Stranger Things 4, Vol. 2: Bigger, Better, Faster, More!

So it turns out that my big prediction for the final two episodes of Stranger Things 4 was somewhat correct: by the end of “The Piggyback,” something has indeed made its way into our world from the Upside Down, only instead of Vecna sneaking in by way of hiding inside one of our heroes, it’s the entire Upside Down by way of a very large and apocalyptic looking hole in time and space.

Stranger Things 4, Vol 2 consists of two of the most overblown, over-the-top episodes of television I’ve seen all year. It’s Hopper taking on the final Demogorgon in Russia with an honest-to-god sword after Murray has taken a flamethrower to the rest of them. It’s Eleven lifting a five-ton tank with her mind, then astral projecting herself into Max’s mind from a pizza shop in Nevada for a totally-not-the-force duel with Vecna and only prevailing thanks to the power of friendship (and Mike finally being able to say “I love you”). It’s Eddie playing “Master of Puppets” atop a trailer in another dimension to draw the attention of literal bats out of hell—a grossly missed opportunity as the show expands its playlist back to the ’60s and ’70s (and also making the obscure ’90s reference in a piece about an ’80s styled show totally make sense, trust me). It’s Nancy taking a sawed-off shotgun to One as Robin and Steve burn him alive with molotovs. In short, it’s not just the most ridiculously excessive ’80s that Stranger Things has ever been, it’s the most Stranger Things that Stranger Things has been—and it’s all the better for it. 

Eleven, in front of a door and holding out her hand with a distressed look on her face from Stranger Things 4
Millie Bobbie Brown as Eleven in Stranger Things.

Before we get into the fun stuff of these final two episodes, I have one absolutely minor complaint on my part: the seven-two episode split already felt somewhat weird, and it feels even weirder after seeing the final two episodes. “The Piggyback” is basically a full-length Stranger Things movie that’s only considered an episode of television because that’s what the creators chose to call it, while “Papa” (as excellent of an episode as it is) mostly serves as a setup for the finale. It feels like “Papa” could have easily been put in with the first block of episodes—unless they really needed to finish up some of the post-production and effects work. I personally think it would have been better to have episodes one through eight serving as “Season 4” and “The Piggyback” be a “see how it all ends in the Stranger Things movie event of the summer!” kind of deal. It’s an ultimately meaningless quibble of mine in the grand scheme of things, although it’s almost certainly going to add more fuel to the debate of “what even is television versus cinema” kicked into high gear by the Twin Peaks revival. 

Anyways, that’s an absolutely minor complaint in the grand scheme of things, so let’s get into the good stuff. First off: Vecna! Or One. Or Henry. It’s complicated. Whatever you choose to call him, the final two episodes did exactly what I wanted them to do with the character, making it clear that he’s the one who has been behind all the supernatural events of the series up until now. After Eleven sent him to the Upside Down, he explored the dimension for years until he stumbled across the Mind Flayer, who prior to his arrival seemed to just be vibing peacefully, or as peacefully as an incomprehensible eldritch being can be, and was able to use its power to enhance his own abilities. All of Hawkins’ previous encounters with the Upside Down and its inhabitants—the episode makes frequent use of flashbacks to provide a new context for the events of prior seasons—have been One’s attempts to open a gateway between the two dimensions and remake the world in his own image. The season ends not only with him surviving (and certainly returning for the final season), but succeeding in said plan.

Hopper holding a flamethrower
David Harbour as Sheriff Jim Hopper in Stranger Things.

It feels very Empire Strikes Back, the influence of which is felt strongly throughout these final two episodes—especially when it comes to Eleven’s storyline. Her arc is basically a loose remix of Luke’s storyline from Empire: after some training for her abilities, she leaves to go help her friends fight the big bad even though her mentor insists she’s not ready for said fight, and sure enough, she gets fairly trounced by said big bad and barely manages to escape to safety. Much of Eleven’s personal arc has been about trying to see herself as a hero instead of a monster, so it’s fitting that she follows a similar arc of one of film’s most iconic heroes—even though the show doesn’t shy away from the terrifying potential of a girl who can rip a helicopter out of the sky if you piss her off. She even gets her “lifting the X-Wing from the Dagobah swamp” moment with the Nina tank. While Max doesn’t wind up being frozen in carbonite, she’s still in a perilous spot at the end of the season, being stuck in a coma and her soul being “lost.”

Speaking of Max’s fate, one of the more surprising parts of Stranger Things 4 is the fairly low body count by the end of the season, given how big the stakes were built up to be. The long-standing tradition of “kill the new guy” continues here, with fan-favorite Eddie joining the likes of fellow one-season wonders Bob, Alexei, and Barb. Meanwhile, virtually the entire main cast is spared, apart from Dr. Brenner at the end of “Papa” and Max—at least temporarily, before she is no doubt miraculously revived at some point in the final season. Some will no doubt be disappointed that everyone in the main cast made it out alive, but it’s something I am quite honestly fine with. The Duffer Brothers might have called this their Game of Thrones season, but the show was never going to be Game of Thrones or Lost, nor should it try to be. 

Stranger Things might have stepped up the horror this season, but at the end of the day, it’s still a show that thrives in maintaining a high level of comfort in its audience. In a world of mainstream film and television that feels obsessed with trauma WITHIN the real world where (at least in my home country) there are several…let’s call them “mass trauma events” happening right now, I will quite frankly take a little bit of honest to god comfort, thank you very much. Sometimes it’s fine when everyone lives, and the main cast surviving doesn’t make it any less grim of a final note for the season to end on. Max is comatose, Eleven has to go into hiding once again, Hawkins is a disaster area, and the Upside Down has breached our world and is likely to rapidly spread throughout Hawkins. The main cast all being alive and reunited (albeit much worse for wear) is the one hopeful spot amidst a relatively bleak ending, and we’re almost certainly going to need all of them for whatever is coming next. 

Vecna from Stranger Things 4 holding out his hand
Jamie Campbell Bower as Vecna/One/Henry in Stranger Things.

I will concede that the size of the cast does get a bit too unwieldy for its own good at times, and while most of them get to shine in the finale—Nancy saying “to hell with all this” and taking charge of the situation in Hawkins is a particular standout—the show still feels like it doesn’t really know what to do with some of its characters. Will in particular continues to get the short end of the stick, as even his big uplifting speech to Mike is just a thinly veiled confession of his own feelings. It’s certainly nice to see him open up even just a smidge more, but I would love to see the show let him move outside the two boxes of “traumatized by repeatedly being possessed and/or attacked by monsters from another dimension” and “having unresolved feelings for your best friend at a time where people are less comfortable being gay” that they insist on keeping him in. 

Horror-wise, “Papa” and “The Piggyback” definitely lean more towards a more action-heavy flavor than the first volume of the season. Volume 2 is closer to a Resident Evil 4 or Aliens than a Nightmare on Elm Street. It’s still considerably intense, but it’s more of the “overwhelming amounts of monsters” variety than the “unstoppable slasher villain” variety that the first batch of episodes executed to great effect. I did greatly enjoy moments like the almost Army of Darkness feel of the final Hopper versus Demogorgon fight, but I do wish they had maintained more of that classic horror vibe through these final two episodes. 

But this is another ultimately minor complaint in the grander scheme of things, and Stranger Things 4, Vol. 2 is a thrilling, satisfying, and emotional conclusion to a season that has consistently been a high point for the show. It sets up a showdown for the final season amidst what looks to be a full-on apocalypse, and I can hardly wait to see how it turns out when the final season airs in a few years.

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Written by Timothy Glaraton

College graduate. Horror enthusiast. Writer of things.

A person with long hair reads a book while sitting in shadows illuminated by a sunny window.

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