An exhausting ending lives and dies in the “mind battle”

[Editor’s Note: The following article contains spoilers for “Stranger Things 4,” Episodes 8-9, including the ending.]

As the oversized finale of “Stranger Things 4” begins — or what would be about a quarter of a standard TV episode but less than a tenth of the 140-minute “Chapter Nine: The Piggyback” — a stoner doofus stumbles upon a two-pronged revelation . For plot reasons, Argyle (Eduardo Franco) thinks of the perfect place for Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) to have their “mind battle.” His work station, Surfer Boy Pizza, not only contains the necessary amount of salt to better concentrate our hero’s powers, but also a bathtub-sized container that helps her travel into her friend’s mind. (Writing all of this at once, it suddenly makes sense that a perpetually high teenager would know exactly how to handle a situation like this.)

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But the more relevant insight can belong to the audience. In case it wasn’t clear where “Stranger Things” season 4 would culminate, the term “mind battle” leaves no doubt. Eleven and One (aka Vecna, aka Henry Creel, played by Jamie Campbell Bower) will compete in the same arena that so much of Season 4 was set in: the human mind. And despite Argyle’s enthusiasm for the plan, the more appropriate sentence is not “The mind battle is on‘, but ‘Oh, that sucks, man.’

From there, the ending plays out with painful predictability. Eleven and Vecna ​​fight by pointing their hands at each other and thinking really hard. (How come the bubblegum phrase “mind fight” ends up sounding cooler than it looks?) Hopper (David Harbour), Joyce (Winona Ryder) and Murray (Brett Gelman) – a surprisingly deadly third wheel – kill a few Monsters in Russia. The rest of the “kids” carry out their respective plans, and those who don’t randomly deviate from the mission survive Season 5. In fact, nobody we’ve known longer than those very, very long episodes dies in the finale. (RIP Eddie. You died a hero instead of living long enough to learn that heroes don’t have to die if bats eat them.) Technically, Dr. owens could be dead (he’s MIA) while Max (Sadie Sink) checks out clinically for a minute or two, but odds are the Duffer Brothers would put her in a coma only to leave her in a hospital bed next season.

Stranger Things Photo Credit: Courtesy of Netflix

Stranger Things Photo Credit: Courtesy of Netflix

Courtesy of Netflix

Despite blaring music, endless slow-mo, and everyone shooting their hero at Vecna ​​— we really needed to see Steve (Joe Keery), Robin (Maya Hawke), and Nancy (Natalia Dyer) take down the villain to get them , also contributed to his defeat? – The finale moves in a steady clip that still feels flat. One problem is that we’ve seen these shenanigans before. In previous seasons, characters were introduced only to be killed, creating temporary drama while retaining the core cast. Eleven’s powers are in doubt, but with a little help from her friends, she saves the day. The large cast is split so they can reunite, heart-to-heart relationships are stacked one on top of the other, and what appears to be victory turns out to be a temporary respite from Hawkins’ predicted doom.

Save the timeline, save the season

That’s the formula, and it’s gotten the series this far (which, you know, is pretty far). But what’s daunting about Season 4’s Stranger Things isn’t how tightly it clings to its tried and tested fulcrums — though we really need to get past action as a culture, culminating in magical people putting CGI sparks on them shoot each other – it’s because split season and its extended episodes are so clearly rendered unnecessary by what unfolds in the last two entries. “Volume 2” sends Hopper & Co. back to the Russian prison they just escaped from, like watching Joyce and Murray in “Volume 1” fly out of Russia just to fly the back wasn’t superfluous enough. Then the “Mind Battle” turns out to be little more than a recreation of the “Running Up That Hill” scene from “Chapter Four: Dear Billy,” except instead of Kate Bush’s song rescuing Max from Vecna’s wee clutches, it’s Eleven’s “surprise performance.” .

The struggle of “Chapter Four” works so much better because there’s a clear motivation for Max’s victory: the song. Until she hears it, Max faces the same tragic end as her possessed predecessors. But once the melody kicks in, she manages to escape. “Chapter Nine” uses a similar logic when Eleven hears Mike (Finn Wolfhard) say he loves her, but too much of their boss fight is undefined before and after that moment. Elf thinks and gestures with opposite results. At times she seems to hurt Vecna. Other times he just waves back and hurts Eleven. There’s no rhyme or reason for the fight, meaning we’re just waiting for the turning point. That the answer is “love” is fine – a classic, universally powerful battle cry – but then Vecna ​​survives until he’s hit by… two Molotov cocktails and a couple of shotguns? Love + fire + bullets = the secret to defeating Vecna?

For a goofy show like Stranger Things, that kind of random combination could have worked, but season 4 is too long, too serious, and too repetitive to pay off with a little crazy violence. And speaking for the longest, it’s doubly disappointing to realize how much stronger the ending could have been if the “Chapter Four” and “Chapter Nine” battles were combined. What if, back when Max was floating over Billy’s grave, she had escaped Vecna’s clutches with the song, and then Elf showed up to finish him off? All she had to do was regain her powers (plus a few nips and tucks in the show’s timeline). It’s as if every time the late Dr. Brenner (Matthew Modine) Eleven said she wasn’t ready, he actually just said, “Wait a minute. You can’t save the day just yet. We have 13 hours the total running time to be filled.”

rays of hope

Buried within these nagging blocks are two encouraging aspects. Despite the confusion, one thing is clear: It’s Sink. After joining the cast in Season 2, the young actress has proven more than worthy of maintaining the series’ regular status. Even if Bush’s Jam hadn’t become song of the summer, Sink’s performance in Episode 4 would have had the emotional weight it needed. Her monologue at Billy’s grave is fast and heartfelt, her shaky mix of fear and determination as she faces Vecna ​​really clicks, and even a heavy arc (in which Max mourns her brother and blames herself ) can not suppress the actor’s natural, childlike charm. (Remember the premiere when Dustin asked Max to join the Hellfire Club, aka the funniest moment of the season? Credit goes to Sink for selling Max’s sarcastic response with the sincere bite of a cheerful teenager. )

So while the final fight is essentially a replay, at least the battlefield isn’t just anyone’s opinion: it belongs to Max. Sink’s monologue provides a convincingly insane catwalk for Vecna’s return. Lucas’ sudden change from supportive friend to ghostly tormentor offers a justifiable shock. Setting a convincing trap for a being with the power of a hivemind is the first step to a convincing ending, and Sink’s invested speech does the trick. (The familiarity isn’t her fault; if anything, Sink’s conveyed frankness makes viewers forget for a second they’ve seen this arrangement before.)

Therein lies the second encouraging aspect of Season 4: literally encouraging kids to seek the light in a world that seems to be getting darker by the day. Vecna ​​takes advantage of his victims’ insecurities. With Chrissy (Grace Van Dien), he has addressed her self-image and family issues. With Fred (Logan Riley Bruner), Vecna ​​rekindles guilt over a car accident that resulted in the death of another student. With Max, he tries to use her misplaced guilt over Billy’s death to get her under his control. While it’s technically the music that saves Max – the sound waves create a frequency that disrupts Vecna’s visions and brings his victim back to the real world – it’s really the connection. Max’s favorite song, a song she loves, creates a portal to her friends, and it’s the happy memories they evoke that give her the strength to escape.

Sadie Sink in Stranger Things - Photo credit: Courtesy of Netflix

Sadie Sink in Stranger Things – Photo credit: Courtesy of Netflix

Courtesy of Netflix

All of this is a powerful reminder for teenage viewers: the world can seem particularly despondent and ugly right now. The slide into cynicism, pessimism, and even depression is understandable given the intense emotions felt at this age combined with their now constant attachment to troubling current events (aka the internet). If “Stranger Things” can motivate each of its young viewers to see through that darkness and find the light – finding joy in their friends, in a song, in anything that keeps them from succumbing to morbid thoughts – then it does show something of importance.

It’s just too bad that so much of that message can easily get lost in Season 4, which is not only overstuffed but rushes past its resolution. As a result, Chapter Nine leaves about 20 percent of its running time for wrap-up: the rest of the reunions happening (Hopper and Eleven’s tearful conversation works well), reassessments being made (I’m guessing Jonathan and Nancy sticking together?), and seasonal ones Arcs Ending (that is, if you can call Robin’s crush on Vicky, played by Amybeth McNulty, an arc since he was teased in the premiere, ignored for 10 hours, and then clumsily resurrected in a frigging gun shop). But the Hawkins earthquake looms over it all, and before the credits roll, Will’s goosebumps have most of the cast stroll into a field to stare at the rising smoke. Vecna ​​is not dead. He is “only suffering”. So… what exactly did the kids accomplish in Season 4? Apparently not enough to deserve them a break, let alone a few months of normalcy.

Season 5 faces a variety of challenges, from finding a satisfying ending for so many characters to (most likely) providing spin-off opportunities for Netflix, but the most daunting task might be constructing a climax, which is not just more of the same. Efficiency is probably asking too much given all the alleged records Season 4 is breaking thanks to its bloated running time. But can the Duffer Brothers at least find a more satisfying conclusion than another “mind battle”?

Stranger Things 4 is available on Netflix.

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