After the utter inconsistency of “Stranger Things” season three, I was really looking forward to this new season. Don’t get me wrong; I respect the third season for expanding the world outside of Hawkins. The addition of the mall, the Russians, and the end of the Mind Flayer were all cool. New characters like Robin and Alexei also became favorites. However, I found the third season unable to work its magic at times and make classic 80s tropes engaging again. The honestly ridiculous plot and lackluster storytelling also had me worried the show had “jumped the shark”, or passed its peak. Thankfully, through this fourth season, we can see the Duffer brothers starting to walk back towards what made “Stranger Things” great in the first place.
The plot was definitely not the strongest part of this season. The main story has arguably not been on par with the characters since maybe season two. However, whereas last season was hard to believe and kind of forgettable, this season sticks much harder. The reason? They simply grounded each of the story arcs better within the world created and the characters that live through it.
My favorite arc throughout has to be that of the Hawkins group. I mean, small-town hysteria, journeys into the Upside-Down, Vecna? More of that in the finale, please. Hopper and Joyce’s escape from Russia probably takes second place, with the whole prison break and Demogorgon at the end. Last place goes to the California group. This isn’t because of Eleven; her arc actually becomes really good by the end. It’s last due to the four driving amigos that the writers did little with, at least until the end. Honorable mention goes to the Hawkins Lab people versus the Army portion, which saved me from despising the aforementioned arc.
We sure do jump around in this season, huh? We have the clearly on-edge and paranoid Hawkins, with new set pieces like Lover’s Lake or the abandoned Creel House. We have the Russian prison/village, putting the cold in Cold War. We have California with its stereotypical 80s west coast vibe and copious amounts of sand. Oh yeah, the classic, red-tinged air and gross tentacle things of the Upside Down too.
This is the most variation in setting we’ve had as “Stranger Things” viewers. I find it really refreshing that after three seasons of mostly staying in Hawkins, we finally venture out to other frontiers. It makes the overarching conflict feel more monumental and world-changing. Granted, the more prominent events still happen within the small Indiana town that’s really been run through the wringer, but it’s still nice to see. Tragically, with the way the final season is shaping up, we may never get this again. A true shame.
The core of this show, and the reason that most of its fans care about it, is the characters. The Duffer brothers just have a way with making you care for fictional people, especially the side characters. Robin is her usual comedic and nervous self; you can’t help but root for her. Hopper and Joyce are the best couple in the show, fight me about it. Murray is such a delight: the best parts of Cold War truther and massive nerd. The love triangle among Jonathan, Nancy, and Steve… happens, but at least Nancy and Steve kick enough ass to make up for it. Argyle is a quote machine, and Eddie is Eddie! There’s a reason fas are on their knees begging for him to come back for the final season.
This characterization juice runs a bit dry, however, once we get to the main cast. Max, Lucas, and Dustin all have decent character moments that kept me watching.
Dustin’s relationship with Eddie and Steve is such a treat to watch, and Max and Lucas’s relationship took a turn I wasn’t expecting. However, the show has a terrible tendency to worm main character moments into awkward times. This often dilutes any emotional investment and makes the audience feel like tearing their own eyes out instead of watching the scene fully. I’m looking at you, Will and Mike.
(Also, Mike is one of the least likable characters in the show, and I think this is mostly the writers’ fault. Finn Wolfhard has the ability to be funny and relatable, guys – come on!)
The villains, though? My gosh, Vecna may just stand out as the best villain we’ve had in this series to date. The Russians are fairly imposing, and Jason with his goon squad are serviceable villains early on. But man, they just get blown out of the water standing up to Vecna. His design is part otherworldly gore, much like the Mind Flayer, and part humanity with a hint of his original face shining through. Vecna’s powers are not anything we haven’t seen before, but they’re heightened to new levels with both the visuals given by the show and the motivations behind it. His backstory is somewhat shaky early on, but his time in the Hawkins Lab brought back all the praise from me.
You probably can’t sympathize with him that much, but did you really need to for him to be memorable? He’s a powerful force, and it doesn’t even seem like he lost by the end of the season. A force closer to us humans fighting against our main cast is just what the show needed. Vecna is a true herald for the new world Hawkins sees itself in by the end.
Even though it was flawed, this season was a great step in the right direction, setting up the series’ conclusion. I can’t wait. Four out of five crabs!