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‘Stranger Things’ Season 4 Embraces Change, but Not Growth

Novelty is the strongest selling point of ‘Stranger Things 4,’ but the show refuses to let go of what no longer serves it

Netflix/Ringer illustration

“This is something different,” a character vows in the new season of Stranger Things. “Something new.” In the context of the show, it’s both a promise and a warning.

When we last left the city limits of Hawkins, Indiana, it was a different time: in the state of our world, which had yet to experience a global pandemic; in the entertainment industry, where Netflix still rode high as the vanguard of the streaming revolution; and most importantly, in the lives of its cast, who were still child stars at the peak of their precocious powers. It’s now been almost three years in the real world—though, unconvincingly, just a few months in that of the characters. That’s long enough to jeopardize the youthful charm that’s long driven Stranger Things’ appeal, even as the series has taken on an outsize importance to its now-embattled distributor.

With its studied homage to masters like Steven Spielberg, nostalgia magnets like Winona Ryder, and breakout stars like Millie Bobby Brown, Stranger Things was a hit from the start. Conceived by the Duffer brothers as a riff on ’80s blockbusters, Stranger Things exploded into a tentpole of its own. The saga will eventually span five installments, an increasing rarity for streaming originals, with later seasons stylized more like sequels, à la Stranger Things 4. The third—or rather, Stranger Things 3currently stands as the sixth-most-watched TV season in the history of Netflix, behind the likes of Squid Game, Money Heist, and both volumes of Bridgerton. During Stranger Things’ hiatus, the service further monetized its most potentially lucrative IP, launching an immersive “experience,” mobile games, and even a retail pop-up at a luxury mall in Los Angeles.

In its time away, the show has grown more crucial to its platform’s bottom line. As competitors build out their own in-house streamers, Netflix has lost once-valuable catalogs like Friends and The Office, upping the pressure on homegrown titles to bring in subscribers. More recently, a shrinking user base with heavier losses predicted to come has led to layoffs. In other words, Netflix could really use some good news right now, and to help Stranger Things deliver it, the service is making a major exception to one of its once-ironclad laws. The house the binge watch built is splitting its latest event release into two parts: the first seven episodes premiere on Friday, while two more will arrive in July. Following a similar strategy for Ozark, the move is part of Netflix’s increasing willingness to squeeze as much juice from its biggest titles as it can.

With a property as valuable as Stranger Things, there can be a conservative impulse not to fix what isn’t broken. Stranger Things has opted for repetition before; seasons 2 and 3 essentially recycled the original premise, including the villain, while adding more cast members and elaborate CGI. But this time, Stranger Things couldn’t run the same play even if it wanted to. The Mind Flayer may be vanquished (for now), but to paraphrase another Netflix show, the Hormone Monster comes for us all.

Stranger Things is a show with cute kids baked into the premise (E.T. and The Goonies have been touchstones from the jump) whose actors are no longer kids. Of the six main youngsters, only Noah Schnapp has yet to become a legal adult—not that puberty cares about such distinctions. Ever since it became clear Stranger Things was here to stay, the cast’s impending growth spurts have been widely viewed as a ticking time bomb, a big bad more sinister than any of the Red Dawn–era Russians who’ve absconded with David Harbour’s Chief Hopper. More than whatever the Upside Down has in store for our heroes, that’s the real suspense: What will Stranger Things do when “more of the same” isn’t an option?

The good news is that novelty proves to be the strongest selling point of Stranger Things 4. Technically, this isn’t the first season in which the gang is forced to navigate the trials of adolescence. It is, however, the first in which they actually look and sound, undeniably, like teens. We’ve also fast-forwarded from summer vacation to the eve of spring break, giving the Duffers and their collaborators the chance to make the most of a brand-new setting: high school, which replaces the Starcourt Mall as the latest riff on ’80s iconography. (Yes, an older subset of characters have always been of prom-attending age, but they’ve never been the show’s primary focus.) The Duffers may cite Hellraiser, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and It among their inspirations for this season, but before things once again take a turn for the supernatural, the most exciting influence belongs to John Hughes.

With Eleven stripped of her powers and hiding out in California with the Byers clan, the early episodes of Stranger Things 4 have never been further from the Hawkins lab, in location or in spirit. Eventually, that $30 million-per-episode budget starts to go toward visual effects and big battles. But first, it’s used to reconstruct the pep rallies, roller rinks, and cafeteria cliques of yesteryear, which serve as vivid, evocative backdrops for a new set of conflicts.

As freshmen, Mike (Finn Wolfhard) and Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) have joined the Hellfire Club, doubling down on the Dungeons & Dragons hobby of their youth, while Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) has made the basketball team. On the West Coast, El—now going by Jane—gets bullied by Regina George in a scrunchie. The boys’ plight proves more effective than their friend’s. In Hawkins, classic jocks-versus-nerds antagonism gets a more grounded base in friends who simply want to pursue different interests. Meanwhile, Stranger Things may excel at cultural detail, but it’s less skilled at depicting savagery more subtle than interdimensional warfare—and teen girl nastiness is nothing if not subtle. This isn’t Yellowjackets, where paranormal and social threats work in tandem.

Stranger Things takes another stab at social commentary back in the Midwest, where a new streak of mysterious murders plays out amidst the Satanic Panic. Suspicion immediately falls on Hellfire Club president Eddie Munson (Joseph Quinn), a drug-dealing burnout whose penchant for fantasy board games paints a target on his back. In truth, the culprit is an entity the kids call Vecna, after yet another D&D character. (A more recent reference is Game of Thrones White Walkers, to whom Vecna bears a more-than-passing resemblance.) Where the Mind Flayer was a physical menace, Vecna is more psychological, haunting his victims’ dreams and making them hallucinate before claiming their lives.

Vecna instantly proves a massive upgrade over his predecessor, providing basic elements like motivations and dialogue the Mind Flayer conspicuously lacked. His presence also pushes Stranger Things toward a more overtly horrific tone, with haunted houses and ghostly specters taking the place of mad scientists and their creations. The combination gives Stranger Things a dual infusion: fresh aesthetics, but also richer themes to go with them. With an MO that involves isolating his prey by exploiting their deepest fears, Vecna proves more authentically scary than a blank slate like the Mind Flayer could ever hope to be.

Unfortunately, Stranger Things 4 isn’t always as willing to move forward. Fittingly, for a show that fetishizes the past, it’s often reluctant to leave behind what it’s outgrown, saddling the season with two related issues. One is the continued presence of characters increasingly tangential to the plot, isolated from the rest of the cast for hours on end. The other is the extra time (many, many minutes) that presence adds to each episode.

When Hopper appeared to die at the end of Stranger Things 3, it seemed like a potential flux point in the show’s maturation: Stranger Things’ protagonists were leaving youthful innocence behind, and the show would reflect that by declining to shield its fan favorites from the consequences of their adventures. A post-credits sequence revealed the death to be a fake-out, a disappointment then and now. Hopper begins Stranger Things 4 trapped in a Russian prison. Nothing that happens there proves nearly as compelling as what watching his friends process their loss could have been.

In the end, it isn’t growing up that threatens the unstoppable rise of Netflix’s great homegrown hit. It’s a refusal to let go of what no longer serves it. Combined with audiences’ insatiable need for world-building and expansion, that insistence pushes every single episode past the 60-minute mark, and most past 70. The seventh episode, which wasn’t screened for critics, will weigh in at a whopping 98, and July’s finale at over two hours. Bigger, obviously, is not always better. Episodes can drag, often toggling between intriguing new directions and tiresome retreads. Part of Stranger Things seems to understand that change ought to be embraced. If only the rest of the show would take its own advice.