It’s tough to decide what’s most frustrating about Season 4 of Stranger Things. For all its emotional highs, the show also had to battle convoluted and trite writing to scale those peaks. Initially, one of the greatest hurdles the series had to overcome was its own inability to wrap stories up and go for feature-length episodes rather than enforcing the use of an adequate editor.
We didn’t need as much time spent in Russia with Hopper, Joyce, and Murray—both reunited and apart. We certainly didn’t need as much time traveling from California to Hawkins as the tethered groups fought incredible forces to be together again in their splintered fight against Vecna. Even with the context that it brought to the Vecna story, there had to be another way to both reignite Eleven’s powers while exposing the big bad that didn’t reduce the character back to her nearly nonverbal state of Seasons 1 and 2.
However, the greatest sin committed in Season 4—and one that has lightly poisoned the creative well of each season so far—is how little the Duffer Brothers seem to know or care about their characters and their growth, both independently and through the relationships written. It’s as if they’re actively working against any praise given to the show and the dynamics fans care about to prove themselves while also leaning into expectations and tropes such as Babysitter Steve or even Will’s likely feelings for Mike, something that I doubt they would’ve come to on their own. The bloated nature of Season 4 (which again, I overall enjoyed it) wasn’t a byproduct of ingenuity or epic-scale storytelling but a consequence of self-indulgent writing.
It’s that lack of understanding of what makes their characters so compelling that is easily the most off-putting; however, we are drawn in season after season largely due to the work the actors are putting into these roles. The 80s nostalgia and big monsters were an initial draw but, four seasons in, it’s the characters and the bonds they’ve formed that have become too enticing, especially as plotlines have derailed and elements such as secret Russian bases have seen the show careening towards demonstrative lack of control.
It’s in the big and small moments. Did they forget Will’s birthday? Okay, that’s one ridiculous element that a fact-checker could’ve spotted. They make Will believe with his whole being that Mike is the heart of the party in a move that reinforces that it’s what the Duffers believe? Well, at that point it’s just missing the point and the work they’ve done sitting right before them. Noah Schnapp does amazing work in the sequence, and he’s long been coded as gay and, likely, in love with his best friend, but there’s nothing textual in the story—at least for the past two seasons—that suggests this is the truth. Instead, like usual with queer characters, it’s all in the subtext. There’s little doubt that Finn Wolfhard is a talented actor, but it’s Sadie Sink’s Max, Gaten Matarazzo’s Dustin, and Caleb McLaughlin’s Lucas that had greater arcs this season who more aptly take up the heart of the story mantle.
It plays into the idea of failing to see what makes a character interesting and this is strengthened by the prominence and weight that’s put on romantic relationships. Hopper and Joyce were at their best in Seasons 1 and 2 that, despite hints of romantic feelings, were more largely focused on keeping their town and loved ones safe, David Harbour and Winona Ryder possessing that odd couple magic. Joyce’s strength was her resolute belief in her children and zero bullshit attitude in protecting them, so sidelining her to Russia just for the consummation of her and Hopper’s relationship is a cheap watering down of her character.
Similarly, for being the MVP of the show, Joe Keery’s Steve is forced to rehash his feelings for Nancy, despite the character having been written to have closure with her and Jonathan’s relationship at the end of Season 2. There’s believability at least that, while separated from Jonathan due to distance and forced into proximity in near-death experiences, Nancy and Steve would grow closer again and Kerry and Natalia Dyer share definite chemistry, but it all feels like ten steps back in growth for both characters whose best moments have come from solo acts of heroics.
It’s a shame, and something that is certainly rectified when the characters are all working together rather than being split apart, but it’s one of the obvious weak spots in a series that, for all its messiness, remains almost frustratingly engaging. While there’s no doubt in the ambition behind worldbuilding (not to mention that fantastic score) it’s always been the characters who have driven so much of the care. So why does it seem like the Duffer Brothers care less about their characters than the viewers do? Partner the characters off if you must, but don’t rely on the pairings themselves to do the heavy lifting in characterization.
The capability is there—we see it in episodes such as the extraordinary “Dear Billy,” which understood Max’s trauma and loneliness and the way her friends would rally around her. It’s just become abundantly clear the writers believe the intrigue lives in the mythos of the Hawkins town and its Sunnydale-ification and the multiple, overlaying, and knotted plots and not in the relationships introduced in Season 1 and the developments they’ve taken. Look at the highlights of any given season, from Eleven saving Mike in Season 1 to her return in Season 2, Max and Eleven’s friendship in Season 3 and Robin and Steve’s shared confessional in a dirty bathroom stall, and the strength of the show is apparent to anyone who’s watching, just not the ones creating it.
All episodes of Season 4 of Stranger Things are currently available on Netflix.