Stranger Things 4 Volume 2 Review: An Epic, Overstuffed Finale Full Of Big Emotional Swings And Long-Winded Speeches

Everything about "Stranger Things 4" was big, so I suppose it's only fitting that the grand finale — two extra-long episodes being billed as "Stranger Things 4 Volume 2" — is overstuffed to the extreme. Clocking in at nearly four-hours total, the two-part finale is big, big, big! Big explosions! Big emotional swings! Big speeches! It's a super-sized bucket of popcorn entertainment spilling liquified butter all over you. And that's not a bad thing, really. As I said in my review of the previous episodes for this season, "Stranger Things 4" is like a summer blockbuster condensed to your TV (or phone, if you're a crazy person). It picks and chooses bits and pieces from blockbusters of the past (especially from the '80s and '90s) and molds them into something ... well, not new, precisely. I don't think anyone could get away with calling this show "original." But it's still a lot of fun. 

At the same time, when the conclusion rolls around there's a prevailing sense that "Stranger Things 4" didn't quite stick the landing. Sure, there are plenty of satisfying moments here. But there's also a big set-up for what comes next — the show's fifth and final season. I'm all for teasing what's to come, but I couldn't shake the feeling that this season was strangely inconclusive. Getting there, though, was mostly worth the ride. These final two episodes try to give everyone in the massive ensemble moments to shine, particularly Millie Bobby Brown, who excels at some of her most challenging acting moments in these two episodes. Even better: poor Noah Schnapp, stuck with his Moe Howard haircut as Will Byers, finally gets to step into the spotlight, too. There's a moment between Schnapp and Finn Wolfhard, as Will's best buddy (and, let's be honest, crush) Mike Wheeler that shows what Schnapp can do when he's given the right material. 

In these final two episodes, the various factions from Hawkins must band together to finally stop the evil, gooey Vecna (Jamie Campbell Bower), who is also Henry Creel and the first kid to be experimented on by the nefarious Dr. Brenner (Matthew Modine) — "Vecna ... Henry ... 001, sorry, what are we calling him now?" Robin (Maya Hawke) comically asks at one point, only to have a bunch of the other characters yell out different options at once. Vecna was inadvertently created by Eleven when she banished him to the Upside Down after he murdered all the other children that were part of the same experiment. Which means Eleven is probably the one who can take him down — with a little help from her friends. But like the ensemble of "The Lord of the Rings," all the characters are scattered in various places when they need their togetherness more than ever. And for the first time in this show, there's a real sense of danger. Vecna is the best villain the series has had, and his presence has upped the stakes considerably. "Not everything has a happy ending," Robin observes before pointing out that maybe, just maybe, they won't all make it out alive this time. 

So much stuff

Will Eleven regain her full powers and save the day? Will Max (Sadie Sink, one of the MVPs of this season) continue to survive Vecna with the help of Kate Bush? Will metalhead Eddie (Joseph Quinn, the other MVP of the season) clear his name? Will Hopper (David Harbour) and Joyce (Wiona Ryder) escape Russia? Will the Hawkins kids save the world ... again? All of these questions may or may not be answered by the time the season ends, but getting there will take some time. 

Much digital ink has already been spilled over the fact that these two episodes seem way too long (the final episode clocks in at 2 hours and 20 minutes!). In my humble opinion, overly long episodes of TV aren't a bad thing, as long as they justify their length. And "Stranger Things 4 Volume 2" never really reaches that point. There are long, long stretches where characters fire off wordy, protracted speeches to each other, and you can't shake the feeling that the Duffer Brothers, who wrote and directed these two episodes, could've trimmed the speeches down just a tad. On top of that, some plotlines go on way past their expiration date — the storyline about Eleven stuck in the underground bunker trying to get her powers back is the prime example; it stretches on for an interminable length, and should've been condensed considerably. 

Thankfully, these pacing problems don't sink the finale as a whole, as the Duffers pack in so much stuff that you can't help but get swept up in it all. Explosions! Interdimensional missions! Psychic fights! Jocks vs. nerds! Kids arming up with weapons and military gear as if they were auditioning for "Red Dawn"! Scenes where characters emotionally yell at each other! It's all here, and then some. These final two episodes also make good use of the scattered, overpopulated cast. Everyone gets more to do here. Hell, even the perpetually stoned pizza boy Argyle (Eduardo Franco), someone I found immensely annoying in the first half of the season, ends up being liable and funny this time. (The same can't be said for Nikola Đuričko as shifty Russian smuggler Yuri, a character who remains irritating). 

How's it going to end?

All that said, the Duffers can't help but fall into familiar traps. They stage at least three different scenes between three different sets of characters in which said characters come very close to either confessing their love for each other or even sharing a smooch — only to be immediately interrupted by some new revelation. And yet, there are also sparks flying from time to time — Harbour and Ryder, kept apart for most of this season, get a great moment here that's fun and flirty, albeit far too brief. I would've traded at least two of the big, long-winded speeches for more flirtatious scenes between Joyce and Hopper. 

By now, you're either on board with "Stranger Things," or you disdain its reliance on nostalgia and pop culture references. I remain a fan. Do I think the show takes lazy shortcuts at times in order to move things along? Absolutely — there are more than a few scenes here where characters figure out exactly what's going on without having any real information. Do I grow weary of how underlit certain moments are, especially set within the Upside Down, a dimension where everything is icky, the lightning is red, and no one has ever apparently heard of a lightbulb? Definitely. Please, for the love of cinematography, learn how to shoot dark scenes in such a way that we can still decipher what's happening! I beg you! Most of all, I am more than a little peeved that the season ends the way it does (for the sake of spoilers, I won't say more, find out for yourself!).

But I also enjoyed watching everything here, and chasing that feeling of eternal, dumb youth; that summer movie vibe that used to seem so fresh, so vital, so invigorating when I was younger, and summer vacation felt like it was going to stretch on forever ... until it didn't. You could argue that "Stranger Things" hasn't earned that feeling; that it's cheating by blatantly ripping off (or paying homage to) the past. And I wouldn't fault you for that argument. But I can't help but fall into the show's traps. I enjoy almost all of these characters (a hat tip to Joe Keery as surrogate dad Steve Harrington), and I genuinely care about their fates. These final two episodes go to considerably dark places and put almost everyone in peril, and I bought it, hook, line, and sinker. I sat on the edge of my seat. I bit my nails. I worried. And most of all, I had fun. I would never say something as stupid as "turn your mind off and enjoy the ride!" But I do think there are plenty of cheesy, corny, amusing thrills to be had here, and I can't wait to see how it all ends.  

"Stranger Things 4 Volume 2" is now streaming on Netflix.