Stranger Things 4 Spoiler Review: The Perfect Indulgent Comfort Food
Before proceeding, please be warned that this review of "Stranger Things" season 4 contains major spoilers. If you don't want spoilers, you can check out our spoiler-free review instead!
Season 4 of "Stranger Things" is like the perfect indulgent comfort food. It's massive, warm, cheesy in all the right ways, and made with love. It's like the perfect double bacon cheeseburger at 2 a.m. when you've got the munchies. It just hits the spot as a gooey, messy, delicious love letter to '80s horror movies with a hefty dose of teen angst and satanic panic. Despite its very in-your-face '80s aesthetics, this season of Netflix's hit series is as timely as it is fun and indulgent.
Let's Talk About Vecna
"Stranger Things" has always been a show that wears all of its influences directly on its sleeve, so it's obvious that "Nightmare on Elm Street" was one of the major sources of inspiration for season 4's villain, Vecna. It turns out Vecna was actually the "first" of Eleven's siblings, known simply as One (or 001) before he became a trance-inducing supernatural serial killer with long, deadly stiletto nails ripped straight from Freddy Krueger's Pinterest account. We find out that Eleven didn't really kill all of the other magical bald children as implied at the start of the season, but that she was tricked into unleashing One's powers and merciless, murderous worldview upon them. When she realizes she's been duped, she casts him away to the Upside Down, causing him to become a nightmarish ghoul.
The big reveal that One and Vecna are the same person is satisfying because little breadcrumbs were laid leading up to it, making it a moment of triumph for people like my boyfriend, who suspected as much, and a shocking but still believable narrative twist for those who were too busy feasting on the larger meal to concern themselves with the aforementioned breadcrumbs. One particularly gruesome clue was that the slain children at the facility were mutilated in the same way that Vecna disfigured his victims, snapping their bones in all sorts of unnatural directions and removing their eyeballs. Vecna is probably the scariest, coolest villain we've seen so far in "Stranger Things" because it's impossible to hide from him the way they could hide from the Demogorgon or the Mind Flayer, and he attacks people using their own repressed pain and trauma. It's enough for them to be physically strong and capable because he's not the type of villain they can shoot or outrun; he begs to be confronted and forces his victims to confront themselves in the process. He also looks like a meatier version of the Crypt Keeper, which is kind of neat and kind of terrifying.
New Kids On The Block
Along with a new villain, season 4 also features our favorite cast of characters fragmented and scattered, tossed into both new and familiar scenarios, forced to rely on their resourcefulness without the aid of Eleven's superpowers, which remain missing in action throughout most of the season. As Hawkins gang goes on separate — but still interconnected — adventures, we're introduced to a variety of charming new characters. On the heels of Alexei's untimely demise back in season 3, we're treated to a new loveable Russian guy named Enzo, who helps Hopper escape the clutches of his USSR captors. I don't know if I have the range or bandwidth to get into how I feel about the Cold War propaganda influences on this season (or the last), so I'm going to move on.
In addition to Enzo, we also meet Jason the jock, Eddie the Dungeon Master and unfortunate murder suspect, Argyle the pothead, and Suzy the religious hacker. We technically met Dustin's adorably dorky girlfriend last season, but this season features a visit to her chaotic home and more of her personality. We also meet Yuri the smuggler, who I should probably hate more than I actually do, considering his betrayal of Enzo, Hopper, and Joyce, but he's entertaining. Most of the new characters are perfectly fine and even likable, but the same can't be said for all of the returning cast members.
Will? More Like Wilted Lettuce
If I may return to the burger metaphor, while there's a lot to love and enjoy in this latest installment of "Stranger Things," some elements were more like the unwelcome addition of wilted iceberg lettuce on an otherwise delicious assemblage of ingredients. It's probably petty of me, but I hated Will's (Noah Schnapps) styling so much this season that it nearly always took me out of the story whether the camera lingered on his terrible haircut and ill-fitted "first day of kindergarten" ensembles for too long. It was just that painful to behold. It could be an intentional way of showing how Will is stagnating a bit in that his style hasn't changed at all, or maybe we're just supposed to pretend he still looks like a little kid and not a 17-year-old who has clearly undergone puberty between seasons. Whatever the reason, I'm not here for it because it was weirdly distracting. Where the rest of the outfits and styling looked natural on the characters, Will looks like he's wearing a bad costume that's two sizes too small.
A less petty but equally frustrating issue is the fact that Will's growth as a character has progressed just as little as his fashion sense. He was trapped in a hellish alternate dimension in season 1, and since then he's gone onto ... mope, look awkward, and possibly be in love with Mike. There's just not a lot to his personality because nothing new has been written for him, aside from the increasingly obvious queer-coding that stops just shy of actually confronting or confirming anything. A little confirmation would be nice, though, because the ambiguity isn't really enough to make his character interesting — though it is enough to frustrate fans who are justifiably annoyed at the sidelining of a character whose absence was the focal point of the show's first season, coupled with what could turn out to be drawn out queerbaiting in the age of "representation matters."
What's Love Got To Do With It?
Personally, if Will is truly in love with Mike, I can't even understand why at this point. Mike kinda sucks this season. He's just there, being ineffective, not supporting his girlfriend's decision to smash her bully in the face with a roller skate after failing to mitigate the bullying in any helpful or meaningful way. He can't even say "I love you" to Eleven for some reason, so it's not like he's the most outwardly affectionate or expressive guy. In fact, as much as I found myself enjoying this season, it must be said that Mike has been one of the most disappointing characters of the season. I don't know what happened between seasons 3 and 4 that made him go from being the kid who selflessly attacked a possessed Billy in defense of Eleven to the guy who couldn't even be bothered to protect her from a milkshake. And no, him meekly asking the douchebag DJ to turn off the song at the skating rink isn't good enough, sorry. I don't think his passivity is entirely consistent with his past characterization, and I also don't really care about his romance with El at this point. Like Jonathan and Nancy, they don't really have any chemistry and their bond is based primarily on shared trauma. Not exactly the stuff of lasting romance.
Speaking of romance, I suspect that with all the hints at Nancy and Steve rekindling their romance, perhaps Jonathan will end up sacrificing himself to save Nancy. I could be way off, but there's been some extremely heavy-handed foreshadowing hinting at a victorious fight to the death (the D&D game) and a switching of places (Kate Bush's "Running Up That Hill" is like 50% of this season's soundtrack). That said, I really don't care about Jonathan and Nancy, or if Nancy ends up with Steve. I like them all well enough as characters on their own, but their romantic entanglements aren't interesting to me this season. Maybe it's because I find it harder to care about teenage relationship drama the further away I get from my own adolescence, but the only pairing I'm deeply invested in is Hopper and Joyce. I need them to have a happy ending together after everything they've been through to get back to each other or else I'll
cry really hard riot.
Themes And Things
"Stranger Things" has also never shied away from exploring the relationship dynamics of the characters, so it's no surprise that themes of growing up and apart, as well as finding one's own identity outside of what's considered "cool" or other people's expectations are also present throughout the season. Max isolates herself from her friends, unable to face them because she's trying to avoid facing the reality of Billy's death (until episode 4, anyway). Lucas is torn between the true friends he's always had and his new gang of fellow jocks led by a psychotic future Republican senator. Jonathan is torn between different strains of weed and his love for Nancy. Robin and Steve are conflicted about what they want, and Steve even makes a point to tell Robin that she just needs to be herself instead of acting like someone else around her latest crush. Many of the teens are having a hard time figuring out who they are and who they want to be, with Eleven's identity struggles coming with the added bonus of being detained by "Papa" and forced to relive traumatic incidents from her past.
Bullying and ostracization are also recurring themes throughout the season, uncomfortably and realistically rendered in a way that made me feel angry and forced me to recall some not-so-great grade school memories of my own, right down to wondering why so many people do nothing when witnessing the harassment and mistreatment of others. I'm not saying Eleven was right to smash Angela's face with that roller skate onto Angela's face, but I definitely empathize.
Unfortunately Realistic And Relevant
A theme that deserves its own little dedicated spot is that of moral panic and warped world views — two things that can lead to unfortunate misunderstandings at best, and fatal confrontations at worst. There's something to be said for the fact that One/Vecna used his presumed innocence to destroy lives when his fatalistic mindset was allowed to fester, unchecked by those around him. This is not unlike the present day, real-world problem of impressionable individuals being radicalized by unprecedented exposure to harmful ideology, and further led astray by the platforming of ignorant talking heads who think the answer to society's ills is senseless violence justified by fear-mongering.
Both Vecna and Jason display an unwillingness to listen to reason and a cold disregard for the lives of others they deem "unworthy" in the face of their own goals and motivations. They each exploit the preexisting issues and fears of those around them in order to manipulate and destroy. In Vecna's case, he slaughters children. In Jason's case, he decides anyone he doesn't personally like or understand is deserving of violence, going so far as to literally organize the hunting of other human beings. Sure, one can argue that Jason is right to be suspicious of Eddie given the circumstances of Chrissy's death, but at the same time, Jason's immediate leap to completely vilifying peers he already didn't care for based solely on some stupid high school social hierarchy and a massive misunderstanding of Dungeon & Dragons doesn't exactly scream "kind and reasonable guy" under the best of circumstances.
A less devastating bit of realism in this season of "Stranger Things" is the depiction of how hard it can be to find enough players for a proper campaign of Dungeons & Dragons. If you've never tried to get a group of people together to consistently play, just trust me when I say it's a herculean feat. I also appreciated the fact that Erica was shown painting a miniature in one of the episodes, and it personally meant a lot to see a Black girl playing DnD in a massively popular and relentlessly nerdy television show, as I am a Black girl who plays DnD and can be described as relentlessly nerdy.
Nothing New, But Still Tasty
Overall, even with the expanded setting and crop of new characters, season 4 of "Stranger Things" is nothing particularly new. We have a new villain who seems a lot like villains we've met before, but he's compelling so who really cares if he's not exactly groundbreaking? Eleven is back where she started, but not without reason. Will is unfortunately stagnant, but this shortcoming doesn't weigh down an otherwise entertaining season.
"Stranger Things" is still a whole lot of fun and has managed to maintain its heart over the years. Season 4 proves that you don't have to reinvent the wheel to make good television; it's enough to just remind us that wheels can be pretty neat and have a lot of potential for getting you to cool places, even if they're places you've already been to before. Like a double bacon cheeseburger, it's probably nothing you haven't had before, but it's still pretty damn delicious if you're in the mood for it.
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