Volume 2 of Stranger Things 4 includes all kinds of high-strung action sequences, mind games, high stakes and perhaps the strangest things in the series thus far. But there are more reasons for disappointment than satisfaction in the concluding chapters.
Before breaking down the Duffer brothers' mistakes in this season overall, which only became amplified in the finale, let's first give credit where it's due. This much-awaited and the most expensive (reportedly budgeted at a shocking $30 million per episode! Yes, you read that right) season is not a complete letdown. One of the more refined positives to come out of this were the character developments.
Max Mayfield (Sadie Sink) is the breakout character this time around. While Max and Will Byers' (Noah Schnapp) characters emerge as mature and complex in more obvious manners, Lucas Sinclair's (Caleb McLaughlin) transformation deserves more appreciation, rightfully earning his longer screen time.
It's also interesting to watch how the characters evolved in relatable ways. Not everyone is on the righteous path to heroism like our beloved can-never-do-anything-wrong Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer). If you think Nancy was a tough, adamant group leader in the past seasons, then hold on to your horses, she soars in this one. It's commendable that the writers did not shy away from flaws. One case in point, Will's brother, Jonathan Byers (Charlie Heaton).
The second positive highlight is the music and also the special effects. This season, especially the second volume, does give the audience a beautiful cinematic experience - which, if you think about it, is the least that the creators could deliver given the staggering cost for each episode.
Yes, the finale features Kate Bush's Running up that Hill (which reportedly earned the artist about $200,000 per week from Spotify alone since 27 May). But there are other songs craftily inscribed into the episodes. It all works well to glorify the armageddon-like plot (does that resonating line "Hawkins will fall" come to mind?). And thankfully the finale is void of the very, very poor CGI effects at the end of episode 7 when One (Jamie Bower) is damned and sent to the Upside Down by Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) and his body disintegrates to become our beloved Vecna.
While the special effects are great, the "more of the same" style holds them back from creating something spectacular. Except for a few and far-between tantalising moments, it really is just more of the same.
Where it all went wrong
With each season the group of four boys playing Dungeons and Dragons in their basement and the trio of teenagers stuck in a love triangle expanded to include more and more characters. Even Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) and Jim Hopper's (David Harbour) pair grew by one when Murray Bauman (Brett Gelman) entered the script in the second season and joined forces with the "adult" pair.
But it worked. All the intricate sequences and transitions played off each other. The fans were able to easily follow through the dark, strange plot even when it thickened like the sludge that spills out of demodogs when shot dead. And if memory serves me right, each of the three preceding season finales had three or fewer groupings.
But this time, we have four subplots overall: (1) Eleven in the underground military facility sparring with her long-lost Papa (aka Dr Brenner played by Matthew Modine) and One (aka Vecna), (2) the Russian prison (the adult trio and newfound friends), (3) the California van and (4) the Hawkins party. Mind you, all these have smaller subplots. And instead of them coming together in person and then devising a plan, they connect unconventionally this time across state lines and borders.
It is not in the realm of impossibility to be able to pull off a writing spectacle where four subplots and many, many, characters align seamlessly to give viewers a wholesome experience. Another is to wrap up too many things into a sandwich that's overwhelming in taste and leaves you bloated. For me, personally, this season was the latter. I was still holding out for Volume 2 to redeem itself, but it just kept getting worse.
By now, we know every season has a sacrificial lamb. Again, perhaps, to double every aspect of the show, the creators gave us two sacrificial lambs in the finale. And one was unjustifiably rushed.
There was no Barb-like death and emotion (season 1) or the edge-of-your-seat suspense when Hopper cuts into the underground Mind Flayer maze below the rotting pumpkin patch in Hawkins (season 2) or Billy-like villain or origin story (season 3).
But what we do get is a stupendous proportion of plot armour and on-the-nose dystopian hints of what to expect in the next season.
In the end Stranger Things 4 feels more like a cinematic 'blockbuster', losing that original feel of the show as we knew and loved deeply.