This Stranger Things review contains no spoilers and is based on all seven episodes of season 4 volume 1.
Perhaps you’d heard, but the premier streaming service’s most recent earnings announcement didn’t go so well. A less-fruitful quarter than anticipated made the corporation’s stock price tumble, led to a round of unfortunate layoffs, and sent rival entertainment entities into fits of pure, unbridled schadenfreude. After more than a decade at the top, it seemed as though the Blockbuster killer’s opulent spending habits had finally caught up with it – creating a bloated library filled with vaporware that just might not be able to compete with the Disneys and Amazons of the world long-term.
Suffice it to say, Netflix could use a fresh season of one of its biggest hits right now. And that’s what makes the arrival of Stranger Things season 4 so consequential. The sci-fi/horror ‘80s nostalgia trip has been one of Netflix’s most important and popular series since it first premiered in the summer of 2016. Not only that, but this two-part season (volume one, which premieres May 27, contains the first seven episodes of the nine-episode season with episodes 8 and 9 set to premiere as volume 2 on July 1) has been long hyped as the show’s most creatively bold yet, reportedly costing a staggering $30 million per episode. Will all that money help turn the tide for the suddenly staggered streaming giant?
That remains to be seen. What’s interesting about Stranger Things season 4, however, is how closely it takes after the strengths and weaknesses of its studio. Like Netflix itself, Stranger Things’ fourth season is occasionally capable of breathtaking fits of creativity and sincere storytelling joy. It’s also a lumbering, overstuffed beast that can come across as too impressed with itself.
This season of Stranger Things picks up in March of 1986 right before spring break. It’s been only months since The Mind Flayer killed Billy Hargrove (Dacre Montgomery) and destroyed the Starcourt Mall, an event that locals have been led to believe was a devastating fire. As promised by the end of season 3, our usual heroes have been split up and thrown around the globe.
Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin Henderson (Gaten Matarazzo), Lucas Sinclair (Caleb McLaughlin), Max Mayfield (Sadie Sink), Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer), Steve Harrington (Joe Keery), and Robin Buckley (Maya Hawke) all remain in the series’ usual setting of Hawkins, Indiana. Mike and Dustin are part of the afterschool D&D group The Hellfire Club, organized by new character Eddie Munson (Joseph Quinn), while Lucas tries to break into the jock caste as a member of the school’s basketball team.
On the other side of the country, Eleven a.k.a. Jane Hopper (Millie Bobby Brown) now lives with the Byers family – Joyce (Winona Ryder), Will (Noah Schnapp), and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) as they all try to escape the trauma they endured in the Midwest and start anew. Eleven and Will struggle to fit in at school while a suddenly hilariously burnt out Jonathan spends most days getting high with his buddy Argyle (another newcomer, played by Eduardo Franco).
And then there’s the Hopper of it all. Netflix’s marketing campaign has wisely decided to forego any mystery regarding Jim Hopper’s fate and Stranger Things season 4 follows that same lead. Precisely how Hopper (David Harbour) survived the explosion in the basement of Starcourt and ended up in the Soviet Union is revealed in the season’s second episode. Get ready for plenty more snow after that though.
The separation of its characters gives the early episodes of season 4 some storytelling energy to work with. One thing that this show has always understood better than many of its contemporaries and imitators is how much its characters can and should drive its action. Stranger Things’ sprawling, talented cast remains as watchable as ever and the configurations in which the show pulls them together and apart is a big strength. It’s been said before that a lot of Stranger Things’ appeal comes down to how it operates like a massive, emotionally satisfying Dungeons & Dragons campaign and that remains the case here.
Each and every one of the show’s characters has a role to play in the inevitable journey they end up on and they always bounce off one another well. Stranger Things has also developed an enviable strategy of introducing precisely the right number of new characters each season. Hair metal dungeon master Eddie Munson is every bit the breath of fresh air that Robin Buckley was in season 3 and that Max Mayfield was in season 2.
The central plot of this season is once again familiar but mostly effective. As introduced in the show’s self-leaked episode titles and first trailer, the Upside Down monster this time around is Vecna (name once again borrowed from D&D), a hateful, humanoid abomination who turns his victims’ dark thoughts against them. And oh are there ever victims. Though Vecna appears to be more intelligent than his Demogorgon or Mind Flayer predecessors (or at least he can speak English better than they can), his methods are far more brutal and bestial. Between the release of Stranger Things season 4 and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, May is shaping up to be a great month for “Wait, is this too scary for our kids?” thinkpieces.
All of those elements in play for this fourth season do sound compelling on paper and they quite often are in practice. The season’s biggest issue, however, is that its tight, exciting story is nestled within a healthy layer of…well, nonsense.
Let’s put it this way. How long would you say the average episode of an ‘80s adventure story should be? Perhaps a half-hour isn’t enough but the drama TV standard 40-50 minutes should suffice, no? That was the case at least for the first three seasons of Stranger Things, whose episodes all hovered around those benchmarks. Now the shortest…the shortest episode in Stranger Things season 4 is 62 minutes. Each other episode runs in excess of 70 minutes, including a 98-minute midseason finale.
I’m sure Stranger Things creators The Duffer Brothers could make a compelling argument for why each and every second was necessary but it doesn’t mean they’d be right. The experience of watching Stranger Things season 4, particularly when binged, can quickly turn into a slog of synths and sparkling lights. Even when the content onscreen is interesting, scenes can go on for several beats too long or in some cases make clear that they never should have been included in the first place. Additionally, many plot movements in the feel like needless side quests and even make two of the show’s most exciting characters, Hopper and Eleven, largely inert for episodes at a time.
Ultimately, Stranger Things season 4 is more of the same, with emphasis on more. It’s hard to blame the show for wanting to give us more because the formula they’ve created works. The characters in place are so strong and the Upside Down shenanigans they experience are so entertaining that they’ve done virtually the same version of it for four seasons in a row to much-earned success. At a certain point though, Stranger Things has to learn the same lesson that Netflix just did: less is more.
Stranger Things season 4 volume 1 premieres Friday, May 27 on Netflix. Volume 2 will premiere on July 1.