After a nearly three-year hiatus, Stranger Things dropped its fourth season over Memorial Day weekend — or rather, the first seven of nine Season 4 episodes; the remaining two will premiere on July 1st. Alongside The Crown and Bridgerton, Stranger Things is one of Netflix's true big-ticket items, and despite critics' ongoing ambivalence towards the show's mining of '80s nostalgia, CGI monsters, and byzantine government plots, it remains incredibly popular and is one of the few streaming shows that feels like an event even if you're not watching. If you ARE watching, Stranger Things 4 feels like a leveling up, in size, scope, and canvas. But was it good? With a show that's become this sprawling, the answer to that question comes in many forms, with winners and losers scattered all over Hawkins, Indiana (and the Upside Down) (and California) (and Alaska) (and the Soviet Union).
Three years is a long time for viewers to remember everything that happened in season three, so it was nice that Netflix provided us with a nearly four-minute recap of the following: Starcourt Mall, Scoops Ahoy, Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) and Mike (Finn Wolfhard) being that couple that ruins a friend group, the Soviets using an energy ray to rip open a door between dimensions, the Mind Flayer possessing hot Billy Hargrove (Dacre Montgomery), Eleven using her powers to defeat the Mind Flayer, but not before Billy died in front of his traumatized stepsister Max (Sadie Sink), Eleven then losing her powers, Hopper (David Harbour) dying to close the door between dimensions, Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) packing up her kids and Eleven and leaving Hawkins, Hopper probably not being dead, and the Soviets harvesting a demogorgon from the Upside Down to use as a weapon of war or something.
The unintended consequence of kicking the season off with an extended recap of season three was to underline just how young these kids looked then relative to the fully grown adults playing high schoolers in season four, which is set just six months later. Noah Schnapp, who plays Will Byers, shot up approximately nine feet in between seasons, Millie Bobby Brown looks like she should be going by "Millicent" now, Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) has adopted a high-top fade which only makes him look even taller, Jonathan Byers (Charlie Heaton) is a grizzled old war veteran now, and Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo)... well, no, he still looks the same. It takes a while to adjust to how old we're supposed to be pretending these kids are, and even longer to lock into the fact that Will Byers doesn't just stop staring longingly at everything and just sign up for the volleyball team already (he'd be so good!).
The topline takeaway from Stranger Things 4 is that it is way too spread out and trying to tackle way too many things at once. It's essentially three different shows operating under the same umbrella, and it's hard not to wonder whether the Duffer Brothers would have been better off convincing Netflix to let them split the show into three shows and run them each separately. There's the stuff happening in Hawkins (we'll get to that in the next header); the adventures of Eleven and the Byers family in sunny, hostile California; and the Iron Curtain shenanigans involving the Russians, Hopper (who is obviously still alive, come on), and eventually Joyce and Murray (Brett Gelman) who come to rescue Hopper. And then at some point it becomes yet again about Eleven being locked in a lab and experimented on by a returning Brenner (Matthew Modine) and a reluctant Owens (Paul Reiser).
It's all entirely too much, it bloats the episodes' running times to untenable lengths, and it unnecessarily divides the audience's attention from what the real stakes of the season are. Most of all, it does a terrible disservice to each separate storyline, since it prompts viewers to play favorites, and you spend all your time resenting the Siberia scenes for not being the Hawkins scenes or wondering why we've gone two whole episodes without addressing Will's latent crush on Mike (probably).
By far the best of the three parts of the Stranger Things narrative is what's going down in Hawkins, as a series of dead teenagers with broken limbs and their eyes popped out of their heads (gross) is the work of a heretofore unseen monster from the Upside Down who feeds on people's fears, self-doubts, and past trauma, making them see things, and ultimately killing them. With Mike off in California visiting Eleven (and also Will is there, staring longingly) and Lucas busy being popular on the basketball team, Dustin and Max turns to the older teens for help, and pretty soon we've got a ragtag crew of teenage monster-hunters that includes Dustin, Max, Steve (Joe Keery), Robin (Maya Hawke), Nancy (Natalia Dyer), Lucas's little sister Erica (Priah Ferguson), and Eddie Munson (Joseph Quinn), whose hair-metal looks and D&D prowess have him idolized by Dustin and wanted by the cops for the murders.
If there's one thing Stranger Things does very well, it's ragtag groups of monster-hunting kids, and this particular group is really well-matched for each other. In many ways they present as kind of a B-team, if you consider how prominent Eleven and Mike and Will were in previous seasons. The ones left in Hawkins do teamwork incredibly well, and it leads to some fun pair-offs like Nancy and Robin posing as grad students in order to get access to a creepy old mental asylum.
Every season Stranger Things manages to add more to the 1980s cultural ephemera, and this time around we all get to remember the days when America's parents and the media were terrified of Satanic cults and the devil reaching out to snatch their children through role-playing games and t-shirts. As the season begins, Dustin, Lucas, and Mike are all part of the "Hellfire Club," a Dungeons & Dragons campaign run by Eddie. And when a girl shows up dead (of the aforementioned limbs-breaking, eyeball-popping fear monster), the Hawkins townsfolk start pointing fingers at easy targets, and pretty soon Eddie is on the run, and Lucas's basketball-team pals are hunting him and Dustin and anyone else from the Hellfire Club down. Unfortunately, Satanic panics will always be more or less relevant to modern audiences since they represent the kinds of moral panics that continue today with "Don't Say Gay" bills preying on parents' fears of the unknown, so Stranger Things gets to be both kitschy and relevant with this one.
If the Hawkins plot is the clear winner of the Stranger Things divided narrative, Sadie Sink gets the performance award, after Max became the focus of the season's new monster. Sink has always been one of the better members of the kid ensemble, but when asked to step into the center of this storyline, which called upon Max to go through a wringer of fear and guilt, Sink came up big.
Perhaps the biggest winner of the fourth season has been Kate Bush, the English chanteuse whose 1985 hit "Running Up That Hill" is featured prominently in Max's storyline and becomes a major plot point. Suddenly the Millennials and Gen Z and whatever other masses have discovered Bush via Stranger Things, actually pushing "Running Up That Hill" to the top of the iTunes charts. Let's hear it for good taste!
Speaking of taste, if you're a fan of Joe Keery for both his performance as Steve Harrington but also for less high-minded reasons, the extended scene of Steve shirtless in the Upside Down sweatily battling little mini-dragons or whatever those things were should have been a highlight.
So Eleven once again returned to her lab experimentation settings in order to hopefully regain her powers and help save her friends/Hawkins/the world, a corner of the story that required scenes in both the current timeline and also flashbacks to when Eleven was a little girl. And since the budget on Stranger Things 4 was essentially unlimited, that meant deepfaking Millie Bobby Brown into season one (or younger) age, which of course resulted in that now-too-familiar unsettling computer-face look that digital de-aging does.
The California portion of Eleven's story is besieged by a high-school bully with very '80s hair named Angela, who picks on Eleven (going by "Jane") relentlessly and rallies her mean girl (and boy) friends to do the same. Stranger Things has a long history of taking bullies and either reforming them into awesome guys with great hair (Steve) or at least tragic figures who earn our sympathy (Billy), and if Stranger Things 4 hadn't been so overstuffed with story, Angela might have received similar treatment.
Sorry Millie, but Eleven remains alive at the end of this stretch of episodes.
Just try complaining about streaming dramas with 65-minute episodes now that Stranger Things released a season where the average episode length topped 78 minutes. When the season resumes on July 1st, the final two episodes of the season will each be feature-film-length, at 85- and 150-minutes, respectively.
Stranger Things Season 4 Vol 1 is now streaming on Netflix.
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Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.
TOPICS: Stranger Things, Netflix, Brett Gelman, Caleb McLaughlin, Charlie Heaton, David Harbour, Finn Wolfhard, Gaten Matarazzo, Joe Keery, Matthew Modine, Maya Hawke, Millie Bobby Brown, Natalia Dyer, Noah Schnapp, Paul Reiser, Sadie Sink, Winona Ryder, Duffer Brothers