This review of Stranger Things season 4 is spoiler-free and covers the first volume of the season, which is set to be released via Netflix on May 27, 2022.
In its fourth season, Stranger Things is bigger than ever. This is no secret: reports of the Netflix juggernaut’s movie-sized episodes and apparently massive budget have already made the rounds ahead of its premiere. But the show’s bigger is better mentality is key to the new season. Sometimes, its grand gestures pay off. Other times, the show feels as if it could collapse under the weight of its own ambition. Stranger Things season four is sprawling, thrilling, and rewarding, but it’s also a bit of a mess.
The season picks up in 1986, nearly a year after superpower-blocked Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) moved to California with the Byers family. As with past seasons, it splits its time between multiple groups of key characters, but by now, the team of teens that once saved the world together is more divided than ever. El struggles to fit in, Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) and Nancy (Natalia Dyer) angst about college, and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) joins the basketball team while Mike (Finn Wolfhard) and Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) choose to embrace Hawkins High School’s Dungeons & Dragons group instead.
The Hellfire Club, as the D&D group is called, serves as the starting point for the season’s most impressively harrowing arc. The group is led by a gleefully melodramatic metalhead named Eddie (Joseph Quinn), who’s the best of a new crop of characters. Eddie is an over-the-top outsider whose rebellious spirit doesn’t exactly help him out when he ends up in the middle of a Satanic Panic-like disaster.
Stranger Things season four wants to be a lot of things at once, including a Dazed and Confused-like teen movie and a Nightmare on Elm Street-like slasher. It’s at its best when it dips into straight-up horror, which it does surprisingly often. This is the scariest season of the once-cutesy show, replete with gnarly scenes of supernatural violence, a monster named Vecna, and a more expansive look at the Upside Down than ever before. Unfortunately, in writers’ attempts to explain the mythology behind Hawkins’ dark realm once and for all, the show juggles so much that its attempts at clarity only make it feel more convoluted than ever.
The season’s biggest sin is the utterly uneven deployment of its beloved characters. While geeky lesbian Robin (Maya Hawke) shines alongside ever-charming Steve (Joe Keery), Jonathan treads water in California. New characters like Eddie and affable stoner Argyle (Eduardo Franco) are worth additions to the cast, while plenty of others just serve to pull focus from the already large ensemble. Most frustratingly, some of the characters whose progress fans have been most invested in for years–namely Eleven, Hopper (David Harbour), and Will (Noah Schnapp)–seem to be going backward.
The season’s bloated runtime does little to help on these fronts. Hopper, who promotional materials have revealed is actually alive in Russia, languishes in his icy purgatory for scene after disconnected scene. Meanwhile, Will, who has been queer-coded since the show’s beginning, languishes in an awkward, stymied semi-silence for much of the seven episodes available for review. The sweet, sensitive character seemed poised to emerge from the Upside Down post-season one as one of the show’s strongest heroes, but now it seems like he might be trapped in a poorly-written closet. Eleven’s alienating and glacially-paced plot is even worse. Despite spending two seasons demonstrating the importance of her normal adolescence, the new season seems to want her back the way she once was: scared, nearly wordless, and at the mercy of powerful men.
The fourth season of Stranger Things has scenes that astound and scenes that perplex. Its moments of teen angst are sometimes drawn out to an unintentionally hilarious degree, and the show still seems determined to throw in jokes that are way more kiddish than its audience needs or deserves. Much of what does work comes from the ways in which its complex new mythology allows a few of its characters to mature. Namely, Max (Sadie Sink) emerges as the unexpected heart of the season. A scene midway through the season involving the grieving girl and an iconic needle drop might be one of the show’s best and most profound ever. In another excellent scene, heartthrob hero Steve Harrington gets to engage with some of the series’ coolest, grossest set pieces to date.
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, the Duffer Brothers and Shawn Levy may as well have given out flowers to every major ‘80s classic out there by now. But for all its overflowing chaos and uneven writing, the new season of Stranger Things blazes its own path more than any other. Its references, especially to horror classics, run deep. Yet by putting some of its long-held backstory cards on the table, the show also finally proves it’s more than the sum of other stories’ parts. Stranger Things season four might be unwieldy and imperfect, but it’s also absorbing in its scale and creativity. It’s about as big as event TV gets.