stranger things emerged from a pandemic-related three-year hiatus stronger than ever with an ambitious, oversized fourth season — so much so that Netflix released it in two parts. Part 1 had a few minor flaws, particularly in the earlier episodes, but quickly gained dramatic momentum. The cliffhanger ending deftly set the stage for the epic final two episodes, which featured a visually stunning, heart-pounding battle against the residents of Upside Down – and some of the series’ most emotionally resonant moments to date. It’s been two weeks since the release of Part 2 – the perfect time to reflect on the many highs and occasional lows of this final season.
(WARNING! Some very big spoilers below the galleries in the interests of an in-depth analysis.)
This was the show’s best season to date in terms of ratings and attracted so many viewers when Part 2 was released by Netflix over the weekend of July 4th actually crashed in one place. S4 Part 1 dominated the Nielsen streaming charts for four straight weeks, and that dominance is expected to continue once Nielsen releases its numbers for the two super-big finale episodes. (There’s usually a lag of about a month for the streaming platform’s viewership.) Part 1 also received 13 Emmy nominations. Seven years after his debut stranger things is more popular than ever, even bringing two old 80s songs back onto the charts after being featured prominently this season.
The season begins eight months after the S3 finale. The entire Byers clan, including Eleven (Millie Bobbie Brown), has relocated to Southern California, where Will (Noah Schnapp) and Eleven naturally find themselves high school outcasts. Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gate Matarazzo), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), Max (Sadie Sink), Nancy (Natalia Dyer), Steve (Joe Keery) and Robin (Maya Hawke) stayed at Hawkins where Lucas was newly found Basketball skills gives him access to the popular crowd. Meanwhile, Hopper (David Harbour) is being held captive by the Russians, but he plans a breakout with a Russian guard named Dmitri (Tom Wlaschiha). This includes sending an encrypted message to Joyce (Winona Ryder), who promptly boards a plane bound for Alaska with Murray Bauman (Brett Gelman).
The decision to split everyone up geographically resulted in an overall weaker narrative arc, as not all storylines were equally compelling. The subplot “Russia” was by far the weakest, despite great performances from the cast and the odd pairings of Hopper and Dmitri, Joyce and Murray worked very well. There just wasn’t enough storyline to sustain it for the entire season. Also, each subplot is meant to evoke different movie genres, which is a smart idea, but the genres (e.g. prison break movie, stoner action comedy, 80s slasher horror) don’t always go together very well. Honestly, the show works best when it focuses on Hawkins, who has always been the heart and soul of stranger things. This season was no exception.
Out of place
There are a few other little quibbles, most notably the oversimplified depictions of high school thugs in Hawkins (basketball captain Jason, played by Mason Dye) and California (Mean Girl Angela, played by Elodie Grace Orkin) that torment our protagonists. She and her minions are little more than walking clichés, which is all the more striking given how well developed other characters are – including several newcomers this season.
And then there’s Eleven’s disproportionate reaction after being humiliated at the local roller rink before a visit from Mike: she breaks Angela’s nose with a roller skate in anger. This is very atypical and appears to have been smuggled in for plot purposes. Eleven has only ever killed in self-defense, and in the past he would humiliate high school bullies but not harm them. Also, there are no real consequences or lessons learned. She is briefly arrested but is soon transferred to another secret government laboratory. There is a world that needs to be saved and it needs to regain its powers. Who cares if a high school bully got their nose broken?
Part 1 ended with three cliffhangers. Joyce reunited with Hopper when he escaped from his Russian prison, but they had yet to find a way back to the US. Steve, Nancy and D&D Jailer Eddie Munson (Joseph Quinn) – easily this season’s breakthrough character – has been trapped in Upside Down. Dustin, Lucas, and Erica (Priah Ferguson) found another goal to save her, but Vecna snapped Nancy’s sanity at the last minute, and Steve was torn between attempting to save Nancy immediately or searching after the younger children in the “real” world. As for Eleven, she learned the truth about what really happened at the lab on that tragic day – and the true nature of the threat her friends now face at Hawkins. Of course they are connected.
The latter episodes were among the strongest because they served to really flesh out the mythology, and it’s particularly rich and satisfying. Dustin suggests that the Upside Down may have always existed, a hellish dimension inhabited by monsters like the Demogorgon and perhaps created out of human mental anguish. We learned that these creatures formed a hive mind in S2, and in S3 we encountered an apparently conscious entity called the Mind Flayer that Eleven seemed to know. In S4 we found out who this is.
This season’s big bad comes straight out of the classic D&D Lore: Vecna, a once powerful wizard turned undead and then a lich. The series gives Vecna a different backstory that connects the character to everything that has happened in Hawkins since the first season. He looks more like Freddy Krueger from the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, except that he exploits people’s (especially teenagers’) negative thoughts and feelings rather than their dreams.
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