Welcome to Previously On, a column that gives you the rundown on the latest TV. In this edition, Valerie Ettenhofer reviews season 4, volume 2 of Netflix’s Stranger Things.
Stranger Things knows how to pull off a finale. The Netflix series, which dropped seven episodes of its fourth season a month ago and is releasing its final two today, is always at its best when it goes big. When the ‘80s throwback series is able to pull off emotional, character-centric beats and marry them to epic, cinematic moments, it manages to reach a point of peak entertainment. Stranger Things doesn’t manage this all the time, and some of its ambitious fourth season is shakier than ever, but the two-episode finale brings home the show’s raw, blast-your-face-off power yet again.
To describe what happens across the four hours of Stranger Things season 4 volume 2 would take more page space than I have: the movie-length episodes are jam-packed with so many mythology downloads, relationship shifts, and plans gone awry that they may as well be a season unto themselves. Initially, I thought a break so late in the season would thwart the show’s suspense, giving fans time to correctly speculate about every possible moment the final two episodes have to offer. But for once, the Duffer brothers zigged when fans expected them to zag, delivering an ending that subverts some of the tried and true tropes the show loves to return to while giving others a heavier, darker spin.
Volume 2 picks up pretty much exactly where the last episodes left off, with Nancy (Natalia Dyer) subject to Vecna’s grim vision and Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) newly aware of the monster’s very human origin story. Meanwhile, the California crew attempts to get a line on El’s whereabouts, while the Hawkins squad arms themselves for a standoff in the Upside Down. In Russia, Hopper (David Harbour) and Joyce (Winona Ryder) reunite, only to realize there are still obstacles keeping them from their loved ones back home.
Despite an ever-growing cast of characters that now includes more than a dozen core members, the new season continues to suffer occasionally from slack editing that makes some scenes feel like wasted time. The show’s oversized runtime should allow every character an adequate amount of development, yet the camera still finds itself fixed on dud side characters like smuggler Yuri (Nikola Djuricko), or dramatic rehashes of old news from Dr. Brenner (Matthew Modine). Meanwhile, much-loved characters like high school basketball star-in-the-making Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) and closeted, artistic Will (Noah Schnapp) get somewhat rushed resolutions for plots that seemed poised to deepen their identities but never did. The show also suffers from a few glaring instances of truly corny writing, especially when it indulges in cheap callbacks.
Still, a surprising amount of these last two episodes work like a charm. The show doesn’t buckle under the weight of the sky-high expectations it’s set up for itself. Instead, it meets them with the all-in attitude a major series only gets when it’s entering its endgame. The Duffer brothers pull a few punches in these last hours, but there’s also a palpable and frightening sense of risk for each main character for the first time in the show’s history. The show puts its apparently massive visual effects budget to good use, creating memorable set pieces and propulsive cross-cut action sequences.
Stranger Things has become so huge and so familiar by now that, for better or worse, it has its own unwritten rules: its grandest moments almost always include declarations of love, poignant sacrifices, and aesthetically striking hero moments. This season continues that trend, but it also makes some utterly unpredictable moves. Four seasons in, Stranger Things is finally breaking out of its Spielbergian mold, into uncharted territory. Even the music has matured: obvious radio hits are now replaced by songs with more personality, with the new episode’s excellent needle drops ranging from Metallica to James Taylor.
In its best and purest moments, it’s also reaching emotional heights it never has before. Brown, McLaughlin, and series newcomer Joseph Quinn all put in fantastic work in scenes that ask a lot of them, but Sadie Sink is the season’s obvious standout as Max. The cool tomboy’s tough exterior once covered up her hard home life, but now, in the wake of her brother’s death, it also masks the open wound that is her heart. Earlier in the season, the episode “Dear Billy” touched on the raw nerve of her grief and guilt with an indelible scene that saw her face down Vecna with the power of Kate Bush. The season continues to center her in its home stretch, deepening the metaphorical associations between Vecna and mental illness in a way that’s incredibly resonant.
More than anything else, the final chapters of Stranger Things season four chart an unprecedented course for a series that isn’t always known for its originality. Despite some familiar weak spots, these four hours are creative, thrilling, emotional, and all-around entertaining.
Stranger Things season 4, volume 2 is currently streaming on Netflix.