Stranger Things Season 4 Is Too Bloated: Recap

Everything is upside down.

Stranger Things is back after three years and the Netflix hit is bigger than ever — but in its penultimate season, it’s a mixed bag.

By the end of season three (which came out in 2019), everyone was separated: Hopper (David Harbour) was presumed dead (however, he was shown to be living in a sinister camp in Russia, captured by evil scientists). His distraught pseudo-daughter Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) went with the Byers family when Joyce (Winona Ryder), Will (Noah Schnapp) and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) left Hawkins, Indiana to find less dangerous pastures. Steve (Joe Keery) has found a new friend in Robin (Maya Hawke). And Billy (Dacre Montgomery), the thug, died.

Season 4, premiering Friday (Volume 2 out in July), more or less ties into the Season 3 finale. It’s 1986 and Hopper is in poor health. The Byers and Eleven live in California. Eleven and Mike (Finn Wolfhard) still have a strong relationship (albeit over long distances) while Eleven is bullied at school. Joyce (Winona Ryder) has a new job and worries about Jonathan getting into college.

Erica (Priah Ferguson), Dustin (Gate Matarazzo), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) in Stranger Things Season 4.
Courtesy of Netflix
Mike (Finn Wolfhard) and Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), with Will (Noah Schnapp) in the background.
Mike (Finn Wolfhard) and Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), with Will (Noah Schnapp) in the background.
Courtesy of Netflix

Back at Hawkins, Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Mike are as nerdy as ever, which puts them at odds with Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), who is trying to break into the popular jock crowd. Max (Sadie Sink) went missing after the death of her brother Billy. Nancy (Natalia Dyer) puts her investigative skills to good use at the school newspaper, and Steve and Robin are best friends who share a crush on girls. And of course there’s a spooky new monster in town.

If that sounds like a laundry list, it also feels a bit like it on screen. The show has become more epic and sprawling than ever, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. It creates bloated episodes and storylines that vary wildly in quality. Poor Joyce feels borderline irrelevant while Hopper, who was once the heart of the show, is stuck in a thankless subplot that feels like it’s wasting Harbour’s talent.

David Harbor scowls into a Russian hat.
Hopper (David Harbour) in Stranger Things Season 4.
Courtesy of Netflix
Jonathan Byers (Charlie Heaton), Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) and Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard) screech in from the back of a pickup truck "stranger things" season 4
Jonathan Byers (Charlie Heaton), Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) and Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard) in Stranger Things Season 4.
Courtesy of Netflix

The season took the same bigger is better approach as Game of Thrones did in its swan song… and we all know how it worked out for this show.

“Stranger Things” was an instant hit, not only because it paid homage to all the ’80s pop culture favorites, but also because it punctuated its wacky adventures and thrills of the action-horror genre with endearing characters and relationships that were worth caring about.

Sure, it’s fun to watch Steve swing a baseball bat at monsters, but the Season 2 story really sang because of Steve and Dustin’s unlikely pairing. Similarly, Eleven’s struggles with her powers were interesting, but emphasized as we watched her play against Hopper, the two lonely misfits who fill the need for a father-daughter relationship.

Winona Ryder is holding a phone and looking worried.
Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) in Stranger Things Season 4.
Courtesy of Netflix
Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), Max (Sadie Sink), Steve (Joe Keery) and Dustin (Gatem Matarazzo) gather around a grave while Max levitates.
Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), Max (Sadie Sink), Steve (Joe Keery) and Dustin (Gatem Matarazzo) in Season 4.
Courtesy of Netflix

Season 4 doesn’t lose its humanity and there are still some funny moments including characters shooting the breeze with each other (Steve and Robin in particular). But with its leads scattered to the wind — and Hopper and Joyce feeling less relevant — “Stranger Things” feels like it’s lost some of its heart.

Also, given the three-year hiatus, it almost feels like a parody of how old the young cast looks now. Will appears to be at least 17, while in previous seasons he looked like 12. It’s not Schnapp’s fault, but it is is It’s the show’s fault for not considering it. It would have been easy to just write the story in a larger time jump between seasons 3 and 4 to allow the young characters to age more naturally.

There’s still a lot to enjoy in Season 4, and Stranger Things remains an entertaining show. But it also feels like it’s biting off more than it can chew.

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