This post contains full spoilers for the final two episodes of Stranger Things Season Four, which are streaming now on Netflix.
Midway through the super-supersized Stranger Things fourth-season finale, “The Piggyback,” Nancy (Natalia Dyer), Steve (Joe Keery), and Robin (Maya Hawke) are climbing a haunted house’s stairway in the Upside Down as part of a complicated plan to keep the hell dimension from breaking through into their own world. They have avoided attention so far, but suddenly Robin wakes up the demonic tentacles that surround them, and within moments, all three teens are pinned to the walls, having the life choked out of them. The scene cuts to another set of characters, leaving the viewer on edge about how (or if, but not really) Nancy and the others will escape what looks like certain doom.
A few scenes later, the season’s main villain, Vecna/One/Henry/Mother of Dragons/Breaker of Chains/Cleaner of Carpets (played under at least some of those names by Jamie Campbell Bower) taunts Eleven (Millie Bobbie Brown) with a brief glimpse of that trio struggling against his tentacles. But that is basically all we see of them for close to a half-hour, when Eleven turns the tide against Vecna, resulting in Nancy, Steve, and Robin being set free.
The characters are not meant to have been strangled for a half-hour. The finale is attempting to present a lot of simultaneous action from around the world: The initial cut-away from Nancy’s group is to Jim Hopper (David Harbour) battling demogorgons in a Soviet gulag, while Eleven’s body is resting in a pizza-dough freezer in Nevada as she mentally does battle with Vecna in a part of the Upside Down adjacent to Hawkins, Indiana(*).
(*) Say this for Stranger Things: It knows just how dumb a lot of this sounds when described plainly. When Eleven mentions the pizza-dough freezer to Max (Sadie Sink), Max is utterly, and rightly, baffled.
The problem is that it feels like a half-hour, if not longer, that the show has forgotten about Nancy, Steve, and Robin while they are on the verge of imminent death. If you happen to care about this particular character subset, it is exasperating that they are left to twist in the wind for so long. But even if you’re much more invested in Eleven, or Hopper and Joyce (Winona Ryder), or what happens to Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and his new friend Eddie (Joseph Quinn), the tension still gets pretty slack throughout what should be a bang-bang-bang finale.
Of course, it’s hard to do a bang-bang-bang finale that runs for two hours, 17 minutes, and 25 seconds before the closing credits begin. That is slightly shorter than the two-and-a-half-hour version that Netflix promised (threatened?) a few weeks ago, but still longer by a comfortable margin than any previous episode of American television. And it’s longer by a comfortable margin than E.T., The Goonies, Christine, and so many of the other Spielberg and Stephen King films of the early- to mid-Eighties from which Stranger Things creators the Duffer Brothers take their inspiration. (Stand By Me, which has a lot of non-supernatural DNA in this show, is nearly an hour shorter than “The Piggyback.”)
Why, you may be wondering, does this matter? If you love Stranger Things, shouldn’t you relish more time with Steve, Dustin, Will (Noah Schnapp), and even stoner pizza delivery guy Argyle (Eduardo Franco)? (OK, maybe not Argyle.) The problem is that Stranger Things is not a vibe show, nor a hangout show. It is, first and foremost, a supernatural thriller about a group of kids who have somehow found themselves as the last line of defense between humanity and demonic Armageddon. That kind of storytelling relies on momentum that is just impossible to maintain over such a long episode of television — two long episodes, as this mini half-season also features an 85-minute episode (“Papa”) leading into “The Piggyback” — and that keeps tripping up the things that are working well.
And there is, to be fair, a lot that works well throughout both of these excessive installments. So many individual moments are some combination of fun, exciting, terrifying, and poignant that it would be disingenuous to say otherwise. Eddie distracting a horde of Vecna’s army of demon bat bodyguards by shredding the electric guitar solo from Metallica’s “Master of Puppets” is a jump-out-of-your-chair sequence. Eleven’s reunion with Mike (Finn Wolfhard) in the desert miraculously brings Mike back to life as a character after most of the season seemed to have completely lost the thread on the show’s ostensible main hero. Even alleged comic relief Argyle finally managed to be amusing when he ran into his spiritual doppelgänger at another Surfer Boy Pizza location.
But these episodes, like the fourth season as a whole, kept buckling under the excess — not just of the good material but of the stuff that wasn’t working and never got dropped, like Joyce, Hopper, and Murray (Brett Gelman) repeatedly being unable to get out of Russia. The whole experience felt like being forced to eat every menu item from the Cheesecake Factory over the course of a day: lots of deliciousness, some things you never wanted, and the whole experience leaving you feeling nothing but bloated.
In hindsight, the Duffers would have done well to confine the vast majority of the Russian adventure to a single episode, and probably the same for Eleven exploring her past with the help of Matthew Modine’s inexplicably alive Dr. Brenner. Their roles in the climax could have still been saved for the finale, but it would have solved a lot of the pacing issues that plagued the larger season, and also would have forced the Duffers to trim a lot of fat from both subplots. (Did anyone anywhere need a redemption arc for the duplicitous, peanut butter-smuggling Russian pilot?) Perhaps the Duffers still feel too scarred by the audience’s rejection of their last attempt at a relatively self-contained episode, when Eleven ran away to the big city to hang with some fellow superpowered youths in Season Two. But that episode wasn’t hated because it was standalone; it was hated because it was bad, and Eleven’s new friends were annoying in a way that most of the show’s cast additions over the years have not been.
But — to paraphrase this season’s inescapable earworm usage of Kate Bush’s great “Running Up That Hill” — if I only could make a deal with God and get the Duffers to swap their subplots from episode to episode, Stranger Things would still be running up that massive hill the brothers built by seemingly refusing to let go of any single story or character beat. It’s just. Too. Much. The Duffers are trying to service every character properly, and most of those arcs and scenes — like Eleven refusing to forgive Brenner in his dying moments, or Nancy being charmed by reformed ex-boyfriend Steve’s confession that he wishes he was a good person like this when they were together — in isolation from one another. The show just can’t accommodate them all without feeling like a grind when it should be a rush.
Later in that climactic battle against Vecna, Nancy’s group has made it to the attic where Vecna’s body hides while his mind is attempting to murder Max and do battle with Eleven. Here, the cutting between the attic (where Robin and Steve light Vecna’s body on fire), the mindscape (where Eleven watches Vecna begin to vanish), and the gulag (where Hopper goes full barbarian to battle a demogorgon with just a sword) is fast, furious, and vastly more exciting than the earlier attempts at bouncing from group to group. (It also helps that by this point, “Running Up That Hill” is at full volume on the soundtrack, not just periodically coming out of Max’s headphones, and Kate Bush makes everything better.) That David Harbour looks spectacular running at a monster with a sharp metal weapon in his hand does not retroactively justify the seemingly endless Russia detours, but the sequence does suggest a more satisfying version of Season Four that worked harder at moving faster from beat to beat.
Despite promises/warnings from the Duffers that the finale would be particularly brutal, even by Stranger Things standards, it mostly is not. Eddie is the season’s sacrificial lamb, dying to buy more time for Nancy’s group to finish off Vecna (though he slinks away in the end), but no returning character is killed. Max is clinically dead for a minute, completing Vecna’s plan to open a massive gate between the Upside Down and Hawkins, but a more powerful Eleven soon brings her body back to life. Max is deep in a coma when Eleven, Mike, and the others physically arrive in Hawkins, and her mind seems to be empty when Eleven uses her powers to visit; but anyone who believes that Max will not triumphantly return in the fifth and final season might want to consider purchasing a local bridge of some sort.
Eleven’s mental search for Max is part of a half-hour epilogue that somehow moves much more swiftly than some of the parts where characters are battling demons or members of the U.S. military. It’s the calm between storms, and as various characters get closure on their season-long journeys — like Robin (who finally realizes that the girl she’s been crushing on may in fact be queer and into her, too), Dustin (who gets to tell Eddie’s uncle that Eddie died a hero, rather than the monster the town believes him to be), and Hopper (who gets to reunite with adopted daughter Eleven after she feared he had died at the end of Season Three) — the breathing room feels earned. Or maybe it’s just that all of the characters are finally together in Hawkins, and that this arrangement serves the show better than recent years of scattering the increasingly large cast to the five winds in order to give everyone something to do.
That the epilogue ends with the Upside Down finally breaking into the real world suggests that no one will be going on any road trips for the concluding season, at least. But let’s hope any newfound restraint comes as much from chronology as geography next time — because despite its many highlights, Stranger Things this year proved how easily more can be less.
Some other thoughts on the season’s concluding chapters:
* The show has been so easy and open with discussing Robin’s sexuality that it is bizarre how hard the final two episodes work to show Will being hopelessly in love with the oblivious Mike without actually having him or Will’s concerned older brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) actually say that he’s gay. There’s a scene where Jonathan all but begs Will to talk about how much it hurts to see Mike and Eleven together, and the strain by the show to not say the thing out loud is palpable, even though it’s so heavily implied that almost no one watching could miss it. Even if you attempt to read it in-universe as Will (who’s several years younger than Robin, and also a boy in an era when the culture was microscopically more accepting of gay women than gay men) being too afraid to admit it, Heaton plays the scene as if Jonathan very obviously wants to say more than the script is giving him.
* It is a sad fact of life in modern America that there is almost never a time when a show or movie can do a “yay, guns!” sequence without it being timed to a mass shooting. But the first batch of Season Four episodes debuted only three days after the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, which intensified our ongoing national crisis so much that even several Republican Senators voted for gun-control legislation. And “Papa” sends Nancy and all the kids in Hawkins to a sketchy, ask-no-questions guns and ammo emporium called The War Zone to assemble the arsenal they need to fight Vecna. Even if Nancy’s the only one who purchases a firearm (the rest use axes, knives, Molotov cocktails, etc.), the timing and context feel worse than usual for this sort of thing.
* Since the end of Season One, the show has waxed and waned a bit on just how comfortable Eleven is maneuvering through normal society after spending her childhood in a government lab. But as she stands up to Dr. Brenner in the desert, and especially once she’s back in Hawkins, her speech patterns are more relaxed and confident than they’ve been at any point in the series.
* Finally, did anyone bother to take poor Dr. Owens (Paul Reiser) out of the bunker in Nevada, or did the evil general (who presumably still wants to kill Eleven) just leave him cuffed to a pipe down there?