The supersized finale to Stranger Things season 4 is here. Clocking in at about four hours, volume 2 is the length of a double feature. Despite the length and the hype, the finale still falls short of expectations compared to volume 1 thanks to poor pacing, poor character choices, and poor diverse storytelling. Spoilers ahead!
On a positive note, Sadie Sink shines once again as Max who puts her life on the line to help the others take down Vecna. In a painful monologue, she reveals that she’s guilty over Billy’s death because she wanted him to die. She wishes Vecna would take her away too. Max’s arc this season resembles the teen experience with depression and suicide. However, after escaping her first confrontation with Vecna, she doesn’t seem to survive the second. Her “death” scene is absolutely gut-wrenching. But Max’s future is left uncertain after a strange two-day time skip reveals she’s in a coma. It’s very frustrating because Max’s one-minute death feels like a ploy by the show’s writers to create false emotional stakes. We watched her die in a climactic moment, only to have that immediately reversed. If Max’s death had been confirmed, then it would’ve had a greater impact on both the viewers and the characters. (Maybe Max truly is dead, though, and the consciousness in Max’s body is Vecna. That would be a compelling plot twist!)
The main issue with this finale is the lack of stakes. Only one character actually dies, and it’s Eddie—this season’s newest addition. Stranger Things has done this multiple times, introducing charismatic characters only for them to die dramatically by the end of the season (Bob, Billy, and now Eddie). It’s starting to get repetitive and shallow. Although the marketing hinted that more characters would die, not a single one of them was from the original cast. The fact that Eddie died from the exact same thing that Steve survived is just lazy writing.
Lucas and Erica are two other highlights of volume 2. Caleb McLaughlin gives a tear-jerking performance when his character holds Max as she’s dying. He portrays the desperation and fear so well. What Lucas goes through right before this was also hard to watch. The jocks track down Lucas and Erica and attack them. It was horrifying seeing these large white jocks chase down and brutally assault these two Black children. While Erica and Lucas had to deal with realistic fighting with other human characters, the other teen characters fight clearly fictional figures. The situations Lucas and Erica are put in feel racially motivated, and maybe this was done on purpose by the writers.
Yet, their race is never really acknowledged at all. Stranger Things jumps through hoops to avoid saying the word “Black” or addressing why Erica and Lucas are treated differently than the other kids. Watching a white boy pull a gun on a Black boy and force him to put his hands behind his head before nearly choking him out had clear parallels to real-life police brutality. Stranger Things suddenly felt too real. And Erica, the youngest of the group, was tackled to the ground by a much bigger white boy. I was shocked at what happened to her and genuinely terrified for her and Lucas’s safety. There should have been a Black voice in the writers' room to portray this situation with more sensitivity.
Unfortunately, volume 2 keeps regressing the older teens. Steve still pines after Nancy, she still flirts with Steve, and Jonathan is a deadweight in the story. The finale also misses the opportunity to show Steve’s reaction to Max’s fate—isn’t she one of the six “little nuggets” he’s been looking after since season 2? Although Jonathan and Nancy seemingly get back together in the end, the writers continue to push Steve and Nancy together. Once Jonathan and Nancy are reunited, Jonathan keeps lying to her about college. The romantic conflicts between these three have dragged on all season, and at this point, they feel unnecessary and repetitive.
Another deadweight in these episodes is Mike. He does nothing but act as El’s love interest. The way the writing has regressed his character from the charming, integral heart of the show to a whiny side character with nothing to do astonishes me. In the last episode, as Vecna gains the upper hand, Mike gives El a little motivational speech and finally tells her “I love you.” This romantic confession felt somewhat out of place in the final battle. While his relationship with El served as the emotional core of the show in earlier seasons, it’s Mike’s role as the object of Will’s affections that’s much more compelling this season.
Speaking of, it’s time to talk about Will. Noah Schnapp gives a moving performance, but volume 2 does not give Will a hopeful future. He gets to do what he’s been doing for the whole show: be gay and suffer. When Mike is worried about his future with El, Will chokes back his emotions and helps him through it. Will tells Mike how much El loves him, which is an obvious metaphor for his true emotions. Will reassures Mike that El still needs him, ironically giving the push Mike needs to tell El he loves her. It is extremely upsetting to see a queer character used as a plot device to further a heterosexual relationship. The writers use Will’s silent love for Mike to bring Mike and El closer together. It is a cruel injustice to Will.
The scene between Will and Jonathan, however, was a much better way to handle Will’s queerness. Jonathan has been a kind and open older brother to Will in previous seasons. He notices that Will is suffering. When they’re finally alone, Jonathan assures Will that he loves him and that nothing could ever change that. Will is brought to tears and they embrace. It’s a tender moment. They never even say the word “gay,” but it’s very clear both characters know what’s going on.
As for the tiptoe around the word “gay,” this show is set in the 1980s. Stranger Things takes place during the AIDS epidemic when young queer people could be instantly abandoned by those they loved for being queer. Hawkins is also not a progressive environment to grow up in. It was established in the very first episode that Will has been bullied at school and by his father because they thought he was gay. It makes sense that Will would not feel safe labeling himself as “gay,” even around those he loves. Homophobic slurs have been used to hurt him his entire life, and it’s clear he’s still not comfortable enough with his sexuality to reclaim the label for himself. Here’s hoping that in season 5 he will find the self-love and confidence to do so.
Stranger Things season 4 volume 2 suffers from issues with diverse storytelling. Minority characters are not written with sensitivity, and other characters we know and love have regressed. These two episodes don’t stand on their own despite the long length. The multiple different storylines make the pacing drag, with the Russia storyline slowing to a crawl. The time skip in the last episode also seems like a missed opportunity for important character moments. While volume 1 came to an explosive end with a climactic reveal that left fans reeling, volume 2 is more middle than end and raises more questions than it answers.
Stranger Things is streaming now on Netflix.