‘Stranger Things 4’ Ends in Grandiose Fashion With an Earthshaking Finale
One of the ways in which streaming has completely altered television as a media art form is in the freedom the format grants showrunners. Even when a service features ads, in a sense there’s no limit to what can be done. Netflix’s “Stranger Things” keeps taking this reality to whole new levels to the point where there’s no telling where else it plans to go in terms of scale. The first half of season four delivered what amounted to seven movies, since each episode clocked in at feature film length. They even made Kate Bush into a chart-topper on both sides of the Atlantic, with a song from 1985. For its second half, the season gives us two final episodes of grandiose width. Somehow, it works in a very entertaining fashion. We can be certain that showrunners the Duffer Brothers pitched this to the studio with a simple explanation: It’s streaming, so viewers can pause whenever they need to. But enough about the running time, these two chapters are simply excellent entertainment packing apocalyptic showdowns, heavy metal and subtle teen romance.
We’re back in Hawkins, Indiana circa 1986. Our band of heroes is preparing to take on Vecna, the scratchy-voiced demon threatening to unleash more Upside Down horrors on our dimension. Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) is still at the top secret lab under the eye of Dr. Brenner (Matthew Modine), who won’t let her leave. Eleven has already unlocked memories revealing how she once battled a murderous fellow subject, One (Jamie Campbell Bower), who then became Vecna. Brenner has been manipulating Eleven with lies about wanting her to go back into the Upside Down to track the Soviets, when in reality, he’s been needing to track down the runaway boy-turned-monster. Mike (Finn Wolfhard) and Will (Noah Schnapp) are racing to find Eleven and rescue her, while Max (Sadie Sink) and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) make their way to the Creel house with a plan. Max will use herself as bait to lure Vecna in the Upside Down, that way Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Eddie (Joseph Quinn) can clear away Upside Down demon bats, clearing the path for Nancy (Natalia Dyer), Steve (Joe Keery) and Robin (Maya Hawke) to find Vecna and kill him. And we can’t forget the main adults, Joyce (Winona Ryder), Jim (David Harbour) and Murray (Brett Gelman), who are still trying to escape the USSR.
Although both episodes, “Papa” and “The Piggyback,” are large in scale, with “The Piggyback” running at 2 hours and 22 minutes, the storytelling never feels too crammed. The reason is that while the running time is long, most of it is taken up by lots of action sequences. It’s as if the Duffers have been studying some of the Marvel format, where lengthy movies kill time with exciting battles. What the pair have also learned from their obvious influences, Steven Spielberg and J.J. Abrams, to make sure every scene counts. There’s little meandering going on. Because the plot splits between three different places, especially in “Papa,” it’s easy to keep momentum going. In Indiana the kids try to procure weapons to go back into the Upside Down. On the road, Mike and Will search for Eleven, in the Soviet Union, Joyce reunites with Jim and they have to watch their backs, since potential smugglers might also turn them in for a nice reward. There’s even a side storyline involving Jason (Mason Dye), the angry jock seeking revenge for how his cheerleader girlfriend was a victim of Vecna in the season’s first half. Lest we forget, the world is in trouble as Nancy gets a vision from Vecna about what awaits all of Hawkins once his plan is fulfilled and the place becomes a mirror image of the Upside Down. It’s also an early hint of where the show is possibly going into its fifth and final season. After conquering the world as a series, “Stranger Things” is aiming to raise the stakes to a global level for its send off.
With so much going on, the show successfully manages to deliver many scenes that are great fun and also endearing on their own. “Stranger Things” appeals because it combines its nostalgia with heart in a way other more shallow entertainments forget to do. There is a moment of genuine tenderness when Joyce and Jim are finally alone after escaping Soviet labor camps and crippling snow, changing clothes and flirting in a sweet way by first discussing what snacks Jim has been fantasizing about while imprisoned. They also finally share a kiss. Nancy and Steve also reveal small hints at their own emotions while speeding to save the day. Will (Noah Schnapp) is given moments to continue exploring his closeted gay identity, including a monologue about being different, which is a potent reflection for a character to make in a 1986 world. Eleven has one of the most harrowing of all journeys this season as she learns what real friends and family mean. Dr. Brenner turns out to be a liar and it’s a hard lesson in how the adults can’t always be trusted, in fact they can be users and manipulators. Once the army shows up to destroy the lab and try to kill Eleven, there’s only some true redemption in Sam Owens (Paul Reiser), who tries to convince Brenner what he’s doing is wrong. Both men will meet their doom when the military assault begins. Eleven, thankfully gets away in the pizza van driven by Mike and Will.
The narrative is also propelled by pure suspense. Eleven needs to “piggyback” into Max’s memories in order to aid her friends in confronting Vecna in the Upside Down, since they are all geographically separated. To do this Mike and the gang use a big freezer at a pizza place, filling it with water and salt in a sequence Spielberg or early Ron Howard would be proud of. In the Upside Down there are plenty of scenes involving swirling, red clouds, Vecna trying to trap and torture Eleven, swirling demon bats and close calls. One of the best moments, that feels taken straight from a ‘80s album cover, finds Eddie playing Metallica’s “Master of Puppets” on a slick electric guitar to ward off the bat swarm. Maybe the episode can do wonders for Metallica, in the same way the first half of the season inspired an unprecedented revival of Kate Bush’s “Running Up that Hill (A Deal With God).” The Bush track has become Max’s standard and she plays it once more when entering the Creel house. It also gets an epic remix for one of the second episode’s climactic moments.
After the deliriously entertaining face off with Vecna comes to a close, everyone is reunited in what seems like another victory over the forces of the Upside Down. That is, until Eleven walks down a once-picturesque field and sees on the horizon the incoming storms of the Upside Down, now unchained and headed for Hawkins. Despite the massive serving of season four, somehow “Stranger Things” ends leaving the viewer both content and anticipating what comes next. It’s a show that uses its sense of nostalgia and budget with the same spirit as the best blockbusters. There’s never a dull moment, even if you do feel the need to pause once a while to take a break from the kinetic pace. Yet it’s hard to fault a show for giving too much of a good thing. This season aimed big and didn’t fail. Now it remains to be seen if the last chapter can deliver a worthy follow up. We can be sure it won’t be a small one.
“Stranger Things 4” Part Two begins streaming July 1 on Netflix.