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Review: “Stranger Things” season 4, part 2 overloaded, but wonderful

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Los Angeles (Variety.com) – SPOILER WARNING: If you haven’t seen episodes 8 and 9 of Stranger Things 4, streaming now on Netflix, don’t read.

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As I wrote about the first seven episodes of the current fourth season of Stranger Things, I noted that his ambition was both laudable and detrimental, pointing to a more exciting era for Netflix while also loading each episode with more than she could endure.

The last two episodes of the fourth season, which started on July 1st, prove this twice over. The moments that sing — including, once again, in the cadenzas of this season’s musical patron Kate Bush — really are on a different level than pretty much anything the streamer has been up to lately. And they come in the context of episodes that seem designed to make the showrunning Duffer Brothers’ aspirations punitive: The finale lasts two and a half hours, a length that the viewer really feels. This isn’t likely to be an episode that many franchise fans this side of Standom will see all at once, diluting the season’s cumulative power and impact to create a monument to how much Netflix allows.

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That’s frustrating, because the season is accomplished in many ways: its characters’ stories are beautifully drawn, happily intersect, and the whole enterprise has a pleasantly rounded, classic build that largely ends where it began with a once-separate one Circle of characters reunited in Hawkins and a supernatural menace that reasserts itself just before the credits roll. There are a few key changes that show why the whole journey was worth it. Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) has broken definitively with the “dad” (Matthew Modine) who shaped her life and allowed his influence on her to die as he did. (This ends a story and a performance that never went way beyond the literal.) Perhaps it’s Eleven’s newfound freedom that helped give Mike (Finn Wolfhard) an opportunity to confess his love to her when she battled season villain Vecna ​​(Jamie Campbell). Bowers). Will (Noah Schnapp) has been gesturing to talk to his brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) about whatever is on his mind, and the hapless Max (Sadie Sink), the season’s pivot, is in a coma and is guarded by Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) after proving her bravery and kindness in a battle against darkness.

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A lot of what got us here worked well: The Duffers remain gifted stylists. However, her tendency to repeat herself is evident in the big and the small. The reveal of Will’s painting – a much-hyped element of the early season – was beautifully done: it shows the gang working together to slay a dragon, though some closeness is evidently fading. Will, whose increasing isolation from his constantly mating straight friends has reminded many queer viewers of their own teenage life, shows the painting to Mike amid Mike’s nervous air about trying to maintain a relationship with someone as special as Eleven. We see in Schnapp’s performance that Will is outside of this pairing in more ways than one. He just can’t relate. After Will shares his art – a touchingly youthful way of relating to his boyfriend as they approach late adulthood – he suddenly looks out the window: we see him looking away from his boyfriend while he smacks of thick ellipses says, “When you’re different…sometimes…you feel like you’re a failure.” He talks about Eleven but also about himself, a point made beautifully through Schnapp’s work but thunderously emphasized by Mike’s end of the conversation and Will is staring out the window crying again. (To the show’s credit, a later conversation between brothers Will and Jonathan does an emotional catharsis, seeing Will for who he really is without having to rely so much on telegraphing how we’re supposed to make us feel.)

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Elsewhere in the narrative, certain fountains were used again and again. If, I would say, Stranger Things is the most visually ambitious and zeitgeisty show since the similarly maximalist Game of Thrones aired, then it shares that show’s Daenerys problem: little matters when you’re 95% of situations can be resolved by an omnipotent character using his dragons or, in Eleven’s case, his powers. And so scenes in an already long show feel like technical exercises, ways to show what visual ingenuity and streaming cash can do. And the season ending, with Hawkins suddenly transformed into the dystopian hellscape of Vecna’s dreams, seems like a declaration that these characters will have the same struggle all over again.

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It’s thanks to the show that its simultaneous shock and awe campaign and softer character beats don’t cancel each other out. The “Stranger Things” actors feel almost perfectly served — with the exception of Winona Ryder, whose Russian sojourn revealed her wit as a performer, but not the motherly ferocity that made Joyce Byers so sharply drawn in the early days of the show Portrait of despair. (But then her kids won’t need her in the same way: maybe that’ll grow up!) Schnapp strikes, well, an intriguing balance between his character staying in his happy no-girls-allowed camaraderie and his engaging big step like coming out of the closet; Sink excelled as a tall young cast member throughout the season, right down to her confessions in the season finale about her thoughts of self-harm.

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These are big, heavy subjects — and the show seemed to make the connection between the agonizing, romantic darkness of a teenage boy and the mayhem that rains down on our characters ever clearer. Just as they felt inner anguish and dissatisfaction, the world became literally uninhabitable. Fair enough! However, this often seemed to extend to both the form and content of the show: Like a teenage diarist unsure which part of the story matters most, “Stranger Things” can’t help but underscore, too emphasize double describe and describe circle back. To cite just one example, the elf “dad” relationship was very obviously upset from the start. The time spent repeating the ways in which he negatively changed her life feels less like a development, or even embroidery at the edges, and more like an attempt to make a clarification legible for any onlooker close.

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The momentum is understandable when reading “Stranger Things” as an attempt at last TV consensus hit (a status it appears to have in the first batch of episodes given the song “Running Up That Hill’s” worldwide boom in popularity). It may not be able to connect as broadly if it’s whispering its points instead of shouting them. But I would suggest that despite what Netflix has given the Duffers a blank check for, and despite what they, in turn, have tested their audience in some ways, there is a trust issue at play.

The Duffers expected audiences to be hooked for a season in which the core characters — and thus the key dynamic of “Stranger Things” — were fractured; They staged a slow reveal of Vecna’s true identity that paid off handsomely, ending the season with the most dynamic character, clinging to life. You’ve gotten us pretty far. And yet, underlying the more recursive choices that “Stranger Things” makes is an uncertainty: for all that works on the show, there seems to be a reluctance to accept that character beats have proper weight and gravity , means to omit something. A two-and-a-half-hour television episode makes an aggressive demand on fans, which (perhaps after a few nights) they will fulfill; However, that length and voluminous self-esteem doesn’t leave fans much room to process what they were shown on their own terms. The reunion of the characters at the long-delayed end of the episode forms a tight circle: any viewer wishing to interpret a show that increasingly insists on making it crashing is left out.

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