After a three-year layoff exacerbated by the pandemic, Stranger Things is finally back in our lives. For Netflix, which could really use a win after suffering its worst setbacks of the streaming era, the series couldn’t have returned at a better time. But in some ways, it’s like Stranger Things never left: The ’80s nostalgia is still going strong, Hawkins remains a ridiculously dangerous place to live, and the kids (er, teenagers) continue to refer to supernatural entities from the Upside Down through the prism of Dungeons & Dragons. (Let’s hear it for Vecna.)
But four seasons in, Stranger Things has also evolved: The latest installment expands the scope far beyond Hawkins, introduces the show’s most compelling villain to date, and boasts special effects that rival blockbusters’. And while there’s still two more feature-length episodes arriving over Fourth of July weekend, we’ve seen enough from Stranger Things’ fourth season to tally some winners and losers. Major spoilers ahead.
Winner: Father Time
As with any series in which kids are an essential part of the story, the biggest challenge facing Stranger Things creators Matt and Ross Duffer is that its cast is growing up right before our eyes. The Duffers have responded with time-jumps whenever appropriate, but thanks to circumstances beyond their control—pandemic-induced production delays, puberty, the arrow of time slowly yet inevitably moving forward—the fourth season really begins to strain credulity. That’s because Season 4 is supposed to take place less than a year after the third season as Eleven and Co. enter high school. Setting aside the fact that, with the exception of Noah Schnapp, all the child actors are now legally adults, the Stranger Things timeline inadvertently makes it seem like the cast is juicing. For instance, here’s Mike Wheeler in Season 3:
And now, here’s what Mike looks like in Season 4:
If we’re going to take the Stranger Things chronology at face value, the Upside Down isn’t the only supernatural mystery going on in this universe. With the benefit of hindsight, perhaps the Duffer brothers should’ve jumped ahead a couple of years between seasons—after all, the Stranger Things kids deserve to enjoy a bit of their high school lives without the Upside Down and shady government officials getting in the way. In any case, Season 4 is another reminder Father Time will always be undefeated.
Loser: Running Times
In Stranger Things’ third season, the Mind Flayer made itself a new body by combining the flesh of sewer rats and humans under its control, eventually growing big enough to tear through a glitzy shopping mall. That’s kind of what Season 4 feels like: large, unwieldy, and extremely gnarly. (No matter how many times you see it, Vecna’s method of killing people is quite disturbing.) All but one episode of the fourth season run longer than 70 minutes, and the season finale will be two and half hours long. To keep comparisons in the realm of ’80s pop culture: The finale will be about as long as The Shining.
We’ve seen this “more is more” approach ruin other cultural phenomenons like Game of Thrones, and while Stranger Things hasn’t exactly fallen off the rails, the bloated running times do take away from the novelty of binge-watching the new season. (Either that, or my bingeing stamina isn’t what it used to be.) Going forward, the Duffers should understand that doing the Absolute Most doesn’t always help the story—or at the very least, they should break up the episodes so that some Stranger Things’ episode running times aren’t comparable to long movies.
Winner: Freddy Krueger’s Cultural Impact
Every season, Stranger Things finds some new ’80s pop culture to pull from, and the biggest influence for the fourth season is Freddy Krueger. Despite being named after a powerful dark wizard from Dungeons & Dragons, Vecna shares a lot of similarities to the iconic Nightmare on Elm Street villain—from his fleshy appearance and ability to trap victims in dreamlike trances to the parallels between some of their kills. (See: Freddy killing Tina Gray as she’s pinned to the ceiling, much like poor Chrissy Cunningham succumbing to Vecna in the Season 4 premiere.) The show even has Freddy himself, Robert Englund, show up in a cameo as Victor Creel, a man wrongly incarcerated for killing his family. Here he is doing his best Sam Neill impression from Event Horizon:
If Stranger Things inspires a new generation to discover Freddy for themselves and freak out about falling asleep, then the Duffer brothers can consider Season 4 a job well done. As for actress Sadie Sink, who was already subjected to a Jason Voorhees–esque summer camp killer in Netflix’s Fear Street trilogy before going toe-to-toe with Vecna, she’s beginning to emerge as a next-gen Scream Queen.
There’s a fascinating tension at the heart of Stranger Things, which begins in small-town Indiana and has tried, in fits and starts, to expand beyond the confines of Hawkins. But while most shows getting bigger and bolder would benefit from a change of scenery, Season 4 proves that home is where the heart is. Despite taking pit stops in California, Nevada, Alaska, and Russia, Stranger Things is never better this season than when it’s back in Hawkins. Sure, part of that has to do with the town being ground zero for Vecna’s reign of terror, but even little moments, like Dustin and Mike joining the Hellfire Club, have the type of charm that made viewers fall in love with the show to begin with.
Hawkins might have a reputation as a cursed town, and for very good reason. (Seriously, if parents have the financial means to move, there’s no reason they should be staying there and subjecting their kids to Demogorgons and telekinetic serial killers.) But on a macro level, Hawkins is to Stranger Things what Sunnydale is to Buffy the Vampire Slayer: the bloody, beating heart of the series.
Loser: Everywhere Else
To that end, Stranger Things becomes something of a drag every time the show moves away from the action in Hawkins, which also plays a role in this season’s bloated running times. On the one hand, fans will be thrilled that Jim Hopper is alive and toiling away at a Soviet prison. At the same time, all the Hopper check-ins don’t serve much of a purpose—we still don’t know what the Soviets plan to do with their captured Demogorgon, outside of giving the creature fresh meat. (In the end, we just spent seven episodes springing Hopper from prison, which feels like an eternity given how much has happened in the other story lines.)
These issues don’t even address some of the more random non-Hawkins detours from this season, like the rogue government agent being tortured by another government official over Eleven’s whereabouts. (Did the Duffer brothers watch Zero Dark Thirty over quarantine?) You have to admire Stranger Things for trying something different this season instead of relying on the same bag of Upside Down tricks. But if the Duffer brothers are serious about pursuing a spinoff after the show’s fifth and final season, they’ll need to find a way to consistently work their ’80s nostalgia magic outside of the most cursed town in America.
Winner: Babysitter Steve (Again)
What a journey it’s been for Steve Harrington. Originally a mean jock destined to die in the first season, the Duffer brothers changed course when they “fell in love” with actor Joe Keery and transformed Steve into television’s unlikeliest babysitter. (Did Keery seduce them with his hair?) The Steve memes have been going strong since Season 2, and heading into its fourth season, Stranger Things knew better than to mess with a good thing. As much as Steve wants to rekindle things with Nancy Wheeler, he is once again stuck with babysitting duties—much to his chagrin and to the delight of everyone else.
Never mind that the kids no longer really need a babysitter as they hit adolescence—it’s not a job, it’s a calling. For as long as the Upside Down and its sinister creatures wreak havoc in Hawkins, Steve will go full Mama Bird and protect his nest. That’s exactly why, like the Duffers, the audience has fallen in love with him. All we ask in return is that Steve and his gorgeous hair is protected at all costs.
Loser: Grandfather Clocks
Grandfather clocks were just minding their business being old, uh, clocks, and now Stranger Things has completely ruined their vibe. You see, before Vecna claims a victim, they suffer hallucinations that start with an ominous grandfather clock appearing out of the blue. (It’s kind of like watching the video in The Ring; once you see a grandfather clock, there’s a countdown to your imminent doom.) It is objectively creepy to turn a corner and find this thing hanging around as a harbinger of death.
Thanks to Vecna, I can’t look at grandfather clocks the same way. Granted, I don’t spend a lot of time around grandfather clocks—I don’t have the space in my apartment even if I wanted one. But now, every time I see one, I’m afraid that some monster who looks like a mutated slab of meat loaf is going to bring up all my worst memories and tell me that I suck. Grandfather clocks will need good PR soon, otherwise some enthusiastic Stranger Things fan is going to create an online petition to demolish Big Ben.
Winner: Kate Bush
While it may seem like all hope is lost when Vecna sets his sights on you, the Stranger Things kids discover a way to break free from the villain’s spell. The solution is rather simple: play a person’s favorite song to reel them back to reality. In one of the best moments of the fourth season, we see Max Mayfield escape Vecna’s clutches thanks to her friends blasting Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill.”
It’s the “your music saved me” meme, but literally. It helps that the song is a certified banger, with Stranger Things fans responding by helping “Running Up That Hill” climb up the streaming charts. Obviously, every person will have a different song to get them through this telekinetic predicament, so I’m just going to put this out there: in the unlikely event that Vecna curses me, please play the Tron: Legacy soundtrack.
Loser: Satanic Panic
Not all of the fears in Stranger Things have to be otherworldly: this season, the Hawkins community channels the real-life anxiety that once developed in the ’80s around Dungeons & Dragons, heavy metal, and demonic cults. It’s this satanic panic that leads the townsfolk to believe that Eddie Munson, leader of the Hellfire Club, is the person responsible for the spate of brutal killings—while unfairly demonizing a harmless, nerdy game like D&D. The ringleader behind this satanic fearmongering is local basketball star Jason Carver, who is exactly what I’d imagine Brett Kavanaugh was like in high school.
In fairness to the people of Hawkins, a cult led by a high schooler would be a lot more realistic than a telekinetic monster from a different dimension making teens’ eyes pop out of their skulls. But it’s this kind of behavior that alienates and divides communities in times of crisis, rather than uniting them. Here’s hoping Hawkins comes to its senses by the end of the season, and Eddie doesn’t join Victor Creel in being pinned for Vecna’s crimes.
Winner: The Munchies
For an ensemble primarily composed of high schoolers, stoner humor may be low-hanging fruit, but that doesn’t make it any less funny. This season, Jonathan Byers has filled the Nancy void in his life with copious weed thanks to his new buddy Argyle. If we’re being honest? I love it. Poor Jonathan has had to deal with his little brother going missing, a pre-babysitter Steve bullying him at school, and everyone believing his mother lost her mind when she started covering their home in Christmas lights to communicate with Will. (And that’s just sticking to the first season.) Jonathan has earned a little R&R, even if he gets so stoned that he mistakes wine for olive oil at the dinner table.
As someone legally mandated to have olive oil in my apartment because I’m half-Greek, I can definitely relate.