For the first time ever, Netflix made us wait 5 weeks between episode releases in a move that built more anticipation than has ever happened before. The first volume of Season 4 took us on a dark, twisted, and epic journey spanning several states and countries, and involving one of the most terrifying villains we’ve ever seen in the series.
The final two episodes pack an emotional punch that frankly audiences aren’t ready for. And while it does regrettably drop several plotlines seemingly out of nowhere, the Season 4 finale was equal parts tense, thrilling, and heartbreaking…
When we last left Stranger Things, Nancy was uncovering the truth behind Vecna/001/Henry, Eleven remembered her past and regained her powers, Joyce and Murray reached Hopper but still needed to escape the Russian prison, and the California pizza van crew was on their way to find Eleven. Episode 8 “Papa” picks up literal seconds afterwards and just continues each scene.
This episode starts off with a bang, but then takes its time to slowly set the stage, doing everything a penultimate episode should. It’s essentially the setup for what promises to be an earned payoff, and without getting into spoilers, it very much is.
All season long, we’ve seen our characters separated by more physical distance than ever before, and when it comes time for the climax, the writers do a decent job of allowing the characters to all converge and assist each other, even if from great distances. Some of it feels forced, and at times it doesn’t always make sense, but it was the best thing to do short of having everyone essentially teleport back to Hawkins immediately.
There’s a lot happening in several different locations, so that 2 hour 20 minute runtime of “Piggyback” never really feels that long. It reaches levels of scope and scale previously unseen on Stranger Things, and it makes for a fresh and thrilling showdown that remains tense because things can go either way at the drop of a hat.
Vecna works so well as a villain precisely because he’s the most human monster the characters have ever faced and it makes him all the more understandable and even at times relatable. Certainly, he’s always been a psychopath, but there’s a real sense of spite to everything he’s doing, spite against a world he always hated.
Remembering What’s Important
Sure, people come to Stranger Things for the 80s nostalgia, but they stay for the characters, something which the series has always excelled at. And that’s very much on display in these two episodes, especially in the season finale itself. Each character is given a “moment to shine” so to speak where we get to check in with them, their hopes, dreams, and fears.
Because as much as it’s about this epic battle with Vecna, it’s a battle being fought by ordinary people, most of which are still just kids, and all of which are fleshed out and three-dimensional. In a striking subversion from the usual tropes, it’s the character beats that drive the plot and not the other way around.
All that said, there’s really only one thing that was a bit annoying about Volume 2, and it has everything to do with certain plot points that seem to go nowhere. For those who have read our previous reviews of both Season 4 Volume 1 and Season 3, the entire Russia subplot has always seemed unnecessary and out of place.
As much fun as it is for Hopper to still be alive and for Murray to karate fight Yuri the smuggler, an entire third of this season has really had nothing to do with Vecna, Hawkins, or the rest of the plot at all. It all just seemed like a side quest to save Hopper, and even when they try to force it to connect to the larger plot, it really doesn’t and just sort of ends up padding the runtime.
Again, we’re not saying that Russian material is poorly written/acted/directed, quite the opposite. We’re just saying that even in the season finale, it never really did need to exist and it took away from the main plot. Plus there’s a whole story beat of Jason the basketball player leading a lynch mob in pure “evil dies tonight” Tommy Doyle fashion. But that too sort of gets forgotten about in these episodes.
Look to the Future
Prior to the release of Season 4, Netflix had already announced that there would be a 5th and that it would be the final one. Having this knowledge did admittedly lower the stakes a bit, because the Vecna conflict was building up to series finale proportions. And in the back of all our minds, we were thinking that either he will return in Season 5 or the series would introduce a new villain. And it looks like the former is probably going to be the case.
And again, without getting too into spoilers, it makes this Season 4 finale almost feel like an Empire Strikes Back or Avengers: Infinity War. Granted, it doesn’t have quite the cliffhanger either of those did, but it definitely makes it very clear that this threat is not over and that the true action-packed showdown is still yet to come.
Overall, it’s an incredibly poignant finale that will leave most fans reaching for the tissues. But much like the 8th episode “Papa” this entire season feels like a setup for a much larger conclusion.
What did you think of Stranger Things Season 4? What do you hope to see in Season 5? Let us know in the comments!