[Warning: The below contains MAJOR spoilers for the Stranger Things Season 4 “Chapter Nine: The Piggyback.”]
The supersized Season 4 finale perfectly represents the highs and lows of Stranger Things. When it’s good, it’s really good. Some of the action sequences are thrilling. There are poignant character moments and stellar performances. And there are knowing winks to the audience at some of the more ridiculous plot points. But then there is the bad that drags it down: the unnecessarily long run-time and repetition, meandering side plots with irritating side characters, and an unwillingness to let things go.
I’ll start with the positives, which mostly come in the middle of the episode once The Party makes their way back into the Upside Down. Eddie (Joseph Quinn) distracting Vecna’s (Jamie Campbell Bower) demon-bat army by shredding his electric guitar to Metallica’s “Master of Puppets” is magnificently metal. And Hopper’s (David Harbour) head and limb chopping sword fight with a Demogorgon almost makes the torturous Russian plot worth it. There are also series-best performances from Gaten Matarazzo, Caleb McLaughlin, and Noah Schnapp, each bringing raw emotion to some heavy scenes.
Also, in a surprising but welcome twist to the usual formula, the dispersed groups don’t reunite in Hawkins to battle with the season’s Big Bad. Instead, they figure out a way to fight from their separate locations. Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) telepathically travels into Max’s (Sadie Sink) mind to fend off Vecna while Hopper, Joyce (Winona Ryder), and Murray (Brett Gelman) return to the Russian prison (by choice) to destroy the gateway and gaggle of Demogorgons.
Eleven’s “mind fight” is the best of these sequences, managing to mix some genuinely trippy memory hopping with intense fighting and a sprinkle of humor. Even Argyle (Eduardo Franco) gets a moment to shine as he “my dude’s” his way into a Surfer Boy Pizza chain and commandeers a freezer for Eleven’s mental excursion. If that sounds absurd, don’t worry; the show knows it. “I piggybacked from a pizza dough freezer,” Eleven tells a rightly baffled Max in what is easily the biggest laugh of the episode.
As Max is pulled in different directions, flipping between her happy memories and her nightmares, the two worlds begin to collide, and memories crash into each other. It’s Hawkinception (or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mindflayer). Eventually, Eleven finds Max, who is hiding out at the Hawkins High Snow Ball, the place where she was happiest. But Vecna is too powerful; he overcomes Eleven’s attack and has her all tied up with his demonic tentacles, forcing her to watch as her friends are brought close to death.
However, this is where the episode length ends up doing more harm than good. In the reality of the show, everything on-screen is happening simultaneously. Lucas is attacked by jock Jason (Mason Dye) in the middle of Max’s possession. Nancy (Natalia Dyer), Steve (Joe Keery), and Robin (Maya Hawke) have tentacles wrapped around their throats. Dustin and Eddie fight off a swarm of hellish bat demons. This should feel like fast-paced, edge-of-your-seat action.
Except, in TV time, it’s a full half-hour from the point Nancy and co are on the verge of death until we see them again during Eleven’s final push to defeat Vecna. And so what should be a can’t-keep-your-eyes-off crescendo ends up making you impatient and wanting the show to just get a move on. So it’s all the more frustrating when the episode starts with Yuri (Nikola Đuričko) and his terrible jokes literally stalling for time. This is followed by 30 minutes of “goodbye” scenes, many of which cover the same ground as the last episode: Hopper & Joyce planning their ill-fated date, Steve & Nancy realizing they’re meant for each other, etc.
When the show speeds things up, it can still be as exciting as anything else on television. For example, the final showdown with Vecna after Eleven turns the tables is much more effective than the first fight. Here the action bounces from scene to scene seamlessly as Nancy, Steve, & Robin find the tranced Vecna and set his body alight, while Hopper gets medieval with a sword. There is a palpable energy that keeps you glued to the screen.
Vecna, of course, escapes. His charred body is gone when Nancy’s group head outside to survey the damage. But that’s always the case with Stranger Things, right? I’ve talked about it in previous recaps; the Duffer Brothers are afraid to let anything go or kill anyone off. They come close to killing a major character here. Vecna gets to Max and snaps her bones apart before the gang sets him on fire. Max is dead just long enough for the gateway to open, splitting apart the ground beneath Hawkins and swallowing up buildings and people. She’s also dead just long enough to emotionally manipulate the audience.
But she doesn’t stay dead for long. Eleven uses her powers to get back inside Max’s head and bring her back to life. Sure, the episode leaves us with Max comatose in the hospital, but there is no way she isn’t back for the final season. It’s not as if I want Max to die; she’s one of the better characters, and Sink is a brilliant performer. But I just want the show to have consequences and not try to have its cake and eat it as it did here with this cop-out of a character death.
This might sound like I’m underselling the death that actually happens in this episode. As predicted, Eddie ends up being this season’s sacrificial lamb, much like Billy and Bob before him. For once in his life, he decides not to run, instead choosing to charge headfirst into danger to buy Nancy and co more time. I won’t lie; his death is affecting, as Eddie was a likable character that Quinn infused with such life. His friendship with Dustin, particularly, was a highlight of the season. But as fun as Eddie was, he was only introduced this season; he wasn’t a core part of The Party. So it seemed inevitable that he would be the one to meet his demise.
However, to end on a positive note, it’s great to see everybody back in Hawkins by the episode’s end. Eleven, Mike (Finn Wolfhard), and the Byers brothers reunite with Dustin, Nancy, and co. And later, Hopper and Joyce return, leading to a tearful family reunion and a lovely scene between Eleven and Hopper where the pair share in mocking each other’s shaved heads. This means everyone is back in the same place for the final season, and given that the Upside Down is now infecting its way through Hawkins, there is no reason to send different groups off elsewhere. So fingers crossed, no more LA or Russian side-plots.
Stranger Things is still a great show when it wants to be, and this episode has plenty of examples as to why. But it also hampers itself with its reluctance to cut the fat or enact change. If you take the positives of this season and transfer them into a more concise and focused narrative, then the show has the potential to deliver its best season in its final outing.
Stranger Things, Season 4, Streaming Now, Netflix