Warning: This review contains spoilers about Stranger Things 4.
In some ways the finale of Stranger Things 4 is unforgivable. A well-armed squad attacks the season's villain, and then just kinda lets him fall out a window. He disappears when nobody's watching, and I know, that happened in Halloween. But Jamie Lee Curtis wasn't three people who spent one whole episode prepping a heavy-ammo gun store loadout. Surely Nancy (Natalia Dyer), Steve (Joe Keery), and Robin (Maya Hawke) should shoot, stab, or Molotov the bad guy a few more times? The mission is kill, not wound. Unless they're trying to set up season 5.
Also: A gateway rips through Hawkins, opening a doorway to the Upside Down murderverse. A very cool, unusually bleak ending: The good guys lose! And then nothing happens for a full TWO DAYS LATER chyron, while the characters reassemble for endless hugs and a red-sky cliffhanger. Meanwhile, Max (Sadie Sink) ends her amazing season with a devastating death, and it's really the most shocking thing Stranger Things has ever done: limbs cracked back, blind eyeballs crying blood. Then she gets resurrected into a see-ya-next-season coma. Finally, there are two straight meta-jokes about how thin David Harbour is now.
Netflix Millie Bobby Brown's Eleven sports her NINA project uniform.
Stranger Things 4 never did just one of anything. Hop (Harbour) escapes the same prison three times. Papa (Matthew Modine) explains the villain's ultimate plan right before Nancy re-explains the bad guy's ultimate plan. Crucial moments replay constantly in flashback clips; I swear I heard Matthew Modine say "What have you done?" 37 times. Two broken romances rekindle. That Kate Bush song, righteously retrieved for the TikTok crowd, gets overplayed past oblivion.
More, more, more. If this really is the end of the Netflix era, Stranger Things 4 threw the kind of Irish wake that requires a fire engine. In the finale, the Hawkins kids stage a two-pronged assault on serial-killing brainwizard Vecna (Jamie Campbell Bower). Max baits him Earthside. Nancy leads an armed contingent into the Upside Down, including decoys Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Eddie (Joseph Quinn). Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) joins the fight via astral projection, traveling to Hawkins using her whole Darkroom Brainwave Transportation thing, before successfully entering the battlefield in Max's mind. All that while Hop and Joyce (Winona Ryder) duel devious Demogorgons. I count four separate dimensions — and Russia, too. Even that undercounts the season's earlier far-flung locations: suburban California, the desert, snowy Alaska, Mormon-y Salt Lake City, the 1950s.
The strain showed. Mike (Finn Wolfhard), the "heart" of the group, spends a season riding in the back of a pizza van, trapped in the kind of I'm scared to say "I Love You" subplot that The O.C. banged out in one episode. Eleven learns Papa is a monster, which we all knew in 2016. Does the show really have any ideas for Eleven? An early (and eerie) plot thread about her Carrie-ish rage disappears. The shocking prologue (she killed kids!) gets chumped into a non-shock (she did not kill kids!). Hawkins descends into religious hysteria: real Crucible stuff, neighbor-against-neighbor, a small town torn asunder. That thread seems to set up some drama for the kids' parents. Then the parents and the hysteria fade away.
Next season will be the last. Its apparent concept — the Upside Down is here — gets teased in the finale. Which makes Stranger Things 4, in hindsight, a moving-the-chesspieces connecting chapter. Get Hopper out of Russia. Get Eleven her powers back. Get the Nancy/Steve/Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) triangle cooking again. It's the 2022 version of a Lost episode where people walk across the island, except 13 hours long. So there are many things to dislike about this season. The adult performances are all TOO LOUD. If I ever hear Paul Reiser say "kiddo" again, I am throwing my TV out the window.
And yet, I dug a lot of it. Creators Matt and Ross Duffer love to stage a strobe-light showdown, a hundred glitterbulbs twinkling while synth thrums approximate the visceral experience of a telekinetic punk-rock nosebleed. They are ferociously convinced their tale about basement nerdlingers fighting shadow monsters has the saga weight of Batman piloting a Death Star to blow up Mordor. When Papa, a very boring character, finally kicks the bucket, the camera swirls over him for almost 20 seconds, until it feels like you just saw King Kong and King Lear die simultaneously. The finale is a stunner of outlandish thrills: Maya Hawke rocking a Red Dawn beret, Eddie luring bats with Metallica, Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) learning cool people suck while staring down the barrel of a gun. Hop slays a Demogorgon with a sword!!! So many people get tentacle-choked to almost-death. And Jonathan looks very perturbed indeed.
These plotlines individually were good, meh, or bleh. I could've lost Russia entirely. The decision to turn Vecna into the show's ultra villain misses a crucial part of the Upside Down's intrigue. (Formerly: An unknowable realm of pure, unending chaos. Now: Headquarters for Stranger Thanos.)
But the finale's crosscutting was symphonic, bangs and crashes and screams across realities. It benefited from a Max focus, and Sink's fully committed doomed performance. I mean it as a massive compliment when I say Stranger Things' weird kids are growing into weird adults. If you're going to watch an adventure about people fighting CGI bat-creatures using friendship, surely it helps if those people seem eccentric, unusual, and authentic. I'll put Joe Keery talking about his six-kid RV family hopes over anything a Hollywood Chris has ever done. I love Noah Schnapp's silent sorrowful yearning, extra poignant since Will has had nothing to do for years except almost say "I'm gay." When Eleven pulls a military helicopter to the ground, Millie Bobby Brown's operatic primal scream deserves a standing ovation.
I worry some soul left this building. The first season caught an intimate mood, nostalgia less for '80s movies than for watching '80s movies on a VCR at a sleepover. Now the volume is only cranked high. Still, what's more '80s than colorfully excessive excess? Also, wait, wasn't there an evil military guy? Finale Grade: B
EW's Ultimate Guide to Stranger Things is available online or wherever magazines are sold.