I remember watching Stranger Things Season 1, a watershed moment for Netflix and the streaming era, and wanting it to last forever. Three seasons and almost six years later, wish granted, but I can also sense a finger of a cursed monkey paw curling. Stranger Things Season 4 Part 1 is only seven episodes long, yet each episode is longer than an hour, with the Part 1 finale running a record-setting 1 hour and 38 minutes. Stranger Things Season 4 Part 2, which will be released on July 1, is only two episodes long, but the run time is downright intimidating at almost four hours (the finale reportedly pushes near two and a half hours long). By comparison, the previous longest episode was the epic, mall-smashing Season 3 finale, which seemed interminable at the time at 1 hour 17 minutes. The seven episodes of Season 4 Part 1 average just a minute less than that.
No one would complain about more of a good thing, but Stranger Things Season 4 doesn't use the extra time as wisely as it could have, and it suffers from more bloat than any previous outing. Is it the fourth-best season of Stranger Things so far? Yes. Is Stranger Things Season 4 still more entertaining than most television out there? Absolutely. But the universal, mainstream acclaim — well deserved after an excellent, genre-busting debut and continued in its two entertaining follow-up seasons — will likely be less enthusiastic this time around due to specific decisions that sap Stranger Things of what made us like it in the first place. It's still Stranger Things, so die-hard fans will adore it, it's just a lot more not-as-good Stranger Things.
To quickly recap, at the end of Season 3, Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Nancy (Natalia Dyer), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), Max (Sadie Sink), Steve (Joe Keery), and Robin (Maya Hawke) stayed in Hawkins, Indiana, while Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), Will (Noah Schnapp), Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), and Joyce (Winona Ryder) moved to California to get away from all the trauma of Hawkins and give Eleven a fresh start at a normal teenage girl life. Meanwhile, as has been revealed by Netflix and a post-credit scene in Season 3, Hopper (David Harbour) survived the explosion that closed the gate to the Upside Down and is now living a bummer life in Russia as a prisoner.
Season 4 jumps ahead several months from the Season 3 finale to spring break, 1986. The core group of kids are experiencing high school as freshmen — which brings about all new nightmares — while Nancy and Jonathan are seniors, though the lovebirds are half a country apart. I don't think Netflix wants me revealing too much about what's going on with Hopper, but it's safe to say he'd be much happier dealing with Eleven's boy-crazy hormones than his current situation as a prisoner in Russia.
Now for the good stuff. Hawkins' few weeks of not being plagued by interdimensional monsters ends when teenagers start getting picked off one by one, but this time, something feels different. Season 4 gleefully borrows from horror movies of the '80s more than the other seasons ever did, and when all's going well, it's terrifying in all the best ways imaginable. The unknown source of the danger adds mystery, which is a nice sidestep from what we're used to from the villains in Stranger Things. The antagonist in Season 4 — a new denizen of the Upside Down named Vecna who's closer to Freddy Krueger than Godzilla — isn't another upward progression of the demogorgon we first met in Season 1 that led all the way to the Mind Flayer in Season 3, and it made me rethink exactly what the Upside Down is and how it relates to Hawkins, which is a potential series-defining change. What's more, the way the villain takes its victims out in grotesque, bone-crunching fashion is deranged and by far the worst way we've seen people go in the show (that's a good thing!). If Seasons 1-3 were creature features, Season 4 is a psychological ghost story, one that Stranger Things tells fairly well.
A new season also means new characters, and Hawkins High has a great one in Eddie Munson (Joseph Quinn), a wide-eyed, long-haired, burn-out dungeon master who takes Dustin and Mike (and Lucas, sorta) under his wing in a D&D club. He plays an integral part in the story, and Quinn uncorks a wild energy and a sympathetic vibe when needed. Over in California, Jonathan's got a new friend named Argyle (Eduardo Franco), a bleary-eyed, long-haired, joint-burning pizza delivery driver whose personality is best described as "totally stoned, man." (Weed and other drugs play a lot bigger role this season; get ready for the Parents Television Council to lose its mind.) He's more caricature than character, but both Argyle and Eddie slide into the world of Stranger Things without a hitch, keeping up the fun rapport that you watch the show for.
But back to the part above where I mentioned where everyone was when Season 3 ended. Shows frequently blow up their central group in a finale like this, scattering them to different locations for dramatic effect, but they understand they have to get everyone back together as quickly as possible (it's a rule of television, or something). That doesn't happen here, and it's the most challenging part of Season 4. Stranger Things previously flirted with the idea of expanding its setting — when Eleven took a bus ride to Chicago, it felt like she was halfway around the world (and it wasn't that bad, people!) — but Season 4 accumulates some major frequent flier miles, taking place in five different states in the United States and multiple cities in Russia. The Duffer Brothers opted for this scenario when they wrote it into the finale of Season 3, but it cost Season 4 a huge part of what made Stranger Things so great in the past: It's no longer a small-town show.
Sequels are always trying to outdo their predecessors (it's a rule of media, or something), but going bigger is not always better. Getting to know Hawkins, its citizens, and its secrets — something that made Season 3 so effective (the mall was the perfect centerpiece, and summer in Hawkins felt like a real place that was lived in) — gave Stranger Things so much of its familiar charm, but in Season 4, we're exploring places thousands of miles away that are just... places. In a show about monsters, I want to spend time where the monsters are. You think Southern California has anything as interesting as Hawkins? Nope, it's just a sunny stopover. Does some cold outpost in remote Russia have that homey feel of Indiana? Nyet, comrade. We're not in Hawkins (enough) anymore.
The other ugly side effect of going bigger is that the cast gets split up, and unfortunately for Stranger Things, the cast wasn't meant to be split up the way it is in Season 4. Some characters that historically have been tied together never even cross paths. Groups go on their own individual adventures for much of the seven episodes, and those groups experience some splintering of their own, creating even more paths that we need to follow, which is where most of the extra time in the episodes seemingly went. And many of these threads feel repetitive; find a clue, head to the next spot, face an obstacle, then find a new clue. Like I said, it's more Stranger Things, but it's a lot more not-as-good Stranger Things.
The domino effect brings up another issue that Season 4 runs into as it chooses to keep its core characters separated: a sizable difference in palpable stakes. It should be no surprise that what's happening in Hawkins, you know, where kids are being murdered in horrific ways, is a lot more interesting than what's happening in California, where, early on, bullying by bleach-blonde bozos is the big issue and there are absolutely no monsters. It's an unfathomable disparity. The two stories barely tie together, and I'm sorry, but I want to be where parents are howling over the disfigured bodies of their slain children rather than where people are shooting spitballs at Eleven. That's not even mentioning Hopper's storyline, which may as well take place in Siberia compared to everything else going on (actually, Siberia isn't far off both geographically and metaphorically). Hopper and those who get involved in his story get absolutely hosed in Season 4. (As does Will, but what else is new?)
Even if things aren't always consistent on a story level, at least things look great. Netflix backed up the Brink's trucks, and it shows. Extended scenes in the Upside Down, a never-ending set of locations, and mood-setting lighting make Season 4 pop. But all the money in the world couldn't keep the Stranger Things stars from aging — Charlie Heaton is 28 playing 18-ish, Finn Wolfhard is the world's gangliest high school freshman, and almost everyone has an age-decreasing haircut that is an "interesting" choice (again, poor Will) — making Season 4 double as a long-lost installment of Pen15. It's not a total momentum killer, but you'll laugh, and it will be deservedly memed into oblivion.
Stranger Things Season 4 Part 1 is a long, scattered ride that's at times disappointing given its reputation as a streaming blockbuster that's too big to fail. But it is still very much Stranger Things, and reuniting with its characters is enough to make it enjoyable. Even when it's not that good, it's still pretty good, you know?
Premieres: Friday, May 27 on Netflix (all 7 episodes)
Who's in it: Millie Bobby Brown, David Harbour, Winona Ryder, Joe Keery, Natalia Dyer
Who's behind it: The Duffer Brothers (creators, writers, directors), Shawn Levy (director, producer)
For fans of: Oh you know if you're a fan already
How many episodes we watched: 7 out of 7