This review contains spoilers for Season 4 Volume 1 of Stranger Things.
It’s hard for me to quantify exactly where Stranger Things falls in the television canon, to pinpoint where on the spectrum between “television as entertainment” and “television as art” the show lies. It doesn’t reach the rich artistic heights of something like Succession or other prestige dramas, but I’d be doing the show a disservice if I downplayed its artistic achievements and ambitions and just called it “a great time,” the way we might speak about a well-crafted action blockbuster.
The show doesn’t sit squarely in the middle of the spectrum either, as its strengths consistently outshine its weaknesses. There are all sorts of critical arithmetic I could do, deliberating over how it has x amount of good things going for it but aspects y and z suffer. I will be discussing the issues I had with this season – issues that genuinely bother me and aren’t just petty gripes – but the new season of Stranger Things is still an undeniably enjoyable, high-quality watch.
Season 4, Vol. 1 of Stranger Things sees its various characters scattered across the country, which serves to neatly create separate-yet-related storylines. We have the characters in Hawkins (Nancy, Steve, Robin, Max, Lucas, and Dustin), the characters in California (Eleven, Mike, Will, Jonathan, and Argyle), and the characters in Russia (Hopper, Joyce, Murray, and Enzo).
There’s not much to say about the Russia plotline. It’s well-acted, with Brett Gelman’s delightfully unhinged Murray and David Harbour’s Hopper anchoring their respective scenes. Hopper’s relationship with Soviet guard-turned-prisoner Enzo (Tom Wlaschiha, of Game of Thrones fame) provides some nice character moments as Hopper opens up emotionally.
The storyline is extremely sealed off from the rest of the show, so at times it feels perfunctory – it’s the logical next step after the end of season three, but it doesn’t tie into the California or Hawkins storylines in any meaningful way. The prison sequences with Hopper are always engaging, however, and provide a lot of the season’s action, which can be surprisingly brutal and gory. It’s all very solid, and it certainly has to happen, but I found myself longing to return to the Hawkins or Eleven storyline as it was happening.
The California plot is the weakest of the bunch, but at its worst, it’s boring. Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) is the best part about it, with an emotionally resonant bullying storyline setting things in motion for her character. After a retaliation against the bullies sends everything out of control, Eleven is quickly separated from the group to undergo training, during which she relives her memories of life in the Hawkins facility in order to regain her powers (along with her short hair). It’s a far more interesting and fleshed-out look into Eleven’s past than the critically panned “The Lost Sister” episode from season two. Seeing how Eleven grew up and the circumstances that led to her escape from the lab all the way back in season one is truly fascinating, and the reveal that Jamie Campbell Bower’s orderly character is Vecna feels earned and makes narrative sense, which is not often the case for plot twists these days.
Another standout moment in the storyline comes from the Cali group’s visit to Dustin’s (Gaten Matarazzo) Utah-based girlfriend, Suzie (Gabriella Pizzolo). There are a lot of great gags featuring her eccentric religious family, and it’s always good to see the writers expand on a character like Suzie whose brief season three appearance could be seen as a cheap plot device.
Once Eleven leaves the California group, things start to drag a little. It isn’t devoid of drama, but Eleven was clearly the main source of drama, and her departure leaves the show’s weakest characters and actors to fend for themselves as they try to track Eleven down. Not only do the characters have less to do, but the acting falls short of the high standards set by Brown, Sadie Sink (who I’ll get to later), and the rest of the cast. I've never cared for Noah Schnapp's performance as Will, but this time around, Schnapp’s acting shows how Will’s trauma and isolation from the group throughout the events of the series have affected his life.
There are also subtle hints that Will is gay, and I would have loved to see that explored further since up to now Will has only been a conduit for the Upside Down. He deserves some character development, as a treat! Unfortunately, it’s an ambiguous situation according to Schnapp, which really just means Netflix is pretending to have gay representation when it’s more or less queerbaiting. The Cali crew is also joined by Will’s older brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), who feels more nonessential than ever, and his new stoner best friend Argyle provides some goofy, if schticky, comic relief.
Finn Wolfhard’s acting is bad. No way around it. He’s always been a little whiny and frustratingly obtuse as Mike, but he’s also been the de facto group leader, a position that lent him some charisma and good character moments. With all of the characters being split up, however, and with the California crew not having much to do plot-wise, it is genuinely hard to watch him. He retains a flat, wooden delivery that is brought into sharp contrast in his scenes with Millie Bobby Brown, who delivers an emotionally charged performance throughout the season. Perhaps it’s for the best that the show sequesters its weakest links and focuses on its strengths; at the end of the day, the California plotline is unintriguing, and the Hawkins storyline more than makes up for it.
The Hawkins group, meanwhile, is trying to investigate the murders being committed in town by Vecna, the show’s newest villain from the Upside Down. This is by far the strongest plotline, both from a narrative and acting standpoint. It takes the show’s best characters (who also happen to be its best actors) and puts them in the most central part of the story.
Sadie Sink as Max gives an impactful, standout performance, and is easily the most compelling link in the season. She retains Max’s defiant and occasionally aloof qualities while carrying the trauma of her character extremely well. Her line delivery feels true to her character, not as if she’s just going through the motions (looking at you, Finn Wolfhard). Max has generally been the most independent member of the D&D group, so when she becomes cursed by Vecna and faces certain death, the way she reacts in the context of the group makes for excellent high-stakes drama.
It also helps that the Hawkins characters are fan favorites. That’s not to say the storyline overindulges in fan service – it just doubles down on all the great character moments we saw in previous seasons. Joe Keery as Steve is effortlessly charming, and his chemistry with Dustin is impeccable. Robin (Maya Hawke) and Nancy (Natalia Dyer) make an odd couple, and I’m a big proponent of odd character pairings in shows. Speaking of pairings, let’s talk about the romances.
Romantic troubles plague Mike and Jonathan this season, and although Mike is just a hapless idiot (and a bad boyfriend), what Jonathan is going through is a more complex issue. Nancy has big college dreams, but he knows he can’t just follow her and abandon his family. He also knows that if he chooses to stay behind, Nancy, in her selflessness, will abandon her dream and stay near him, which he would feel terrible about. Neither he nor Nancy seem to want to acknowledge this reality, although they both know it’s true. The conflict feels like a natural turn for their relationship and would give their characters room to breathe and grow.
Maybe Jonathan will be interesting again! I don’t know how plausible that is, given that there are only two episodes in Volume Two, as well as the fact that the writers seem to be gently nudging Steve and Nancy towards each other. I also don’t see how that would lead to anything satisfying in just two episodes; both characters work better on their own rather than tied to each other. It’s been great to watch Steve turn into the group babysitter and see how that responsibility has made him more selfless.
It also provides a lot of opportunities for odd character pairings, and, as I said, I’m a sucker for those. I don’t think Nancy needs to be single, but she’s defined by her independence and conviction, both of which seem at odds with Jonathan’s relative lack of ambition. Furthermore, given who Steve is as a person, any relationship between him and Nancy would seem out of place at this point.
The only official breakup to happen so far is between Lucas and Max. It happened sometime between seasons three and four, and it’s really no surprise considering what Max has been through (and let’s face it, Lucas was not the greatest boyfriend). Lucas is in a very precarious position this season, as he’s part of a basketball team who comes to blame D&D club leader Eddie Munson (Joseph Quinn) for the death of Chrissy (Grace Van Dien), the girlfriend of team captain Jason (Mason Dye).
Jason is an easy-to-hate antagonist, whose golden-boy face, narrow-mindedness and blind persecution of Eddie make me think that he’s a stand-in for white evangelical moral panic (he gives a speech to a town hall that is reminiscent of a fire-and-brimstone pastor). When Jason witnesses a Vecna murder, he thinks it’s Eddie harnessing the power of Satan, which goes to show how blinded he is by his prejudice.
The Vecna murders also let the series take a darker, bloodier approach to violence and horror; Vecna breaks his victims’ arms, legs, and jaw before pulling their eyes out, all in graphic detail. That we’re shown this extreme brutality recalls season one’s incredibly dark and disturbing tone, and I’m glad they were willing to go the extra mile and hammer home just how depraved and horrific these events are.
Things get even darker when you realize that all of the victims are tortured by something traumatic from their past. For Chrissy, that’s an emotionally abusive mother, and for Fred Benson (Logan Riley Bruner) it’s surviving a car crash that killed another person. Vecna’s stalking, psychological torture, and barbaric method of murder cement him as an incredibly sinister force, as opposed to the cryptic monsters of seasons past, who were scary but didn’t inspire dread the way Vecna does.
Volume Two of season four comes out in July and consists of only two episodes. Volume One’s episode lengths are all over an hour, with the finale being almost two hours long. Volume One has set the series up rather nicely for a strong finish, and I hope the writers continue to play to the show’s strengths while minimizing its weaknesses. Unfortunately, there's not much room to wrap things up, and I hope the Duffer Brothers reign in their lesser instincts and craft a finale that cements the show’s legacy in the pop-culture sphere. That being said, I’m sure Netflix will find a way to piss away that legacy, and its cultural capital, by funding unnecessary spin-offs while withholding cash from quality original content. But hey, I’m sure they’ll be fine. It’s not like executives don’t understand what audiences want.