Spoilers ahead for Stranger Things Season 4 Volume 1!
Stranger Things season 4 has upped the ante to the max! The show’s scope has been expanding for the past three seasons, and boy do they give us a spectacle to behold. As much as I love spectacle, this season occasionally buckles under the weight of its own ambition. There’s so much to cover this season, so this review is divided between the good and the bad. Let’s start with the good.
There’s so much to like about Stranger Things season 4. And it’s not even over yet! We still have two more episodes to go. I appreciated that each episode was given time to breathe. They had the quality of something you’d see in a theater. The writing manages to create multiple different storylines that should intersect in volume two. My favorite storylines were El’s and the Hawkins gang. El is still very much the emotional core of the show. I enjoyed seeing her powerless for once because we get to explore her repressed trauma at the Hawkins Lab.
The plot twist of Vecna’s identity is set up perfectly. The answer is right in front of us the whole time, and whether or not you guessed it beforehand, it was extremely smart writing. The reveal that the orderly was Henry Creel/One/Vecna absolutely blew my mind. I was amazed the writers were able to tie all those different mysteries together. Henry Creel’s motivation for exterminating humanity seemed a little weak, but Jamie Campbell Bowers still managed to sell it with his acting. I’d consider this a breakout performance for him.
Everyone’s acting this season was amazing. The hair and makeup was flawless. While some can no longer rock the bowl cut look, I appreciate the commitment to the time period. The sound design is just as amazing. One of my favorite things the show does well is sync sound with light. Each time a flashlight or lamp flickers on or sweeps the environment, the music mimics it. It creates an atmosphere that totally engrosses the viewer in the show.
We can’t forget the visual effects! Stranger Things sets the bar so high for VFX in streaming. This is movie level quality that competes with the silver screen. Vecna is the star of this season, and the prosthetics and makeup completely transform Jamie Campbell Bower into a terrifying otherworldly monster. In a Variety article, Bower revealed that Vecna is “90%” himself under makeup and prosthetics that took over seven hours to apply. I’m in awe that Vecna is not rendered mostly in CGI. Unfortunately, the CGI does stumble when de-aging Millie Bobby Brown for the flashbacks of young Eleven. Those scenes stepped a little into the Uncanny Valley for me, but I’ll forgive them for the fantastic look of the rest of the show.
On the other hand, some of this season did not work for me. In terms of storylines and cast, Stranger Things finally bit off more than it could chew. There were four totally separate storylines, each with a different group of characters. We’ll call them the Russia gang, Hawkins gang, California gang, and Eleven. The Russia storyline dragged on for too long. The trailers for the season gave away that Hopper was going to fight a Demogorgon, but it doesn’t happen until the final episode. Viewers must wait until the last episode for the Demogorgon and Hopper/Joyce reunion. This makes the viewer lose interest in the story and the characters. The California gang also suffers from this. The characters there aren’t given much to do until El is whisked away. The physical separation of the cast weakens the heart of the show. While the grander scale and scope can be spectacular, the charm is lost when the characters aren’t all together and able to bounce off each other.
There are also just too many characters this season. The show can’t possibly dedicate enough time to fully flesh out all of them. When the show spends less time on some of these people, we begin to care about them less. The two biggest victims of this are Mike and Jonathan. These two are part of the original cast and were integral parts of earlier seasons. But in this season, they are tossed to the side. Jonathan has nothing to do but get high, as the story favors putting Nancy and Steve back together. This makes no sense given they’ve spent three seasons setting Nancy and Jonathan up. I love Steve, and he should get his own love interest or find something else he’s passionate about instead of still pining after Nancy. Mike is also absolutely useless this season. All he does is mope over El. The way the writers regress or abandon these characters is an injustice that makes them feel like completely different people—people we have not come to love over three seasons.
Will is underwritten, too. His sexuality is finally explored a little. Poor Will spends this season pining after Mike, who is clearly in love with El. This boy can’t catch a break. I was hoping we could focus more on his struggle with his feelings for a best friend. The writers choose to focus on other things, which feels like a slap in the face for a character who was once the center of the show. The writers and characters even seem to forget his birthday! I’m a big Will fan, and he deserves more screen time and better writing than this. Maybe things will change when volume 2 comes out, but I’m not so sure. Robin’s crush on another girl at the beginning of this season is also suddenly dropped. It’s not a good look that the show has fallen into the trope of 'burying its gays' underneath all these other storylines.
Overall, I’ve enjoyed this season’s twists and turns, but it’s not my favorite. The production elements are high quality, but they struggle coming together in a satisfying way. Stranger Things season 4 feels too big for its own good, and I often found myself missing the more down-to-earth, character-based charm of earlier seasons. I'm anxious to see how volume 2 wraps this season up on July 1.
Stranger Things is streaming now on Netflix.