Stranger Things 4 Review


Stranger Things 4 (2022) Creators. Matt & Ross Duffer

A review of the fourth season of Netflix's Stranger Things which was released in two parts this summer. Contains spoilers for all of Stranger Things.

Categories: TV - Netflix - Stranger Things - Duffer Brothers

Stranger Things 4 (2022)

There's a lot to take in here

Stranger Things 4 is the title of the latest season of Netflix’s sci-fi drama Stranger Things which debuted back in 2016. According to series creators the Duffer brothers, Stranger Things was a pre-planned story with the intention being to tell it across four (or five) seasons. I’m not sure exactly how much of Stanger things I believe was pre planned but the shear amount of story has indeed taken up four- and now soon to be five, seasons.

Stranger Things 4 takes place some months after season three, and deals with the aftermath of it’s events. The Byers and El have moved away to California, whilst the residents of Hawkins try to pick up the pieces after the chaotic ending of season three. People are beginning to suggest that the town might be cursed, what with so many deaths, disappearances and other such disasters happening in such short succession. Meanwhile in the USSR, Hopper is alive and interred in a Russian Gulag, attempting to reach his family back in America.

In Hawkins a series of bizarre killings of teenagers are occurring, which the gang learn to be the work of a character they call “Vecna”, a creature from the Upside Down who they suspect to be carrying out the will of previous season villain the Mind Flayer. When they realise that Vecna has targeted Max as his next victim, it’s a race against time to find out what Vecna wants and how to stop him and save Max. Meanwhile, Joyce has received a mysterious message from the USSR suggesting that Hopper is alive. She and Murray get into trouble with a Russian smuggler who they paid to bring Hopper home, and end up in the USSR themselves, trying to rescue him from the prison he is being held in that houses its very own Demogorgon. In California, El falls out with a visiting Mike, before reuniting with an alive Dr Brenner to attempt to reawaken her dormant powers. The California gang head out in search of El, whilst being pursued by the Military who want to kill her, believing her to be responsible for the killings back in Hawkins.

Stranger Things has always followed a few separate storylines, but Stranger Things 4 goes further and separates its storylines by location, putting them in separate parts of the country- or world. When El goes off on her own journey to rediscover her powers, the season features four separate sets of characters in four completely separate places. This is a big contrast to previous seasons, where a lot of the tension came from each storyline accidentally triggering events in another one, something that’s impossible now that all of the stories are set apart.

My general consensus for Stranger Things 4 is that there is a good season in there, somewhere. It just happens to be lost under mountains of filler. It has real-stand out moments of excellence, but unfortunately much more fluff and unnecessary time-wasting.

The best episode

I really hope you like the song Running Up That Hill

When I say “there’s a good season in there, somewhere” I mean that season 4 has some moments of greatness, and it feels like had there not been so much excess and filler, what was left over might have held up to those moments. The stand-out character this season was Max who has had a relatively minor role in the previous two seasons. Stranger Things 4 is really Max’s season, an interesting creative decision that paid off incredibly well whenever the story spared time for her. She was introduced in the second season and added a unique dimension to the main group of kids and was expanded upon in season 3 when she became friends with El, sharing some fun moments together, as well as a continuation of the strained relationship she had with her step-brother Billy, that had been building since the two character’s introduction. Stranger Things 4 actually delivers on the set up of the previous two seasons, showing a rare piece of character development across multiple seasons, something that Stranger Things doesn't do very often. The only other character I can think that has this kind of pay-off would be Steve, who is arguably the best developed character in the show. The episode that delivers -and is by far the stand-out episode of the season, is Chapter 4: Dear Billy and it revolves around Max being targeted by Vecna.

At this point in the show we have already seen two other characters be targeted by Vecna and then killed. We have seen them be stalked and tormented by traumatic memories, leading up to their eventual demise in an excessively horrifying way. At this point the audience knows exactly what is coming for Max and just how serious of a threat it is. Max spends the episode preparing for her own death, she writes letters for her friends and family, seeking closure, before heading to Billy’s grave where she reads out the words that she wished she had been able to say to him when he was alive. Prior to this Max had been a distant character, early on in the season it's revealed that she broke up with Lucas and that she's been avoiding her friends and very much isolating herself after the death of Billy at the end of the last season. It’s clear that it's had a strong impact on her and we see the way that's manifesting in her day-to-day life with her coping by pushing away those who try to reach out to her. Her feelings of guilt over Billy’s death are so severe, when she finds out that she may only have a day left to live, she is almost relieved. Max’s depression and survivors guilt are dealt with very well, and in a way I’m sure that will resonate with a lot of people. The desire to seek solitude, the retreat into music, the avoidance of those who are directly trying to help, and Sadie Sink does a wonderful job portraying the complex emotions of grief.

The episode is spent with the gang split, trying to find a way to escape Vecna’s curse, whilst Max tries to settle her regrets. Nancy and Robin learn that music is the key to breaking free from Vecna’s hold and radio those with Max to tell them, however it might just be too late, as Max is already held by Vecna in an unresponsive trance. He confronts her with a vision of Billy, who confirms all of her worst fears in an attempt to negate her closure. Vecna then backs her into a corner, reinforcing all of her doubts about herself to weaken her resolve and persuade her not to fight back. In the best sequence of the season, shots of Max struggling against Vecna are intercut with her friends desperately trying to find her favourite song in an attempt to free her from Vecna’s hold. As the song begins to play a window opens up in Vecna’s dimension showing a vision to Max of how fiercely her friends are trying to get through to her. Vecna tries to distract her, continuing the rhetoric of guilt and shame, but Max begins to remember the happier moments in her life, the moments that remind her that she has something she needs to return to, a life worth living. As Kate Bush’s Running Up That Hill plays clear over the scene, Max breaks free and begins the metaphorical reach for the light in the darkness, Vecna does everything to slow her down, she falls several times but gets back up again and again, before finally, finally breaking free. Max wakes up and falls to the ground, where her friends tearfully hold her. Lucas says “I thought we’d lost you”, to which she simply responds “I’m still here”. It’s an incredibly powerful moment that’s handled with insightful sensitivity. It’s no push to say that anyone who has thought about taking their own life, or has loved someone who has, will see the intended parallels in this depiction. This episode is a story about being ready to give up and choosing not to.

Season 4 uses Vecna as a sort of metaphor for trauma and its consequences. Each character that he targets has some form of underlying trauma haunting their lives which Vecna forces them to face. He appears as an almost merciful force, telling his victims that their suffering will soon be over, mimicking the comforting allure of death. When Max fights back against Vecna and wins, we see a person refusing to give in. At the last possible moment she changes her mind, she reminds herself that she isn’t the cause of the pain she and others are feeling, and that she still has a life to return to that she wants to live. Stranger Things shows surprising insight into both trauma and the daily fight of living with it, and it deserves all the credit people are giving it for this. It’s a tough subject explored beautifully on screen, and the episode will stay with you long after it finishes.

The acting in Dear Billy is leagues above the rest of the series, not just from Sadie Sink as Max, but Caleb McLaughlin really shines here too. The episode does a lot for Lucas, and builds the relationship between the two of them a bit more. From season 2, where it felt a little forced, Dear Billy actually puts Max and Lucas as one of the stronger relationships on the show. This episode as well has great performances from Natalia Dyer and Maya Hawke, as well as an excellent guest performance from Robert Englund as Victor Creel.

This episode features an early slice of Vecna (or Henry Creel)’s backstory, in the form of recollection by his father Victor. Victor is locked in the criminal ward of a mental hospital after apparently killing his entire family then claiming a demon was responsible. Nancy and Robin visit him to investigate, realising that the deaths of his family mimic the killings by Vecna, and hope to learn how he was able to survive the attack. It’s an early highlight of a great episode and as mentioned, Robert Englund gives a very good performance in such a minor role. Victor Creel is equal parts sympathetic and disturbing, and the sequence involving him is probably the closest the season gets to real horror. It evokes shades of Silence of the Lambs as Victor reveals the shocking details to Nancy and Robin, all whilst building a picture of Vecna’s identity and what exactly he might want. The tension builds wonderfully, as the girls are still trying to get from Victor just how he survived his encounter with Vecna, when they are removed from the premises to be arrested at the same time as Max falls into her trance. When all is lost Robin makes the music connection, and it’s a race to get the information to the others before it’s too late. The tension built up during the Creel story carries straight into Max’s dilemma maintaining the tone and pace. I wish the rest of the season was this skilful with either of these things, but it does just emphasise how well done this episode was for the show.

It’s somewhat sad that this episode fell during the earlier part of the season, as it did unintentionally place emphasis on the flaws of the episodes that followed. If the whole season had been this one episode, it would not only have been the best season, but also put Stranger Things up there again as one of the better shows on Television right now. Unfortunately, the rest of the show is not like this one episode

The technical stuff

I love you rubber monster suit

I was a big fan of the effects this season, There seemed to be a particular emphasis on practical effects this time round which were really nicely done. Vecna’s lair was practically done with some really cool twisted sets, and models of the deceased character’s distorted bodies. Vecna himself was a prosthetic suit which I loved, we’re so used to seeing CGI nowadays, I found myself stunned when Vecna first showed up. I couldn’t stop thinking about how good Vecna’s face was, thinking to myself; “I haven’t seen a cgi character’s face that realistic before! They must have had a massive budget this season!”, only of course to learn that it was the actor’s real face and that’s why it looked so good. It’s amazing the difference it makes, you can talk as much as you like about how we can replicate performances digitally, but it feels different to see a real actor emote on screen. I appreciated this even further when we learned that Vecna was in fact Jamie Campbell Bower’s character. The smallest details, from the physical similarities in the performances, the facial expressions, the way they both do that head tilt thing when they speak, it all came together to hint, before it was revealed to the audience that they were in fact the same person. You couldn’t do that to the same degree with a digital double, something that this very season actually illustrated.

During flashback sequences when El is in the Nina Project, we see CGI younger Millie Bobby Brown, and it just looks odd. Understandably, they only used CGI Millie to establish that moments were from her memories, then used present day Millie for the actual acting. This seems like the logical decision from the stand point of just using the actor as much as possible, but again, nowadays it seems just as likely that they might have put Millie Bobby Brown in a mocap suit and use CGI Eleven for all of these scenes. Netflix has the budget to do this, High-end TV is basically long-form movie making now, so it was refreshing to see this technique used sparingly, least of all because young Eleven looked like a video game character.

This season upped the horror a little bit with some pretty graphic kills, I thought these were nicely done and did a good job of establishing very early on the stakes this season. I also liked the chiming clock, counting down the remaining hours of each victim’s life. It was suitably unnerving, especially once you saw just what that end looked like. The upside Down was looking a little tired this season. It doesn’t seem as scary as it did in the first season when everyone had to wade in heavily armed, in hazmat suits else they inhale the ick particles and start vomiting slugs. When a team of teenagers are diving through portals like it’s nothing, running around shirtless, not even making any effort to cover their face and eyes, then cycling out in the open where they are easily able to defeat some bats with a stick -needless to say the threat of the earlier seasons doesn’t seem to exist anymore. It was nice to see a Demogorgon return, but apart from that the big scary threats of the upside down were reduced to some vines and the occasional bat. The moment when the gang were battling off the bats with sticks did remind of the coat hanger scene from Birdemic: Shock and Terror, and watching the gang navigate the upside down felt a bit like watching kids on a school trip, which isn’t the feel you want in your dimension of ultimate horror.

Stranger Things always does really well with the 80s period elements. A lot of shows tend to think that as long as they use the right technology from the period, the rest of the look doesn’t matter, but Stranger Things never scrimps on the accuracy. The most common flaw with period pieces is usually the hair and makeup even if the sets and costumes are accurate, but Stranger Things never falls into this trap. Seeing all the women with their bright blue eyeshadow and perms brings a big smile to my face, and I love seeing mainstream media go to this level of detail, as it establishes a good precedent for other works to follow. There were some great 80s hairstyles this time round and as always, the costuming was spot on. It really does have that could-have-been-shot-in-the-80s look down, and the commitment to even the smallest detail, like the right kind of coke can, makes this one of the best period pieces on TV.

Too many characters

This is just the main cast of season 4

Stranger Things really seems to have a problem with letting characters go. Recurring characters can be one of the most fun and entertaining elements of television, with writers finding creative ways to re-introduce old favourites and bring previous plot points back up. Stranger Things does not seem to understand this. If you had a major role in a previous season of Stranger things, you are now part of the main cast and are here to stay. Stranger Things started off strong developing its characters into a second season, effectively demonstrating how existing characters and relationships were expanded upon to explore how the events of the first season might have changed their lives forever. The best example of this was probably with Steve Harrington, a relatively minor character who stepped up in the finale of season one. In stranger things 2 Steve becomes a major player, forming an unlikely and charming friendship with Dustin and the other kids. He reconciles his feelings for Nancy and his character is taken in a new direction that creates interesting and exciting scenarios that might not have been able to play out had his character taken the same path as before. Clearly the Duffer brothers understand how to develop a character across multiple seasons, but by season 3, we see the beginnings of this concept falling apart.

Season 3 did see some good development including a nice friendship blossoming between El and Max, Nancy delving into investigative journalism, and Billy actually doing something. It also however, saw a stagnation in Joyce and Hopper’s characters, and the beginning of Will becoming a piece of furniture. Jonathan suffered here too, in fact, season 3 saw the whole Byers family, who had been so pivotal in the first 2 seasons, reduced to background characters. The writers clearly haven’t had any clue what to do with Mike since season 1 and he spends seasons 2 and 3 being mopey and generally getting in the way. These issues created by the earlier seasons aren’t really remedied by season 4 which is one of the absolute biggest problems with this season, especially with the introduction of yet more characters. What the show could have done, and really needed to do, is let some of these characters go. Not necessarily kill anyone off, just trim down the ever expanding cast. Let old characters go off and do something else not plot related. It’s ok for someone to have moved away, or be busy doing something else. We don’t need to know what every character that has ever been mentioned is doing 24/7. With a cast already as large as it is, it’s necessary that not everyone ends up being a series regular, else it becomes impossible to provide time for each person and leaves many characters to become glorified extras.

Season 1 character Barb was in a total of 2 episodes before dying, and yet she went onto become a fan favourite character. The same was true of Bob in season 2, who was delightful and then died. The show has proven that characters can be impactful to the story, whilst being beloved by viewers and not necessarily stick around. Unfortunately there seems to be some kind of one death per season rule, and it can’t be a major character from a previous season. The only exception to this rule seems to be Billy in season three, who was killed at the same time as expendable nice-guy character Alexi. If you’re a nerd and you’ve only just got here, you are going to die. That seems to be a rule on Stranger Things (more on that later).

The issue with this many characters is that it becomes impossible to spend time with them all. By season 4 it becomes a game of pass the conch, with whichever character hasn’t had lines for a while, whichever character hasn’t contributed to the plot yet, whichever character do we need to give something to do, because they’ve just been standing there in the background this whole time. This is best illustrated with Lucas’ little sister, Erica, who returns to the main cast. Last season she had a fun twist moment where she, Lucas’ baby sister, ended up saving the day. This season she is absent for most of the story then turns up towards the end to hang around and do nothing. The Duffers seemed content to leave her as a recurring character for the majority of this season, but then for some reason decided that she needed to be part of the already massive cast for the finale. Her role could have very easily been filled by one of the other characters, making her inclusion even more puzzling. Robin almost goes this way too, she has a nice subplot where she and Nancy travel together to investigate Victor Creel, but after that she is reduced to hanging around in the background and providing vague comic relief, that I’m sorry to say comes off more as annoying this season. Robin was great fun in Stranger Things 3 and an excellent foil to Steve’s character. In season 4 it unfortunately seems as if she’s become yet another character that the writers don’t know what to do with anymore, but for whatever reason still wanted to be part of the main cast. Dustin and Lucas have a tendency towards this too this season, and the entire group in California feel entirely pointless.

Season newcomers to the main cast include Eddie Munson, a guy who plays D&D with the old gang, Stoner Pizza Guy, who’s name is apparently Argyle but I honestly can’t remember anyone ever saying his name, and season villain Vecna aka Henry Creel aka One. Introducing a new main villain seems like a given, but introducing an additional two characters to the main cast which at this point already consisted of 15 returning characters does feel unnecessary- Argyle in particular as he is used exclusively for comic relief and nothing else. It might have been nice to give some of the existing characters a little more personality by splitting the comic relief between them. As it is the other three characters in the subplot that features Argyle: Mike, Will and Jonathan are remarkably uninteresting this season, much as they had been in the last one. This set of characters is at its best when El is around, but she is removed from the situation to go and have a subplot on her own. I can’t help thinking they should have kept her around for longer, because the dynamic was far more interesting when she was present.

Eddie should have been Jonathan

I'm sorry Eddie you just don't need to be here

As for Eddie, I’m going to be crucified for saying this, but he really is another totally pointless character. I understand why he’s become a fan favourite; he fits all the criteria: nerdy but cool, attractive actor, only features in one season before dying… but there’s really nothing that Eddie brings to this season that couldn’t have been fulfilled by a pre-existing character. I think one of the stuck-in-California-black-hole-characters would have been perfect as the town outcast that the gang are trying to prove the innocence of. Will or Jonathan, with their history would have been spot-on. Jonathan could have been a fantastic choice, living on the run could have brought him closer to Will, sharing his own experience when he was trapped in the upside down. They could have still had their moment together at the pizza shop, but this time it’s holled-up together in the Upside Down before Jonathan sacrifices himself to make sure Will is safe, much like Eddie does for Dustin. Yes, I’m saying Jonathan should have died this season. And oops Nancy now don’t you feel bad for falling for Steve again?

I thought the trying-to-set-Nancy-up-with-Steve-again thing was really odd, especially after spending so much time on setting up Nancy and Jonathan, but at least if Jonathan was actually in the picture there would be depth to the two’s growing attraction. Imagine the conflicted feelings of Nancy and Steve growing close again whilst working together to save Jonathan. This plot point might even almost feel justified! Almost!

I saw a lot of people upset online over Eddie’s death, calling it rushed etc. If this was Jonathan it would be impossible to rush. His death would have a huge impact on so many of the characters, he isn’t a character that you can kill off without consequences like Eddie was- which was ultimately the big issue with him. He had no pre-established connection to the rest of the cast, which gave his death no weight. Of course it felt rushed because comparatively, we’ve only just met him. Any other character death this season would have gone very far. We’ve had four seasons to get to know these characters, killing one off would be devastating. I really thought for a second they were going to do it when Nancy found herself under Vecna’s spell, but of course he was just sending a message. Stranger Things would benefit enormously from having the balls to kill of it’s main characters. The one big death in the entire show was Billy, and from that came the very best scenes of season four. The Duffer brothers have demonstrated to themselves how powerful this kind of a development is, but they won’t take it any further. They couldn’t commit to Hopper’s death, they couldn’t commit to Brenner’s death and they won’t commit to any other major character leaving the series.

Why is everyone in a relationship?

I know how you feel, Will

This is my most nit-picky criticism but why is every character in this show in a relationship? Or else looking for one? I know it’s just TV but real-life isn’t like that. You’ve got El and Mike (with potential Will love triangle), Max and Lucas, Dustin and Susie, Hopper and Joyce, Nancy and Jonathan and Steve love triangle, Robin being set up with Vickie, hell even Argyle gets set up with Susie’s sister and she only has about a minute of screen time! It feels like by next season we’ll see Will and whichever Nancy doesn’t pick be it Steve or Jonathan find love on their own to wrap up every person in the main cast with a relationship. Hell lets give Erica a love interest too! And Murray! What about Dustin’s mum, she’s single right? Yuri the pilot? Vecna? Dustin’s cat?? Perhaps its just the ace in me but I found this really frustrating, especially with so many of the cast being so young. In real life, a lot of these young couples wouldn’t last, it’s alright to not find love until later in life. It all feels a bit rushed and all I can think about is how none of these people will still be together when they’re thirty. Not to say that some people aren’t lucky and find the one very early, but all of them? It's ok to be young, it’s ok to be single. It’s not something that must be remedied at the first possible opportunity. There’s a lot more to life than being in a relationship, especially at that age. I don’t know, maybe it’s just me, but I feel I like a little less romance in my sci-fi-horror show, and a little more sci-fi-horror.

It never ends

Our heroes gaze at the immanent fifth season on the horizon

Stranger Things 4 doesn’t exactly have an ending. The final episode is an hour and a half and still somehow doesn’t find time for a conclusion. The episode ends with a reunion, the citizens of Hawkins leaving, and the main characters staring off into the horizon as a storm approaches, implied to be the wrath of the Upside Down. El and Vecna have a showdown, which ends with the gang setting him on fire, which he survives. The only outcome of this finale is that the gang succeed in pissing him off and Eddie dies. It’s also implied that El has powers of resurrection, as she brings Max back from the dead, who is now comatose with broken limbs and apparent blindness. On the up side, this might mean that Max is out of the next season and if Lucas decides to stay with her, that reduces the clutter of characters going into the final season. After the development of these two characters in the last season that might feel like wasted potential, but honestly at this point I’ll take anything to reduce the numbers. The show really should have come to a conclusion this season, it had all the time to and I can’t see where else it can possibly go with an entire additional season’s worth of content.

The episodes in Stranger Things 4 are all over an hour long, the shortest episode: Chapter 3: The Monster and the Superhero being 64 minutes long. The next shortest episode, Chapter 6: The Dive is 75 minutes long. For reference, the generally accepted length for a feature film is between 75 and 210 minutes. This means every episode bar one in season 4 is feature film length, with the final three episodes reaching 85, 98 and a whopping 150 minutes each. The total runtime of Stranger Things 4 is 782 minutes, or thirteen hours. The difference now from season 1’s 405 minute runtime (just under seven hours) and standard 50 minute average episodes is extreme. Stranger Things 4 adds six hours to its usual runtime, and it really shows. No matter how I’ve felt about Stranger Things in the past, I don’t usually find myself feeling bored when I watch it. There was just so much show this season and a lot of it doesn’t need to be included. I hate to do a comparison, but The Lord of the Rings for example, if we’re generous and go for the extended edition which runs just under 12 hours in length, think about just how much story is crammed into those 12 hours, just how many things happen, how many battles, escapes, travels to other parts of the world, how relationships grow and change, which people die and how that effects those around them. Stranger Things 4 is an hour longer than that, with let’s be honest, fractionally as much story.

I compare it to Lord of the Rings, because I found myself thinking about it quite often while I was watching, and not just because I’d rather be watching Lord of the Rings instead. Lord of the Rings has a lot of characters and separated plotlines taking place in separate parts of the world. It’s also very, very long. I think that the Lord of the Rings is the kind of story the Duffer Brothers wanted to tell this season- they even make reference to it a few times. They wanted an epic scale and a grand story, it even has a fantasy-style great evil wizard for the villain. The problem is the Duffer brothers want to tell this epic story whilst still operating as the intimate character drama the show was in its first season. Stranger Things has fallen victim to a trap a lot of long-running series do, the constant need to be bigger, to up the stakes, to be more impressive in scope and scale with each addition. But it doesn’t need to be. Stranger Things is at its best when its small, when it focuses on its characters. Max realising that she wants to live as her friends call for her, Robin coming out to Steve alone together in a quiet Mall bathroom, Papa carrying a crying Eleven down a desolate hallway. The show can be great when it takes its time, when it’s not cutting away to people we’ve forgotten about, when it isn’t interrupting the story to show us some dodgy attempt at comic relief. Stranger Things is trying to have its cake and eat it, but its not working. The show needs to scale back, cut down, and focus on what made it good in the first place: the small town under a big threat, and the people who live there trying to save it.

Stranger Things by Netflix


Stranger Things? More like Lamer Things ammiright?