‘Stranger Things’ review: Bigger, not better
Netflix and the Duffer Brothers sure know how to put on a show. The last two episodes of stranger things Season 4 clocks in at around four hours, with plenty of Kate Bush remixes, helicopter explosions, and half a dozen more Demogorgons than anyone has ever seen before. It’s a bigger production than any other TV show, but that’s not a good thing on its own.
The show picks up with Nancy (Natalia Dyer) receiving a terrible and heartbreaking warning from Vecna-slash-Henry-slash-One (Jamie Campbell Bower), the greatest evil to ever curse Hawkins. The town’s resident mysterious and ragtag gang – Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), Max (Sadie Sink), Steve (Joe Keery), Robin (Maya Hawke), Erica (Priah Ferguson) and suspected Satanist Eddie (Joseph Quinn, the undisputed star of this season) – unite to create a three-pronged attack to stop this monster.
Naturally, they operate outside of any plan laid out by the likes of Dr. Brenner (Matthew Modine) and Dr. Owens (Paul Reiser), who reluctantly work together to help Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) regain her powers and beat Vena. Episode 8, “Daddy,” features several scenes of Brenner and Eleven unraveling their twisted father-daughter relationship, not all of which are necessary; Modine’s whispering mad scientist isn’t terribly complex or likable, but he gets an inordinate amount of screen time in this episode. Eleven’s ultimate send-off (or lack thereof) is a fine exercise in restraint for the series, but it comes too late after an episode that bids farewell to its “Daddy” from the start.
This episode (and, curiously, not the finale) inexplicably involves the US military blowing up Brenner and Owens’ secret underground science base and attempting to kill Eleven. This subplot is as peripheral and unnecessary as it comes; in a show centered around a ragtag group of teenagers, it seems a bit silly and unnecessarily Michael Bay-esque to throw gun-crazed government agents into the mix – no matter how badly that helicopter crash has l look cool.
Eleven’s bullet-riddled plot is offset by the arrival of her boyfriend Mike (Finn Wolfhard), foster brothers Will (Noah Schnapp) and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), and ever-annoying stoner friend Argyle (Eduardo Frank). Their pizza-joint romp and batter-freezer sensory deprivation tank provide a welcome levity amidst this season’s intense story. Mike’s declaration of love for Eleven which (sort of?) saves the day is a little cheesy, but it’s a nice change from the bad mood that had set in between the two.
The adults are all still in Russia, by the way. Although Hopper (David Harbour), Joyce (Winona Ryder) and Murray (Brett Gelman) are all reunited, they don’t end up in the United States until the final minutes of the season. They really don’t do much, though Harbor can shake off the melodrama of previous episodes as he and Ryder share some lovely flirtatious moments. Russians are harvesting Demogorgons as weapons like it’s the fifth season of Americans, and Hopper ends up cutting one in half with a sword. It’s entertaining, but it misses the point of the other storylines.
In that sense, the biggest problem with these last two episodes is the arbitrary feel of their runtime. There are great settings, moments of genuine suspense, and several emotional reunions and farewells, but they arrive with more laborious storylines than usual. Eddie’s final heroic moments feel stuffy and forced; the degree of his dramatic sacrifice is not necessary in the context of the action, and it really doesn’t need to cut the rope and force Dustin to inadvertently break his ankle. Russia’s history continues to stagnate as adults must step back in to where they spent an hour trying to escape, then it’s neatly wrapped up with a bow at the end. The snatch atRiverdale college vigilantes throw a wrench in things, but it’s hard to take them seriously when a monster covered in muscle tissue is killing people. Many moving pieces are just that: pieces that don’t contribute to the series as a whole.
That said, these last two episodes aren’t entirely devoid of emotional weight. Sadie Sink anchors the final episode as the long-suffering Max finally admits some of his darkest thoughts and potentially sacrifices himself to Vecna as part of the plan to save Hawkins. His lonely struggle created some of the best moments of the previous seven episodes, and it continues here. Sink’s last (conscious) scene with McLaughlin is truly a showcase for the two young actors, and it’s perhaps the most heartbreaking moment of the series.
There are other good times too: Robin’s brief moment of gay validation is more than heartwarming (and we can only hope Will gets the same treatment, his crush on Mike so clearly telegraphed despite the worthy insistence of the series to remain vague). Nancy and Steve rekindling their relationship feels like exciting new territory instead of backtracking, with Jonathan’s college plot becoming stale in the background. With one more season to go and Hawkins in a state of meltdown, there are still plenty of possibilities as to where this beloved cast of characters will end up.
To end on a sentimental side note, one of the best (and, frankly, misunderstood) parts of stranger things is the amount of power he puts in the hands of his teenage characters: Eleven has literal telekinetic powers, sure, but her reunion with Max and their brief crew, mixed in with Nancy’s dubiously sawn-off shotgun, is ultimately what put Vecna to rest. This is a show steeped in 80s nostalgia with dorky, D&D playing boys ostensibly at the helm, but the biggest and best characters here are the girls. As a writer who was a teenager when the series premiered, I was dying to see complex, capable young female characters; I had no idea how much Eleven, Nancy, Robin and Max would exceed my expectations.