Dialed Up to Eleven
(This review contains spoilers for both Part 1 and Part 2)
Stranger Things Season 4 is the first season of the show to be divided into two separate parts and it quickly became clear as to why that is. Its massive, and filled to the brim with lots of characters, story threads, and lore wrapped into it that initially made me weary of whether they could pull it off. Thankfully, the Duffer Brothers not only put my fears aside, they buried them and set them on fire to the point where I am absolutely in love with the series. Season 4 of the acclaimed Netflix series is the show at its darkest, most ambitious, and undoubtedly its best. It dials its story up providing answers to long standing questions, increasing the stakes, and investing in its new and established characters well to create an engaging season that ranks not only amongst the best of the series but out of any TV show period.
The season is set 8 months after the events season 3 and finds most of our characters scattered. On the Hawkins front we have Dustin, Lucas, Erica, Max, Steve, Nancy, Robin, and newcomer Eddie investigating a series of murders by an entity from the Upside Down dubbed initially as Vecna. Then we have Mike, Will, Jonathan, Eleven, and newcomer Argyle in California with Eleven seeking to regain her powers she lost while also uncovering past repressed memories from her childhood. Finally, we have Joyce and Murray embarking on a journey to Russia to free Hopper from a Russian prison to rejoin the fight. It’s a lot of different story threads all initially moving in different directions which made the first one or two episodes a little jarring to watch. However, by the time the season comes to a close you realize that everything is planned out leading to a culminating finale that is equal parts satisfying, thrilling, and emotional in all the right ways.
The most interesting storyline for me was the Hawkins gang investigating the kills by Vecna. The mystery they are unraveling feels natural, and the writing in these segments kept me engaged from beginning to end. It also lead to some great pairings that we have come to love (Steve and Dustin) but also some welcome new ones (Nancy and Robin). The gang is growing and maturing, and seeing them solve their way through each problem, question, and investigation just leans into the maturity this show has mastered. It is also more mature from a tonal perspective. The murders by Vecna and the anticipation building up to each one is something out of a premium horror adventure. This line has the characters reconciling with past trauma and dealing with emotions they aren’t used to processing, and no character benefits the most from this choice than Max.
Sadie Sink deserves an Oscar, an Emmy, or whatever the highest award is for her performance in this season. She gracefully carries the weight of a character who has been through emotional hell and absolutely sells the dramatic tension that rises when she is in danger. When the famous “Running Up That Hill” sequence hit, I genuinely didn’t think Max was going to make it through. This sequence in particular highlights just how tight the writing is. Its tense, its emotional, it gets our blood boiling, it frightens us, and it delivers the series best moment and episode. It speaks volumes of a show where you feel that no one is actually safe from danger which ups the ante in all different aspects.
The California storyline from Eleven’s perspective was also a highlight as we finally found out some answers about her past and the Upside Down. Fans have been waiting patiently to hear more and finally understanding Eleven’s connection to the Upside Down and how far her powers can go provided satisfying intrigue that help fleshed out the lore. In terms of Mike, Will, Jonathan, and Argyle, their quest at times feels like the jarring detour given its difference in tone and detachment from the central story. Thankfully, the show doesn’t focus too much on this area in the first part and gracefully brings it together in the second part. The Russia storyline feels like a completely different world, but that is not exactly a bad thing. These sequences are beautifully directed and provided some great action sequences whether that’s the eventual Demogorgon showdown or the break in to the prison from Murray and Joyce. It also gives a great character arc for Hopper justifying the reason to keep him alive for these segments.
Like I said, there is a lot happening here in the season but thankfully the show never misses a beat in ensuring that we are intrigued to the story, attached to the characters, engrossed in the world, and exhilarated with action/horror. There is never a dull moment which is quite impressive when the episodes range from 1 hour and 15 minutes to a whopping 2 hours and 22 minutes. In fact, I feel like some of the episodes could have been longer. The story never feels like its just circling around or wasting our time, each moment feels crucial and vital. Particularly episode 7 which is 1 hour and 40 minutes, I was on the edge of my seat during the entire backstory of Vecna/One/Henry and I couldn’t believe the episode just ended, I wanted more! They are always progressing the story forward and building to satisfying reveals, and emotional payoffs.
The newest addition to the lore is Vecna, and my goodness is he an excellent villain and character to be added to the mythos. The effects for him look incredible and each time he steps on screen, he insights terror and fright to the audience. Its also to the shows credit that I didn’t see the reveal of his true identity until the final moments when Eleven walks in on One brutally murdering the children the same way Vecna was in the present day. That entire sequence was beautiful storytelling, and seeing the origins of the Mind Flayer, the Upside Down, and how this all connects to Eleven made me finally understand and feel the payoff of waiting the past 6 years for these answers. It shows just how invested the team is into production that everything lines up so well. We understand why the Upside Down was always after Eleven, and how the Mind Flayer came into the picture. It ups the stakes of re-watching the previous seasons and set in motion a fantastic final two episodes.
While the three (or technically four) storylines were initially its own thread in part 1, they seamlessly and beautifully come together in part 2. With only two episodes but 4 hours of runtime to tell it, the Duffer Brothers manage to bring together everyone in their journey to stop Vecna and attack the Upside Down. It’s actually quite brilliant how they pulled it off with the penultimate episode setting the players in motion and the 2 hour 22 minute finale lighting the match to let the dominoes fall. Each character is given something to do, and with an ever expanding cast of almost 20 pertinent characters right now that’s an impressive feat. From Dustin to Eddie, from Steve to Argyle, from Max to Robin, and even Yuri to Hopper, no character feels wasted or lacking relevance to the narrative. That is also bolstered by the fact that any character can go at any time adding a sense of tension that isn’t normally present in shows such as the new Star Wars or Marvel shows. These are characters we have grown attached to and cared for over the course of a few years.
But even then, the show is able to have quieter, character building, and emotional moments within its cast. Whether that’s Steve conveying his hopes for a family to Nancy, Lucas and Max reconnecting in their relationship, Eddie and Dustin sharing a playful banter before entering the fight, and particularly Will admitting his feelings to Mike in a subtle/not so subtle way. These moments make the show feel more than just a glorified horror display or a lazily written world. These are fully real humans with wants, feelings, sadness, and brokenness within and I’m glad the Duffer Brothers in all of their scope and ambition still retained the human and heart warming elements of the show as they pushed the boundary of storytelling, thrills, and effects.
The trip into the Upside Down by the Hawkins Gang easily ranks among the series best moments. Seeing them enact their four phase plan and fearing every step of the way that one miscalculation could result in death and even the end of the world was an exhilarating watch. I honestly had no idea how everything would play out, would Vecna win and the world end, would our favorite heroes become trapped in the Upside Down, or would Eleven pull through and save the day? Thankfully, the Duffer Brothers provided on all fronts delivering a satisfying character arc with Eddie’s heroic sacrifice and Max’s tearful departure with Lucas as she dies momentarily. Both of these moments packed a brutal punch and leave the entire gang in the wake of mourning, fear, yet determination to push forward.
And push forward they will need to! The end of the season shows that Vecna accomplished his goal in opening the gates to Hawkins utterly destroying their town and allowing his world to come into ours. The final few minutes illustrate that the end is just upon us, and while they may have momentarily won the small battle, the war for Hawkins and the entire world is just around the corner. With all of the main players back in Hawkins, it will take all of their strength to put an end to the Upside Down once and for all. In a similar vain to Avengers: Infinity War, we are left with a cliffhanger that sets the stage what will undoubtedly be a spectacular finale. If this is anything akin to what it set up in Avengers: Endgame, I say bring it on.
Stranger Things Season 4 is a masterpiece in ambition, scope, storytelling, character development, and exhilarating action,. It raises the emotional and real world stakes for its characters and pushing the narrative forward in world shattering ways. There was so much ground to cover in this season and it would have been easy to get lost, but thankfully the Duffer Brothers kept their eyes on the prize and knocked it out of the park, out of the planet, and out of the solar system to deliver one of the best streaming viewing experiences period. It will be a little while before we get to see how everything wraps up, but if its anything like what they did here I have full confidence it will be a wild ride.