Stranger Things needs to be big. Netflix needs it to be big.
The under-siege streamer needs to counter its flurry of negative press and declining membership numbers with a massive event series that reminds its subscribers – especially those it lost – that Netflix is still the home to the must-see show.
So, Stranger Things went big, really big. Or, at least, it went long. The shortest episode of its fourth season runs for one hour and three minutes while the finale will go for a whopping two hours and 30 minutes.
The season has been split in half with seven episodes out this week, while the final two episodes will be held back until July.
The episode lengths is just one flank in ensuring that fans know of Stranger Things' ambitions and scale – and it is expansive with its narrative tentacles reaching far beyond Hawkins this time as the crew spreads out over California, Russia and Alaska, and across time periods.
But globetrotting isn't why Stranger Things became a huge part of the zeitgeist when it burst onto the scene in 2016 - it's that combustible mix of wild, innocent adventures, the pure terror of its horror elements and the emotional weight of its well-written and even better performed young characters.
All those elements are here in season four, just dialled up a notch. Restraint be damned.
The third season, which came out in the pre-pandemic times of 2019, veered more into schlock than scares, but this new instalment steers back into spooky territory. The terror is both psychological and physical as a malevolent force haunts Hawkins, paying special attention to its victims' pasts.
The vibe often feels more like Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth) or J.A. Bayona (The Orphanage, A Monster Calls) than George Romero (Day of the Dead) – a low-hum unease that climaxes with truly grotesque set-pieces that reminds you, yes, Stranger Things exists to scare you more than it does to cheerlead for 1980s culture.
The new episodes spend a little too long to re-establish everything – you don't need to world-build when the world is already built – but hits its stride by the second half of episode two. Even though those first two hours can feel a little sluggish, there is a familiar charm in all the textures of just hanging out in that world without the jump scares.
And there is always value in watching Millie Bobby Brown do her thing, drawing on her well of emotional maturity and empathy, because she is just such a talent. A scene of her recalling the memory of Hopper (David Harbour) won't fail to impress.
Hawkins is besieged by both a supernatural threat and the more socially malicious Satanic Panic, in which morally upstanding Americans were genuinely worried about cults and ritual sacrifices, a hysteria that extended to, of all things, Dungeons and Dragons.
Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) are now in high school and soon find themselves caught up in a grizzly death when another friend is the prime suspect.
Meanwhile, Eleven (Brown) and the Byers are cross country in California, separating Eleven from Mike and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) from Nancy (Natalia Dyer).
Joyce (Winona Ryder) is tipped off to the fact Hopper is still alive when she receives a mysterious package in the mail from Russia, and she enlists the conspiracy-inclined Murray (Brett Gelman).
The ballooning cast, which also includes Sadie Sink's Max, Noah Schnapp's Will, Maya Hawke's Robin and Joe Keery's Steve, all get caught up in the nerve-shredding dramas.
Stranger Things remains one of Netflix's most towering shows because it does what few others do. It offers an unabashed spectacle that commands emotional investment, and more than a few frights along the way. It's not flawless but it's always pushing itself.
Will it be enough to save the streamer from itself? Only if Netflix is willing to invest in more shows with the ambition and scale of Stranger Things, rather than throw its lot in with dozens of indistinguishable, unmemorable shows that some people may like but no one loves.
Stranger Things season four starts streaming on Netflix from Friday, May 27