) try to stay in the safety of what they know, Lucas takes up something new to learn more about himself. I love that we get to see more of who he is outside of his friends, and McLaughlin is able to show Lucas’ complexity as the most mature of the gang. In earlier seasons, the character felt underdeveloped, but it’s a much meatier role this time around. Through his becoming one of the popular jocks, we get a perspective on how everyone else in Hawkins isn’t ready to handle the horrors he and his friends have fought throughout their childhood.

The Horror Nods

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This season touches on Nightmare on Elm Street, The Silence of the Lambs, Hellraiser, The Ring, and It in really solid ways that are used cleverly but without co-opting the story too much. Like I mentioned before, Vecna operates a bit like Krueger, but the way he bides his time to wear down minds in a seven days kinda way is totally reminiscent of The Ring. And with the Creel House, we get those shades of Stephen King’s It. It’s the perfect balance between new material and old.

Will Telling It Like It Is

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Maybe because he survived the Upside Down first, Will doesn’t hesitate to call his friends out when they need it. For the first few seasons, Noah Schnapp only really got to play Will missing in action or experiencing body horror. It’s good to see this character be given more, and like McLaughlin, Schnapp comes into his own this season. His take on Will this season is really carried by how present he is for Eleven and Mike. When Eleven tries to make an effort to assimilate, she’s quickly struck down by the mean girls; Will steps up as a brother figure to support her but also remind her that they’ve been through worse. He becomes the brother Eleven needs, and someone Mike can count on when she gets taken.

More Erica!

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Can’t keep a great on the bench. Lucas’ fan-favourite sister comes in to play Dungeons & Dragons and shows the Hellfire Club what she’s capable of when she fills in for Lucas. Erica (Priah Ferguson) also has no qualms about telling adults around her that things aren’t ok in Hawkins when they stick their heads in the sand. When it comes down to the gang taking matters into their own hands, again, Erica becomes an important part of the adventure to uncover the resurgent dangers ahead. We loved Erica in her few scenes in season three, and we loved her even more now in season four.

The Dynamic Duo of Robin and Steve

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They’re just pure friendship goals. Robin and Steve, working at the video store, talking about movies, made me nostalgic for Blockbuster runs and chatting up staff about recommendations. They’re just delightful and there for each other. When it comes to looking out for one another’s best interest, Robin does Steve a mighty good solid when the right moment presents itself.

That Big Twist

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Seeing Millie Bobby Brown be challenged by having to play Eleven as a child and also literally face her past in the form of Dr. Brenner (Matthew Modine) allowed her to explore the character in new ways. She’s not just super-powered; Brown is given more to have Eleven emotionally overcome. It was super exciting to see Eleven’s arc build up to her realising that she’d been weaponised by an orderly (who was, as it turned out, much more than just an orderly) who she banished to the Upside Down, and inadvertantly having a hand in making the monster who would become Vecna.

Joyce Being a Badass

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Sure, Joyce’s side quest is questionable since she leaves her minors unattended at the worst possible time. It’s with good reason, though, because she has to leap into action when Hopper manages to send a proof-of-life message out to her. Joyce (Winona Ryder) gained notoriety by taking on the Upside Down in season one to find her son; certainly, the USSR is not going to stop her and she fully commits to doing everything in her power to get Hop back. That badass determination Joyce is known for is on full display this season, while Hopper toils away in the deepest pits of despair.

The Power of Music

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Music played a huge role this season as the main weapon against Vecna. We cannot deny the power of Kate Bush, whose “Running Up That Hill” was the perfect song to have Max hit play on for protection. And the use of it in the scenes where she’s running away from Vecna’s grasp really built up the momentum for one of the season’s most thrilling moments. And personally, we can’t wait to get the show’s epic score this season from Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein. Stranger Things just wouldn’t be the same without it.

The Incredibly Cinematic Conclusion

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The last episode was a movie I wish I could have seen in theatres. We got to spend time with characters to develop their storylines before bringing them closer together to face Vecna. The last episode expertly brought together the threads we’ve followed throughout the seasons and the characters in a way that paid off big time. When you realise that Vecna is communicating his villain monologue to two different characters in two different places, it’s an absolutely mind-blowing reveal.

What We Didn’t Love: The Basketball Team Captain

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Sure, we’re not supposed to like him, but Dimestore Gaston — our nickname for Jason, played by Mason Dye — is one of the series’ most one-dimensional characters ever. His cheerleader girlfriend died, so he incites a vigilante campaign against D&D under the guise of Satanic Panic. For a villain, he’s pretty badly written, especially compared to Billy last season, and given no development. I hope to see Lucas turn the team against this guy.

The Waste of Mike

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I was very underwhelmed by Mike’s (Finn Wolfhard) role in Vol. 1. It opens with him more preoccupied with seeing his girlfriend instead of noticing the things starting to go down in Hawkins before he leaves for California. Mike doesn’t have much to do this season outside of being a concerned boyfriend who needs protecting, although Finn Wolfhard does get a few shining moments near the end and he and Will team up to find Eleven after she’s apprehended.

Jonathan Is a Full-On Stoner Now?

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Hoo-boy… seeing Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) go full burnout — unless his girlfriend is there to give him purpose — is a choice, but it’s also way too abrupt. In California, he lets Will and Eleven mostly fend for themselves while he gets high with his friend Argyle (Eduardo Franco). And his long-distance relationship with Nancy gets neglected as he puts off applying to the same school she plans to attend in an act of self-sabotage. He’s just a mess, which is so different from his role in earlier seasons. Now, if this is to make Nancy endgame with Steve, we’ll accept it. But it’s a bit unbelievable to have him abandon his responsibility for Will and Eleven.

Those Wigs

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Sorry, no wig in the world would make us believe this season takes place a mere six months after the Battle of Starcourt. The show simply cannot hide the ensemble’s growth spurt into young adults, and fluffy ‘80s wigs were not the answer. They’re wildly distracting at first, and then they stay wildly distracting throughout the season. Even major characters like Nancy, Robin, and — representing the parents, who were barely seen this season — Mrs. Wheeler were done dirty!

Vecna’s Lack of Menace

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How are the sounds of the way he kills people scarier than him? He doesn’t look particularly scary. He hangs around in the tangled veins of the Upside Down to project visions and command creatures like the Demo-Bats to do his bidding as the centre of the hive mind, so he’s never a present threat. Worse, it’s basically the same threat over and over again, which really doesn’t allow for too much of a performance. It better build to something good once he’s free, because right now the main villain of Stranger Things isn’t scary, and that seriously sucks.

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