STRANGER THINGS (2022)
Season 4 - Part 2
Aired On: Netflix
Release Date: 07/01/22
Drama. Fantasy. Horror.
"With selfless hearts and a clash of metal, heroes fight from every corner of the battlefield to save Hawkins - and the world itself."
6 weeks ago, I took the dive into the world of Hawkins, Indiana, and began watching the phenomenon which took the world by storm in 2016. Stranger Things, the brainchild of the Duffer Brothers, was an excellent Netflix mini-series that was a love letter to 80’s cinema. This wasn’t standard pastiche, instead, it used the 80s tropes we all know and love as jumping-off points to create an exciting story full of fascinating, if not a tad unorthodox, people.
A Fitting Pattern of Expansion
Each season past the first has always had the subtlety of a portable extension added to a 100-year-old school. Season 3 embraced the neon death of Americana in every way possible, despite the complete reliance on Americana at the core of S1 and S2. Season 2 expanded the world to show us Pittsburgh through the life of Kali, aka. Eight, a fellow escapee from Hawkins Lab. Season 3 also expanded the world through the lens of the Soviets, who had only been a small role in the larger narrative of Season 1. Season 4 once again introduces completely new elements that had been previously missing in early seasons, but here, the goal has been completely reworked. Instead of merely expanding the world and providing momentary, individual threats for our beloved characters, Season 4 works overtime to tie every other season together, and to allow for seasons going forward to fit in naturally. It’s brilliant artistry.
Character First Storytelling
In my review of the premiere of Season 4, I said, “For a cast that has aged 6 years since the first season, Stranger Things Season 4 doesn’t feel too out of place. Characters have grown up, and with that comes new, darker challenges for the story to wrestle with. … This season is darker and lonelier than ever before, and it’s absolutely captivating TV.”
That focus on character is what hooked me into Stranger Things, and it’s what makes for the best episodes of this show. When the show uses stranger events to bring fractured individuals together, its emotional pull is stronger than any other show airing right now. As our world continues to implode, it’s these stories that give me hope to face what comes next. And it’s telling to me that the weakest seasons of Stranger Things have been built around larger plots at the expense of character development. And in a season that has a cumulative runtime of 13 hours and 2 minutes, it would be easy to presume that character dynamics have been lost in the plethora of varying plots that take us around the United States and The Soviet Union. And for once, I am glad to have been proven wrong.
This entire season has been built on some of the best character work in the series to date. Much of this was present in the first half of the season. Eleven had to grapple with the loss of Hopper as well as the emotional and physical distance apart from her best friend and boyfriend, Mike. Max had to face the impact of shutting other people out of her life in the wake of her step-brother's death. Hopper had to face his own failure to return to Hawkins, and to his daughter who needed him most. Jonathan and Nancy are struggling with the long-distance relationship, in spite of their adoration of one another. Joyce’s life is so dull that she immediately is willing to hunt down Hopper, even if his odds of being alive are a million to one.
But here, at the eleventh hour, comes some of the largest character revelations in the show. Volume 2 specializes in giving each character something to do and something to prove at all opportunities. Character pairings that were present in Season 1 are revisited to show how far these characters have grown. It’s magical to see this on screen, and more importantly, this cathartic character work ratchets up the tension tenfold in these final hours.
The Power of a Forcing Move
In chess, a Forcing move is a play that forces the opposing player to make a choice with a select few pieces. Often, this is achieved by placing the king under threat, though it can also be achieved by threatening a separate high-value piece, such as the opposing Queen. What makes a forcing move particularly powerful in Chess is how it forces an individual to make a move that they wouldn’t under normal circumstances. Often, those plays are subpar and can create momentum for the aggressor that can lead to a sure victory.
What makes Stranger Things S4 particularly memorable is its ability to constantly create tension and drama through “forcing moves”. This season has had a plethora of antagonists to frustrate the plans of our heroes, whether they be the US Armed Forces, the Soviets, the high school football team, the police, Dr. Brenner, or Vecna. Each of these forces operates in specific ways to place our heroes in jeopardy. No two antagonists operate together, but their combined efforts threaten to prevent the goals of our strangest family. It’s these moments of conflict that force Eddie to dive into the Upside Down in Episode 6. These moments are the forcing moves that hold this season together. And more importantly, they only become more prominent in the final 2 episodes of the season.
Something I touched on lightly in my review of the premiere was the way Stranger Things is edited and composed to keep you engaged at all times. Whether it’s the stellar visual effects or a simple montage, Stranger Things has always found a way to be captivating and to keep audiences engaged for the 8 or 9-episode binge. And every season has increased the tension as the final act comes into play, as every subplot comes together to reveal the larger plot at the center of the season. These result in some of the greatest season finales of all television, with S1: E8 ("The Upside Down") and S3:E8 ("The Battle at Starcourt Mall") being particularly great.
Likewise, Season 4 Volume 2 continues to keep a visceral hold on the audience, as its editing keeps us in the heart of the battle. While S4:E8 (Papa) isn’t the finale, it functions as the final setup preparing the Hawkins kids for the battle ahead of them. It’s here that we witness these kids open up to each other, and work through their own problems as if this is their last day on Earth. And there are still roadblocks that have to be avoided in the episode; the football team has created a mob built on finding and killing the Hellfire Club, the US army is hot on the tails of the Nina Project, and Joyce’s rescue mission doesn’t seem to be going completely as planned. And when we get to S4:E9 ("The Piggyback"), every chess piece has been set up on the board, and the real battle begins. And that 150-minute battle flies by; no second is wasted when it’s built to accentuate the tension of every moment.
This season's massive scope isn’t just a perk of being 13 hours long. Rather, the size and scale of the show are baked into the storytelling at every level. The extended runtime enables this final battle to be a true assault, with multiple teams tackling a specific operation, and if everything goes according to plan, they may come out on top. The various Stranger Things Act 3 tropes that have become standard fare have been done away with. Steve’s face no longer gets completely demolished, and our diverging cast doesn’t all come together in this finale… not directly, anyway. And it impacts our own assumptions of how things should go. Those tropes were as familiar as a victory, and without them, this battle feels more desperate than ever before.
A Rollercoaster Ride… for your heart
But a massive battle matters little without our own investment in those characters fighting for their life. The difference between a battle of Helms Deep and a Battle of Five Armies is whether we care for the battle on display and whether we can understand who has the advantage in the fight. And it’s here that Stranger Things 4 Volume 2 thrives. As mentioned earlier, the editing keeps us swapping between our three different subplots with ease. And that enables our ability to track the battle progress with complete ease. The stakes may be large, but the vulnerabilities of each side are simpler than ever before. And that enables us to track the momentum swings in the fight. And it allows us to empathize with the desperate attempts made by each side to secure victory… even if it hurts our hearts in the process. Because the secret weapon of Stranger Things has always been its ability to create characters we care about. And after 6 years of consistent character building, we are forced to witness an uphill battle that threatens to take anyone of them from us all.
Volume 2 works overtime in the character department, and it keeps us fully invested in each of these character stories. In spite of the massive battle, there are moments of levity for our characters to work through their problems and hope for a better world. A pizza, a guitar, and a van are all that are needed to push these characters to share their hearts with one another. And it’s truly beautiful to witness, and our investment in this story grows tenfold because of it. The tension grows and grows into a suffocating fog that makes the audience as desperate for victory as the main characters are. And a large part of this is due to the stellar performances from everyone involved. Joe Keery, Natalia Dyer, Millie Bobby Brown, Caleb McLaughlin, and David Harbour are as usual, fantastic. No matter which plot line their character is in, the cast is delivering truly terrified and helpless performances at every moment. But the true standouts are Sadie Sink and Joseph Quinn. Sadie Sink has never been better than this season, as she elevates Max’s grieving to the max. While Episode 4 is still my favourite performance from her, here in the finale her determination and desperation shine brighter than ever before. And Sink allows a softer, more vulnerable side of Max to shine through in the finale that binds us to her trials. Similarly, Joseph Quinn’s work as Eddie is truly wonderful to watch. His confidence exudes out of the screen, and it convinces you that this battle may not be as hopeless as previously thought.
Finding Resolution in the Now, Not Yet. (Conclusion)
All together, Stranger Things S4 Volume 2 is a thrilling conclusion to this fantastic season. It’s a transition from the Monster of the Year style to a longer, larger plot still in motion. It’s that design that has me longing to see the next season of the show. This ending is a brilliant display of anti-climax that feels designed to allow the next season to be a definitive finale. And it is more than worth your time.