For the last two months, Netflix, the biggest streaming service in the world, has released its biggest show to date: Stranger Things Four. Undoubtedly, Stranger Things is Netflix’s flagship show, racking over 1 billion hours of viewership worldwide and closing in on Squid Game’s 28–day record of 1.65 billion hours.
Stranger Things Four might be the biggest TV show ever created—both in budget and production. This season alone cost around $30 million per episode, which is more than the cost of an episode of Game of Thrones and The Mandalorian combined. With this larger–than–life season, Stranger Things has joined a select group of shows (Game of Thrones would be one) that are by definition “television,” but feel much more aligned with a blockbuster movie. Someone could look at the runtime of Stranger Things Four, with nine episodes all over one hour, and easily see nine feature–length films.
Stranger Things Four is quite cinematic in scope and production. The show’s production design, visual effects, costumes, and score are just incredible. This season has our characters in brand new locations, including spending the most time in the Upside Down to date, and each shot is so detailed and authentic to the time period.
While this season might be Stranger Things' most bloated season so far, yet the show has remained fairly strict to its usual formula: The gang breaks apart, uncovers dangerous secrets, comes back together at the end, and a side character dies to keep the main group alive. This formula is both a blessing and curse, as it remains true to the show’s original focus on character relationships and the power of friendship—but it also makes the show predictable.
Season four revolves around four main storylines that slowly converge in the finale: the storylines of the Californian crew, the Russian crew, the Hawkins crew, as well as Eleven’s individual journey in Nevada. While I respect Stranger Things’ bold decision to expand the show beyond the town limits of Hawkins, this season suffers significantly from the storylines not connected to this fictional Indiana town, as it remains the heart of all of the action.
Given the Russia storyline’s distance from the season’s prime villain, Vecna, and all other story moments, it is the worst one of the four. In particular, Hopper’s escape from Russia has no urgency or purpose in Volume II other than to slow the pacing of the climactic moments between Eleven and the Hawkins group in their face–off against Vecna.
The California storyline, which was trademarked as an “action stoner–comedy” (even though the Hawkins storyline is way funnier), is a step–up from the Russia one—but not by too much. The whole sequence with Dustin’s girlfriend, Suzie, is a total rip–off of a Wes Anderson movie and not even a good one. The California storyline does get significantly better when Eleven joins Will, Mike, Jonathan, and Argyle at the end of episode eight, but only because they then become more infused with the dangers in Hawkins.
Eleven’s journey through her past provides some much–needed answers to our pressing questions about the Upside Down, but the storyline is mostly devoted to Eleven regaining her powers, leaving her best moments for Volume II.
By far, the greatest storyline in Stranger Things Four is the Hawkins storyline, or what I call “Scoops Troop 2.0.” This storyline made this season a triumph—each beat is compelling and always connects to the central conflict of this season: Vecna. Stranger Things began as a supernatural mystery tale where the kids were the detectives uncovering the truths about their town, and this newest storyline set in Hawkins did the best job of keeping the show close to its origins. The “Scoops Troop 2.0” storyline includes all of the encounters with the Upside Down and Vecna, besides for Eleven’s mind–fight. It also has the show’s best character pairings like Max and Lucas, Nancy and Robin, Dustin and Steve, Robin and Steve—or really anyone paired with Steve.
The Hawkins storyline also is the center of one of the show’s finest episodes, “Dear Billy,” where Max is cursed by Vecna and uses the power of Kate Bush to save her. What makes this episode so moving with its famous final scene is that it’s the clearest representation of what made the show a phenomenon: Max isn’t really being saved by Bush’s music, but by the love from her friends. Even with all of the mystery and science–fiction elements in Stranger Things, the show is at its strongest when it focuses on the friendship of its main characters. Thankfully, the Duffer Brothers, the co–creators of the show, haven’t lost sight of this at all.
While the finale with Hawkins and the Upside Down merging together was the show’s most cinematic moment, it could hardly be argued as shocking. The Duffer brothers have said they wanted season four to match the tone of The Empire Strikes Back where the heroes lose, and Vecna’s visions of Hawkins being destroyed in episode eight appropriately happened literally one episode later. Regardless, the season’s downbeat cliffhanger ending surely sets up the final season as the ultimate confrontation between the Upside Down and Hawkins.
It’s quite refreshing to see how much Stranger Things has evolved from four boys playing Dungeons and Dragons in season one to having most of its strongest performances played by badass women. Sadie Sink’s Max was always a likable character, but never a real standout until this season when she became the first kid without superpowers to find herself in an actual life–or–death situation. Sink has the most emotional storyline of the season, and she delivers every monologue with real horror and pathos. Caleb McLaughlin’s Lucas is the ultimate support net for Max, and McLaughlin’s emotional scenes with Sink in Volume II are also some of the show’s most depressing and tearful moments.
As the unofficial lead of the show, Millie Bobby Brown’s Eleven picks up a lot of the heavy–lifting in Volume II with her powers restored. Eleven’s entire Inception–esque fight with Vecna inside Max’s mind was thrilling to watch, and Brown is essential to grounding the show in both friendship and supernatural elements.
Personally, Gaten Matarazzo’s Dustin has been my favorite character since season one. With Mike off in California, he becomes the de facto leader for the Hawkins gang this season, using his wit to uncover how the Upside Down works and Vecna’s various schemes. Dustin also encapsulates all of Stranger Things’ themes perfectly: nerdiness, friendship, and impeccable detective skills.
Joe Keery’s Steve remains the best mom of the show and whose relationship with Robin continues to balance the supernatural moments with relatable adolescent struggles. One gripe with Steve’s storyline this season is that the show continually foreshadowed his death with his whole “family of Harringtons” and “thump on the head” monologues, so it felt anticlimactic seeing Steve walk away unscathed.
Finn Wolfhard’s Mike is sidelined this season along with Noah Schnapp’s Will, whose disappearance was the inciting incident of the entire series. Will’s scene where he expresses his feelings for Mike is subtle yet obvious to anyone paying attention—except for Mike. Besides a later heart–to–heart conversation with his brother Jonathan, Will never expands upon his sexuality. Will is just a freshman in 1986, smack in the middle of the stigmatized HIV/AIDS epidemic, an overall less accepting time than today, so Will’s touching speech feels organic and fitting. Mike is also an awful friend throughout this season to Will: The best line of the season might go to Mike when he confesses his love to Eleven and says that his “life started that day we found you in the woods,” also known as the day his best friend Will went missing and was presumed dead.
Joseph Quinn’s Eddie Munson, the best addition this season, fell prey to the show’s most repetitive arc: killing off a new side character. Fans have seen this treatment with Bob, Joyce’s boyfriend, and Alexi, the lovable scientist, and Eddie is the latest victim of this plot point. It’s frustrating how none of the main characters die or really get hurt after fighting creatures from an alternate dimension. Dustin breaks his leg and Max ends in a coma, but how are none of the dozens of main characters not dead yet? I’m not asking to see a gruesome death of one of the teenage kids (although we basically saw that with Max), but it’s laughable how unrealistic it is that most characters leave the season physically unhurt—just with some emotional trauma.
After a seemingly endless three years, season four of Stranger Things is a welcome return to streaming’s biggest show and the world of Hawkins. With just one season left until the show’s conclusion, hopefully all storylines and questions will be answered before the show ends. Let the countdown begin.