The following contains spoilers for all of Stranger Things Season 4.
Netflix’s model makes writing consistently on their shows difficult for those of us who don’t seem to have the time to binge multiple episodes of a series all at once. For Stranger Things Season 4 they did, thankfully, tweak the model by releasing the first seven episodes back on May 27 and the final two—feature-length—episodes on July 1. Of course, the Duffer Brothers also decided each episode should be at least an hour and a half long, so the benefits were somewhat muted.
Stranger Things has been a cultural phenomenon, that touches on deep and meaningful questions and themes, throughout its previous three seasons, and Season 4 certainly continues that trend. But it is also a show that tends to rely on nostalgia and emotional manipulation to tell the story so it is often a show I find difficult to talk about. I love some of the characters, plotlines, and moments with all my heart, but other parts of the show are sometimes so bad as to be virtually unwatchable.
So, what better way to discuss the show than to share some of my favorite moments in our ongoing Favorites feature! And feel free to share your own favorite moments in the comments.
Eleven and Joyce Reunite with Hopper
I’m cheating the system right off the bat and combining two separate moments, from two different episodes, into one entry. Hopper (David Barbour) and Joyce (Winona Ryder) were torn apart in the emotional climax of Season 3 when everyone initially thought Hopper sacrificed himself. Of course, it turned out he had just been transported to a Russian prison. The long scenes of Hopper in Russia and of Joyce and Murray (Brett Gelman) trying to get him out, were among the least compelling of the show’s entire run. So it was going to be necessary for Joyce and Hopper’s reunion to be really well done if it was going to pay off emotionally.
Thankfully, once Joyce and Hopper finally got together again their reunion was worth it. The two star-crossed, almost, lovers still seem destined to be kept apart but the buildup of having them spend so much time apart made their moments together feel much more special. Joyce thought she watched Hopper die saving the world, like Bob before him, and the emotional toll on the character had to be experienced on the show, not just during the off-season. After their reunion, the Russian plot continued to spin its wheels until Murray started flambéing demogorgons with a flamethrower, but at least the crucial moment felt earned.
Even more emotional was the final reunion between Hopper and Eleven (Millie Bobbie Brown) once everyone finally got back to Hawkins in the finale. Eleven and Joyce had an unspoken bond over the fact that neither of them really believed Hopper was dead and it was clear that while she was overjoyed to be back with her surrogate dad, she never really believed he was gone. Barbour and Brown feel like a family unit on screen and many of the best moments of the show have been about the two of them learning to understand each other through their father/daughter bond. As Hopper pulls El in for a hug and tears well up in both of their eyes, the moment really creates an emotional response in the viewer. These individual relationships and moments are what the show excels at most when it is working properly, and it was great to see the little Eggo-loving family reunited.
Murray Bauman Action Star
I alluded to it above but the other really fun part of the Russia arc was the increased screentime for everyone’s favorite reclusive conspiracy theorist, nerd, and expert on all things Russian (including apparently flawless ability to converse in the mother tongue without an accent), Murray Bauman. Brett Gelman somehow plays the character with such equal parts charm and horribleness that the end result is a jolt of pure insane joy. Murray isn’t someone I would love to hang around with, but I love watching him work. His shenanigans with Yuri (Nikola Đuričko) and Enzo (Tom Wlaschiha) eventually led to his turn into full-on Rambo mode, which had no business being compelling, but definitely was. The Russian arc of Stranger Things Season 4 definitely had some lulls, but at least Murray was there to liven things up.
The Vecna Reveal
Probably the biggest knock on Stranger Things is the notion that the story seems to be a bit stuck in neutral and we haven’t gotten a good explanation for WHY all of this terrible stuff is happening in Hawkins. (As far as we know this isn’t a Sunnydale-style Hellmouth, even though it seems like it should be.) The show has expanded the scope far beyond the small Indiana town previously but it never seemed like we would get a good explanation for how and why all of this started happening at this place at this time.
But then the last scene of Stranger Things Season 4 Episode 7 (“The Massacre at Hawkins Lab”) dropped the biggest set of explanations yet, tying together not just the events of this season, but everything that has happened on the show up until this point. It turns out that everything, the portals, the murders, the Mind Flayer, the military, and the doctors are all centered here because of two people, Eleven (of course) and Henry Creel (Jamie Campbell Bower)—aka One, aka Vecna, aka the Mind Flayer’s puppet general.
Episode 7 ends with an extended monologue from Henry, who is giving great, concurrent, speeches to Nancy and Eleven that somehow retain their tension despite their expositional nature. With this, Henry ties the whole story together. He was in Hawkins and displayed telekinetic abilities (and murdered his family) drawing Papa (Mathew Modine) there to “fix” his mental instability. Instead, as he would later do with El, Papa only drove Henry further to madness, eventually giving up on One and moving on to all the others.
Eleven is the one who opened the initial gate to the Upside Down when she tried to kill Henry, but instead, she sent him to exile there. He encountered the Mind Flayer and gave the Flayer the idea of entering through Hawkins. From this one scene, we learned more about the lore and history of the Stranger Things universe than we had from anything else on the show so far.
Eddie & Chrissy
They only shared two scenes together, and neither would make it out of the season alive, but in many ways, Stranger Things Season 4 was defined by the doomed love between Chrissy Cunningham (Grace Van Dyne) and Eddie Munson (Joseph Quinn). The sad Cheerleader and the exiled Dungeon Master were drawn together by circumstances in the first episode. Chrissy may have only been seeking out Eddie due to the darkness Vecna had been bringing out of her, but the two of them had such amazing and instantaneous chemistry that the two seem destined to live on forever as ill-fated lovers.
Chrissy is troubled and nuanced from the start. It is clear that she is haunted—it turns out literally— but even then she seems to have a kindness that immediately creates sympathy. Her death at the end of the first episode is as upsetting to the audience as it is in universe, not just because it is gruesome and terrible, but because this is a character with whom the show could have done so much more.
Eddie is introduced as the quintessential slacker archetype and leader of the much more advanced Dungeons & Dragons-based Hellfire Club that the main cast has joined now that they are in high school. On first impression, he seems sort of horrible, all rebellion for the sake of itself, and guarded fake machismo. But Quinn quickly starts showing the vulnerable side of the character and by the time he and Chrissy are in the park, talking about their lives and discussing the healing power of narcotics, the entire character has transformed. (Eddie’s story is also inspired by the real-life story of Damien Echols, who was similarly falsely accused of leading a D&D-based murder cult.)
Stranger Things Season 4 will take Eddie on a much longer journey than Chrissy got to experience, but it too will end not with a triumphant guitar solo of “Master of Puppets” on top of a trailer (though that somehow both happens and was inexplicably awesome) but with Eddie lying dead on the ground in the upside down. But he didn’t run this time.
Steve Harrington’s Crew
The main cast members spent the whole season split into pretty distinct camps. Joyce, Hopper, and Murray in Russia. A traveling group made up of Mike (Finn Wolfhard, who was criminally underused), Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), Will (Noah Schnapp), and Jonathan’s stoner friend Argyle (Eduardo Franco, who was a much-needed jolt of fun to the otherwise very stoic group), who were sometimes with Eleven but often sort of just wandering around feeling sad about various relationship issues. Eleven, who spent a lot of time in California bashing in people’s faces with roller skates before getting shunted off to a facility with Papa trying to bring her powers back through the device of “traumatic flashbacks”. And finally, the group left in Hawkins.
Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo ) and Steve (Joe Kerry) have been an iconic pairing since Season 2, but now in Stranger Things Season 4 they have a depth of relationship that makes their interactions even more meaningful. And Robin (Maya Hawke) has fully integrated into the group allowing the three of them to really shine in several amazing scenes and storylines. Incredibly though, by virtue of being with this group, instead of Jonathan Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer) finally felt like an essential part of the show again. Nancy and Steve always had better romantic chemistry than Nancy and Jonathan—really everyone just has amazing chemistry with Kerry—and it was pretty clear the writers realized the audience wants the two of them back together.
Steve has probably become the closest person on the show to a classic hero and the relationship between Steve, Dustin, and Eddie clearly drew on that to make comparisons and contrasts between the characters. Steve started the show as among the more insufferable characters ever, much more a villain like Jason (Mason Dye) than an Eddie. But, he has grown and changed, and in Season 4 he helped push the others to new insights as well.
Of course, the biggest standout of Stranger Things Season 4 was Max Mayfield (Sadie Sink). Her entire storyline gave the show the emotional and character-based depth that the series needs, especially as some of the other storylines seemed overly comical or contrived. Sink has been really great as Max since the character was introduced back in Season 2, but her performance became truly phenomenal in Season 4. (No matter what the Emmy nomination committee might think.)
Early in the season, we learn that Max has been targeted by Vecna, in the same way he killed Chrissy, his family, and others. From that point on, every scene with her in it has a tension that can’t really be matched by anything else. We know that she is in real danger—Max is just on the periphery enough not to have the sort of plot armor that makes the danger seem less real to characters like Steve or Dustin—and she is also in real pain.
Max has already lived a hard life and in many ways, it has made her hard. Her step-brother Billy (Dacre Montgomery) was abusive and dismissive, her mother is neglectful, and even Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) has moved on to other aspects of his life. This centers Max in the story, and Sink is able to carry the additional load and then some. From the quiet moment where she reads a letter to Billy over his grave to the pain of the physical attack that kills her (for the moment) in the finale, we feel for and with Max.
Also, “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)” is an absolute banger, and the fact it is Max’s favorite song makes me want to hang out with her in the present day.