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Stranger Things Ends with a Messy But Entertaining Pair of Episodes

The last two episodes of “Stranger Things 4” finally arrive this week, but maybe ‘finally’ is the wrong word. We only had to wait just over a month for the conclusion of what has been the messiest of all “Stranger Things,” and it’s certainly a curious choice to leave off the last two episodes, but now after having seen them, I’m grateful for the decision. With so much going on, it’s good to have a break before diving into what is basically an 85-minute episode of set-up (that was already set up over the course of seven episodes) and a 150-minute episode of pay-off and an abundance of resolution.

Is there a logic in breaking up the episodes in this fashion? Why not just have four one-hour episodes? Perhaps by making the final episode as long as the average Marvel movie, it makes the final showdown seem that much more epic in scope and seem more “important,” especially if you have to wait an extra month for it. It’s a way to keep the show in conversation over the course of the summer rather than just a couple weeks before people move onto something else.

Chapter Eight (“Papa”) doesn’t feel like a new beginning, but a logical continuation of Chapter Seven (“The Massacre at Hawkins Lab”). No new characters are introduced and the pop culture references take a backseat while the characters remain the primary focus. If anything, the callbacks this time have more to do with previous seasons as our heroes have to use what they’ve learned years ago to help get them out of, or into, a situation or setting, but not without resolving their inner feelings first. 

In fact, the best moments of these last two episodes happen to be the scenes where pairs of characters just work through their loves, denials, heartbreaks, and confusions. Remember how good Noah Schnapp (who plays Will Byers) was in those first two seasons? In the first part of “Stranger Things 4,” he seemed relegated to the backseat of the car the entire time while looking left out of everything. Here, he finally gets to be his character again and remind us why he matters. 

“Papa” does have a few reveals that pay off later on, but basically, Eleven is still in the lab with Dr. Martin “Papa” Brenner (Matthew Modine) and Dr. Owens (Paul Reiser), who are at odds with how to handle Eleven’s determination to leave and help her friends. Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Will, Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) and Argyle (Eduardo Franco) are still en route to try and find the lab where Eleven is being held. Over in Soviet Russia, Joyce (Winona Ryder), Murray (Brett Gelman), Dmitri (Tom Wlaschiha) and Yuri (Nikola Djuricko) are still in the prison doing battle with a demogorgon and now have to figure out a way to get back to the States. Back in Hawkins, Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), Erica (Priah Ferguson) Eddie (Joseph Quinn), Max (Sadie Sink), Steve (Joe Keery) and Robin (Maya Hawke) are out of the Upside Down, but as you recall, Nancy ended up back in and now has a message from Vecna (Jamie Campbell Bower) that he wants shared with Eleven. 

That’s about as detailed as I can get, of course. Chapter Nine (“The Piggyback”) has a two-and-a-half hour running time that must tie everything together once and for all, but these last two episodes do a good job of paring down the action to four basic threads (instead of the eight or nine we had in Chapters Five through Seven). As it happens every season, no matter how separated everyone is, they all seem to find out about, and be in on, the same plan at the same time, so that everything turns out okay. It’s a plot convenience the Duffer brothers somehow manage to pull off in the writing, but it does make for some clumsy editing in spots this time. Peter Jackson always ran into this with his “Lord of the Rings” films, but because we remain invested in the characters and the action, it just seems like an inevitability that comes with the territory. 

But like Jackson’s final installment, “Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” “Stranger Things 4” has a long stretch of resolution toward the end that will remind some people of the nine endings of that film. The luxury of streaming with little to no studio interference, and the freedom to overload a story has resulted in a final-final stretch that could have been its own episode. It may seem like a bit much until you consider the first episode of “Stranger Things 3,” which had more to do with character relationships than Upside Down-based exposition. And it worked. The point is, the Duffer brothers still love these characters more than the pop culture or the science fiction aspect and want to linger on all the reunions and all the emotional beats as long as possible. Most of it feels earned; some of it could go. 

As for the fun, these last two episodes have their moments, but the only new pop culture references one could dig into might be the role metal music plays in the group’s plan, which reminded me of “The Gate” (1987). There might be an aspect of the Frog Brothers from “The Lost Boys” (1987) when Dustin and Eddie pair up. Maya’s crush, Vicky (Amybeth McNulty), is clearly modeled after Molly Ringwald. But that’s about it. It’s hard this time for any of the groups to suddenly have a moment of levity. There’s just too much going on and too much at stake to suddenly throw in a good laugh or wink toward a famous movie. 

Although much of this season does ultimately work, “Stranger Things 4” sets the Duffer brothers up for a possible failure down the road. In order to successfully pull off a “Stranger Things 5,” some major changes are in order. It's now entirely too obvious that these actors have grown beyond their characters’ ages. It would be wise to skip ahead to the early ‘90s so they look more age-appropriate, especially if it’s going to take another two or three years to produce it. There is also the matter of locations and the “kids” being split again, which only made this season feel more bloated and not quite as satisfying as the first three. But they’d be in college in the early ‘90s, which makes for other problems. Also, they need to stop introducing new stoner characters and wacky Russians. One of each is plenty. 

Now that it’s over, I can’t imagine “Stranger Things 4” being anyone’s favorite season, but it does showcase some great work by all of its actors, and it did take some risks (there will be tears). It also gave us a series-best episode in Chapter Four, which helped make Kate Bush a star again (nothing wrong with that) and it does have strong emotional moments that are well-earned. Again, all of “Stranger Things 4” is messy, bloated and paints itself into a few corners from which it can’t escape. Still, it manages to deliver the goods, at least more than any other summer blockbuster I’ve seen so far this year.

Now playing on Netflix.

Collin Souter

Collin Souter has been reviewing films in Chicago for 14 years, most notably on WGN Radio where he has been a part of the movie review segment every week on The Nick Digilio Show.

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