The following contains spoilers for Stranger Things Seasons 1 through 4, streaming on Netflix.
Fans had to wait years to find out what happened to Will, Mike, Eleven, Hopper and the rest of the characters they love in Stranger Things. After such an extended wait, the Netflix series returned bigger in every way. However, did the longer episode runtimes in Stranger Things 4 help or hurt the series?
For some fans of the show, the more Stranger Things, the better. Yet, in the interest of telling the best version of the story, sometimes limitations lead to the most inspired bursts of creativity. However, it seems like the Duffer Brothers are in a place akin to where George Lucas was on the Star Wars prequels. There’s no one left to tell them, “No, don’t do that.” These overlong episodes are evidence of that. Of course, there are no rules that say drama TV shows have to be between 48 and 58 minutes. British series, like Sherlock, often feature longer episodes and much shorter seasons. However, changing the rhythm of a series so drastically can jar viewers to the point of distraction.
If the Duffer Brothers stuck to around 50-minute episodes, they could have made 15 of those (with about 35 minutes they could use to extend here and there). Why they chose not to super-size their season in this way is evident in Stranger Things 4. Regardless of how one feels about the season, it’s clear that they told the story they wanted exactly how they wanted to tell it. People often talk about “filler” in TV series, but all that means is character stories that don’t drive the main plot forward. There is plenty of charm and value in those weird, one-off stories in your favorite TV shows. Still, it would be inaccurate to call any of the scenes in Stranger Things 4 “filler,” but it might be fair to describe some of them as “padding.”
Ultimately, there are four major storylines in Stranger Things 4 that have yet to connect but almost certainly will in Episodes 8 and 9’s almost four-hour runtime. There is the story back in Hawkins. There are the adventures of the crew in California. Eleven is a part of that latter group until she is taken from everyone early on in the season. Lastly, there is the story of Joyce Byers and Murray Bauman trying to rescue Hopper from a Russian prison.
To their credit, the Duffer Brothers do a masterful job spreading these stories out over the seven episodes. While sometimes you might forget what the California crew or Eleven is up to, viewers don’t end up lost. Yet, the long episodes might have allowed some storylines to linger longer than they should. Others, like the entire vigilante thread, help build the tension in the moment but then just fizzled off into the background of the last episodes. That thread especially seems like one that will rear its ugly head at an inopportune time for our heroes in the last two episodes. Still, at this season break it feels as if the Duffer Brothers did a lot of great work to not take us very far.
Eleven’s storyline in particular felt like it dragged on unnecessarily long, breaking the pacing of later episodes. With more traditional episode lengths, the Duffer Brothers could have left Eleven absent from many of the episodes entirely. Then viewers would also start to feel her absence as desperately as Mike and the rest of the California Crew do. Every so often, they could then give us an entire Eleven episode, to catch viewers up on her progression through the crucible to get back her powers.
We could see these memories, but also get a little more time in the present to help us understand Eleven’s feelings. Especially after how the season began, Eleven is in a fragile emotional state. There could be plenty more exploration of that. Millie Bobby Brown does a fantastic job with what she was given, especially as Eleven seems to regress to her Season 1 nonverbal state. Yet, a different episode structure might have allowed for some time with the older (if not wiser) Eleven we’ve gotten to know over the past two seasons. We could have had more emotional context for how these memories make Eleven feel rather than some ill-advised misdirect that Eleven is a mass-murderer.
Along with that, shorter episodes could have allowed for a different kind of padding. Instead of not seeing the California Crew after they leave Dustin’s girlfriend’s house, we could get a scene or two of them barreling to Nevada to rescue Eleven. It could help build anticipation for that, and help break the audience’s heart even more when the plan eventually goes awry.
Still, one thing that fans should do is not criticize a story for what it isn’t, but rather look at it for what it is. The Duffer Brothers are at the height of their powers, and Stranger Things 4 is a well-crafted, exciting and heartfelt series. We’ll take whatever they want to give us, long episodes and all.
You can see how The Duffer Brothers bring all these stories to a close when Stranger Things 4, Volume 2 debuts July 1, 2022.