It's been a little bit over month since Stranger Things left its fourth season on a cliffhanger with two (incredibly long) episodes to go, but Netflix finally dropped them in time for the July 4th weekend so that we could watch our scattered heroes battle Vecna from Hawkins and Siberia and wherever the hell that underground research facility is.
So now, four hours of programming later, we've reached the end of the show's penultimate season, setting up a fifth and final season where the fate of Hawkins and, seemingly, the world will be decided.
For now, though, let's focus on what went down in these two episodes, which picked up just after we got the full story on Vecna's origins — that he was the original child that Dr. Brenner (Matthew Modine) experimented on, and that younger Eleven essentially fire-blasted him into the Upside Down, where he's been plotting his ascendance this whole time — and Nancy (Natalia Dyer) was captured in Venca's nightmare thrall. How'd things go from there? Who emerged from Season 4 a winner and who, sadly, had to lose?
You have to hand it to Nancy. In a season where some of the original Stranger Things characters seem to have outlived their usefulness — Dr. Brenner; the entire Byers family; Hopper (sorry, it's true!) — Nancy rediscovered hers. With the Hawkins teen contingent resolved to take the fight to Vecna, it was Nancy who assembled the plan to do so, laying out a three-pronged tactical strike that involved multiple phases, straddled two planes of reality, and required a massive weapons cache to pull off.
Credit to Stranger Things for elevating Nancy this season without a whole lot of self-conscious girlbossing or tedium about how the others underestimated her. What was so consistently great about the Hawkins portions of Season 4 was how well this group functioned as a team and bonded as a family. For as much as the early seasons rested on the archetypal friendship of four young boys on bicycles, Season 4 assembled a ragtag group that felt less predestined for cohesion and so it was ultimately more satisfying to watch Nancy and Steve and Robin and Dustin and Eddie and Lucas and Erica and Max all fight so hard for each other.
Okay, so here's the thing about Nancy's plan: …did it work? The idea was to distract Vecna by making Max available to him as bait, and while he was busy trying to mind-murder her, the Nancy/Steve/Robin trio would sneak into his mansion in the Upside Down and kill him while he was defenseless. So, for starters, Vecna figured out the misdirection plan — he is a demonic entity who can seemingly enter minds at will, so of course he did.
Second of all, the idea was to kill a creature seemingly composed of molten rock and nightmares with flame-throwers and shotguns, which: did we think that would work? I mean, it kind of does, in that it knocks Venca out of his attic lair and down into the pavement below, but he's unsurprisingly gone when the teens exit the house.
In the aftermath, Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) — who's getting that tingle on the back of his neck again, a remnant of his time possessed by the Mind Flayer in Season 2 — says he knows Vecna is out there, wounded but still alive. And clearly planning his next attack.
First of all, it's way too mean to say Max is a "loser" because she technically died and is now in a coma. We are not here to dunk on Max, who was incredibly courageous to risk herself in order to lure Vecna out. We'll get to how great Sadie Sink was in that sequence in a bit, but for now, let's just recognize that Max took a risk and paid the price. Almost the ultimate price! But she managed to survive, and it's a good bet that she'll wake up in Season 5 …though perhaps with a price to pay for whatever Eleven did to resurrect her. Speaking of which…
So Eleven can bring people back from the dead now! Good to know. We know Max was definitely dead, because that's how Vecna was able to open the fourth gate between the Upside Down and Hawkins. But Eleven was able to use her memories of her friendship with Max to bring her back, making Eleven even more powerful than we understood her to be. By season's end, she's clearly freaked out by the revelation of this power, and not really sure how she did it or what it means. But it'll almost certainly come into play next season.
Okay, so we've learned our lesson about speaking ill of the dead. Just because Eddie lost his life in a courageous fight against the bat-monsters doesn't make him a loser. The fact that he stood and fought makes him courageous and a winner. (Even if, when you think about it, Eddie could have stayed with Dustin and let the bats do their thing and things would probably have turned out exactly the same for everyone else.)
For a character who had the potential to be tremendously annoying when he was first introduced in the season premiere, Eddie turned out to be a pretty great addition to the ensemble, and his death was surprisingly emotional for somebody we've known for such a relatively short time. Credit to actor Joseph Quinn for bringing a ton of pathos to the role.
With the caveat that this ONLY applies to the goings-on in Hawkins and not, say, to certain Will Byerses we won't mention, the final episode was incredibly harrowing, with moments punctuated by some surprisingly affecting acting by the show's young cast. Gaten Matarazzo came up big in both of Dustin's big crying scenes, with Eddie and again with Eddie's uncle. And Max's death was a gripping moment thanks in large part to Sadie Sink playing Max's terror and Caleb McLaughlin playing Lucas's intense grief. Crying realistically is a trick that a lot of adult actors can't always pull off, so credit to these young 'uns for really stepping up when they needed to.
After the English chanteuse experienced unprecedented chart success for her decades-old single "Running Up That Hill (A Deal with God)" after the first batch of season 4 episodes, many viewers were probably on the lookout who might be the beneficiary of the Stranger Things chart bump in season 4.2. Might it be Journey, whose "Separate Ways" closed out the penultimate episode? Or maybe Metallica, whose "Master of Puppets" raged as Eddie tried to draw the attention of the bat-monsters in a scene that desperately wanted the energy of Mad Max: Fury Road had?
But no, the best soundtrack cut of the second batch of Season 4 was, once again, "Running Up That Hill," which came back with a vengeance during the climactic fight with Vecna, underscoring Nancy's shotgun blasts and, in Russia, Hopper swording the head off of a demogorgon.
While Stranger Things is usually at its best when it's a show about friendship, it's conversely usually at its weakest when it tries to be a show about romance. Try as it might, the show really struggled to sell Mike and Eleven's relationship as the central hub around which everything else in the Stranger Things universe revolves. And the more the show insisted on this — like when Mike reached out to Eleven with an "I love you" pep talk, it paled in comparison to, for example, Eleven recalling her friendship with Max.
Elsewhere, Nancy and Jonathan's relationship is a a corpse that doesn't realize it's dead at this point, and while it sure looks like we're headed to Nancy and Steve reuniting (mostly because the audience loves Steve so much), that's still not nearly as compelling as literally any of the friendships among the characters.
Speaking of Steve, though…
Going into these last two episodes, the audience was pretty sure things were headed to someone (or multiple someones) dying, which meant we were constantly on the lookout for anything that might be pointing to a character's fate. Like, for example, Steve going on a minutes-long monologue to Nancy about his hopes and dreams and visions for his future. He might as well have been a cop in an '80s movie declaring he was two days from retirement.
While the rest of us were at home yelling "Shut up, Steve, shut up, Steve, shut UP WITH YOUR DOOMED PERFECT HAIR!" it turned out that the Duffers were just messing with us, because Steve made it out of the finale unscathed. Not that we won't still be worried in Season 5, because Steve is the best, and we need him to live.
After making the bad kind of headlines during the first part of Season 4 when actor Noah Schnapp (among others) said that Will Byers's sexuality would be "left open to the viewers' interpretation" rather than outright confirmed, what had heavily been hinted at via longing glances (specifically, that Will is gay and/or in love with his best friend Mike), Stranger Things walked right up to the edge of the cliff with Will in these last two episodes, yet ultimately took the cowards' way out and refused to make Will's feelings explicit.
Instead the show opted for some agonizingly drawn-out monologues, first by Will, who choked up while giving Mike a pep talk about how Eleven (subtext: Will) really loves Mike and sees him as the heart of their group, and how Eleven (Will) feels different, and "sometimes when you're different, you feel like a mistake" and Eleven (Will) has felt "so lost" without Mike around, and that Eleven (Will) needs Mike and always will.
Later, after clocking the earlier monologue and realizing what is blazingly obvious to everyone but apparently Mike, Jonathan has a talk with Will, at which point you figure, well now at least if Will can't be open with Mike about his feelings, Jonathan will at least give him the space to speak what's been unspoken. But no, Jonathan instead ventures into a cul-de-sac of nonspecific sentiments, ultimately arriving at "I'm your brother and I'll always love you," which is cool and all, but seeing as the whole speech is in service of saying a thing without the Duffers having the guts to actually say the thing, it all comes across as infuriatingly mealy-mouthed for a show that constantly wants to do the audacious thing. Free Will Byers.
Of all of Season 4's fragmented storylines, none felt more extraneous and tedious than whatever was happening in Russia, where Joyce and Murray's quest to rescue Hopper turned into a season-long boondoggle where the adults were essentially removed from the chess board left to busy themselves with some demogorgons, all in service of allowing the teens to come into their own without the grown-ups around. Every time the show cut to Siberia, you could feel the collective groan from an audience that very much did not care about any of this, and if I never see snow on this show again, it will be too soon — to the point where in the season's closing minutes, when it looked like it was snowing in Hawkins (not to worry, it was just just volcanic ash from the hole that Vecna ripped through the fabric of reality), I got PTSD cold sweats.
No, the season finale probably didn't need a 25-minute epilogue to drag its running time up to 150 minutes, but at least we got to watch every single character hug everyone else as the California adventure van rolled back into town, followed by Joyce and Hopper returning from the Soviet Union. Hugs are good and fun, and it was nice to see everybody get a moment of peace before whatever this final battle ends up being.
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Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.
TOPICS: Stranger Things, Netflix, Caleb McLaughlin, Charlie Heaton, David Harbour, Finn Wolfhard, Gaten Matarazzo, Joe Keery, Joseph Quinn, Millie Bobby Brown, Natalia Dyer, Noah Schnapp, Sadie Sink, Winona Ryder, Duffer Brothers