Stranger Things Season 4 - Volume 2 Review: An Explosive and Exhausting Ending to an Extended Journey

Ahead of Stranger Things Season 4 debuting on Netflix, audiences knew that the adventure would be split into two parts, as the writing team had the time during the production's delay due to the coronavirus pandemic to write all of the scripts for the whole season, resulting in its most expansive season yet. With the roster of beloved characters expanding and the mythology only growing more vast and complex, it's hard to argue that creators the Duffer brothers needed to break up the experience into two parts as to not be overwhelming. Rather than splitting the season down the middle, this second volume is only two episodes, yet runs for a whopping four hours of story. Despite not feeling needlessly bloated, these extended episodes can be exhausting, though they also make for some of the most explosive encounters the series has seen, which is really saying something for the bombastic narrative.

With Nancy (Natalia Dyer) now aware of Vecna's master plan and Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) having spent time reviving her powers, the Hawkins faction of friends develop a plan to take on the threat from the Upside Down while the group attempting to rescue Eleven have a fateful rendezvous. And that's not to mention that Joyce (Winona Ryder) and Murray (Brett Gelman) have reunited with Hopper (David Harbour), only for this trio to uncover even more unsettling threats in the Soviet Union.

Both Season 4 Volume 1 and these last two episodes are "a lot," to say the least. As if telling a story sprawling multiple continents and multiple dimensions isn't challenging enough, the story also features multiple compelling characters, each with their own agendas and motivations. Despite the daunting task of navigating all of these storylines, the Duffers and their writing team somehow manage to pull it all off with an engaging and action-packed ending. In some regards, it's more like an embarrassment of riches in that the viewer is regularly fully engaged in the story unfolding in front of them, while simultaneously wanting to know what's happening with every other character. To create so many layered and charming characters is an admirable feat for any series, made all the more impressive with the additions of the story's horror and sci-fi mythology.

The overall cohesion of how these final two episodes play out might come together in a mostly effective way, but some of the actual dialogue and line deliveries don't fare quite as well. Since its inception, Stranger Things has been chided by some viewers for delivering nostalgic references merely for the sake of tugging the emotional heartstrings of audiences who have a connection to '80s pop culture. These two episodes of Volume 2 instead deliver predictable and melodramatic encounters between characters that feel inauthentic, almost as if they've been ripped from after-school specials from that bygone era. The performers do their best with the material, but between these hackneyed and forced encounters and the actors themselves looking so much older than their characters are supposed to be (albeit an unavoidable issue due to pandemic delays), some dramatic encounters border on being a parody of angsty teenage dramas. While the teens' love of Star Wars or Dawn of the Dead might feel cliched or predictable, the dialogue can feel downright tropey.

One improvement in the overall writing comes from the dynamic between Joyce and Hopper. The pair have had undeniable chemistry since the first season, but Joyce dating and losing Bob (played by the ever-delightful Sean Astin) created an odd dynamic between her and Hopper by Season 3. Fans have wanted the two characters to connect for years, only for Season 3 to showcase Hopper exhibiting unearned entitlement to Joyce's affection. Their will-they-won't-they dynamic was entertaining, though it became difficult to root for Hopper when he was showing his more toxic traits. In the months that the characters have been apart, not only has that entitlement cooled, but Joyce clearly realized how she really felt about Hopper, resulting in a more even-keeled and endearing dynamic in these episodes.

More than merely being the focal point of one of the first volume's most meme-able moments, Sadie Sink as Max continues to be the unsuspecting powerhouse of the entire ensemble. After previous storylines struggling a bit with solidifying Max's dynamic in the group, she has proven to be just as compelling a figure in the narrative as Eleven, going toe to toe with Vecna physically, mentally, and emotionally, and all without having the aid of telekinetic abilities. Maya Hawke's Robin also manages to steal our attention in every scene, especially when she and Dyer get to share screen time, all while Joe Keery's Steve is as charming as ever.

The Duffer brothers have been teasing some dire consequences for some of the characters in the series with these final two episodes, and, while one particular death is sure to leave some fans heartbroken, the season concludes with most of the ensemble intact, to some disappointment. It's not that we want characters to die for no reason, but as we head into the final season of the series, it's quite a shock that so many characters have come out of their bouts with figures from the Upside Down relatively unscathed. Especially given that both Season 1 and Season 3 concluded with teases of major character deaths, a case can be made that everyone is getting off too lightly from their battles with the forces of darkness.

Much like how we have been tricked into thinking some characters have been killed, previous seasons have also ended with major reveals of threats growing larger and harder to hide from the rest of Hawkins. This season finale, however, could finally bring with it a seismic shift in what's going on in the town, potentially making the disturbing situation something that the entire town has to reckon with. This finale leaves us with the feeling that there really is no going back, so with Season 5 set to be the final chapter of Stranger Things, it might finally be time for cataclysmic events to unfold.

Stranger Things Season 4 is undoubtedly its biggest and most ambitious season yet, with these final two episodes being tasked with sticking the landing of a sprawling narrative. Were all nine episodes to have debuted all at once, the stakes would have been reduced and audiences would have been overwhelmed. To debut these final two episodes apart from the rest of the season, we've been given some time to catch our breath, yet by feeling like the final act of a massive movie, the delineation of these episodes and how they connect with what came before it feel relatively arbitrary. Even though Netflix has been committed to delivering Stranger Things in a binge-watching model, delivering new episodes on a weekly basis might have ultimately suited the material better, especially given the success of Netflix's release of their Fear Street trilogy last summer. Regardless of the release strategy, Stranger Things Season 4 – Volume 2 delivers the series' most jaw-dropping action sequences, heartbreaking reveals, and compelling teases of looming darkness yet. The breadth of the adventure can be daunting at times, but it's still a journey worth taking, so long as you have your friends from Hawkins by your side.

Rating: 4 out of 5

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Stranger Things Season 4 – Volume 2 is now streaming on Netflix.