The 80’s nostalgia trip wrangles the messy, fractured season into a conclusion that somehow largely works.
The one thing that no one can deny is Stranger Things Season 4 remains aggressively itself right up to the end. Its final two episodes, feature-length films onto themselves, serve everything that one could enjoy about the first seven episodes with a side of everything that frustrates and annoys. The good news is that the bad bits remain a side dish, not the main course. The better news is that ratio tips even further in favor of what’s enjoyable.
While the two-episode conclusion to the series continues Volume 1’s insistence on keeping the cast spread over several storylines, it finally begins to braid them together. The Russian storyline—in which Hopper (David Harbour), Joyce (Winona Ryder), Murray (Brett Gelman), Yuri (Nikola Djuricko), and Dmitri (Tom Wlaschiha) struggle to get back to the U.S.—remains the most stubbornly separate. There’s a bit about how fighting the Upside Down monsters the Soviet Union has cultivated will help Hawkins, but it is facile at best. Even as the editing tries to thread it with other battles, it never feels like it impacts anything.
Thankfully, however, it sheds its insistence on being the show’s comedy relief fairly early on. The comedy never landed in Volume 1—it was like the friend at the party who laughs so hard at his own gags, hoping to inspire the same response in others. The series is better for ditching it. Additionally, despite never convincing us it matters to Hawkins, the action matters to the characters there. It lets Harbour flex his action (and now quite real) muscles in a way that doesn’t just feel like a showcase of the actor’s new physique. The chemistry between Ryder and Harbour is also at its best, even if a brief makeout scene seems a bit forced.
In total, it feels big enough in scope and style to justify its very loose interpretation of “television episode.”
Brought into the fold much quicker are Eleven’s (Millie Bobby Brown) Underground Bunker Adventures and the California Crew’s Eastward Journey. The OTHER shadowy government organization—the one without Dr. Brenner (Matthew Modine) and Dr. Owens (Paul Reiser)—arrives a bit abruptly, but it’s very much for the best. Papa Modine was running out of ways to coerce, threaten, and chemically restrain Brown realistically.
Thankfully, Eleven’s escape manages to correspond perfectly with the arrival of Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), and Will (Noah Schnapp). Oh, and Argyle (Eduardo Franco)—the season’s other painful attempt at comedic relief—makes it too. So there’s that. A chest freezer, many fast-food salt bags, and a visor made of pizza boxes later, and this contingent finally gets to Hawkins, albeit astral plane-y.
This plotline also serves up the clearest signs yet of Will’s queerness, unfortunately without letting Schnapp just say it. It’s historically accurate that a 15-year-old boy from Indiana, five years into the A.I.D.S. crisis, would likely stay closeted. That doesn’t necessarily make The Duffer Brothers’ scripted moments of vague reveal any less frustrating, though. Schnapps kills the latter half of one of them with Wolfhard, and the entirety of his brother-to-brother chat with Heaton. However, the “I’m talking about El, but I’m really talking about me” -ness of the first one is painfully, thuddingly obvious that neither Schnapp nor Wolfhard can make it sing.
Then there’s Hawkins, still the strongest aspect of the season. The only real faltering is in its use of Jason’s (Mason Dye) crusader against the powers of Satanism. Despite the implication that he rallied a large portion of the town to his cause, he largely remains a solo crusader. Also, with a show already straining under the weight of its main characters, he goes from charismatic leader of a terrible movement to sweaty and sallow solo gunman with literally no in-between. An interesting secondary villain becomes an object of brute force, and that’s a shame.
Everything else in Hawkins, though? It clicks. Max (Sadie Sink) refuses to let others suffer in her place despite having the magic bullet. Eddie (Joseph Quinn) accepts adulthood and responsibility despite the consequences. (Stranger Things frames this as a rejection of cowardice but considering his mentoring of Dustin and a late-game speech about graduating, maturation is the way more interesting and fairer read on his journey.) Nancy’s (Natalia Dyer) journey to action hero, Robin’s (Maya Hawke) full integration into the team, and Steve (Joe Keery) continued evolution into best dude ever all work too.
The one thing that no one can deny is Stranger Things Season 4 remains aggressively itself right up to the end.
On a stylistic level, Things is somehow both at its most referential and free-standing in these final two episodes. Vecna continues to be a Freddy Krueger-esque figure. We get IT’s bursting balloons of blood, the wall of the missing from a dozen disaster movies, Jason turn to full Stephen King character, Red Dawn allusions, and more. Yet it doesn’t feel insular or like a list being checked off. There’s less underlining of those moments. In total, it feels big enough in scope and style to justify its very loose interpretation of “television episode.”
The final episode’s tidy coda may rub some the wrong way. However, after a fairly messy two-part season, it feels both earned and necessary. Relationships need stabilizing. Stakes need reasserting. After all, the final season awaits, and the gang, finally, is all here for it.
Stranger Things Season 4 Volume 2 is running on the astral plane known as Netflix now.
Pingback:She-Hulk Recap: Season 1 Episode 4, Is This Not Real Magic?
Pingback:Reboot Review: Judy Greer-led show succeeds despite itself.