When people talk about season four of Netflix’s Stranger Things, they’re going to be talking about Kate Bush.
Spoilers for season four volume one of Stranger Things below
At least, when they’re talking positively about the show, she’ll be mentioned, specifically her song “Running Up That Hill” and the cathartic, crescendoing moment it accompanies in season four’s best episode (of the ones released), “Dear Billy.” Having been taken by the season’s big bad, Vecna, Max must escape his clutches and do so by remembering why she wants to be alive and the relationships she’s fostered and found amongst the Hawkins crew. It’s a genuinely breathless moment of television as she races through the crumbling rubble of this nightmare-fueled world, collapsing in a heap in front of her brother’s grave as Lucas, Dustin, and Steve all rally in a protective huddle.
It is, above all else, the best of what the show does in a single sequence in a standout episode. Stranger Things has always been at its strongest when it remembers its best element is in the believable bond created by the younger cast and the all or nothing camaraderie that develops in those formative pre-teens and teenage years where every threat, heartache, and triumph is made doubly impactful because, at this point, moments of winning and losing might as well be in the forms of the literal monsters they’re fighting.
“Dear Billy” explores the highest peaks of the series, anchored by a truly tremendous performance from Sadie Sink because it remembers both the trauma these teenagers are facing while also solidifying the idea that these friendships are one another’s tethers through all the horrifying experiences they’ve faced. The emotions are explosive and almost earnest to a fault but who can’t remember being a teenager and believing that a single song was your lifeline?
It’s a shame then that the Duffer Brothers continue to resort to some of their least engaging tendencies and navel-gazing plot developments. Despite David Harbour doing his best to make us care, everything to do with Hopper is unnecessary fodder in a series already bloated with characters, storylines, references, and lore. What’s worse about the nonsensical Russian storyline is how little impact it seemingly is having on the rest of the core characters aside from Joyce who, again, is given virtually nothing to work with despite being played by the always committed Winona Ryder. The tension of his “death” in season three is nonexistent since we’d already been made privy that he’d survived and, since we’ve jumped six months or so into the future following his disappearance, characters such as Eleven are dealing with even greater threats than distract from what grief she may have experienced.
It begs the question of how worth it to the storyline it was to separate him from the group in the first place if nothing was lost or gained by his removal. His scenes easily contribute the most to the unnecessary runtimes of the episodes and, though killing off a main character isn’t necessary for any show to create credible drama, there was at least a resolution to his storyline in season three that was earned and poignant in where his storyline left off with Eleven and Joyce, the two people who meant the most to him.
Now there are scenes where he’s seemingly been injected with some sort of super-soldier serum as he battles off Russian soldiers and makes daring escapes that lack an emotional edge because he’s been separated from the characters that highlight his greatest relationships in the show. It’s a storyline that deviates so greatly from the main, supernatural narrative that, despite being handled with greater deftness than originally suspected, feels too ancillary to compare to the rest.
The greatest flaw to season four of Stranger Things isn’t the runtime on its own but how the writers delegate time to certain characters over others. While Eleven was an early fan favorite in the series and Millie Bobby Brown continues to do solid work as a teenage girl who has much more often been seen as a pawn than an actual human being, she pales in interest to some of the other younger characters. While episode four soars, episodes five and six come to a near screeching halt as the characters tread water. Once again the Duffer brothers get lost in the belief of their own ingenuity with side storylines that do little to embolden the plot, such as a side narrative exclusively focused on a rogue group of jocks right off the lot of Riverdale who are preaching to the town about the D&D group many of our characters are apart of being really a place for occult shenanigans and ritual sacrifices.
Further mistakes happen with the splitting of the cast. With Will, Jonathan, and Mike in California, Eleven exploring her traumatic past, Joyce and Hopper in their Russian plot and the rest in Hawkins, the season loses some of the easiest magic that takes place when the cast is together.
The dynamics between these groups are well-worn and understood, from Nancy and Steve’s past romance to Steve and Robin’s strong friendship developed in season three, to Lucas and Max’s own past relationship. It’s a strong enough foundation too to welcome in a new voice with Eddie Munson, played with enormous charisma by Joseph Quinn. The four older teens are given some of the most exciting moments too, though they’re lit so poorly that it might be difficult to distinguish what’s happening, as they face new incredible threats to their livelihood.
It’s through its heart and style that Stranger Things continues to create engaging seasons of television, even when it misses the narrative mark. Season four so far is its scariest yet, with a push on body horror and Nightmare on Elm Street references as teens in this tiny, cursed town are threatened with invisible forces that prey on their nightmares. The commitment to real scares is welcome and goes beyond simply paying homage to horror films of the 80s by making sure to bring its own supernatural spin into the proceedings and atmosphere.
The scares and the heart abound in season four, making it largely a success, though the remaining two episodes will be the real indicator if the writers got lost in excess. For now, we have the best needle drop the show has ever done, moments earned, and expected character catharsis that has been long in the making. It’s undoubtedly messy and contrived, but the strongest moments of the season are reminders of why we fell in love with the show, the characters in particular, in the first place.
The first episodes of Stranger Things season four are available on Netflix now with volume two premiering July 1. Watch the trailer for season four below.