'Stranger Things' Season 4 Vol. 2 is on Fire... and Thin Ice
For Nick’s review of Stranger Things Season 4 Vol. 1, read here.
This review contains spoilers for Season 4 Volume 2 of Stranger Things.
In my review of Volume 1 of Stranger Things 4, I talked about the show’s place in the TV canon and how it doesn’t sit squarely in any one category. Its popularity is on the level of Breaking Bad and The Sopranos, but it doesn’t have the same consistently great craftsmanship that these prestige behemoths do. Its first two seasons received enormous critical acclaim along with tremendous viewership, but its third season saw a mixed critical consensus.
Although I can’t precisely place the show in the pantheon of TV, its creators have compared its latest season to Game of Thrones, a show also run by two men who infamously wasted all the goodwill and cultural capital they’d built up over a decade with an astoundingly terrible final season. Stranger Things has gotten nowhere near this bad, as Volume 1 was more or less a return to form for the show. However, Volume 2 leaves a lot to be desired, even though it makes a clear attempt to remedy some of Volume 1’s issues.
A lot of the issues I had with Volume 1 stemmed from the fact that the characters were isolated from each other, which allowed for one storyline to consistently outshine the others. Volume 2 sees all of the storylines finally converge, which makes the season’s conclusion all the more satisfying. However, I do think that the two-volume release was largely unnecessary and hurt the pacing of the season. The first episode of Volume 2 could easily have been an episode in Volume 1, as it’s about the same length as other episodes. I’m fine with the last episode being two and a half hours long because it’s the finale, and a little excess is appropriate. But the splitting of the season into volumes implies a meaningful distinction between the two parts, and I fail to see how there is one.
The cliffhanger ending of Volume 1 led to many speculating that fan-favorite character Steve Harrington (Joe Keery) would die, but that cliffhanger is resolved almost immediately when he and Nancy (Natalia Dyer) escape the Upside Down. The rest of the episode is essentially a planning stage for the big showdown between Vecna (Jamie Campbell Bower) and Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) in the finale. The Hawkins group stocks up on weaponry and supplies while the Cali group goes to get Eleven so they can get to Hawkins in time to fight Vecna. Meanwhile, the Russia group takes its sweet time trying to get their untrustworthy pilot to fix a helicopter.
Eleven is the only character whose plot moves forward in a substantive way, as we see the US government assault the facility she’s been held in. Eleven, who is often at the whims of the government scientists who hold her captive, is finally given agency by Dr. Owens (Paul Reiser) to go help her friends in Hawkins, but daddy dearest Dr. Brenner (Matthew Modine) objects. The emotional conflict that ensues is a lot more complex than one might expect from Stranger Things. Eleven clearly feels a bond with the man she called Papa, despite his abuse of her throughout her life. Even as he lays dying, begging for her forgiveness, she refuses to yield.
It avoids a neat conclusion to their relationship and doesn’t give Brenner the redemption that some might have thought that the show was building up to, given the fact that he was far more gentle with Eleven this season. Eleven’s portion of the episode also allows for some fantastic acting from Brown. Eleven is rarely verbally combative with Brenner, as she had limited verbal capabilities earlier in the show, when she was just beginning to interact with the outside world. Now, Brown lets the scorn and sorrow she feels come to the surface as she lays out his lies in his final moments. Not only is it a strong bit of acting, but a subtle piece of character development on the part of the writers.
Outside of Eleven’s storyline, however, the first episode of Volume 2 is largely transitional, which makes it a bad choice as the start of a new volume. As I said, it could have easily accompanied the first seven episodes in its release date, which leads me to believe that the split volumes were nothing more than a marketing tactic so that Netflix could keep people waiting, in the hopes of elongating the virality of the conversation surrounding the newest season. If they really wanted to do that successfully, they should have done a weekly release schedule, but Netflix has been exceptionally clueless lately so I can’t say I’m surprised.
The finale is where the real meat of Volume 2 lies. It’s the big showdown against the Monster of the Season, just like every Stranger Things finale. The groups all finally converge with each other, albeit remotely, which is a creative spin on the usual formula. Eleven and Max (Sadie Sink) are undoubtedly the focal point of the battle. That’s all fine and dandy, considering the fact that they’re two of the best actors in the ensemble, but it renders everyone else almost completely useless.
Steve, Nancy, and Robin (Maya Hawke) are indisposed for almost the entire battle while everyone in California just watches Eleven do her thing. Hopper (David Harbour), Joyce (Winona Ryder), and Murray (Brett Gelman) help out a bit by killing the demogorgons in the Russian prison, and eventually the old married couple and their third wheel shoot at Vecna to weaken him, but the real psychological meat of the skirmish is fought by Max and Eleven.
It plays into my favorite aspect of the show – the friendships between its characters. The fact that it’s just up to Max and Eleven underscores how much the battles with Vecna and the Mind Flayer have personally affected Max, and how, despite having a defiant and fiercely independent personality, she still needs help with her struggles. Seeing how their bond that began in season 3 culminates in the finale is quite touching, and it takes on a whole new meaning when Eleven can’t completely save Max.
The showrunners have described season 4 as the Game of Thrones season, and while there are higher stakes and more serious outcomes, I think that comparison is a little exaggerated. There isn’t a neat resolution to this season, as it has a lot hanging in the balance. Max is in a coma, her arms and legs are broken, she’s blind and even confirmed to be brain dead. The Upside Down has finally spread through Hawkins and upended the lives of its citizens. Vecna is still alive.
There’s a lot to worry about come season 5. But the only big character deaths are those of Dr. Brenner (who, prior to this season, was already killed off in season 1) and Eddie Munson (Joseph Quin. Eddie’s death is completely unnecessary and was clearly the product of a “well, we have to kill somebody for dramatic stakes” mindset. He dies fighting a bunch of bats from the Upside Down after deciding not to run away from conflict. His inner struggle of not wanting to be a coward had never really been discussed, and he and Dustin’s tertiary role of distracting the bats had already been fulfilled. They were ready to exit the Upside Down and would have done so if the writers didn’t contrive a reason for him to die.
I don’t think Stranger Things is equipped to have a Game of Thrones season where major characters are killed off. Shows like Thrones that kill off major characters and move on without leaving a large hole in the quality of the show (see also: The Wire, The Americans) can do so because these character deaths are the result of larger systems in the world of the show. Their characters are never at the mercy of a singular Big Baddie but instead meet their fates due to events that unfold naturally over the course of many seasons. Every season of Stranger Things sees the characters fight a new monster and temporarily delay the arrival of the next one. The only difference this time around is that they’ve failed to delay that arrival, which is a welcome derivation from the formula.
Volume 2 also falls short when it comes to the direction it takes with its characters. The Steve and Nancy relationship is forced on us even more, undoing all of the excellent character development they had in seasons 2 and 3. Steve talks about how his breakup with Nancy gave him a thump on the head, yet the show wants that thump to go away. It’s a shame because the two work well together as friends, and Steve’s whole character arc is about how he stops seeing women as objects. That’s what made the reveal of Robin as gay in season 3 such a wake-up call to him.
Speaking of gay characters, Will’s (Noah Schnapp) sexuality is acknowledged a little less subtly this time around, although it’s still not explicit. He talks to Mike (Finn Wolfhard) about how Eleven is different from other people and how it’s made her feel like a mistake, but Mike has made her feel like she’s not a mistake. It’s pretty obvious that Will is actually talking about himself and his feelings for Mike.
I’m glad they’re being slightly more up-front about Will’s sexuality, especially after it was kept ambiguous and essentially used as pretend representation in Volume 1. There’s another very on-the-nose moment with the show’s other gay character, Robin, where she’s making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with her crush, Vickie (Amybeth McNulty). Vickie laments the fact that she’s accidentally made a peanut butter and peanut butter sandwich. Hmm, I wonder what that could stand for?
I also feel the need to bring up the scene where Jason (Mason Dye) confronts Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) and Erica (Priah Ferguson). McLaughlin and Ferguson play the only major Black characters on the show, and Jason is the spitting image of WASP-y, golden boy whiteness. In this scene, Erica is violently pinned down and threatened by one of Jason’s jock friends while Lucas is beaten mercilessly with a pistol after being held at gunpoint for a considerable length of time by Jason. The siblings, especially Lucas, are brutalized to an extent that the rest of the cast is not. That’s not to say that other characters don’t experience violence, but it’s usually in the form of being flung across the room by an alien enemy. It’s never as physical or visceral as it is in this scene.
Furthermore, Jason’s group of jocks is apparently hunting down the group as a whole (and specifically looking for Eddie), yet the violence only affects the two Black group members. The Duffer brothers aren’t clueless about Lucas’s race and how it factors into the show – in season 2, Billy’s (Dacre Montgomery) animosity toward Lucas was pretty clearly racially motivated. The Duffers will write racism into the show, but they won’t write race. They’ll never actually take time to acknowledge the racism, they just present it. Obviously, addressing race relations in the ‘80s isn’t the point of the show, but to present racism without showing its effect on its Black characters is negligent and irresponsible on the part of the writers.
For all of my misgivings about Volume 2 and the season as a whole, I’m excited about the direction the show is headed for in season 5. The creators have shown some willingness to take storytelling risks and diverge from the formula. There have always been substantive stakes to the show, but this time they feel series-wide instead of season-wide. Maybe that’s because we’ve only got one season left to go, and they feel compelled to give us a genuine sense of jeopardy. But if that’s what makes them turn the heat up, I’m all for it.