Friday, December 2, 2022

An Exhausting End Lives and Dies in the ‘Mind Fight’

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

Early in the supersized finale of “Stranger Things 4” — or what would be roughly one-quarter of the way through a standard TV episode, but what’s less than one-tenth into the 140-minute “Chapter Nine: The Piggyback” — a stoner doofus stumbles into a two-pronged revelation. For plot purposes, Argyle (Eduardo Franco) thinks of the perfect place for Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) to conduct her “mind fight.” His place of employment, Surfer Boy Pizza, not only carries the necessary amount of salt to better focus our hero’s powers, but it’s also got a bathtub-size container to help her travel into her friend’s mind. (Writing all this at once, it suddenly makes perfect sense that a constantly high teenager would know just how to handle such a situation.)

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But the most relevant achievement may belong to the audience. In case it wasn’t clear where “Stranger Things” Season 4 would stage its climactic battle, the term “mind fight” leaves no doubt. Eleven and One (aka Vecna, aka Henry Creel, played by Jamie Campbell Bower) will square off in the same arena so much of Season 4 was set in: the human mind. And despite Argyle’s enthusiasm for the plan, the more fitting phrase isn’t “The mind fight is we,” but “Aw, that’s a bummer, 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 does the bubblegum phrase “mind fight” end up sounding cooler than it looks?) Hopper (David Harbour), Joyce (Winona Ryder) and Murray (Brett Gelman) — a surprisingly lethal third-wheel — kill a few monsters in Russia . The rest of the “kids” execute their respective plans, and those that don’t randomly deviate from the mission survive for Season 5. In fact, no one we’ve known for longer than these very, very long episodes dies in the finale . (RIP Eddie. You died a hero, rather than live long enough to learn heroes don’t have to die getting eaten by bats.) Technically, Dr. Owens could be dead (he’s MIA), while Max (Sadie Sink) clinically checks out for a minute or two, but odds are low the Duffer Brothers would write her into a coma only to let her flatline in a hospital bed next season.

“Stranger Things” - Credit: Courtesy of Netflix

“Stranger Things” – Credit: Courtesy of Netflix

Courtesy of Netflix

Despite blaring music, endless slow-motion, and everyone getting their hero shot at Vecna ​​— did we really need to see Steve (Joe Keery), Robin (Maya Hawke), and Nancy (Natalia Dyer) blast the bad guy to get that they , too, contributed to his defeat? — the finale moves at a steady clip that still feels flat. One issue is we’ve seen these shenanigans before. In past seasons, characters are introduced only to be killed off, creating temporary drama while preserving the core cast; Eleven’s powers are doubted, but save the day with a little help from her friends; the big cast is split up so they can reunite, relationship heart-to-hearts are stacked one on top of the next, and a perceived victory is revealed to be a temporary respite from Hawkins’ foretold doom.

Save the Timeline, Save the Season

That’s the formula, and it’s gotten the series this far (which is, you know, pretty far). But what’s discouraging about “Stranger Things” in Season 4 isn’t how closely it sticks to its tried-and-true pivot points — though, as a culture, we really have to move past action that culminates in magic people shooting CGI sparks at each other — it’s that the split season and its extended episodes are rendered so clearly unnecessary by what unfolds in the final two entries. “Volume 2” sends Hopper & Co. back into the Russian prison they just broke out of, as if watching Joyce and Murray fly out of Russia in “Volume 1” only to fly back wasn’t redundant enough. Then, the “mind fight” 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 saving Max from Vecna’s viney clutches, it’s Eleven’s “ surprise” appearance.

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

For a goofy show like “Stranger Things,” that kind of random combo could’ve worked, but Season 4 is too long, too serious, and too repetitive to pay off with a bit of wacky violence. And speaking to the length, it’s doubly deflating to realize how much stronger the ending could’ve been if the “Chapter Four” and “Chapter Nine” fights were combined. What if, back when Max was floating above Billy’s grave, she had escaped Vecna’s clutches using the song, and then Eleven showed up to finish him off? For that to happen, she just needed to get her powers back (plus a few nips and tucks to the show’s timeline). It’s as if every time the late Dr. Brenner (Matthew Modine) told Eleven she wasn’t ready, he was really just saying, “Hold on. You can’t save the day yet. We have 13 hours of total runtime to fill.”

Rays of Hope

Buried within these nagging hang-ups are two encouraging aspects. One is obvious, even among the clutter: It’s Sink. After joining the cast in Season 2, the young actor has proven herself more than worthy of series regular status. Even without Bush’s jam becoming the song of the summer, Sink’s performance in Episode 4 would’ve carried the required emotional weight. Her monologue at Billy’s grave is well-paced and heartfelt, her fluctuating mix of fear and determination while facing Vecna ​​really clicks, and even a heavy arc (where Max is mourning her brother and blaming herself) can’t repress the actor’s natural, childlike charm. (Remember in the premiere when Dustin asked Max to join the Hellfire Club, aka the funniest moment of the season? All credit to Sink for selling Max’s sarcastic response with the sincere bite of a good-humored teen.)

So while the final battle is essentially a rehash, at least the battleground isn’t just anyone’s mind: It belongs to Max. Sink’s monologue provides a convincingly freaky runway for Vecna’s return. Lucas’ sudden pivot from supportive friend to ghost-like tormentor offers a legitimate jolt. Setting a persuasive trap for a being with the power of a hivemind is the first step to crafting a compelling ending, and Sink’s invested speech does the trick. (The familiarity isn’t her fault; if anything, Sink’s conveyed candor makes viewers forget for a second that they’ve seen this set-up before.)

Therein lies the second encouraging aspect of Season 4: literally encouraging kids to look for the light in a world that seems to get darker every day. Vecna ​​preys on his victims’ insecurities. With Chrissy (Grace Van Dien), he dialed up her self-image and family issues. With Fred (Logan Riley Bruner), Vecna ​​resurrects guilt over a car accident that resulted in another student’s death. With Max, he tries to use her misplaced blame over Billy’s death to draw her into his grasp. While it’s technically the music that saves Max — the soundwaves create a frequency that breaks through 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 invoke that gives her the strength to escape.

Sadie Sink in “Stranger Things” - Credit: Courtesy of Netflix

Sadie Sink in “Stranger Things” – Credit: Courtesy of Netflix

Courtesy of Netflix

All of this makes for a powerful reminder to teenage viewers: The world can seem especially despondent and ugly right now. Slipping into cynicism, pessimism, even depression is understandable given the intense emotions felt at that age, combined with their now-constant tether to troubling current events (aka the internet). If “Stranger Things” can motivate any of its young viewers to see through that darkness and find the light — find joy in their friends, in a song, in anything that will keep them from succumbing to morbid thoughts — then the show is accomplishing something significant.

It’s just too bad so much of that message can get easily lost in Season 4, which isn’t just overstuffed but rushes past its resolution. As an episode, “Chapter Nine” leaves about 20 percent of its runtime for wrap-up: The remaining reunions take place (Hopper and Eleven’s tearful chat works well), fresh assessments are made (I guess Jonathan and Nancy are sticking together?) , and seasonal arcs wrap up (that is, if you can call Robin’s crush on Vicky, played by Amybeth McNulty, an arc, since it was teased in the premiere, ignored for 10 hours, then awkwardly resurrected in a freaking gun shop). But the earthquake in Hawkins looms over all of that, and before the credits roll, Will’s goosebumps send most of the cast strolling into a field to stare at the rising smoke. Vecna ​​isn’t dead. He’s just “hurting.” So… what exactly did the kids accomplish in Season 4? Apparently, not enough to earn them a break, let alone a few months of normalcy.

Season 5 faces a myriad of challenges, from finding a satisfying conclusion for so many characters to (most likely) providing spin-off opportunities for Netflix to pursue, but the most daunting task may be constructing a climax that’s not just more of the same. Efficiency is likely too much to ask for, considering all the supposed records Season 4 is breaking thanks to its bloated runtime. But can the Duffer Brothers at least find a more satisfying conclusion than another “mind fight”?

“Stranger Things 4” is available on Netflix.

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