The first seven episodes of Stranger Things season 4 were all about expansion. Four separate storylines interplaying with one another, the main characters – now over a dozen of them – each dealing with the fallout of Starcourt Mall, and, all the while, a new danger brewing in Hawkins. That juggling act, balancing so many threads, came with a set of problems. While some stories hurtled along, particularly Dustin, Steve, Robin, and the gang's search for Vecna, there were other parts that dragged, mainly the segments in California.
Volume 2 picks up moments after the major reveal that Vecna, Henry Creel, and One are the same. Nancy is being held hostage in the Upside Down, the reporter trapped in a nightmare of traumatic memories, the others trying desperately to free her. And she’s not the only one in danger: Hopper, Murray, and Joyce are stuck with a Demogorgon in Russia; Eleven is reeling after discovering the truth about how she helped create Vecna; and Will, Mike, Jonathan, and Argyle are racing to find out where Eleven's being held.
As the final two episodes progress, the Duffer brothers elegantly weave these plots together – and soon enough, everyone is heading in the same direction. By shifting the focus back onto Hawkins, rather than the wider world, the finale makes for an epic ending that's a near-perfect conclusion to the season.
Both episodes are visually stunning, with truly cinematic sequences that will have you wishing Netflix released the almost two-and-a-half-hour finale in cinemas. And yet, the episodes maintain that same terrifying atmosphere that the Duffers have nurtured and expanded upon this season. Around every corner, danger lingers, and there's a sense that anything could happen to anyone at any moment. That's felt all the more thanks to the larger, more grandiose scenes being counterbalanced with ones that are smaller, more intimate.
Importantly, these moments give screentime to those characters left behind through the first half of the season. Noah Schapp puts in a scene-stealing performance as the vulnerable Will, while David Harbour continues to bring gravitas to Hopper, and Gaten Matarazzo’s Dustin offers one of the show's most heartbreaking performances yet. And despite the finale being centered on a battle, there's a hell of a lot of romance in the air. When the heartbreak comes, then, it's all the more powerful. We were told before the episodes arrived that we should be "very concerned" for these characters, and that warning is indeed founded. You'll struggle to keep a dry eye.
My one major gripe is with the length of the last episode. A lot has been made of the inflated episode lengths this season, though I would argue they have been justified so far, allowing for deeper and more emotional stories without the shackles of the hour-long deadline. However, keeping the pace up through a movie-length finale is hard. A TV show doesn't have the same narrative structure as a big-screen film, and there are many loose ends to get to. The pace, as a result, keeps slowing down, especially as we reach the tail end of the show. I can't help but think splitting the episode into two may have allowed for some of the scenes to have a bit more breathing room.
What's clear, though, is that Stranger Things has not lost any of its magic. Volume 2 has all the elements that made this show a phenomenon: witty dialogue, heartfelt characters dealing with growing pains, and a whole lot of '80s nostalgia. But this is also a new Stranger Things. Both the series and the characters are coming of age. As we leave the Duffers to prepare for the final season of this landmark Netflix series, the stakes have never been higher. The cast has grown older, the battles bolder, and the terror even colder – the ingredients are there for a season 5 that could conclude one of the best sci-fi series ever created. If they can keep up the quality after season 4, then that's exactly what's down the line.
Finished Stranger Things season 4? Then be sure to check out our guides to Stranger Things season 5 and the Stranger Things season 4, Volume 2 ending. We also have a deep dive on everyone who dies in Stranger Things season 4, Volume 2. And if you're after more watch recommendations, read our list of the best Netflix shows available to stream right now