Stranger Things’ epic fourth season hits close to home: unlike in the previous two seasons, the threat feels personal. Venca is a villain targeting individuals by preying on a vulnerability we can all relate to in today’s day and age. We also get to see new dimensions of old characters, exciting protagonists like Nancy Wheeler are foregrounded with a unique vigor, and a fresh antagonist digs into everyone’s emotional baggage. Here’s our take on the three ways that Season 4 of Stranger Things is a great return to what made the show so successful in the first place – and on what Season 4 all really meant.
Stranger Things’ epic fourth season hits close to home: unlike in the previous two seasons, the threat feels personal. It’s no longer a large, anonymous, destructive force, but instead, a villain targeting individuals by preying on a vulnerability we can all relate to in today’s day and age.
“It will all be over soon.” - Vecna, Stranger Things, 4x09
Seasons 2 and 3 may have drifted away from the character dynamics that made the show so exciting in the first place, but Season 4 brings this back into focus. We get to see new dimensions of old characters, exciting protagonists like Nancy are foregrounded with a unique vigor, and a fresh antagonist digs into everyone’s emotional baggage.
The stakes feel higher than ever – and this time, nobody is safe. Here’s our take on the three ways that Season 4 of Stranger Things is a great return to what made the show so successful in the first place – and on what Season 4 all really meant.
What’s So Great #1: The Villain
Stranger Things has always been known for its spooky nostalgic antagonists. Sci-fi monsters like the Mind Flayer and the Demogorgon paid homage to Dungeons & Dragons and 80s horror movies. But this season’s antagonist is a completely different, even more terrifying threat: Vecna. This villainous fiend has more humble and human origins than the creatures of previous seasons, but he’s dangerous because of his ability to inflict pain inward. He taps into something we all struggle with – guilt. His first victim, Chrissy, develops an eating disorder under the pressure of her mother’s extreme expectations.
“Open the door, Chrissy, or I’m gonna gut you like the fat pig that you are.” - Laura Cunningham, Stranger Things, 4x01
His second, Fred, is haunted by visions of the mourning families who lost a loved one to a road accident that Fred failed to report.
Fred: “It was an accident.”
Police Officer: “An accident? Is that why you ran all the way home instead of calling us?
- Stranger Things, 4x02
When Vecna targets Max and Nancy, he preys on that same feeling – Max’s guilt over not saving her brother and Nancy’s guilt around leaving Barb to die in the Upside Down back in Season 1. Nancy’s guilt hits especially hard, and not just because Barb’s death was such a memorable part of Season 1. At the start of the fourth season, it looks like Nancy’s arc will focus more on whether or not she gets back with Steve.
“Maybe after we find Vecna, kill him, save the world and stuff, maybe we can all go out or something?” - Steve, Stranger Things 4x05
But as the season goes on, we begin to see the dark side of this flirtation; for Nancy, her relationship with Steve is linked to Barb’s death, so what starts out as a cute, romantic diversion quickly turns into fuel for Vecna.
Every character has some guilt they’re wrestling with; Lucas abandoned his friends to become popular, Eleven fears she was responsible for a massacre at the laboratory, and Mike neglected Will when he prioritized his relationship with Eleven over their friendship.
Will: “I’ve been a total third wheel all day, it’s been miserable. So sorry if I wasn’t smiling.”
Mike: “Yeah whatever, man.”
- Stranger Things 4x02
This adds a fresh new element of tension to the show because Vecna could easily target anyone. And that tension taps into a wider, cultural fear about guilt and shame in the digital age. Even though Season 4 still plays with Stranger Things’ signature nostalgia, the guilt theme feels urgent and relevant today. With the fear of being “canceled” looming, it’s very easy to be afraid that the worst thing you’ve done has already happened, and there’s nothing you can do to correct it. The more you ignore it, the bigger and more all-encompassing it begins to feel, until it becomes its own kind of torture – one that we all live with and one that Vecna preys on.
“It’s time for your suffering to end.” - Vecna, Stranger Things, 4x01
And what’s more, unlike the Demogorgon or the Mind Flayer, guilt isn’t something that can be destroyed by having a friend who happens to be a superhero. To overcome guilt, you need to forgive yourself, which is easier said than done.
“I’ve tried to forgive myself. I’ve tried…but I can’t.” - Max, Stranger Things, 4x09
In that sense, Vecna is the perfect villain for our times, and for Season 4, forcing us to confront things about ourselves we try to keep hidden away and reminding us how difficult it is to meet that guilt with compassion.
What’s So Great #2: Nancy’s Epic Arc
Another highlight of Season 4 is Nancy Wheeler, who’s transformed into someone who really drives the narrative. We’ve seen this potential in her before, like when she worked on the local paper in Season 3, investigating what was causing all the rats to die – though she was ultimately thwarted by those around her. Now, in Season 4, she’s emboldened by her role in the student paper and is maybe looking to atone for her part in Barb’s death.
This marks a major shift from where her character started. Back in Season 1, Nancy courageously battled the Demogorgon, but she still fell into the role of the damsel in distress. She was caught in a love triangle with Steve and Jonathan, and it’s those two who end up saving her; Steve jumped in just as she was about to die while Jonathan delivered the fatal blow. So Nancy’s key narrative function was to give Steve his redemptive arc and to help Jonathan come out of his shell. But in Season 4, she gets to be her own person, driving her own story.
“A student died, and the game plan is for you to let me do the talking, for you to take notes on that little pad there, and for you to follow my lead at all times.” - Nancy, Stranger Things, 4x02
One clear influence for Nancy this season is Clarice Starling from The Silence of the Lambs. The show deliberately references Clarice’s first meeting with Hannibal Lecter when Nancy and Robin go to meet Victor Creel for the first time. Nancy and Clarice are both inexperienced, but also both compassionate and curious. While everyone else sees Victor as a dangerous killer, she knows there must be more to his story than meets the eye.
“We’re not reporters; we’re here because we believe you.” - Nancy, Stranger Things 4x04
Because of that instinct, Nancy is crucial in unlocking the whole mystery. After that meeting, she manages to decipher where Vecna’s home is and, along with Robin, figure out how to survive his attacks.
Nancy trusts the journalistic instincts she’s been honing since Season 2 and is able to access new levels of bravery. When Vecna shows her the devastating future he has planned for Hawkins, she doesn’t wilt – instead, she’s even more emboldened to fight him.
“Vecna can’t hurt them. Not if he’s dead. We have to go back in there. Back to the Upside Down.” - Nancy, Stranger Things, 4x09
This version of Nancy is four seasons in the making; she’s trying to atone for what happened to Barb, but she’s also fully in charge of who she is. And with a threat still lingering over Hawkins, she’s only going to become more empowered next season.
What’s So Great # 3: A Return to Form
Season 4 of Stranger Things isn’t just pulling characters like Nancy into the driver’s seat – it’s also going back to its roots with old central characters, like Hopper and Eleven. The first season of Stranger Things was almost faultless, but the quality arguably dipped in the following two: character arcs meandered and seemed to lose sight of what made the show so compelling in the first place.
For example, Chief Hopper changed pretty drastically over the seasons – and many thought this shift was not for the better. In the first season, Hopper is a fascinating hero, paralyzed by his grief over the loss of his daughter. His sympathetic, emotionally grounded character arc was a perfect complement to the nostalgic supernatural story elements of the main season arc.
“It just makes me feel glad to be alive. It’s such an interesting world.” - Hopper, Stranger Things, 1x08
But in the second and third seasons, it became a lot harder to root for him; he has no idea how to do right by Eleven and ends up acting in a way that is pretty abusive. He becomes violent, threatening Mike over his burgeoning relationship with Eleven, and employing this same emotional blackmail against Eleven herself.
Eleven: “You are like Papa!”
Hopper: “Really? I’m like that psychotic son of a bitch? You wanna go back in the lab? One phone call, I can make that happen.”
- Stranger Things, 2x04
But Season 4 lets Hopper return to his more grounded, emotional roots; he is annexed in a Soviet gulag, which allows for a period of reflection. His forced labor is effectively penance for his behavior in the previous two seasons, and he’s able to re-evaluate his role in Eleven’s life. This ties nicely into the season’s broader theme of guilt: he confesses that he feels responsible for his daughter getting sick because of his time in Vietnam and his proximity to Agent Orange.
“It wasn’t an easy death, she suffered. I knew the risks, but I, um, I hid them.” - Hopper, Stranger Things, 4x05
Similarly, this season goes back to its roots with Eleven. In the first season, part of what made Eleven so compelling was the way she embodied a paradox of extreme strength and vulnerability. We knew she had these powers, but she had no idea how to harness them.
Seasons 2 and 3 kept Eleven as a central character, but her journey veered away from that central conflict – instead, those seasons spent a lot of time integrating Eleven into the main group of kids. While it was fun to watch her relationship grow with Mike and see her act like a normal teenage girl with Max, it also felt like the show lost sight of what made her so compelling in the first place. Many of her new plotlines turned out to be diversions that were dropped episodes later, such as her visiting Chicago to meet other people with her abilities.
In Season 4, Eleven’s journey circles back to that essential tension from Season 1. She is once again powerful and vulnerable at the same time – she’s back to being a fish out of water, surrounded by bullies in California who see her as a freak. And when she regains her powers, she’s up against a villain whose powers are essentially the same as hers.
The finale also brings back another important element of Season 1: friendship. Eleven relies on her friends to defeat Vecna and save Hawkins. It’s not her romantic relationship with Mike that ends up front and center, it’s her friendship with Max. By the season’s end, Eleven has regained her memories and has full control over her powers, making her stronger than ever. But the friendships that give her strength also make her vulnerable; with Max in a coma and Vecna likely still out there, Stranger Things is poised to continue building on that essential tension in its final chapter.
Hawkins is a community that has had more than its fair share of trauma, and Season 4 explores those traumas on the deepest level. Not just the horrifying traumas of monsters and deaths, but the smaller, more personal traumas that come with growing up, like guilt, shame, friendship, loss, and love. It seems like there is more to come in Season 5, with unresolved story threads such as Will’s unspoken love for Mike, Robin’s interest in Vickie, and Eleven’s new knowledge of her past. Because Vecna is still a threat, these arcs will likely prove more important in the next season.
One of the major reasons why Season 4 is so great is that it doesn’t just unearth personal traumas: it offers solutions to work through them. The power of music, of communities, and maybe most importantly, of friendship all show our heroes a way forward. That’s a lesson worth paying attention to, even if you’re not in the Upside Down.
Stolworthy, Jacob. “Stranger Things Viewers Accuse Show of ‘Queerbaiting’ After Repeatedly Teasing Will Byers’ Sexuality.” The Independent, 1 June 2022 https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/tv/news/stranger-things-season-4-will-byers-b2091644.html