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'Stranger Things' season 4 hits series highs, even with some missteps

The long-awaited fourth installment of "Stranger Things," though imperfect, improves upon the series. – Photo by Stranger Things / Twitter

After a three-year-long wait, the hit Netflix series “Stranger Things” returned this summer in two volumes, one released in late May and the other in early July. With a total of nine episodes (including a 2-and-a-half-hour-long finale), the fourth season certainly lived up to expectations. Warning: This review contains spoilers for the season!

This season felt like a return to the best that “Stranger Things” has to offer. While I enjoyed seasons two and three, I feared that the show was starting to become repetitive, with each season following a similar plot structure of introducing a new monster coming to terrorize Hawkins, and the season ending with the characters closing a gate to the Upside Down.

But season four introduced a much different villain, dubbed “Vecna” by the characters, who actually has the ability to speak with his victims inside their minds, creating a much more sinister, intimate threat.

While every season of “Stranger Things” has had violent scenes and explored darker and more intense themes, season four is unique in its more explicit exploration of mental illness, trauma and grief.

It’s established that Vecna exclusively targets victims who are already dealing with trauma, whether it be long-lasting or from a recent event. This added a layer of relatability to the story. While not many viewers know what it’s like to fight monsters from another dimension, watching the characters we’ve come to know so well struggle with familiar issues like depression makes the emotional moments this season hit much harder.

One character who really shines this season is Max, played by the incredibly talented Sadie Sink. There's a major focus on Max and the guilt she feels after the death of her step-brother, Billy, at the end of season three.

Max is eventually targeted by Vecna, leading to one of the best scenes of the season. When the characters discover that playing music can help bring Vecna’s victims back to reality, they play her favorite song (Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)”), allowing her to break free and escape.

Watching Max run away from Vecna, using her good memories to fuel her desire to work through her trauma and live rather than succumb to the pain, was incredibly emotional and impactful.

It was also satisfying to get more explanation about the Upside Down and Eleven’s powers. Finding out that Vecna was both One and Henry Creel was a great plot twist, and watching him create the Mind Flayer was a really cool and eerie scene.

The scenes in Hawkins Lab were also an interesting way to get insight into Eleven’s training and how she developed her powers, though it was sad to see that she was even treated like an outsider by children with similar abilities to her.

The season definitely had a lot of high points, but for me, there were still some things that could have been improved. Many of the newer characters like Argyle and Eddie were definitely a positive addition to the show, but the focus the season placed on them meant that some characters that have been there since the beginning of the show have been sidelined and given a much less significant role.

This was disappointing to see, especially with Will, who went from the main focus of the first season to a character without a lot of real plot significance.

Having so many characters split up into so many different locations also meant there were a lot of loose ends to tie up — something I’m not sure the season finale was fully successful in doing.

The time skip at the end of the episode was jarring, especially following the death and near-death experience of two beloved characters. The last quarter of the episode felt rushed, with characters quickly reuniting, lessening the emotional impact of the reunions. The season probably could have benefitted from having a few extra hour-long episodes rather than a movie-length finale.

But despite these shortcomings, I still think season four of “Stranger Things” might be my favorite season so far. The deeply emotional scenes, balanced nicely with some moments of comedy, made the season really engaging.

The introduction of a very different villain than what we’ve seen before grabbed my attention immediately, and I liked how real-world issues were woven into the storyline. The season also ended on a major cliffhanger, with the Upside Down fully seeping into Hawkins, so it definitely has me and plenty of other fans excited to see how the series will wrap up.

Plenty of questions and fan theories are floating around online as to what will happen in the show’s final season: Is Will going to develop powers from his time in the Upside Down? Is Max’s mind hidden somewhere along with Vecna? Will Eddie be revealed to be one of the kids from Hawkins Lab?

These are just some of the many burning questions and off-the-wall theories people have after watching season four, but it speaks to how many new cool and interesting developments occurred this season. I don’t have any specific predictions myself, but I’m definitely hoping for a satisfying conclusion for the characters we’ve spent four seasons with on the edge of our seats.

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