Stranger Things 4 suffers from Netflix's biggest problem

Finn Wolfhard as Mike Wheeler and Gaten Matarazzo as Dustin Henderson in STRANGER THINGS 4
(Image credit: Netflix)

I devoured Stranger Things season 4 volume 1, but much like a banquet that had a few courses too many, I found myself questioning the chef's decisions. This isn't strictly a time decision, either. Yes, seven episodes split across nine hours sounds like the dictionary definition of excess, but it doesn't have to be. (Oh, and we've got the one thing to know if you're watching Stranger Things 4 — don't make the same mistake we did.)

Instead, the big problem at hand here is that some of the storylines of Stranger Things season 4 seem a lot less interesting and important than others, though to my surprise, I misjudged what I thought the consensus would be. And that's when it hit me: if it's hard to figure out which plot line would be the consensus pick for the weakest one, then Stranger Things season 4 has a very familiar problem. Even when it's one of the best Netflix shows, it can still suffer from Netflix's biggest annoyances.

Netflix, if you haven't heard, is dealing with plenty of problems itself (and the Netflix password sharing crackdown doesn't sound like it's started well). Netflix, though, it is counting Stranger Things 4 as a huge win, while it ranks its shows by hours watched. And while that makes some sense as a metric, it's also created a situation where the top Netflix shows and movies may also be the longest shows and movies. That, in turn, encourages Netflix shows to go too long and waste our time. Unsurprisingly enough, this super-sized season of Stranger Things (which isn't even over yet) just set a Netflix record, with 286.79 million hours viewed over the course of Friday through Sunday. This is the largest premiere for an English language Netflix show.

So, if I were to ask you if Eleven, Hopper, Joyce or Mike's group had the weakest storyline of Stranger Things 4, the variance in your answers would kind of prove that there are too many boring things — and not enough actually stranger things — in Stranger Things' return. 

Late Saturday night, after I finished Stranger Things 4, I polled Twitter to see what storyline people had thought was the worst. And surprisingly to me, more than half of the replies slammed Mike's group for wasting our time the most. While I don't blame the audience, this wouldn't have been my pick for the biggest downside of the season.

But, seriously, aside from Mike arguing with Will and having trouble with Eleven, his group (comprised of Mike, Jonathan, Will and stoner Argyle) is seemingly here to be confused.

Finn Wolfhard as Mike Wheeler in STRANGER THINGS 4

(Image credit: Netflix)

From the army's raid that left the gang running and screaming to the odd sideplot where they meet Dustin's girlfriend Suzie and have to get her dad off the internet, this quartet is constantly involved with things that don't seem to really matter. 

These feel like plot devices that are supposed to move these kids around the chessboard that is Stranger Things 4. And when this season's episodes are longer than we're used to? Scenes that don't really explain anything feel like a distraction at best.

The Stranger Things 4 plot that broke my attention

I've spent this year actively forcing myself to be more engaged when I watch TV. So imagine my frustration when Stranger Things season 4 basically turned Hopper into one of the most boring characters on the show. 

Every single time the cameras jumped to Hopper's very grueling ordeal in Russia, I would find myself jumping to my Twitter timeline to see what else was going on. The survival of Hopper and fellow prisoner Antonov just didn't really feel that important to me, because the entire "Hopper is stuck in Russian prisons" bit seems contrived. Yes, let's take a fan-favorite character and stick him inside a camp of the weakest part of the previous season!

David Harbour as Hopper in Stranger Things 4

(Image credit: Netflix)

Maybe this makes me sound heartless, but I felt much more for Eleven suffering under the painful thoughts that Hopper is dead than I did for Hopper himself. His flashbacks to his past were emotionally strong, but I don't see myself caring about him until he gets back to Hawkins. His reunion with Eleven better happen, because I've already accepted the ugly crying I'll be doing when they meet again.

That said, Hopper's time in Russia is probably in service of some other plot of the story. We know that music can help free people from the clutches of Vecna/001/Henry Creel, but we don't know how to hurt the Big Bad yet. Hopefully, that will be what we get from Hopper's frigid spring break. 

Right now, I just wish that Hopper's time away was more condensed and told in a single episode. Yes, Eleven's time in Chicago wasn't great, but anything would have been better than this.

Outlook: At least Max and Dustin are proving Hawkins still has it

All of the above slowness in Stranger Things 4 was perhaps made more boring by the fact that the Hawkins kids were up to much more interesting things. Steve Harrington's become even cooler than ever (I'm not sure if it's the chest-hair, but he swears by it), and his work as the group leader in the latter section was amazing. His capital-P platonic friendship with Robin made for some of the best moments in the early episodes, as well.

And even though I find the satanic panic storyline in Hawkins to be a little corny, everyone around it makes the best of a crazy situation. Nancy and Robin's trip to talk to Victor Creel is an excellent scene, if only from Robin's monologue to talk their way in and her hatred of Nancy's choice of wardrobe. But to be frank, the action in Hawkins is best because of Sadie Sink's work as Max.

Sadie Sink as Max Mayfield in STRANGER THINGS 4

(Image credit: Netflix)

From the anxiety that led to the saddest letter-writing campaign of all time to her mourning her brother Billy, Max has truly felt like one of this season's best characters. Her depression and funk have been utterly relatable, and everything between Max and Lucas — especially when he says he shouldn't have let her become distant — was amazing.

Speaking of Lucas, his high school drama about trying to fit in with the cool kids when they want to torture his nerdy friends has been one of the best ways that Stranger Things has taken regular high school life and made it adapt to a world where the Upside Down exists.

Hopefully, Stranger Things season 4 volume 2 brings everyone back to Hawkins and away from their boring sideplots. Because nobody will think Stranger Things season 4 deserves to be the top show on Netflix's rankings if this season keeps boring us along the way.

Next: Stranger Things season 5 won't repeat the same mistake as season 4. And check out what to watch this weekend with 7 new shows and movies on Netflix, Prime Video and more. And we've got all the WWE Hell in a Cell live stream info too.

Henry T. Casey
Managing Editor (Entertainment, Streaming)

Henry is a managing editor at Tom’s Guide covering streaming media, laptops and all things Apple, reviewing devices and services for the past seven years. Prior to joining Tom's Guide, he reviewed software and hardware for TechRadar Pro, and interviewed artists for Patek Philippe International Magazine. He's also covered the wild world of professional wrestling for Cageside Seats, interviewing athletes and other industry veterans.

  • swimdadX4
    Honestly, I loved the longer stories & felt that this was the strongest season since the first. Count me in the "Hopper" camp for weakest storyline.

    Regarding the Satanic stuff, that's all '80s - when I was growing up, everyone was paniced about satanism - Ozzy was basically the devil himself - I'm surpised there were no references to playing Judas Priest backwards :D
  • Kmc2407
    I agree 100% about loving the longer episodes! I don’t agree that anyone has a weak storyline, hoppers part felt drawn out but it’s building up to his escape and reunion with Joyce and eleven which will be fantastic! This is something we’ve been waiting and hoping for since the ending of season 3 and the rumors that went around about it. I loved flashing between different characters and their parts in the show, a lot better than following just one boring storyline.
    I think part 2 will beautifully unify all the characters, make sense of each situation and be amazing like the rest of this series! They’ve done a phenomenal job!! ♥️
    (A diehard stranger things fan…)