By David T. Valentin
After ending Stranger Things Season Four, Vol. one with a cliffhanger, Stranger Things fans had to wait a little more than a month for the last two episodes of Season Four. So, was the wait worth it?
Volume Two of Stranger Things Season Four was simple: Distract the main bad guy, Vecna, long enough so that our heroes can sneak into the Upside Down, land a shot on Vecna’s physical body and end the nightmare once and for all. But despite our heroes’ attempts at rescuing Hawkins, by the end of the season, Vecna succeeds in opening up a massive gate between our world and the Upside Down which allows for the monsters of the strange dimension to finally seep into our world.
The stakes were high during the final two episodes of Season Four, Vol. Two and they sure were felt throughout most of the four-hour run time. While the season finale I think deserved a long runtime, the second episode was certainly stretched past my attention to the point where I kept asking “when’s it going to end?” The last episode should have certainly been split into two episodes, paced a little different between the three different groups of characters, one in Hawkins, one in California and one over in Russia. It certainly felt bloated trying to give each and every character some screen time as much as they could.
Speaking of stakes, the Lovecraftian vibes of an eldritch cosmic horror lurking in an alternate dimension was certainly felt, but did the Duffer brothers have the courage to stick to the consequences of their heroes’ mistakes? Certainly not.
During the last half of the last episode, Max is finally captured by Vecna despite hoping to lure him into their trap and escape as soon as things get dangerous. Tensions were high as, for a second time in the season, Max lifted into the air under the threat of succumbing to Vecna’s curse. Just when we think Eleven will save her, her body begins to snap just the same as every other victim of Vecna’s. After a heartfelt speech from Mike to Eleven, Eleven defeats Vecna. Unfortunately, it’s too late for Max and after a tearful goodbye, she dies... only for Eleven to bring her back.
While Stranger Things is good at keeping tension as we watch as these kids maneuver against a cosmic horror and a psychopath hell-bent on destroying everything, I don’t find the stakes are felt anymore. With Max’s death, it would’ve been a huge blow to our heroes and to the audience as well, thus signaling to both that no one is safe going into Season Five. The Duffer brothers promised a Game of Thrones season brutal ending for Season Four, Vol. Two but many fans were shocked to see them choose Season Eight.
I think Game of Thrones created an incredibly interesting effect in writing, in the sense that writers now feel they need plot twists and character deaths to shock audiences to care about the stakes at hand and to force characters to grow close together over those losses and deaths. But if a writer doesn’t lay the groundwork for that to first happen organically, then what’s the point? And if you need world-ending stakes to force characters into that chemistry it leaves the rest of the plot feeling dull and the characters feeling as though they have no agency. Keeping Max alive, despite their plans for Season Five, felt very much like that.
Most fans of the show have complained that Eddie’s death was for nothing, especially considering that if he had just gone through the portal with Dustin and waited a good five minutes, Eleven would’ve beaten Vecna and the Demobats would’ve been defeated. But considering the mind flayer is supposed to be a cosmic horror-like villain, looming over our heroes as we do with insects on the ground, I think it was fitting and faithful that, even despite our heroes’ actions, the kids still failed in the end to stop Vecna’s plan.
The ending certainly pushes Stranger Things into horror adventure vibes, a pivot I thought was fitting considering that each and every season has felt like a different subgenre of horror. Whether that was intentional or not I’m not sure, but for them to end on horror adventure is a perfect D&D-like conclusion to our heroes’ tale.
It’s clear that, despite the epicness of Season Four, Vol. Two of Stranger Things, the actors once again carried the show, making a plot pushing the characters around as needed fun to watch. Still, an ongoing problem with Stranger Things is introducing new concepts and new mysteries but never actually bringing us closer to any concrete answers. And while the mystery surrounding the Upside Down is certainly fitting to the cosmic horror genre, it makes it increasingly frustrating to see practically the same plot recycled over and over without anything really new brought to the table.
As much as I do love Stranger Things, it’s time it wrapped itself up.