'Stranger Things' 4 Review: The Darkest Season Yet

Amid the moving friendships and impeccable comedy, season 4, Vol. 1 brings some of the darkest moments yet.

Gael Fashingbauer Cooper
CNET freelancer Gael Fashingbauer Cooper, a journalist and pop-culture junkie, is co-author of "Whatever Happened to Pudding Pops? The Lost Toys, Tastes and Trends of the '70s and '80s," as well as "The Totally Sweet '90s." If Marathon candy bars ever come back, she'll be first in line.
Gael Fashingbauer Cooper
4 min read
The cast of Stranger Things season 4, with El in front.

The Stranger Things kids are back, and the best they've ever been. 


Is there a goop-covered bank vault in the Upside Down? If so, time to empty it out and give all the money to the Duffer brothers. Season 4 of Stranger Things is the best one yet.

And that's saying something. Season 3 was an exceptional return to form after a polarizing season 2. The pitch-perfect Starcourt Mall, Lucas' sassy little sis Erica, Slurpee-chugging Alexei -- the settings and the friendships all wove perfectly around the season's central plot.

Season 4 feels like a Stranger Things greatest hits compilation, including a return to its bleak, sometimes squirm-inducing horror roots. The touching friendships are still there, as is the comic relief. But a clear theme runs through this season -- that of facing past trauma and not so metaphorical demons.

There's a sense Stranger Things is building toward its endgame, mining the biggest evils yet from the depths of the Upside Down to push its young, nerdy heroes. Season 4 is an ambitious feast, one that runs the risk of being overstuffed. Yet ultimately it hits the sweet spot of '80s nostalgia, the most charismatic cast you could ask for, harsh moments rooted in real-life suffering and the Stephen King-influenced CGI machinations.

Season 4 kicks off with the core Stranger Things crew scattered across the globe. Hopper, thought to have died saving the world, is being held captive by Russians. Joyce, Will, Jonathan and El have moved to California.

Meanwhile, back in Hawkins, Indiana, a new set of threats emerge, centered on the Creels, a Hawkins-based family murdered in their home back in the 1950s. The Creels' spooky mansion is tied in to the show's central mystery in a number of satisfying ways. By the end of episode 7, it all makes sense.

But Stranger Things wouldn't be half the show it is without the personalities and relationships we've come to love. I worried that splitting the show among three fronts -- Russia, Hawkins and California -- would scatter the friends and wreck the camaraderie, but in Duffer we trust, because damn if they didn't pull it off.

The California crew gets a spring break visit from Mike (Finn Wolfhard), who discovers poor, power-less El (Millie Bobby Brown) isn't fitting in in the Golden West any more than she did in the Hoosier State. There's a snotty blonde named Angela who's gunning for the new kid, and her storyline is infuriating, with a roller-rink confrontation that's as hard to watch as it is necessary. El's modern-day struggles blend with a look at her past that deepens and explains a lot of the show's main mystery.

The Hawkins crew, meanwhile, is just as busy, as creepy murders continue to haunt the town. Their Nancy Drew-esque attempts at solving the mystery are solid, but not at the expense of comedy. The Steve-Dustin friendship remains one of the best in current TV. (This 1980s kid loved a scene with the two crammed in the wayback of a wood-paneled station wagon.)

Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) acquires a pizza-delivering stoner pal, Argyle, who's just a delight. Robin (Mia Hawke) is as witty and dependable hawking video rentals as she was scooping rocky road. Max gets her own heart-pounding storyline, and Sadie Sink shows she's up to the task. And what even remains to be said about Lucas' little sis Erica (Priah Ferguson), who steals every scene she shows up in?

Mike and El roller-skating in Stranger Things season 4

Mike and El are California dreamin', but not everything is golden in the Golden State.


Hopper, meanwhile, is truly suffering in his snow-swept Russian prison, but never fear -- Joyce and Murray are on the case. Winona Ryder and Brett Gelman make for an inspired pair as they bumble and bicker, yet still somehow manage to concoct the weirdest rescue plan ever. (It involves peanut butter jars and a shave for Murray, among other things.)

Though the show ping-pongs between California, Hawkins, Russia and Eleven's laboratory days, not one of those settings drags. You'll have to hit the pause button for any needed bathroom or snack breaks, because once this season starts rolling, it doesn't let up. And episode seven ends in dramatic fashion, making fans count the days until July 1, when the season's final two episodes are set for release.

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Stranger Things aired its third season way back in 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic. Its return lands in a very different world where viewers, like the Hawkins kids, have been forced to battle a deadly enemy no one completely understands. Like Tiger King, bread baking and dalgona coffee in those early pandemic days, the show is a balm, a distraction and a comfort. It's heartening that it's still so rich and well-done four seasons in. We needed this.

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