REVIEW: Stranger Things – Season 4

stranger things season 4

Given that it’s currently the highest-streamed show on Netflix, and was popular enough to crash their servers, odds are good if you’re reading this you’ve already at least started season 4 of Netflix’s Stranger Things. It was an interesting and solid season, with enough changes to the formula to not feel like retreading ground while still very much feeling like Stranger Things.

The biggest change to the formula was the villain. While the Demogorgon was animalistic and the Mind Flayer was alien, Vecna was sentient, humanoid, and able to communicate. His modus operandi was to find people with trauma, show them hallucinations, and then toy with them until killing them in a way that was sincerely shocking.

The other big change to Season 4 came as fallout from the ending of Season 3. Joyce moved her family, including Eleven, to California, and Hopper disappeared, a fake-out death that was almost immediately undercut by trailers showing him in season 4. This was the biggest issue with the season, because while the Hawkins plot was consistently excellent and thrilling from the first episode to the last, both other plotlines felt like there was a lot of filler. They both ended well, but it meant that Mike, Jonathan, and Will in particular felt sidelined for most of the season. There was wheel-spinning in the adult storyline as well, but the actors at least had a lot more to do.

Spoilers below:

The California plotline, with El, Will, Jonathan, and Mike, was the weakest right at the beginning. That Eleven would be bullied at school made sense, though Stranger Things has always been good about showing off the reality of cliques. That she would take Mike to a roller rink during what appeared to be a bully convention was ludicrous and over the top. It also didn’t feel particularly necessary for the arc of the rest of her season. Sure, Mike saying nearly word for word what Dr. Brenner had said to her during a formative time could be important, but it felt like once that incident was over it simply never happened.

After that, Eleven’s plot kicked into gear as she retrained to get her powers back with Dr. Owens and Dr. Brenner in an underground bunker. Much of this involved examining her memories of her training as a child, and in particular her dealings with an orderly who turned out to be Henry Creel, aka 001, aka Vecna. She was tricked and freed him, and then sent him to the Upside Down. Small wonder he waited for her to be both out of Hawkins and de-powered before he began his series of ritual murders.

However, the rest of the California plot-line was largely a waste of time as Jonathan, Mike, Will, and Jonathan’s new stoner friend Argyle drive an extremely conspicuous pizza van that somehow the government cannot find.

The Russia plotline was also disappointing for most of the runtime. Joyce finds a Russian doll that suggests Hopper is alive, and someone is willing to smuggle him out of prison. She decides to pay the ransom, and gets betrayed by the smuggler, while Hopper flees his Russian prison, and is then caught and brought back. There’s nothing supernatural or related to the Upside Down that occurs (minus a roar) in this plot until episode 7. Thankfully, Joyce and Murray have some excellent dynamics at play and keep our attention even when the writing doesn’t.

However, it really picks up at the end, as Murray and Joyce infiltrate the prison to rescue him only to find out the Russians have their own Demogorgon they make their prisoners fight.

Now, with all that complaining out of the way, the entire Hawkins plotline is top-notch from start to finish. Vecna’s specific way of targeting people gives the characters still in Hawkins a timer to find possible solutions, especially when one of their own is next on the list. The episode Dear Billy, which is all about Vecna targeting Max, is the definite highlight of the season and quite possibly the series.

Newcomer Eddie Munson is another standout and the kind of character who fits so well into this world that it seems like he’s always been there. He’s way too old to be in school, having been held back several times, and he mostly wants to spend his time running Dungeons and Dragons and playing in a band.  He’s played with a lot of outsider charm. His scene in the finale, playing a heavy metal concert to distract Demobats from Steve, Nancy, and Robin’s last-ditch effort to destroy Vecna, was, well, metal. That said, it was surprising it didn’t tie in with the larger use of music as a weapon against Vecna’s mind control powers.

Eddie’s opposite is the basketball player Jason, who soon starts a manhunt against Eddie, who he believes has killed his girlfriend (It was, of course, Vecna, but it’s hard to arrest a cosmic horror. How would you find a jury of their peers?) Jason riles up the whole town against Eddie’s Dungeons and Dragons gamers, bringing in the 1980’s Satanic Panic, but while this plotline seems tense at the time, the town seems to forget they were riled up by the time the season finale comes around. While what he does through the season is awful, it’s interesting that his action with the most long-lasting consequence is entirely accidental.

The convergence of these plot-lines was mostly fascinating for the way they managed to keep the groups separated even at the end, while maintaining one interdependent climax. There was no cheating, no magical communication that explained everything, but all the pieces fell together regardless.

The ending was apocalyptic, a decision which makes sense even if it may be more difficult to stick the landing. But The Duffer Bros have done well so far—and Season 4 has been the best since Season 1. I’ll trust them on it.

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Ryan is a mid-30s nerd, married, with two kids. Also two cats–Cathulhu and Necronomicat. He likes, in no particular order, tabletop gaming, board games, arguing over books, ancient history and religion, and puns. You can find him as unconundrum on reddit.