The first two-thirds of Stranger Things season four—officially referred to as Stranger Things 4, Volume 1—dropped on Netflix on Friday. Did you make it through it already? I’m not going to lie, I had a jump via screeners and still struggled to finish all seven episodes over the weekend. It is SUCH a slog. Four seasons in, and the strengths of Stranger Things remain unchanged: the chemistry of the cast, especially the kids; the aesthetics; the score; the worldbuilding, all are great, but the weaknesses of Stranger Things continue to get worse. For instance, this is still a show about nothing. The tremendous likeability of the cast, especially the kids, make it a fun, spooky hangout show, but tell me what this show is about without describing the plot, and I bet you can’t do it.
And Stranger Things 4, at least through the first seven episodes, adds bloat to the list of problems. Every episode is too long by at LEAST ten minutes, more than one episode is damn near half an hour too long. I found myself frequently checking timecodes and recoiling in horror when I realized I still had fifty or sixty minutes left to go in an episode. The episodes aren’t just long, they’re paced like a drunk brontosaurus staggering across a swamp. There is no rhythm to the storytelling at all, and the various plots don’t connect in any meaningful way (yet), which just makes everything feel even more disjointed. It does gain momentum as we go along—episodes six and seven are the most cohesive and propulsive of the set—but just getting there is a chore.
This season picks up six months after season three, which is hilarious because the kids all look old enough to be on their second marriages by now. It is a tremendous suspension of disbelief to accept that Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) are seniors in high school, they look like full-blown adults. I will never understand why they didn’t just time-jump three years and let the kids play upperclassman, matching their real ages, while we find Steve (Joe Keery, still the most delightful person on this whole show), Nancy, and Jonathan in their later college years. It would make so much sense! But they don’t do it! The cognitive dissonance is real.
Anyway, now it’s 1986 and Satanic Panic is gripping the land. Somewhere in here is a sleeker plot that could actually support a real theme, and thus a proper story, that focuses on the kids and their Dungeons & Dragons club and the Satanic Panic, and how that all gets tangled up with a town suffering massive communal trauma, Eleven and the Upside Down, and how there really IS a supernatural threat to Hawkins, Indiana, just not the one people think. Stranger Things 4 could have told us a 1980s-style Salem Witch Trials story that would resonate with the re-empowerment of the religious conservative right in America over the last few years, but ST4 pulls in too many different directions to get there. The Duffer Brothers, Shawn Levy, and everyone else behind the show definitely know that potential exists, because they prime all the pumps, but they don’t actually push any of the buttons.
Instead, we’re treated to a fractured plot that splits between Hawkins, where most of the cast tries to solve a string of new murders starting with popular cheerleader, Chrissy (Grace Van Dien). She is last seen at the home of town troublemaker Eddie (Joseph Quinn), a pot dealer and the dungeon master of the “Hellfire Club”, the high school’s D&D group. This doesn’t bode well for Eddie, or by extension Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), who are members of the club. Lucas is an especially tough spot, as his new basketball friends, led by preppy budding psychotic Jason (Mason Dye), are literally hunting the Hellfire Club with the intent to maim, if not murder, them in revenge for Chrissy’s death. You can see how easily this could have been a witch trials parable, right?
Unfortunately, we also have to deal with Joyce (Winona Ryder) and Murray (Brett Gelman) on a ridiculous quest to save Hopper (David Harbour) from a Russian gulag. As much as I like all these actors, and the addition of Tom Wlaschiha as a Russian guard, this entire plot is so stupid it is a challenge not to fast-forward through all of it. The more Stranger Things pushes the Russia/Cold War stuff, the stupider it gets. I wish they would abandon this angle entirely, but I fear we’re stuck with it for at least two more episodes. There is also a third group of characters in California, including Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), Will Byers (Noah Schnapp), Jonathan and his new stoner buddy, Argyle (Eduardo Franco), and Mike (Finn Wolfhard), who spend their spring break on an improbable road trip to Salt Lake City.
It’s not that these elements are without any value—the Salt Lake City scenes are ludicrous but those feral Mormon children crack me up—but the overabundance of characters and plot is everything dragging ST4 down. The Hawkins-set witch hunt gains the most momentum of any of the plots and becomes the strongest element in the show as the kids work to solve the murders and confront the new big bad, “Vecna”, named after one of Eddie’s D&D characters. Vecna has new powers the kids haven’t confronted before and must learn to combat without Eleven’s help, which is compelling, though it would be even more compelling if Eleven was actually there and only able to contribute as an unpowered member of the group. There’s also a cool haunted house, and the kids do some borderline improbable but no less entertaining mystery-solving all while trying to dodge Jason and his revenge teens which keeps that section of the episodes moving quickly.
The last two episodes ST4 drop in July, and they will undoubtedly bring the various plot threads together into a big finale, but nothing is going to fix the story sprawl or character bloat. This show was already unwieldy by season three, now it is completely unmanageable. We still have one season left to go after this, and it’s probably futile to hope it will scale back to a “kids adventuring on their bikes after school” story, but the best parts of Stranger Things remain the kids getting up to mischief while their parents aren’t paying attention. The more Stranger Things tries to be about other things, the worse it gets. This is the very definition of “treading water TV”, despite its big-budget fanciness, Stranger Things is really no different from any generic network procedural.
Stranger Things 4 – Volume 1 is now streaming on Netflix.