Writing about the first seven episodes of the current, fourth season of “Stranger Things,” I noted that its ambition was both laudable and detrimental, gesturing back to a more exciting era of Netflix while also freighting each episode with more than it could bear.
The final two episodes of the fourth season, which launched July 1, prove that doubly true. The moments that sing — including, once again, in the cadences of Kate Bush, this season’s musical patron sorceress — really are on a different level than just about anything the streamer has done lately. And they come within the context of episodes that seem designed to make the showrunning Duffer Brothers’ aspirations punishingly clear: The finale is two-and-a-half hours, a length the viewer really feels. This is likely not an episode that many franchise fans this side of standom will watch in one go, thus diluting the season’s cumulative power and impact in the name of creating a monument to just how much Netflix will allow.
This is frustrating because the season is in many ways accomplished: Its characters’ stories are nicely drawn, intersecting gratifyingly, and the whole enterprise has a pleasingly rounded, classic build, ending in large part where it began, with a once-separated circle of characters reunited in Hawkins and a supernatural threat reasserting itself just before the final credits roll. There are some crucial alterations that indicate why the whole journey was worthwhile. Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) has definitively broken with the “Papa” (Matthew Modine) who has molded her life, allowing his influence over her to die just as he himself did. (This brings an end to a storyline, and a performance, that never quite transcended the literal.) Perhaps it’s Eleven’s new freedom that helped provide Mike (Finn Wolfhard) an opening to confess his love to her as she battled season villain Vecna (Jamie Campbell Bower). Will (Noah Schnapp) has made gestures toward talking about whatever it is that’s on his mind with his brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), and unfortunate Max (Sadie Sink), the linchpin character of the season, lies in a coma watched over by Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), after having proven her mettle, and her goodness, in a battle against darkness.
Much of what got us here worked well: The Duffers remain gifted stylists. Their tendency to restate themselves, though, shows up in large ways and small. The revelation of Will’s painting — a much-speculated-about element of the early season — was beautifully done: It depicts the gang working together to slay a dragon, even as a certain closeness is evidently falling away. Will, whose growing isolation from his ever-coupling straight friends has reminded many queer viewers of their own teenage lives, shows the painting to Mike amid Mike’s nervous venting about trying to maintain a relationship with someone as special as Eleven. We see in Schnapp’s performance that Will is on the outside of this pairing in more ways than one. He simply cannot relate. After Will shares his art — a touchingly juvenile way of relating to his friend as they come toward late adolescence — he suddenly looks out the window: We see him looking away from his friend as he says, with heavy ellipses, “When you’re different… sometimes… you feel like a mistake.” He’s talking about Eleven, but also himself, a point that’s nicely made by Schnapp’s work but emphasized, thuddingly, as Mike closes out the conversation and Will stares out the window again, weeping. (To the show’s credit, a later conversation between brothers Will and Jonathan renders an emotional catharsis, of Will being seen for who he really is, without having to rely quite so heavily on telegraphing how we are supposed to feel.)
Elsewhere in the narrative, certain wells were returned to again and again. If — as I’d posit — “Stranger Things” is the most visually ambitious and the most zeitgeist-driving series since the similarly maximalist “Game of Thrones” left the air, then it shares that show’s Daenerys problem: Little has weight when 95% of situations can be resolved by an all-powerful character bringing in her dragons, or, in Eleven’s case, her powers. And so scenes in an already lengthy show come to feel like technical exercises, opportunities to show off what visual ingenuity and streaming cash can do. And the season ending, with Hawkins suddenly converted into the dystopian hellscape of Vecna’s dreams, seems like a declaration that these characters are about to have the same fight, all over again.
It’s to the show’s credit that its simultaneous shock-and-awe campaign and softer character beats don’t cancel each other out. The “Stranger Things” actors feel almost to a one well-served — the exception being Winona Ryder, whose Russian sojourn showed off her wit as a performer, but not the maternal fierceness that made Joyce Byers, in the show’s early going, such a keenly drawn portrait of desperation. (But then, her kids don’t need her in the same way anymore: Perhaps this is growing up!) Schnapp occupies, well, an intriguing middle ground between his character staying in his happy No-Girls-Allowed camaraderie and his taking a major step like coming out of the closet; Sink distinguished herself as a major young performer throughout the season, up to and including her season-finale confessions of her thoughts of self-harm.
These are big, heavy themes — and the show seemed to make ever more clear the connection between the agonized, romantic darkness of being a teenager and the chaos raining down on our characters. Just as they felt inner torment and disaffection, the world was becoming quite literally unlivable. Fair enough! Often, though, this seemed to extend to the show’s form as well as its content: Like a teenage diarist uncertain of which part of the story is most important, “Stranger Things” can’t help but underline, emphasize, doubly describe, and circle back. To cite just one example: The Eleven-“Papa” relationship has been very obviously vexed from the first. The time that is taken to restate the ways in which he negatively altered her life feels less like development, or even embroidery on the margins, than like an attempt to make a clarion point legible for any possible viewer.
The impulse is understandable if one reads “Stranger Things” as an attempt at TV’s last consensus hit (a status it appears to hold, given the worldwide boom in popularity of the song “Running Up That Hill” in the first batch of episodes). It can’t connect as broadly, perhaps, if it whispers its points rather than screaming them. But I’d suggest that, for all Netflix has written the Duffers a blank check, and for all that they’ve, in turn, tested their audiences in some ways, there’s a trust issue at play.
The Duffers expected audiences to stay on the hook for a season in which the core characters — and thus key “Stranger Things” dynamics — were fractured; they set up a slow-burn reveal of Vecna’s true identity that paid off nicely, and ended the season with the most dynamic character clinging to life. They’ve taken us fairly far. And yet there’s an insecurity at the root of the more recursive decisions “Stranger Things” makes: For all the show does that works, there seems an unwillingness to accept that allowing character beats to have appropriate weight and gravity means leaving something out. A two-and-a-half-hour episode of television makes an aggressive demand of fans, one they will (maybe after a few nights) meet; that length and that voluminous self-regard, though, doesn’t leave much space for fans to process what they’ve been shown on their own terms. The reunion of the characters, at the episode’s long-delayed end, forms a close circle: Any viewer looking to interpret a show that’s increasingly insistent on making itself thuddingly clear will be left on the outside.