Stranger Things 4 ends by trusting in the season’s best and worst instincts

Stranger Things 4 ends by trusting in the season’s best and worst instincts

Though Netflix hyped Stranger Things 4 Vol. 2 as being its own standalone season of the Duffer Brothers’ nostalgic sci-fi opus, its two extra-long episodes are truly just the final chapters of Vol. 1’s story about what’s really been hunting Eleven and her friends. Stranger Things 4 Vol. 2 puts a period on this season’s introduction of Vecna, and sets the stage for its psionic hero and villain to take on even larger roles in the series’ future. As a season finale focused on emotional payoff, Vol. 2’s manages to rise to the occasion and deliver. But it does so while also leaning into some of Stranger Things’ worst instincts that have plagued the series from the jump.

While Stranger Things 4 Vol. 2 does actually sneak in a solid couple of jokes that succinctly summarize the important bits of Vol. 2, the episodes pick up immediately after the ones preceding them without losing any of the story’s momentum. After going out of its way to lead you into thinking that Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) murdered all of the other child test subjects at the Hawkins Lab, Stranger Things 4 revealed that her first terrifying show of power as a young girl came during a fight with Henry (Jamie Campbell Bower), the man who would go on to become Vecna. Vol. 2 opens with Eleven coming to fully understand her relationship to Henry/Vecna, and choosing for herself how she wants to deal with his murderous plan to escape the Upside Down.

By stripping Eleven of her powers, separating her from her friends, and introducing even more unexamined lore, Stranger Things 4 has been purposefully taking the series back to its roots when both the show’s audience and its characters were generally in the dark about what was going on. That finally changes with Eleven’s decision to stand up to Dr. Martin Brenner (Matthew Modine), her first — and incredibly abusive — adoptive father who returned to Stranger Things with the promise of restoring her lost abilities.

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By foregrounding how abuse defined Eleven and Brenner’s relationship, Stranger Things 4 Vol. 2 is able to frame her rebelling against him as an act of empowerment and recognition of the genuine love she was able to find after originally escaping the lab. Millie Bobby Brown has been consistently riveting to watch this entire season, but in Vol. 2 there’s a rawness to her performance as Eleven that perfectly splits the difference between a weary action hero in their final act and a scared girl who just wants to be back with her family.

In the buildup to Eleven and Henry’s final showdown, Stranger Things 4 Vol. 2 makes a great deal out of how much their overall development — both in terms of their powers and evolving identities — began with them choosing to defy Brenner. Stranger Things 4 Vol. 2 has its choice few moments where Brenner’s rendered as an even more menacing, sadistic presence than before. But Modine stands out most in scenes where his character is lashing out and clearly operating from a place of fear — fear of the monster Henry’s become, and of how he can no longer control Eleven.

Stranger Things 4 Vol. 2 brings virtually all of its characters’ arcs to a close this season with an intricateness that’s impressive, but leads to both episodes feeling dense and almost overstuffed due to the size of the cast. At the same time that Eleven’s simultaneously taking back her power and remembering that she can use it to remotely check in on the Hawkins crew, each of their subplots kick into high gear to make sure that everyone gets some level (momentary) closure.

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Especially at this late stage of Henry’s — who the show repeatedly makes fun of by pointing out how many names he goes by — big plan, it still boggles the mind that all of the kids without powers figure that they should go into the Upside Down to fight things there. But Vol. 2 shifts Stranger Things into the series’ familiar action-adventure rhythms with a smoothness that was conspicuously absent in Vol. 1.

The final two episodes rightly choose to commit a considerable amount of time to wrapping up Max’s storyline by homing in on just how profoundly her encounters with Henry/Vecna have changed her. Stranger Things’ characterization of Max hasn’t always been the most three-dimensional, but here Sink’s given the opportunity to really flex as the show revisits what her various relationships have meant to her over the seasons.

Foolhardy as it is, the kids’ plan to fight Vecna in the Upside Down is what gives Stranger Things the ability to really dig into what’s been eating at them all season. Mike almost became a supporting character in both Eleven and Will’s (Noah Schnapp) orbits during Stranger Things 4 Vol. 1, and it’s much of the same in Vol. 2 as the show reunites the three characters. Unsurprisingly, Stranger Things slows down and takes a soft focus as it gives Eleven and Mike the space to properly work through their complicated feelings about each other.

Similarly, Vol. 2 tries to tug at your heartstrings as Will becomes comfortable enough to share with Mike and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) the gnawing secret about himself that’s been hiding in that bowl haircut. But Will’s somewhat clumsy resolution is one of the multiple awkward speed bumps that keep Vol. 2 from reaching its full potential.

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While it’s been great to watch Hopper (David Harbour), Joyce (Winona Ryder), and Murray (Brett Gelman) trust the kids to take care of themselves while they deal with their own adventures in the Soviet Union, Stranger Things knows their stories haven’t been what people are tuning in for. Vol. 2 does the admirable thing, though, and keeps the adults plenty busy with actual things to do rather than simply dropping them back in Hawkins for the occasion.

Vol. 2 wisely uses its time in Russia to begin alluding to Stranger Things’ final season, but Hopper’s big Demogorgon fight is also part of how these episodes remind you how much everyone has changed over the course of the series. Like Hop, the prospect of potentially dying in battle brings out a sobering sentimentality in Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), Eddie (Joseph Quinn), Nancy (Natalia Dyer), and Steve (Joe Keery) that compliments the proactive way they ride out the apocalypse.

It’s sort of wild how Vol. 2 chooses to interrupt the time it spends with Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) and Max to remind you that he’s also on the run from high school basketball star-turned-militiaman Jason Carver (Mason Dye). With Jason having witnessed Vecna’s wrath firsthand, his becoming even more of a gun-toting heel in Vol. 2 doesn’t add all that much to the episodes outside of emphasizing that he was always an asshole.

In the grand scheme of psychic battles, Eleven’s confrontation with Vecna isn’t necessarily the showiest, but it does carry an emotional heft that hasn’t always been the case with Stranger Things’ previous finales. Vol. 2 recontextualizes many of those battles with a bit of straightforward foreshadowing of what’s to come, and even though this season definitely felt like it could have been the end of Stranger Things, it’s fair to say that the series does have a little bit more gas left in the tank.

Stranger Things 4 Vol. 2 is now streaming on Netflix.

Available for Amazon Prime