One of the hardest things for an established TV show to do is surprise you.
Specifically, surprise by revealing something new about the characters fans think they know, after years of watching episodes and growing attached to their favorites.
That’s a big reason why I enjoyed this fourth season of Netflix’s monster hit so much. stranger things. And that’s why the final two episodes, out today, amp up the energy of an already propulsive season, revealing the full extent of the danger our heroes (and heroines) face while highlighting new complications among them all.
The show has always revolved around an unlikely premise: a gang of nerdy young kids stopping horrible creatures from an alternate universe from consuming our world – with the help of a few bumbling adults. This core team – teenage pals Mike, Dustin, Lucas and Will – has grown with each season and is now an endlessly eccentric gang that makes all the underdogs in all 80s teen movies feel like they’re stuck. in an animated scenario.
For its fourth season, the show has more than doubled down on just about everything – building out the show’s fictional universe, adding captivating new characters, and setting up an explosive showdown for these final two episodes. which offers its biggest show to date.
The series’ new Big Bad – a disgusting assemblage of rotting flesh and tentacles named Vecna - has killed young people from the alternate dimension known as the Upside Down, and the series’ growing cast of young protagonists must drop it. Eventually, they realize they must work from multiple locations, including Upside Down itself, to try to defeat him.
Fans online have been feverishly exchanging theories about these final two episodes — episodes eight and nine — which include a big chunk of a season finale that’s over two hours long. Questions abound: Does an important character die (with plenty of fans putting money on Joe Keery’s underperforming, beautifully styled dream ship Steve Harrington)? Does a certain kid with a bowl cut reveal feelings beyond friendship for his childhood pal?
More importantly, is this season’s story really worth a longer final episode than some feature films?
Relax. I will not reveal the answers to most of these questions. But I will note that they are answered in the newly released episodes, which also continue the show’s unerring talent for wrapping up one looming global crisis while unveiling the seeds of the next, which is set to unfold in the fifth and final series season. And yes, this oversized final episode is well worth the time.
The latest episodes score by taking big swings
I’ll avoid obvious spoilers here, but there will be discussions about the details of Netflix’s first seven episodes released in May. This fractured exit strategy seems to have worked as intended – keeping fans abuzz over the show for weeks, anticipating the end of the season and maintaining stranger things‘ ranked high among the 10 most-watched US TV shows on the service. It is also the most-watched English-language show on Netflix.
The show’s creators and showrunners known as the Duffer Brothers – Ross and Matt – took a big swing at the start of the fourth season, using a tactic often employed by TV shows where you have a cast of characters very united who have been together a while. You separate them.
And boy, did they separate them. Eleven, the super-powered psychokinetic child telepath, played by Millie Bobby Brown, has lost her powers and moved to California with Winona Ryder’s Joyce Byers and her sons Will and Jonathan. Dustin, Lucas, and Mike, along with the other kids who helped thwart an apocalypse together last season, stayed in Hawkins, Indiana — a fictional town that never looked like a real Indiana town to this Hoosier. native. Depressed David Harbor sheriff Jim Hopper was stuck in a Russian jail, thought dead until Joyce found out otherwise earlier this season.
To make it all work, the Duffers balanced a slew of storylines taking place in at least four different locations – a situation that only gets worse over the past two episodes. As the eighth episode opens, Eleven has left California for a secret facility with the doctor who originally raised her and helped develop her abilities, Matthew Modine’s ruthless researcher Martin Brenner.
He’s one of the established characters who becomes even more compelling here, as we learn new details about her backstory with Eleven – she calls him Papa, the title of the eighth episode – as she works with him to regain his powers and confront Vecna.
These episodes work by embracing all the excesses that would drown out a typical series, from the absurd plot twists – like Joyce teaming up with a conspiracy theorist friend of Hopper’s to save him from that Russian prison – to the characters finding themselves in a way or another exactly when they need it, on-the-nose homages to classic horror movies like Nightmare on Elm Street Where Halloween and explosive, effects-filled action sequences.
There is a lot of chaos in this season. Famously, the show had to put a warning on its first episode, which dropped days after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas in May and featured the slaughter of children growing up in the establishment with Eleven.
But despite all the deaths, you rarely feel like the show’s main characters are at serious risk, despite the many threats they face. stranger things flirts with that idea in these final episodes, in a way that raises the stakes without violating the series’ central vanities.
Problems with “denominational monologues”
Even with two bloated episodes, the Duffer Brothers have plenty of narrative ground to cover in these final episodes. So they resort to a device I’ll call the “confessional monologue” – where one character turns to another and precisely and emotionally explains exactly what’s wrong with their relationship, admitting their role and promising to do better.
This is something that often happens in the later episodes. And as satisfying as it may be for viewers to see these characters stop acting like jerks and talking to each other, it also feels like a crutch – allowing the story to move forward to emotional resolutions that aren’t entirely deserved.
In one instance, the confessional monologue is between two characters – I won’t name names – who swear to be more open with each other. Then they move on to the ER not to mention the emotional issue that prompted the confessional in the first place. Sigh.
Still, there are a lot of things I liked about the character development here. The deepening of the relationship between Hopper and Joyce. Steve Harrington’s efforts to transcend his feminization. The strange triangle between Will, his friend Mike and Mike’s girlfriend, Eleven.
And it was surprisingly powerful to see these estranged groups of friends finally come together in bittersweet resolution.
I have no idea how the Duffer Brothers are going to match what they achieved this season for their fifth and final run (they even reintroduced ’80s icon Kate Bush to a whole new legion of fans). But I can’t wait to be surprised once again by this inventive and daring series.