Stranger things happened to thousands of Netflix watchers at the stroke of midnight on July 1, when the overwhelmed streaming service briefly crashed following the release of the second volume of “Stranger Things” season four. Even eerier incidents transpire during the action-packed, feature-length finale of the highly awaited sci-fi thriller.
With only two (admittedly supersized) installments remaining in the fourth season, the series plunges back into supernatural-fueled chaos at full throttle. Episode eight picks up directly after part one’s cliffhanger reveal that Freddy Kreuger-eske villain Vecna (Jamie Campbell Bower) is both Henry Creel and One, troubled as Dr. Brenner’s (Matthew Modine) original superpowered child experiment.
Armed with a three-pronged battle scheme, the ragtag Hawkins gang launches an ambush on Vecna that rapidly derails into deadly disarray. On the other side of the country, Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), accompanied by Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Will (Noah Schnapp) and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), devises her own psychic “piggyback” technique to strike against the petrifying paranormal antagonist. Stranded in Russia, the reunited Joyce (Winona Ryder) and Hopper (David Harbour) offer an auxiliary lending hand by attacking a menacing pack of Demogorgons, returning adversaries from the Upside Down.
Admittedly, over the course of the fourth season’s previous seven episodes, isolated storylines unraveled into a sprawling, often unduly splintered, narrative. In contrast, as the second volume progresses, distant and expansive subplots finally converge on a more coherent canvas. Despite being divided by state lines and country borders, the dozen or so main characters work collectively to create an unforgettable fight sequence in episode nine — an exhilarating, if not contrived, scene only perfected by an epic remix of Kate Bush’s iconic “Running Up That Hill.”
Apart from Bush’s remix and an electrifying rendition of Metallica’s “Master of Puppets” performed by swift fan-favorite Eddie Munson (Joseph Quinn), volume two also draws ’80s inspiration from classic horror staples. From the ominous Creel House to Vecna’s grotesque visage, homages to “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” “Hellraiser” and the likes of Stephen King abound. Yet, its meticulous supernatural history immerses volume two in a lore and aesthetic that is uniquely its own.
However, not even the reported $30 million-per-episode budget can save the finale from its most glaring flaws. One too many times, exasperating vigilante jocks and fanatical, gun-wielding military operatives slip between major plotlines like expendable extras who accidentally wandered off the set of “Riverdale.” Despite the distended runtimes of the final two installments — 85 minutes and 150 minutes, respectively — even longtime leads fade into the background.
Further, occasions of loss are underwhelming, predictable or stilted. One character makes an unnecessary, albeit valiant sacrifice that goes disregarded by a majority of the group. Another teeters precariously on the brink of death, until they’re wrestled back by writers too apprehensive to commit to permanent endings. These recurring instances not only diminish the stakes of Vecna as a supervillain, but also cripple the overall quality of the entire volume.
That is not to say that volume two is not without its redeeming emotional moments. In fact, so much of the finale’s excellence lies not with its stunning visuals or referential slasher style, but with its most intimate scenes. While Will and Jonathan share a particularly tender exchange of fraternal love in episode nine, Max (Sadie Sink) and ex-boyfriend Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) are undeniably the greatest assets of the second volume. Masterfully playing off of each other, the pair capture grief, fear and lingering romantic affection in delicate balance, effectively stealing the show — and the tears of all audiences.
Despite a tendency toward both neglected and unnecessary characters, volume two of “Stranger Things” season four returns bigger, occasionally better and undoubtedly more sinister than before. With foreboding red lightning and stormy skies on the horizon, only the series’s fifth and final season will reveal what the future holds for the residents of Hawkins and the world at large.