When Stranger Things first premiered in 2016, it introduced viewers to a world where small town Indiana was somehow connected to a dark mirror dimension filled with monsters–and for some reason the ones that were destined to navigate it were a ragtag group of friends and a telekinetic girl that was essentially portrayed as a lab experiment gone wrong. Viewers fell in love with Eleven, Mike, Dustin, and the rest of the gang, as well as the universe that grew up around them.
Then, as the show continued, Stranger Things went deeper. Joyce and Hopper–the adults in the story–become more deeply involved in the plot, the Upside Down dimension became more dangerous, and the cast started to blossom further with newcomers like Max (Sadie Sink), Robin (Maya Hawke), and Erica (Priah Ferguson) rounding out the group. They fell right in with what made Stranger Things so engaging. The Duffers, the sibling showrunners on the series, had seemingly mastered world-building in a way that we couldn’t turn away from.
Warning: The following contains spoilers for Season 4 of Stranger Things.
Now in Season 4, with Season 5 already announced as the last, Stranger Things is beginning its home stretch. Of course, you wouldn’t know that by watching the show. While originally, the story being told and the world constructed around it served the show well, it’s not gotten out of hand as Stranger Things seemingly can’t keep from expanding its lore, adding new characters and locations, and ultimately leading to a series of over-stuffed episodes that bury the most interesting stories being told.
When you have to serve this many characters, in this many different locations, the story of this group of friends banding together against a supernatural evil gets lost in a trip to Russia, a stop at a Dustin’s girlfriend’s wacky house filled with loud children, and whatever else has been thrown into Season 4.
What’s more, the show is still introducing new characters. That’s not to say pothead Argyle (Eduardo Franco) and D&D nerd Eddie (Joseph Quinn) are bad additions to the show, but on a series that already had well over 10 series regulars across at least four different locations to cover in nine episodes, where is the breaking point? And that’s before you touch on the arrival of Vecna, the introduction of Victor Creel and his family, and whatever else Stranger Things is looking to throw into the final two episodes of the season, both of which are movie-length.
This obsession with continuing to grow out the world of the show is especially disappointing in Season 4, because there are actually two really good stories buried underneath the bloat. Eleven’s return to the lab to get her powers back, while also learning the origin of the Upside Down’s connection to this world is compelling. As is the group in Hawkins being dragged back into the Upside Down as they try to figure out why teenagers in the town are being viciously murdered. These are pieces of the story that, on their own, would make for a fantastic season of television.
However, Stranger Things has too many other masters to serve in its storytelling. Thus, Season 4 is also following a few of the kids on a road trip from California that is more comic relief than anything else, while Joyce, Hopper, and Murray are locked into a tedious and uninteresting story about busting Hop out of a Russian prison. Seriously, it makes sense that you have to find something for the adults to do, but they are going about it in the most unnecessary way possible and Season 4 suffers because of it. It’s no wonder the final two episodes of the season will each be feature-length.
As Netflix executive Matthew Thunell explained to Variety, “Part of the reason the episodes are a bit longer is that we have a huge ensemble of characters. And by the way, fans love each and every one of them. To give them their due episode over episode, it just means the episodes need to expand to fit them. That was really what drove a lot of the length this season, the fact that we have an amazing ensemble that everybody cares about and we want to make sure that we’re delivering on each and every one of those stories.”
It’s hard to know if the audience truly loves each and every character–especially since they are still tossing in newbies in hopes they catch on. That said, good or bad, too many characters is simply too many.
Perhaps the Duffers will find a way to reign things in as the show races toward its inevitable conclusion, but right now, when looking at the first seven episodes of Season 4, it certainly doesn’t feel like the end is near. Instead, the show’s scope is widening more and more, leading to plenty of moments that are more of a distraction than a worthwhile addition to the story.
That’s concerning, given how much pressure is going to be on the Duffers to land this bird in such a way that it remains a fan favorite, even after it’s over–especially since Netflix is almost certainly counting on spin-offs of the franchise at some point. If you leave audiences with a bad taste in their mouth because you spent too much time adding in new characters and new lore that isn’t necessary, what’s going to make them want to come back?
For now, we’re all waiting for the final two episodes of Stranger Things 4–which combined will be nearly four hours long–to see if this season somehow manages to wrap up each of the multiple stories being told and how the Duffers plan to inevitably split up the gang again because having 20 people in the shot at any given time seems nearly impossible. Then again, they could just kill a bunch of them off. Place your bets on who will survive to next season. The smart money is “most of them plus at least three new characters.”
Stranger Things returns for its final two episodes of Season 4 on July 1.