Every season of Stranger Things has been bigger and more convoluted than the one before it. Each iteration introduces a plethora of new ideas, characters, and settings that largely complement the growing scope. Yet, what remains consistent is the show’s inclination to wear its influences on its sleeve. From King to Spielberg, the show is steeped in references to the 80s and to the very films it owes its existence. It’s a weapon this show unabashedly yields, as it not only preys on society’s growing reliance on nostalgia but uses its referential power to generate a setting that feels more lived-in than it truly is.
At the four-season mark this really should have gotten tiring, but its creators, the Duffer Brothers, continually prioritize the assured development of their characters, and it is key to the show’s continued success. From Eleven to Steve to Hopper, and even supporting characters like Murray and Erica, all enliven the setting and push the show beyond its pastiche origins, generating vast amounts of dialogue about who is the new fan favourite. Great television is defined by an ability to create memorable characters, and without this, Stanger Things would have nowhere near the cultural significance it currently holds. While the show’s characters are nowhere near the Tony Sopranos and Omar Littles of the world, they are unquestionably key to the show’s longevity, and no amount of Demogorgons will change that.
With each outing, Stranger Things veers more into blockbuster territory and this season marks the greatest venture into this region yet. Everything has been turned up to “eleven”; it’s a sprawling, globe-spanning adventure that is constantly cutting between its ever-growing cast of characters. The pace is dizzying, to say the least, as the plot jumps between several settings that all intrinsically connected. With almost double the running time of past seasons and multiple disparate storylines, the prospect of this narrative sounds daunting, even tiring. But it’s a credit to the Duffers that despite so many moving parts they manage to stick the landing, albeit with a few hiccups along the way. Even though Stranger Things 4 retreads familiar ground, it’s still wholly entertaining to witness the wringers these characters are put through.
After last season, Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) vanquished the “Upside Down” but didn’t leave unscathed as she lost her powers. Hopper (David Harbour), her surrogate father, seemingly sacrificed himself to save the day, but as the marketing material made amply clear-he is very much alive but in poor shape, locked away in a Soviet work camp. Without anyone to take care of her, Eleven moves to California with Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) and her two sons, Will (Noah Schnapp) and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton). California provides no respite for them, as Eleven quickly becomes the target of local bullies, Johnathan finds himself growing farther apart from his girlfriend Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer), and Joyce continues to mourn Hopper.
Back in Hawkins, the old gang enters high school and they begin to find themselves drifting away from each other. Eleven’s boyfriend Mike (Finn Wolfhard) and his friend Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) join a new D&D group headed by the community “freak” Eddie (Joseph Quinn), while Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) is now on the school basketball team, getting friendlier with the popular crowd. Lucas is also no longer with his girlfriend Max (Sadie Sink), who has become more removed due to a bout of depression following the loss of her stepbrother Billy. Then there is everyone’s favourite babysitter, Steve Harrington (Joe Keery), who is working at the local video store with his closeted companion Robin (Maya Hawke).
Yet, this being Stranger Things, Hawkins can’t quite catch a break, as a new monster comes to town, the foreboding and mysterious Vecna, who dispatches local teens in a grueling, bone-snapping manner.
3 Engaging Storylines and One That’s Kind of Okay
Season four marks the first time the Duffers have fully explored other locales. While the series has gone to Illinois and Russia before, it’s only served to set up events that would solely take place in Hawkins. But this time around, individual storylines take place a world apart and it proves to be both a blessing and a curse. There is simply a lot to take in, with Hawkins being tormented by Vecna, Hopper being locked in Russia with Joyce and Murray (Brett Gelman) vying to rescue him, and Eleven attempting to reclaim her powers in an underground facility in Nevada.
Then there is the “California” storyline with Mike, Will, Johnathan, and his stoner buddy Argyle (Eduardo Franco), which unequivocally takes a back seat to the others. Whenever Stranger Things cuts back to this plot beat, it’s as if a collective sigh is being released, as the audience is forced to twiddle their thumbs during this stroll through the desert. It’s clear the Duffers didn’t really know what to do with these characters who, in the grand scheme of everything, amount to little more than cheerleaders. There is nothing inherently wrong with having an ancillary storyline, but when it actively brings the pace to a halt, it distracts more than it complements. Only when this storyline is merged with Eleven’s in the penultimate episode does it gain emotional heft. But until then, we are left with a plot thread that only serves to hinder the narrative’s momentum.
Yet, besides this one plot point, the narrative, as a whole, can sometimes be exhausting. every episode runs well over 70 minutes and this length does little to give each plot thread room to breathe. The show cuts from one eerie scene in Hawkins to one rousing scene in Russia to another one that is easy-going and then back again. It is not only overwhelming but, at times, frustrating.
Moreover, in the vein of many summer blockbusters, the plot is littered with convenient shortcuts. The second season’s “Kali storyline” is addressed in one vague sentence and Dr. Brenner’s miraculous survival from the clutches of the Demogorgon in season one is glossed over with one faint facial scar. The show also frequently has its characters draw conclusions too easily, and while the suspension of disbelief for a show like this is high, some of these explanations don’t quite add up. It’s moments like these that dilute the impact of what’s come before and slightly degrade the value of what’s unfolding on screen. However, these issues do not derail this season, as the Duffers never fail to make it utterly entertaining and engaging. This season perfectly marries heartfelt emotion with explosive action, a concoction that never ceases to captivate.
A Loveable Squad Ideal for Battling the Supernatural
While it’s a little jarring to see these kids all grown up, the original core remains vibrant and endearing. While the show isolates Eleven again, Brown still holds her own in a commanding and layered performance. Hopper arguably remains the greatest character, as his perilous situation allows for greater introspection that is bolstered by an earnest portrayal by Harbour. Sink’s Max is given much more room to grow and she slowly becomes the season MVP. Max’s introduction in season two felt slightly forced but over time she became a fan favourite. This season was Sink’s moment to shine and she did not disappoint, as her nuanced performance elevates the cast around her, lending the tense horror scenes a greater emotional resonance.
Stranger Things has regularly succeeded at introducing characters in one light and then transforming them later on. A clear example is Steve, whose typical jock persona gave way to a delightful and detailed character that actively grew from season to season. Stranger Things 4 brings forward new members like Eddie, the D&D Leader who comes off as utterly obnoxious and dogmatic but is slowly revealed to be charming and completely relatable, especially when he chews the scenery with Dustin.
This expansive cast has given way to a lovable squad that is ideal for dealing with the supernatural. Not only do they confront the perilous unknowns of the “Upside Down” but, throughout all this madness, have found each other and made sense of this intimidating world. No matter how many great set-pieces are thrown at the audience, the only thing that keeps bringing them back is the growth these characters experience together.
A Thrilling Finale That Delivers
The final two oversized episodes (Dubbed Vol. 2) pack an emotional wallop that mostly delivers on everything that came before. It’s filled to the brim with big speeches, big action set-pieces, and big emotional swings that deliver a palpable sense of catharsis. still, with all the satisfaction it delivers, there are still several lingering questions, as part of the finale is dedicated to setting up bigger things that are yet to come. Will Eleven reclaim her powers and save Hawkins? Will Hopper escape Russia with Joyce and Murray? Will Max survive Vecna’s curse? Will Eddie’s name be cleared? All these questions are addressed in one way or another in this finale, but thankfully never in a way that leans towards a neat bow.
The finale never presents solutions or plot beats that betray the character arcs and emotional stakes that were established throughout the season. The most striking way it accomplishes this was by being surprisingly talkative. Unlike the episodes that preceded it, each character was given time and room to breathe. Will finally gets his share of the limelight, as he gives a rousing speech to mike that both touches on the nature of their friendship and his latent sexuality. It’s in moments like these we are reminded that these actors can do great things when they are given substance.
The show’s staying power is a testament to the Duffers’ ability to balance inventive action with earned emotion. So much is packed into these four hours that it’s surprising that almost everything gets its proper due. Even the one-note stoner, Argyle, plays an important but funny role. The finale perfectly merges the show’s proclivity for lightheartedness with a nerve that isn’t afraid to go dark. It puts its character in profoundly perilous situations that always hook, absorb, and enthrall.
The season was a blast from start to finish and while it took a long way to get there, it was a bumpy ride that was well worth it. It’s going to be a long wait to see how this enrapturing fable will end but there is no doubt that everyone will be eagerly waiting.