This review contains major spoilers.
With an innovative plot structure, undeniably lovable characters, and a never-before-seen, all-powerful monster enriching an already beloved series, it is no surprise Season Four of “Stranger Things” has already racked up 1.15 billion hours of watch time, becoming Netflix’s second most watched season of all time.
In a departure from Netflix’s usual approach of releasing a series all at once, Season Four was split into volumes, released on May 27 and July 1. While Volume Two only adds two new episodes, each has a runtime equal to that of a feature film: Episode Eight is one hour and 20 minutes long and Episode Nine is a stunning two hours and 20 minutes.
In terms of plot structure, Season Four seems to adhere to the formula established in the show’s previous three seasons: Once again, the ragtag group of Hawkins’ fearless young defenders splits up only to reunite for the final battle. However, the greater magnitude of the season meant that these three main character groups were forced to further splinter and fight their respective battles in separate locations. In Hawkins, Steve, Nancy, Robin, Eddie, Dustin, Lucas, Erica, and Max are gearing up to courageously defeat Vecna, the antagonist at the center of the season — and perhaps the whole series. Hopper, Joyce, and Murray are battling not only Soviets, but also demogorgons in the chilling Soviet Union. Finally, Mike, Will and Argyle are attempting to find Eleven, who has found herself having to fight for her life after regaining her powers. While this seemingly familiar structure leaves viewers expecting a team-up in Volume Two, the last two episodes provide a refreshing change to this format, as each group fights Vecna separately through the entirety of the grand finale.
Volume Two also follows the jaw-dropping reveal that the main villain of the season, Vecna (Jamie Campbell Bower) is Henry Creel, otherwise known as One — the seemingly friendly orderly who helped Eleven during her time in Hawkins Laboratory. An undeniable success of the season is its main antagonist's ability to further develop the plot and tie together loose ends from every other season of the series (as the audience learns that each monster from each previous season was controlled by Vecna). Vecna — as the most powerful character seen so far in the series — foreshadows a real risk never before seen: bringing the Upside Down to Hawkins and eventually, to the world until both realms become one. This risk is what successfully draws in the audience, as Vecna has the ability to kill off beloved characters and overpower the main superhero of the series: Eleven. Season Four has the most compelling, albeit complex plot the series has seen to date.
In addition to its clever plot, “Stranger Things 4”’s expertly curated soundtrack sets the season apart. The Duffer Brothers, the creators and writers of the show, brilliantly aligned a popular ’80s tune to the most intense scene of the season — merging both an undeniable sense of nostalgia with emotional investment in the song, even for a young audience who is listening for the first time. For these reasons, “Running Up That Hill” by Kate Bush, originally released in 1985, exploded in popularity, reaching No. 1 on the UK Billboard Singles Chart and No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 following the season’s release. Bush’s chart-topping song creates an emotional tie between characters and soundtrack that heightens the sentimental impact of each scene.
Going into Volume Two with anticipation of a death count did not soften the blow of losing several beloved characters. Despite evading Vecna earlier in the season (using “Running Up That Hill” as protection), Max Mayfield (Sadie Sink) ultimately finds herself being seconds too late from being saved in the final moments of episode nine. Still, Max’s desperation to survive fuels Sink’s brilliant performance, which is by far the most impressive of the season. Eddie Munson (Joseph Quinn) — an endearing new addition to the season – similarly dies tragically during the final scenes of the last episode. However, Eddie’s death scene allows Quinn to shine, as he maintains Eddie’s cherished charisma and love for the other characters until his last breath.
Complementing standout performances from Sink and Quinn, the series features impressive visual effects, with each episode costing about $30 million to produce. The last episode is able to seamlessly transition from the small town of Hawkins to the haunting Upside Down, allowing viewers to witness more of this realm than ever before. Vecna’s Lair and the Creel House are easily the most frightening sets of the series and allow the fourth season to embrace the horror genre while moving away from the original, lighter-hearted sci-fi elements of the first few seasons.
“Stranger Things’” most successful and engaging season, however, is not without its faults. While the characters of the show are split into smaller groups, the show’s massive cast sidelines many fan favorites for the entirety of the season, including Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard), who was a major character in the first two seasons of the series. With an ensemble cast so large, it’s inevitable that every character won’t be given the arc they deserve. This also means that the tragic deaths that occur at the end of each season — which are almost expected by audiences at this point — perhaps serve the purpose of freeing up narrative space to introduce new characters in the next season. This finale also gives viewers an “Avengers: Infinity War” style penultimate ending, as Vecna is still alive and Hawkins remains in danger. The result is disappointing and unsatisfying for viewers expecting a grand victory over the season’s villain. Now, the true redemption of the cast will have to wait for the Endgame of “Stranger Things”: the fifth and final season of the series.
In simple words, this season’s successes greatly transcend its faults. “Stranger Things” is an undeniable fan-favorite, even causing Netflix to crash for a brief time when Vol. 2 was released. Just as the show’s immense fanbase was in great anticipation for the final two episodes to an outstanding penultimate season, many eagerly await the final season. And, the exorbitant funds and dedication spent on this season is cause to excite fans for an extraordinary, satisfying end to the beloved series.
—Staff writer Monique I. Vobecky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @moniquevobecky.