Stranger Things Season 4 Spoilers Ahead
Stranger Things Season 4, split into two parts, is a monstrosity of a return and full of faults, but it’s a thoughtful and thrilling penultimate, nevertheless. In the show’s fourth season, the Duffer Brothers put the characters through one wringer after another, bringing answers to our screens through lengthy excavations that at times feel overbearing. Still, while I won’t be rewatching the entirety of the season from the beginning solely because of the length, there’s no denying that the foundation of this season explores some of the show’s strongest arcs. With just one more season left to conclude this particular descend into the upside-down, the stakes are higher than ever, but the series’ heart continues to beat within the friendships.
The penultimate season indeed has a gripping plot, but this detail is far from its strength. Instead, that strength lies in the characters, and in a season that saw more separations than ever before along with mixtures of various storylines interweaving as best as they could, it’s in the love that the characters share where we could find the most intriguing layers. In more ways than one, the entire series is a love letter to friendships, and Season 4 is principally a gratifying ode to the relationships that shape us—the pieces of ourselves that ground us when we’re lost.
Stranger Things Season 4 ultimately anchors the character arcs around Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill,” but it really thrives in its means of telling a story that allows people to confront the parts of themselves where they’re at their most vulnerable. There’s no denying that Max Mayfield and, by extension, Sadie Sink is the season’s MVP. What we see through the character’s journey is a gratifying and heartbreaking showcase of a girl who fights her hardest for those she loves, all while expecting nothing in return. Max is a hero in more ways than one, but it’s the detail that she’s a kid who’s figuring it all out that works superbly to remind viewers that heroism doesn’t always ask for bravery or a sacrificial death of sorts. Nonetheless, in this case, her courage is uncovered in the quiet moments when she continues to give even while knowing the damnable path it could lead her on.
Max’s journey throughout Season 4 is anything but leisurely, and considering the horrific state we leave her in at the end, it will likely get more complicated. But Max doesn’t need to swap places with anyone. She is a light all on her own—the kind of character whose heart is brilliantly bare for us to see even while nothing else makes sense. Max is a fighter, and her fight is entirely her own, but it’s also Eleven’s and Lucas’ (the character with whom I’m most impressed with this season when it comes to fighting with subtle nuances).
Thereby, Lucas and Max’s growth as individual characters, followed by where they are by the end of the season as a couple, is one of the most vulnerable aspects of the season. The scene of them quietly communicating through handwritten notes allowed Sink and Caleb McLaughlin to bring some of their most unbeatable performances to our screens with a sincerity that will stay with me for a long, long time. Lucas and Max weren’t always captivating as a couple (likely because they’re kids, and it feels very bizarre “shipping” them). Still, considering they’re now a bit older, the wholesome approach to their love story is a gorgeous exhibition that feels earned. Lucas has been a constant in Max’s life, and watching him fight selflessly for her allows his character to grow significantly. To start the season, essentially isolated from his friends and wanting to be cooler to understanding why his circle matters so profoundly are one of the series’ strengths. And his character growth is simultaneously tied to Erica’s presence in the group.
That said, while the friendships on Stranger Things have always been extraordinary, they’ve never been as rewarding or as wholesome as they are in Season 4. I, someone who cries very easily, have never cried for this show as much as I did during the last two episodes, and it’s entirely because of the friendships. And this directly leads to what a fantastic addition Eddie Munson is this season, making him a seamless fit in the group.
Though the fact remains, as much as there are great moments of romance in the penultimate season, there’s also tremendous heartbreak. While many of us probably imagined that Joseph Quinn’s Eddie would bite the dust by the end, it still doesn’t make it any easier, especially when he is still vilified in the end by the entire town of Hawkins. Eddie not only deserved the title of a hero, but he also deserved to survive—he deserved a second chance to honor the person he was capable of becoming long before the world decided he wasn’t worthy of much. Eddie’s legacy can be seen mainly in Dustin, but in a way that Stranger Things manages to stimulate best, in the fandom as well. So few shows can say that viewers find themselves attached to all the guest stars, no matter how lengthy or fleeting their time on screen might be.
And with Eddie, the detail that differentiates him from other characters like Barb and Bob is how well he works with the entire squad. Eddie is part of the close circle in a way that even Jonathan has never shown as much understanding in, and while we essentially see him pass in Dustin’s arms, we’ll be here holding on to the hope that perhaps we haven’t seen the last of him. Where his legendary showcase in the upside-down seems like one last battle cry, his innate goodness and Quinn’s sincere performances make him the kind of character whose presence will live on with every guitar string and flawlessly computed chuckle.
Stranger Things Season 4 also dives head first into the kind of romance it feels like we’ve been waiting ages for. This season is primarily about the relationships that shape people, and no two people have done a more exemplary job of becoming each other’s strengths, quite like Hawkins’ mom and dad. Joyce and Hopper share something extraordinary, which they finally allow themselves to ignite after their reunion in Volume I. While they’ve always brought one another unparalleled comfort in trying times, giving them the opportunity for a second chance in a relationship after the continuous strains of hardships is everything we could’ve hoped for.
Jim and Joyce share something profoundly moving and watching them finally be the parental unit we all collectively consider them as has been incredibly rewarding. This season finally sees them not only giving in to the feelings they’ve always had for each other, but it also thrusts them towards an effortless partnership where we get to watch them be a couple. The shift might happen quickly, but every moment they’ve shared has led to this new beginning through quiet beats where all they can do is lean in for one more kiss or reach for the other’s hand in a moment of distress. This relationship is their chance at happiness, and Season 4 Volume 2 doesn’t shy away from bringing it all to our screens with a refreshing passion.
We rarely get to watch two middle-aged people who’ve had terrible pasts find themselves in a romantic partnership where they’re secure and valued. It isn’t often that we see two people give in to everything that’s bursting within them while fighting through literal hell and battles to get to the other in times of need. There’s so much to explore between Jim and Joyce, and if there’s one thing the season authenticates, it’s that this is the endgame. Whatever happens in Season 5, they’re taking it on together.
That said, one of the faults of Season 4, along with the unnecessary and dismissive body-shaming, is that the separation of parties does a complete disservice to Will’s arc. We could write an entire breakdown strictly about Will calling Mike the heart when really, Will is the glue (and heart) keeping them all together. It was heartbreaking to feel and understand that his words were so much more than about Eleven, but about himself, allowing Jonathan to step up for the first time this season to remind us that the best part of his personality is how deeply he loves his brother.
There’s no doubt there was a concrete path the Duffer Brothers wanted to follow this season in uncovering the history and origins of the upside-down, but it seldom felt like there was a path for Jonathan. He spends the entire season high and finally steps up in the end with a beautiful speech that reminded us so much of his greatness in Season 1, which makes his arc this season so prosaic. And the thing is, it’s fascinating to see that someone has no idea what to do with their life. It’s realistic and a great angle to take, but there could’ve been better ways to execute it, and instead, it felt like we wasted multiple opportunities with the character. Still, here’s to hoping his arc is more nuanced and layered next season. Jonathan and Will have one of the best sibling relationships on our screens and there’s so much brilliant potential for how their bond could grow.
There’s also plenty to be said about Eleven whose fight continues to get darker while she gets stronger. Stranger Things Season 4 gives the character closure necessary with Papa, but it also reminds her that she isn’t invincible. She can’t actually save all her friends, and terrible things are going to happen until (or if) the fight is truly over. As a series centered around many male friendships, nothing has been more beautiful to see than the love between Eleven and Max. How the two have grown closer and how profoundly they care about each other results in a montage that evokes instantaneous blubbering and crying.
“Running Up That Hill” is as much Max’s song as it is Eleven’s. It’s a showcase of their friendship, and more importantly, it’s proof of how much the girls can endure. They were only ever meant to be kids, but thrust into a world that demands them to save it all, both Max and Eleven fight harder than anyone else could, wanting nothing more than to just take care of their loved ones. Still, sometimes it’s about the hope through it all. It’s about the decision to keep the door open three inches just because it’s what your father would’ve wanted. It’s about pushing forward when everything is against you and where Eleven’s arc is concerned, there are no faults.
Finally, while the diverging groups sometimes affect the narrative, nothing with Steve’s arc feels wrong. It’s, once again, the most seamless thread that cohesively weaves all the stories together, creating one big ridiculous angle that’s better than anything else we could’ve imagined. Steve Harrington‘s growth as a character remains top-notch, and thus far, no series has managed it quite as effectively as Stranger Things. And in Season 4 especially, we could see how much of that growth equates to him wanting to be a better man—a husband and father someday, a role he now has more practice for than most of the dads in Hawkins (excluding Hopper, of course).
Steve Harrington continues to grow, and he does so by being the ultimate confidant. It’s the way that he’ll fight through whatever is necessary for the kids and Nancy. It’s how he loves and appreciates Robin for all that she is, wanting nothing more than to see her happy. It’s the way that he cares with every bone in his body, even though he grew up in a home where love was evidently scarce. At this point, he’s proven that there’s nothing he wouldn’t do for the kids in his life, and to survive another season is a gift we’ll take with profound gratitude.
Stranger Things Season 4 is a lengthy deep dive into what matters in a world with uncertainties. It’s a doozy in more ways than one that uncovers the importance of having people in your corner to fight for you while simultaneously reminding us that people aren’t what they seem. There’s so much more to excavate when it comes to what equates to a hero in a world that only sees black and white and that’s exactly what the season does. It’s imperfect sure, but it’s excellent in every way where it forces us to think deeper and look further into the corridors that aren’t overtly visible.
Now streaming on Netflix: What are your thoughts on Stranger Things Season 4? Let us know in the comments below.
Gissane (pronounced Geese-enny) or, as people often call her, "Goose," is a Christ fan above all and a romance enthusiast who's taken her Master's degree in English and love for essays into writing lengthy analyses about pop culture.
She is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Marvelous Geeks Media and the co-host of Lady Geeks' Society Podcast. She drinks too much coffee, wants to live in a forest, and cries a lot because of her favorite characters. She's a member of The Cherry Picks and can also be found writing features for MovieWeb and Looper.