The Cultured Nerd

[REVIEW] “Stranger Things” Season 4 Vol. 2

With elevated stakes, a complex narrative, and excellent character writing and performances all around, Stranger Things 4 is clearly full of passion by everyone involved and love for the fans.

Spoiler-Free Review

The second volume of the long-awaited Stranger Things season 4 arrived on Netflix Friday with two final episodes, one of which was a massive 2 and a half hour long finale. Volume 1 left viewers with a lot of questions and a sense of dread for what fate could befall fan favorite characters; throughout the first few episodes, tension continually rises and the stakes are elevated like never before. Stranger Things 4 volume 1 set a tense precedent for the second part of the season and that is paid off wonderfully in what are easily the most intense episodes of the series thus far. I have rarely ever been on the edge of my seat like I was with Stranger Things 4‘s last couple episodes, which is a testament to the masterful season the Matt and Ross Duffer have created.

As I mentioned in my review of volume 1, Stranger Things has a pattern of excellently tying its seemingly divergent storylines together at the end of each season, and Stranger Things 4 volume 2 does this in such a creative way. I was admittedly uncertain about how the various locations would be able to ultimately connect and have the same tension as previous finales, which all solely took place in Hawkins, but luckily any doubts I had for the storylines were alleviated with the conclusion of the season. Every group had a clear contribution to the finale and some characters who had smaller roles in volume 1 had their chance to shine in the season’s last two episodes.

Two performances that stand out in particular are Noah Schnapp as Will Byers and Caleb McLaughlin as Lucas Sinclair. Schnapp and McLaughlin don’t honestly have any standout scenes in the first volume of season 4, but volume 2 allows each of these actors to really show off their acting chops in what are easily some of the most gut wrenching scenes of the series as a whole. Schnapp is really able to garner sympathy in his performance in episodes 8 and 9 through skillful emoting and delivery of clever dialogue, and McLaughlin really drives home the intensity of the season finale with a chilling performance that evoked such a strong sense of panic and desperation in his character like we’ve never seen before from him.

Sadie Sink‘s performance as Max Mayfield is simply excellent throughout this whole season and with the release of the final episodes of season 4, she has certainly solidified herself as one of my favorite Stranger Things characters. Again, as is always the case with every season of Stranger Things, Millie Bobby Brown also continues to nail her performance as Eleven going into volume 2. I had praise for these two actresses in volume 1 and their performances certainly hold up in volume 2. Thankfully, even the supporting characters who had less to do in the first volume of season 4—such as Joe Keery‘s Steve Harrington, Matthew Modine‘s Dr. Brenner, and Eduardo Franco‘s Argyle—get their own moments in the spotlight in volume 2 that flesh out their characters. I love that there seemed to be a very conscious effort this season to make every character matter and to give each cast member their time to shine.

Beyond the all-around stellar character work, season 4—and especially volume 2—feels epic, for lack of a better word. It feels like everything in the series so far has been building up to the finale of season 4. This season was advertised as “the beginning of the end” for the series, and it certainly lays the groundwork for the show’s endgame in season 5 in a way that had me on the edge of my seat throughout the two and a half hour finale. The writing for the entire season definitely instills a sense that things might not end well for our heroes, so going into volume 2 there is a sense of foreboding stronger than I have ever felt watching Stranger Things.

I think my only problem with how this season was written was that despite the thick tension that was built up in volume 1, the Stranger Things 4 finale ultimately plays things a bit too safe. Since this is a spoiler free section of my review, I will simply say that the conclusion to season 4 is very slightly underwhelming because ultimately the writing team does not commit to the stakes they established earlier in the season. Still, the finale is one heck of a thrill ride to watch. I cannot stress enough how tense I was watching this season, and the last two episodes we now have in volume 2 are easily one of the most exciting experiences I watched in television, in that I had no idea what was going to happen.

While I do have my qualms about the ultimate lack of risks taken in the finale of Stranger Things 4, I have to commend this season for truly having me on the edge of my seat throughout and for its well-connected narrative. For me, Stranger Things 4 gets a 9.5/10 for excellent writing, a stellar cast (as usual), and its masterfully tense storytelling.

Spoiler Review

To get my negative opinions on this season out of the way, I do want to reiterate that I think not enough risk was taken this season. In an interview prior to the release of season 4 volume 1, Millie Bobby Brown said that she thinks it’s time to off some of the ever-growing cast and referred to creators the Duffer brothers as “sensitive Sallies who don’t want to kill anybody off.” Now having seen the fourth season in its entirety, this quote from the actress really starts to make sense. I feel like with this season especially, it is apparent that the Stranger Things cast is growing but the Duffers refuse to get rid of any of the main cast. I feel like there were a lot of opportunities to write/kill off characters this season who don’t have anything else to do on the show. Admittedly, I wouldn’t know which character to kill off because I love pretty much all of them (because the writing is just that good), but I do think that with the amount of pressure the cast was facing from the threat of Vecna this season there ought to be have been more losses for the main cast.

While I was watching, I thought the writers had achieved this when Vecna snaps Max’s limbs, but Eleven manages to save her after she was “dead for over a minute,” according to Lucas; now Max is simply in a coma. It feels to me like the writers got cold feet about actually killing off a main character here, and the same goes for when Nancy, Steve, and Robin were all subdued in the Upside Down Creel House, as well as when Hopper had to face the Demogorgon without the flamethrower. With all the danger everyone faced this season, it does feel a bit odd that the entire main cast has managed to survive. However, this might ultimately work out because this means all of the show’s mainstays have lived to see the final season of the series. Seeing as the Duffers were able to juggle so many different characters and locations this season and have kept almost everyone alive, I have hope for their plans for everyone in the coming final season and trust they’ll do a good job with every single one of them.

The only protagonist to actually die is Eddie Munson—a new supporting character this season whose death is especially hard-hitting and truly honors the short-lived character. Although I had a feeling very early in volume 1 that he was going to die and take a fall for Vecna’s actions this season, I still felt the full weight of Eddie’s death and his ultimate motivation to fight rather than run away from his problems as he usually does. The diversion scene where Eddie plays Metallica’s “Master of Puppets” to draw the attention of the Demobats away from Vecna easily stands as one of my all time favorite scenes in the series and is one of the most visually striking Stranger Things moments ever. Dustin’s interaction with Eddie’s uncle about his death later on in the finale really drove home the sympathy I had for him as a tragic hero—a social outcast who ironically stood up for the town that would go on to shun him after his sacrifice.

As I mentioned in my spoiler free review, Caleb McLaughlin and Sadie Sink are both excellent, especially in volume 2. Their onscreen chemistry really establishes some intense scenes in the finale. Sink does such an effective job of conveying her character’s depressed emotional turmoil as she lures out Vecna in the finale, speaking aloud about the toll her stepbrother Billy’s mistreatment had on her and how his death in season 3 affected her mental health. Max’s feelings towards Billy—of loathing him in life and mourning him in death—are so complex, but Sink does a great job of encapsulating that complexity. Further, McLaughlin’s performance really sells a sense of panic when Vecna’s curse seemingly kills Max; it is his terrified reaction that makes what happens to Max feel so impactful. The smaller scenes they share—like their conversation in the RV in episode 8 and Lucas asking Max out to the movies in episode 9—really contribute to the two characters’ dynamic together and really make Max’s fate hit that much harder.

Noah Schnapp is another actor I need to commend in volume 2. If volume 1 was not clear enough about his sexuality, the last two episodes of season 4 make it clear that Will Byers is indeed gay and has feelings for Finn Wolfhard‘s oblivious Mike Wheeler. The scene in the Surfer Boy van in episode 8, where Will shows Mike the painting Eleven mentioned was for someone Will had a crush on, really showcases Schnapp’s acting talent. In the scene Will not only urges Mike to support his girlfriend Eleven, but also implies his own feelings for him and his fear of losing him…without explicitly saying it. Truthfully, half of what makes the scene so powerful is the strength of the writing, but Schnapp’s delivery of the dialogue and simultaneous breakdown into tears really sells the moment as one of the most emotionally draining of volume 2.

Another love triangle features in volume two between Natalia Dyer‘s Nancy Wheeler, Charlie Heaton‘s Jonathan Byers, and Joe Keery’s Steve Harrington. Steve doesn’t have much to do until the last few episodes of season 4, but his interactions with Nancy throughout the season eventually lead to his admission that he still has feelings for her in the finale—a revelation that Nancy doesn’t get the chance to react to besides a brief, shocked speechlessness after Steve tells her he still wants a future with her. Given that Mike doesn’t realize Will’s feelings for him and Nancy doesn’t ever talk to Steve about what he says to her, I can see both love triangles being big focuses for the drama in the final season. While it might be disappointing to not have these love triangles resolved in season 4, I feel like this is because they are going to be important in the show’s final season.

One character who very much improved for me from volume 1 was Jim Hopper, played by David Harbour. Going into this season in volume 1, I was under the impression that he was going to die at some point during Stranger Things 4. Something about a lot of his dialogue made it seem like his character was nearing the end of the road, which was kind of a letdown to me because of how uninteresting his storyline was in the first seven episodes of the Russia storyline. Thankfully, not only does the former police chief survive the season, but he also becomes quite the hero in volume 2. Seeing him fight a Demogorgon with a sword was such an epic image to see, and I loved the rapport he had with fellow cast member Winona Ryder, who plays longtime love interest Joyce Byers. Hopper really begins to feel more like himself in volume 2, and I feel like that might have a lot to do with him interacting with more familiar characters in episodes 8 and 9.

Lastly, I want to touch on how great it was to have Vecna fleshed out in these final couple episodes. I really enjoyed seeing more of One’s backstory and how he found his place in the Upside Down; seeing him explore this dimension felt almost like a journey through a mythical land—like something out of The Lord of the Rings. With volume 2 now fully explaining how Vecna was essentially behind the events of previous seasons and with the villain now wounded and out for vengeance like never before, season 5 is shaping up to be an epic conclusion to Netflix’s crown jewel. The final moments of the Stranger Things 4 finale show the Upside Down beginning to consume Hawkins—a town already rocked by tragedy from the “earthquake” caused when Max was momentarily dead—spelling doom for the small Indiana town. This ending was just the right way to round off this season—a sign of what’s to come, with Vecna not holding back. In a way, season 4 was buildup for a much larger conclusion to the series, and I for one am looking forward to it.

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