[Editor’s note: This review discusses the plot of Stranger Things season four, volume two in detail. Watch the episodes before reading on.]
Stranger Things’ fourth season is playing the long game. As if the massive runtimes weren’t an indication, the finale’s parting shot certainly proves it. Just as almost everyone reunites after what felt like an eternity apart in trying to bring Vecna down, Will (Noah Schnapp), who can never be free of the Upside Down, senses the other dimension’s invasion of Hawkins and that their enemy is still alive. Soon enough, surprise particles alert everyone else that something is viciously wrong (you know, besides the “earthquake” that just ruined their town). With the two worlds openly colliding, the show sets up its fifth, final, and potentially epic season. But the journey to this point has been both riveting and baffling, even during volume two, in which the spectacular action and emotions dial up a little too late for its own good.
The only two episodes in this volume, “Papa” and “The Piggyback,” are brimming with emotional gut punches, sci-fi twists, and an intense mind fight to rival any other showdown that’s taken place over the course of the show. Plus, Stranger Things eventually aces the balancing act while tying its disparate storylines together even if Hopper (David Harbour), Joyce (Winona Ryder, still not getting the meaty material she deserves), and Murray (Brett Gelman) are still in Russia, while El (Millie Bobby Brown) is in a pizza parlor somewhere between Nevada and Indiana. The execution of volume two’s ambitious scope is exemplary, from stunning visual effects to affecting performances (Caleb McLaughlin, welcome to scene-stealer’s club) to the Duffer Brothers’ fantastic direction.
However, akin to volume one, the second half of the season falters because of overcomplicated writing. The unnecessary and frustrating detours along the way don’t justify the super-sized outings, especially “Papa,” which staggers during the back-and-forth between El, Dr. Brenner (Matthew Modine), and Dr. Owens (Paul Reiser), as well as Jason’s (Mason Dye) misguided agenda against the Hellfire Club. (Hawkins residents believe there’s a serial killer in town, but even in the ’80s, would everyone just converge at that gun shop for a shopping spree at the same time?) Honestly, this hour-and-a-half episode needed solid editing for maximum impact and less of a supposed redemption arc for Brenner.
Even in “The Piggyback,” the real momentum doesn’t pick up until almost an hour into the 140-minute runtime. Although once it does, there’s really no stopping. It’s one shocking event after another, leading to satisfying answers for several missing pieces. Primary among them: What the hell happened to Vecna/Henry (a.k.a. 001) once he landed in the Upside Down, is he the real big bad, and how did he craft the ultimate revenge plan on El?
Stranger Things mines from its own history to provide stirring conclusions to Vecna’s plans—Max finding a happy memory in season two’s Snow Ball prom is particularly moving, even if the scene later draws from Carrie when everything turns bloody. But for a show vastly interested in putting everyone’s lives on the line, the stakes are fairly low in volume two, which also slightly dulls the impact. Max’s status aside, there’s maybe one other truly heartbreaking (if not at all surprising) death. Why are the stakes still so damn low? Stranger Things is comically risk-averse when it comes to causing catastrophic damage to any of its main characters. It’s upsetting but it’s also easy to see why. The show can triumphantly sidestep the dangers of a bloated runtime because of those well-established, easygoing character dynamics.
Amidst making dangerous multi-dimensional plans, taking cross-country road trips, and breaking in and out of prisons in the Soviet Union, the necessary emotional beats come through sincere interactions between all the major players. There’s an innate sweetness (and some level of trauma bonding) to everyone’s connection with each other, and Stranger Things knows how to tug the heartstrings with it, making them the real throughline of the show. Not everything lands, but Lucas and Max’s relationship soars as McLaughlin and Sadie Sink deliver the most notable performances of the lot. Natalia Dyer gets her moment in the sun as Nancy becomes Vecna’s messenger of sorts. (That her love triangle with Steve and Jonathan is dragging on to season five now is a whole other mess.) And Will’s striking speech to Mike (Finn Wolfhard) in the car lets Schnapp finally showcase his range.
Thanks to a powerhouse ensemble, Stranger Things overcomes its hurdles to punch out season four with an electrifying, tear-jerking finale. Jumping between multiple narratives might seem arduous (and at times, it really is), but patience is well-rewarded here. The last 45 minutes of “The Piggyback” is Stranger Things at its very best—an indulgent, pulsating thriller that smartly expands its boundaries even further while gearing up to say its final goodbye.