During the third episode of Stranger Things’ upcoming fourth season, as the now much taller teenage heroes of Netflix’s sci-fi/horror mega-hit try to solve the latest dark mystery plaguing their small Indiana town, cool but aloof skateboarder Max (Sadie Sink) makes a solemn observation. “All we know is that this is something different,” she says. “Something new.” To Max’s credit, she’s at least partly right.

Yes, for the first time since its breakthrough inaugural season, Stranger Things makes some big changes to its formula. The show expands its story to a number of locations outside of Hawkins and puts characters together in groups that remain segregated from each other throughout the season’s first seven episodes. It also cranks up the series’ more horror-based elements, giving us a central villain who is closer to Freddy Krueger than he is the Lovecraftian, beast-like monsters of the show’s earlier seasons. Stranger Things 4 actually feels like a real sequel and not just a slightly remixed version of what’s come before.

Related: ‘Stranger Things’ Season 4 Is Over 5 Hours Longer Than Previous Seasons

But with that said, the new season maybe isn’t quite as different as Max or show creators the Duffer Brothers would likely have us believe. It still deftly balances spook-show plotting with smaller coming-of-age stories filled with puppy love and teen angst. And it still features scenes where characters draw crude pictures of a nightmarish vision they had and then rearrange those pictures in a puzzle-like fashion, ultimately revealing some vital clue that might save Hawkins, if not the world. The Duffers have not completely re-invented the wheel here; they’ve just made it a little scarier and a lot bigger. And that’s in more ways than one. I’ve seen all seven episodes releasing this coming Friday, and six of them are at least 73 minutes long. Episode 7 is an hour and 38 minutes long… or basically a Stranger Things movie. The second part of the season, which includes only two episodes, will be released in July, and we know at least one of those episodes is going to clock in at two and a half hours. Season 4 may not be the best the show has ever been, but it’s definitely the most the show has ever been.

In case you’ve forgotten, Season 3 ended with evil defeated and the portal to the Upside Down, the show’s malevolent alternate universe, closed. Police Chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour) had seemingly died in an underground lab explosion, though a post-credits stinger strongly hinted that he had somehow survived and was imprisoned in Russia. Once again without a father figure, the now powerless psychic superhero Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) joined the Byers family – mother Joyce (Winona Ryder), perpetually unlucky younger brother Will (Noah Schnapp), and overprotective older brother, Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) – as they all moved to California.

The Duffer Brothers are wise enough to know they couldn’t immediately throw everyone back together without it feeling like a cheat, so instead, they divide up the show more than ever this year. Throughout most of these seven episodes, Season 4 follows three distinct stories. Mike (Finn Wolfhard) visits Eleven (now going by her birth name, Jane) and the Byers brothers in California, as all of them deal with past traumas, the struggles of adolescence, and, later, shady government agents searching for El. Meanwhile, Joyce and conspiracy-obsessed investigator Murray (Brett Gelman) are busy trying to figure out whether Hopper still lives, and, if so, what exactly happened to him. (Murray fans will be thrilled to know that Gelman’s screen time is vastly increased this season.) Lastly, the rest of the group still back in Hawkins are investigating a new series of brutal murders that has shocked residents and may have ties to the town’s supernatural history. Eventually, Eleven splits off into her own arc, as she’s whisked away to another new location to confront shocking events from her past that she’s walled off inside her own mind.

Of these plot lines, it’s the Hawkins group that is the most fun to watch, in large part because it happens to feature the show’s most entertaining characters. Joe Keery’s Steve remains as endearing as ever – a noble lunkhead with a heart of gold. Maya Hawke, who mostly stole the show as the newly added Robin in Season 3, has no interest in giving it back this year. She gives another delightful performance as Steve’s motor-mouthed BFF, a girl who can jump from complaining about how hard it is to find a date to debating matters of life and death to grumbling about how badly her bra is making her boobs hurt, all without missing a beat or taking a breath. Robin continues to be the absolute best, and teaming her up with the more reserved Nancy (Natalia Dyer) for stretches of time proves to be a smart decision indeed. Rounding out the team is Max, who’s more important to the narrative than ever this season; Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), whose growing popularity creates friction with his nerdy friends; and Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), whose “little brother/big brother” relationship with Steve continues to be a source of endless amusement.

It’s the kids in Hawkins who are tasked with squaring off against Vecna, Stranger Things 4’s chief antagonist. Vecna owes a lot to the previously mentioned Mr. Krueger and other slasher icons of the 1980s. He’s a gnarly looking demonic humanoid – Freddy mixed with one of the Cenobites from Hellraiser with a dash of Pirates of the Caribbean’s Davy Jones thrown in – who is targeting high schoolers in Hawkins. Vecna tracks down troubled teens, puts them into a dream-like trance state, and then horrifically murders them. He’s far more terrifying than the Demogorgons and Mind Flayers of seasons past — and, as the season goes along, far more interesting. The problem for our heroes is no one can figure out why or how he’s here. Again, the gate to the Upside Down is closed, and our heroes track Vecna’s presence all the way back to 1959, long before Eleven first accidentally opened it. It’s a more compelling mystery than what the show offered up in Season 3 and heralds the arrival of a version of Stranger Things that’s both more mature and more chilling.

Much less compelling is the Hopper storyline, which too often feels like a mundane adventure tale from a completely different (and not nearly as good) show. It’s honestly sometimes a chore to sit through, mostly because what the series has Hopper doing this year robs him of his best personality traits, especially his grizzled swagger. Harbour honestly doesn’t even get a decent line of dialogue until Episode 5. There are other characters who don’t fare so well this season either. Jonathan is reduced to being a pothead who occasionally worries about holding Nancy back if they stay together. Mike and Will get very little to do overall. There are a bunch of new faces added this season — something the show usually excels at — but only one or two manage to stand out, most notably Eddie Munson (Joseph Quinn), a long-haired, battle-jacket-wearing, Dungeons & Dragons god who takes Mike and company under his wing.

The show is as well-crafted as always. (The behind-the-scenes team hasn’t changed much this season, with both the Duffers and Shawn Levy directing multiple episodes.) The premiere episode builds to both a basketball championship and an epic Dungeons & Dragons game, and then cuts back and forth between the two in a way that’s so smooth and thrilling that it reminds you why Stranger Things remains one of TV’s most satisfying and most popular shows. Season 4 deftly weaves in footage from the previous seasons, hammering home how likable its young characters are and how much they’ve been through since we first met them as precocious middle schoolers. The 1980s vibe that has always been such a big part of the show is still around, although it’s greatly reduced from the neon-drenched, mall-focused third season, allowing the characters to reclaim their edge over the setting. The needle drops on the soundtrack are a little less obvious and a bit more subtle as well.

All of this adds up to a season that doesn’t quite recapture the lightning-in-a-bottle charm of the show’s first season or hit the highs that Season 2 managed, but the big swings it takes do give it an edge over Season 3 and put it on a more assured path as it heads toward its fifth and final season. That’s especially true when you consider the shocking revelations of the new season’s seventh episode — “The Massacre at Hawkins Lab” — an epic, twist-laden installment that reveals how the season’s big mystery, which in the early goings feels like a standalone affair, ties into the show’s overarching mythology. The answers are immensely satisfying and set the stage for a showdown that should be the biggest and most gripping one Stranger Things has yet had. “Looks like it’s going to be up to us again,” Mike says at one point during the season. Will simply replies: “It always is, isn’t it?” The kid’s got a point. And while casual viewers might be put off by the deep dives into the series’ lore and episode run times that aren’t exactly binge-friendly, the fans who have loved Stranger Things all along should find themselves riveted by Season 4’s most electrifying turn of events. Waiting until July for those final two episodes to drop is going to be rough. And it’s safe to assume that waiting even longer for that final season is going to be rougher.

Rating: B+

Stranger Things Season 4 Volume 1, consisting of Episodes 1 through 7, will be released on May 27, with the season’s concluding two episodes dropping on July 1.

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