Should a show like Stranger Things ever have a happy ending? Should all the loose-ends be tied up neatly? As a serial, it is defined by the cliffhanger, and therefore decides to leave as much unresolved as wrapped up.
Director: Matt Duffer, Ross Duffer
Writers: Matt Duffer, Ross Duffer, Caitlin Schneiderhan
Runtime: 150 minutes
US Release: July 1, 2022; Netflix
There is much to address in the sprawling season finale. The obvious stand-out elements are the long-awaited reunions between characters. Joyce (Winona Ryder), Hopper (David Harbour); Hopper, Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown); Eleven, Mike (Finn Wolfhard); even Will (Noah Schnapp) and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) are given a sincere brother-bonding moment. The moments shared by each of these characters exemplifies what Stranger Things always done best – exploring intimate connections between friends, family, or lovers. Completely stealing the show, though, is the relationship between Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Eddie (Joseph Quinn), as well as Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) and Max (Sadie Sink).
Matarazzo and Quinn share a palpable chemistry as actors. It works to great effect in their on-screen partnership as mentor and mentee. Eddie’s deathbed heroics may have been predictable, but Quinn’s performance elevates the character arc to heartbreaking levels; Matarazzo compliments the moment with his own grief-stricken performance. His subsequent scene with Eddie’s uncle (Joel Stoffer) is equally noteworthy. For the real emotional rollercoaster, however, credit must be given to Caleb McLaughlin’s Lucas. As Max slips away in his arms, you realize he has never been given such a moment. McLaughlin delivers a forceful performance, capping a season of great work; his grief, panic, and fear is striking.
Other than individual highlights, however, “The Piggyback” leaves much resolution on the table. Of course it has Season Five to set-up, and thankfully our three disparate stories have finally converged, but what was actually accomplished? Vecna (Jamie Campbell Bower) has retreated, but no less a threat; Sadie Sink’s role as the emotional core of the story receded; and any notion of Jason’s vigilante mob was abandoned. Vecna’s story, admittedly, should be unresolved for the sake of Season Five. He is a fascinating villain who, despite having nothing to do but monologue, deserves a more apocalyptic ending.
The other points, however, are thematic critiques about how the season has operated. Before “The Massacre at Hawkins Lab”, Season Four was an intimate, personal affair. Dangers were heightened because tension lay in the subtext of the ensemble’s relationships with each other and their neighbors. As the mystery unfolded, the danger would bubble up with horrifying results. After “The Massacre at Hawkins Lab”, the season took a decidedly grander approach to storytelling. The superhero pastiche was given full investment. It was done well, but the more complicated ideas of community conflict were lost. As interesting as Vecna is, Jason and his mob-justice felt supremely more compelling; that is the kind of horror that reflects real life, holding a mirror up to our cultural relationship with justice, prejudice, and religion.
Equally missed was the focus on Max’s growth. Before “The Massacre at Hawkins Lab”, she carried the show’s complex issues of grief, trauma, and healing. “Dear Billy” is a powerhouse of an episode because of it. As El regained her powers, however, we were reminded that Stranger Things belongs to her; after “The Massacre at Hawkins Lab”, focus fully shifts back to the character who is the backbone of the show. By the finale, Max does little but run around watching her friend take the punches. Where the character is ultimately left, however, provides a compelling mystery; Max deserves equal footing with Eleven in the season to come.
“The Piggyback” is a mixed-bag of surprises and routine. It is executed well and leaves one helluva cliffhanger. More complicated tensions are left behind, however, in favor of more straightforward storytelling; this fails the preceding chapters of Season Four while lending tremendous support to Season Five. However you feel about it, Stranger Things continues to prove itself as worthwhile television. Season Five promises nothing less.
By Vincent S. Hannam