After a three-year hiatus prolonged by the pandemic, the cultural phenomenon “Stranger Things” (2016–) finally made its return with a brand new season.
With the show’s prolonged absence and a trailer that featured many unfamiliar locations and characters, the direction of the show’s return seemed skeptical. Oftentimes in later seasons, writers shake up the foundation of the show with new settings, characters and other elements in an attempt to keep the audience interested. Much of the time, this strategy fails miserably.
Luckily, with “Stranger Things 4,” this wasn’t the case.
Season Four shakes up the previous ‘small-town’ vibe of the first three seasons by plunging the audience into four different storylines in completely different locations: California, Russia, Nevada and Hawkins, Ind. Each plot brings a distinct tone and atmosphere that’s different from the others — Hopper in a prison escape, the Byers in an action thriller, Eleven in a sci-fi world and the rest of the group in a teenage horror film. While many shows enact a multi-pronged storyline structure, the genius of “Stranger Things 4” arises in how the writers bring the stories together. Instead of all of the characters physically coming together, each group fights telepathically from their own location to vanquish the evil. It’s a format that’s especially savvy from the writing team, one that dubs ‘mind fights’ as a uniquely “Stranger Things” concept.
From a production standpoint, season 4 is the biggest and boldest by far. Reminiscent of a James Bond film, every episode is action-packed, featuring complicated choreographed shootouts, huge explosions and intense car chases through arid deserts. The CGI is even more intricate and detailed, as the creators give us an in depth look at the Upside Down, as well as dozens of closeups of Demogorgons and other creepy creatures. The MVP award has to go to the prosthetics team who developed the intricate viney mold that actor Jamie Campbell Bower donned to bring the show’s horrifying main antagonist Vecna to life.
Like all the seasons that preceded it, season 4 continues to enthrall viewers with a slew of ’80s cultural references. With a classic soundtrack featuring “California Dreamin’’’ (1986) by the Beach Boys, “Master of Puppets” (1986) by Metallica, as well as (of course) Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill (A Deal with God)” (1985), “Stranger Things” continues to give new life to ’80s hits. This season also leans heavily into ’80s horror, with the inspiration of Vecna coming from Freddy Krueger in “A Nightmare on Elm Street” (1984).
“Stranger Things” has a track record of introducing great new characters and killing them off in the same season. Season 4 is no exception, with Joseph Quinn’s Eddie Munson entering the fold. Eddie is a great character — his wild and dynamic persona brings a revived energy that complements the original characters. His run on the show builds to an epic character arc where he finally stops running away and faces the conflict head on, ending in the ultimate sacrifice. With many memorable moments including his Upside Down ‘metal concert,’ Eddie will likely remain as the entire show’s most impactful one-season character.
This season featured many standout performances, but no one was more captivating than Sadie Sink as Max Mayfield. Unlike other seasons, season 4 more dominantly focuses on themes of mental health, depression and overcoming trauma. Sink’s character is at the forefront of this, as she struggles with feelings of guilt over her brother’s death. As Vecna incrementally murders other helpless teenagers, he preys on Max’s isolation and vulnerability, making her his next victim. In the emotional climax of episode 4, “Dear Billy,” Max breaks free from Vecna’s curse through the positive memories of her loved ones, returning from his captivity panting, “I’m still here.” Sink’s ability to convey the incredibly high stakes of this moment will forever have a lasting impact in my mind.
The season finale featured a nearly two-and-a-half-hour run time and a huge cliffhanger to leave us all begging for more heading into season 5. Although the finale was enjoyable, the writers played it a little too safe. Even though a Max Mayfield death would’ve been devastating, it would have that much more of an impact on the motivation of the rest of the characters. The finale also left out some details such as Enzo’s fate and more reactions to Eddie’s death that could have more properly wrapped things up without feeling rushed. Despite these minor grievances, the finale was a big, bold and epic conclusion to the show’s most ambitious season yet.
After a three-year absence, “Stranger Things” reminded us all why it’s one of Netflix’s biggest hits. Can it stick the landing in season 5?