Stranger Things 4 had a lot going for it in its first seven episodes, but the final two were a major letdown.
In my review of the massive, four-hour-long Stranger Things 4 Volume 2, I laid out much of what I found unsatisfying, frustrating and just plain bad about Volume 2.
One thing I didn’t focus on quite enough was just how neat and tidy the final confrontation with Vecna ended up being, despite its poor pacing and low-stakes outcomes.
Yes, not everyone made it out alive—Eddie’s death will go down as one of the biggest mistakes the Duffer Brothers have ever made in this series, and Max isn’t doing very well—but overall this was still very low-stakes stuff. Along with Eddie, Brenner and Jason died. The latter had become little more than a cartoon villain by the end, and we all knew Brenner was toast.
In any case, the ending was both a total mess and way too neat and tidy all at the same time, which I know sounds like a contradiction in terms. Frankly, it all boils down to bad writing as these things so often do.
Let me explain.
We have three disparate groups essentially throughout the entire season.
Group #1 consists of the Hawkins crew—Dustin, Lucas, Max, Nancy, Steve, Robin and Eddie—who are slowly unraveling the mystery of Vecna, culminating in Nancy learning that Vecna was, in fact, Harry Creel, the son of Victor Creel. Nancy and this group also learn that Harry was taken by Brenner and became Vecna—that he basically shares the same suite of powers that Eleven has.
Group #2 is the California crew—Eleven, Will, Mike, Jonathan and Argyle—who are almost killed by government officials before Eleven is whisked away by Dr. Owens who tells her that Hawkins is in danger and that he has a way of giving her back her powers. Eleven is split off from the group for a time, where she learns about One and how she essentially blasted him off into the Upside Down. She gets her powers back and is rescued by the boys.
Group #3 is the Russia crew—Joyce, Hopper, Murray, Enzo and Yuri—who are all part of Hopper’s rescue and the calamity at the Russian prison.
None of these groups has any contact with anyone in the other groups after the first episode or two. Mike is with his friends in Hawkins but when he goes to California for Spring Break he loses all contact with them. Joyce and Murray start off with Group #2 but quickly become Group #3 when they leave for Alaska. No further contact is made between any of these three groups until the very, very end of the finale.
The only exception to this is Eleven vision-spying on her friends in Hawkins as they make plans to take on Vecna. She doesn’t catch the whole conversation but presumably it’s enough to clue her in to the whole Vecna thing (prior to this she would not have realized that One had become Vecna or that he was terrorizing her friends and killing people in Hawkins). She wants to go immediately and Owens is willing to let her but Brenner betrays them both and prevents her from leaving, arresting Owens in the process.
Here is where the convenient plot devices start dropping. Eleven is prevented from leaving and bound with a power-stopping collar. Then the army shows up and Colonel Sullivan’s troops invade Brenner’s secret base. This is convenient because it allows Eleven to escape just in the nick of time. At the exact same time she’s able to escape—somehow so powerful that the collar can’t even stop her from downing an army helicopter—Mike and the boys show up and rescue her. The army, conveniently enough, is unable to mount a pursuit of a lone pizza van in the desert.
I have to assume at this point that Eleven fills the boys in on Vecna offscreen because later when she’s in the convenient pizza restaurant dough freezer (good thing it wasn’t a walk-in freezer!) Will says “She’s fighting Vecna!” despite Will never having heard about Vecna or One or any of this at all. They’re able to get El into the sensory depravation bath just in the nick of time and she’s able to go help Max, though—as I discussed in my review—she’s bafflingly unable to stand up to him after her initial attack and requires a sappy pep talk from Mike before she starts fighting, which gives Vecna enough time to “kill” Max.
We’ll file that last bit under “messy” as it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever that Eleven would regain her powers, get all this motivation to save her friends, show up like a boss tossing around Vecna like a ragdoll—and then just freeze until her boyfriend gives her the courage to keep fighting the villain via the Power Of Love™.
This all feels like an excuse to slow down Eleven enough to allow Vecna to off Max (and give him time to monologue more—though his entire Episode 9 speech could have taken place with Nancy in Episode 7 where it made much more sense).
Group #3 is where things get very silly, however.
Over in Russia Yuri is stalling with his helicopter repairs. Hopper manages to get in touch with the woman who works with Dr. Owens and she conveniently fills him in on what’s going on, but only in very vague terms. Eleven and Owens have gone off the grid. There’s an “evil” they want to fight in Hawkins. Joyce has seen “particles” from the Upside Down in the Russian prison which she insists means that a gate is open in Hawkins and, better yet, they don’t even have to get back to Hawkins to help they can just destroy the particles back at the prison and that will damage the “hivemind” enough to help the kids. Hooray!
This is, I have to say, deeply out of character for Joyce, a person who—when her kids are in danger—will stop at nothing to get to them as quickly as humanly possible no matter what. The following sequence, where they return to the prison with guns and a flamethrower and a Conan sword, is one of the most ridiculous in the show’s entire run. The action is fun. Murray with a flamethrower and Hopper with a barbarian sword is entertaining.
The problem is that it makes no sense. They have no idea what’s going on in Hawkins. They have no idea if Eleven has her powers back. They don’t know that fighting a Demogorgon in Russia will do jack diddly squat to help the kids, or even if the kids are alive. They know none of this and have had zero contact with any of the children for days but they all just agree that this is a good plan for reasons. And then Enzo is able to convince Yuri that their cause is just and he shows up with the helicopter to whisk them back to America. They all survive without a scratch on them but the monsters manage to kill every other person on the base.
That’s some mighty fine plot armor y’all are wearing.
And hey, it happens at the exact same moment that everyone is attacking Vecna. How convenient!
Other neat and tidy things:
- The vines that are strangling Nancy, Steve and Robin for like 40 minutes don’t kill them somehow.
- Erica is able to beat up a grown man who is also an athlete and has her pinned to the ground.
- Apparently Eddie bikes in a circle rather than a straight line, making it super easy for a limping Dustin to get to him before he dies.
- Eleven gains the ability to bring someone back from the dead a la Star Wars because constantly adding powers at the most convenient times is great storytelling.
- Everyone forgets Eddie ever existed except for Dustin and I guess leaves his body in the Upside Down. Jason is killed also so literally nothing has to be resolved between them, Eddie will never get to clear his name and Jason has no shot at redemption.
Other messy things:
- Hopper and Joyce show up in Hawkins and while it’s a genuinely moving moment when Eleven sees Hopper it also feels weirdly anticlimactic. I’m still puzzling this out. It just felt like a way less impactful reunion than I thought it would.
- Also, why didn’t she look for him with her mind once she got her powers back? I know she thought he was dead, but if I had her powers and never saw the body, the moment I got them back I’d be looking for him. This could have created an interesting conflict for Eleven, knowing that both Max and Hopper were in terrible danger.
- Two separate time-jumps at the end. Why? The first, when El is going into Max’s mind to save her, was extremely jarring.
- The gates opening, shutting and then opening again. What was that all about? I still can’t make heads or tails of it. Another anticlimactic moment since we saw them open in very dramatic fashion and then they were just weirdly closed again with no explanation and then reappeared. Huh?
- Do the Duffer Brothers really think that you can just listen to the same song on a cassette player—not an iPod or Spotify—over and over like that so easily? Max would have to rewind the song every time. She’d go through all the batteries. And she’d get so sick of it that I think the song would probably stop working as a mind-shield.
- Hopper broke his ankle a couple days ago if I’m getting the timeline right, but by the time he’s playing Conan with the Demogorgon he’s right as rain, leaping and running without a limp of any kind. Magic! Maybe the plot armor has holy healing properties as well. Or maybe it was the peanut butter.
For me, these last two episodes were about twice as long as they needed to be, were bogged down by truly terrible pacing, ended without resolving anything meaningful and just fell short of about every expectation I had after enjoying Volume 1.
The three groups converged far too easily after having spent the entire season not having any communication whatsoever. The main cast once again got off without any major deaths while great newcomers were killed off like cannon fodder. Somehow it all came together far too easily, wrapped up in a bow, while also feeling like a total mess.
Hopefully Season 5 is shorter and more to the point. Frankly, this easily could have been the final season with a really satisfying ending to the Big Bad and it certainly seems like Netflix and the show’s creators are dragging their feet at this point, extending a show that I’m not convinced required more than a single, excellent season. (Despite many good episodes since the first, the story itself has felt badly strained and while Season 4 did help push the story forward it easily could have wrapped things up as well).
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