‘Stranger Things’ Season 4, Volume 2 Review: Bigger Doesn’t Mean Better

The season finale gives you plenty of bang for your buck, but it comes at the expense of its storytelling.

From left: Natalia Dyer, Gaten Matarazzo, Joe Keery, Joseph Quinn, Maya Hawke, Priah Ferguson, Sadie Sink, and Caleb McLaughlin in Stranger Things Season 4, Volume 2. Courtesy of Netflix © 2022

Netflix and the Duffer Brothers certainly know how to put on a show. The final two episodes of Stranger Things Season 4 clock in at about four hours, complete with extensive Kate Bush remixes, helicopter explosions, and half a dozen more Demogorgons than anyone has seen before. It’s a bigger production than just about any other show on television, but that’s not inherently a good thing.

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The show picks up with Nancy (Natalia Dyer) being given a dire, Earth-shattering warning from Vecna-slash-Henry-slash-One (Jamie Campbell Bower), the biggest bad to ever curse Hawkins. The town’s resident motley mystery 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, this season’s indisputable breakout star) — band together to create a three-pronged attack to stop this monster.

Naturally, they’re operating outside of any plan established by the likes of Dr. Brenner (Matthew Modine) and Dr. Owens (Paul Reiser), who are begrudgingly working together to help Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) get her powers back and beat Vecna. Episode 8, “Papa,” is home to several scenes of Brenner and Eleven hashing out their twisted father-daughter relationship, not all of them necessary; Modine’s whispery mad scientist is not terribly complex nor sympathetic, yet he gets an inordinate amount of screentime in this episode. Eleven’s ultimate send-off (or lack thereof) is a nice exercise in restraint for the show, but it comes too late after an episode that waves farewell to her “Papa” from the get-go.

This episode (and, curiously, not the finale) inexplicably involves the US military blowing up Brenner and Owens’ secret underground science base and trying to kill Eleven. This subplot is as peripheral and pointless as they come; in a show that centers on a rag-tag group of teens, it feels a bit silly and needlessly Michael Bay-esque to throw gun-crazy government agents into the mix — no matter how cool that helicopter crash looks.

Millie Bobby Brown in Stranger Things. Courtesy of Netflix © 2022

Eleven’s bullet-ridden plot does get evened out by the arrival of boyfriend Mike (Finn Wolfhard), adoptive brothers Will (Noah Schnapp) and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), and still-annoying stoner friend Argyle (Eduardo Franco). Their pizza-joint romp and dough freezer sensory deprivation tank offers some appreciated lightness amidst this season’s intense story. Mike’s declaration of love for Eleven that (sort of?) saves the day is a bit cheesy, but it’s a nice change from the moodiness that had settled between the two.

The adults are all still in Russia, by the way. Though Hopper (David Harbour), Joyce (Winona Ryder), and Murray (Brett Gelman) are all reunited, they don’t end up back in the States until the season’s final minutes. They really don’t do much, though Harbour gets to shed the melodrama of the previous episodes as he and Ryder share some lovely flirty moments. The Russians are harvesting Demogorgons as weapons like it’s the fifth season of The Americans, and Hopper ends up slicing one in half with a sword. It’s entertaining, but it lacks the purpose of the other plots.

In this sense, the biggest problem of these final two episodes is how arbitrary much of their runtime feels. There are great set pieces, moments of genuine suspense, and several emotional reunions and goodbyes, but they arrive with plotlines that are more labored than usual. Eddie’s last heroic moments feel stilted and forced; the degree of his dramatic sacrifice is unnecessary in the context of the action, and he really doesn’t need to slice the rope and inadvertently make Dustin break his ankle. The Russia storyline continues to stall as the adults have to break back in to the place they spent an hour trying to escape from, and then it’s neatly wrapped up with a bow at the end. The ripped-from-Riverdale varsity vigilantes throw a wrench into things, but it’s hard to take them seriously when a monster covered in muscle tissue is killing people. A lot of the moving pieces are just that: pieces that don’t contribute to the show’s greater whole.

Sadie Sink and Caleb McLaughlin in the season finale of Stranger Things. Courtesy of Netflix © 2022

That said, these last two episodes are not totally bereft of emotional heft. Sadie Sink anchors the final episode, with the long-suffering Max finally admitting to some of her darkest thoughts and potentially sacrificing herself to Vecna as part of the plan to save Hawkins. Her solitary struggle created some of the best moments in the preceding seven episodes, and that continues here. Sink’s last (conscious) scene with McLaughlin is truly a showcase for both young actors, and it’s maybe the most gutting moment of the series.

There are other good moments too: Robin’s brief moment of gay validation is beyond heartwarming (and we can only hope that Will gets the same treatment, his crush on Mike so clearly telegraphed despite the show’s eye-roll worthy insistence on keeping it vague). Nancy and Steve rekindling their relationship feels like exciting new territory instead of backtracking, what with Jonathan’s college plot growing stale in the background. With one more season to go and Hawkins in a state of collapse, there are still plenty of possibilities for where this beloved cast of characters end up.

To end on a sentimental a sidenote, one of the best (and, frankly, unsung) parts of Stranger Things is how much power it puts into the hands of its teen girl characters: Eleven has literal telekinetic powers, sure, but her reunion with Max and their brief team-up, mixed with Nancy’s dubiously sawed-off shotgun, are 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 teenage girl when the show premiered, I was dying to see young, female characters that were complex and capable; little did I know how much Eleven, Nancy, Robin, and Max would exceed my expectations.

‘Stranger Things’ Season 4, Volume 2 Review: Bigger Doesn’t Mean Better