Why the Ending of “Stranger Things 4” Is Irritatingly Disappointing
The second most-watched series in Netflix history ends with a "Game of Thrones"-like whimper, not with a bang.
[Spoiler alert: Key elements of the series ending are revealed.]
A few weeks ago on my Weekend Boost, I recommended Netflix’s blockbuster series Stranger Things 4, lauding its spooky, nostalgic fun despite a few incidental flaws. I stand by that endorsement. The final three episodes, released a week ago, amped up the action, suspense, and stakes. Every major character was on the brink of extinction seemingly with no way out. Gasp! Then they rallied, battled, and bled. It was magnificent.
Then came the last 20 minutes.
Instead of leaving the series satisfied and sated, eager for the fifth and final season (reported to be two years away), I was left frustrated and annoyed. It was like eating a great meal, only to end with a sweet dessert that’s turned sour. I’ll get to the reasons in a moment.
First, we need to pay homage to the show’s popularity. Since this season started on May 27th, viewers have watched over 1.15 billion hours of the nine episodes, numbers only surpassed by Squid Games. Last weekend, the show was in Netflix’s top ten in 93 different countries.
That’s a lot of viewers. While I believe that artists should always deliver their best work, regardless of the size of the audience, I recognize the pressure to meet audience’s heightened expectations when a show is this popular. It’s nearly impossible to please fans. Fans’ negative reactions to the series endings for Game of Thrones and The Sopranos is ample evidence. Those disappointed fans were like children whose parents promised to bring home ice cream sundaes but forgot and handed out Tik Tacs instead.
(I’m hungry, so it’s possible all my analogies will be food based.)
So, what goes wrong in those final 20 minutes out of 778 minutes? That’s about six full-length movies.
In general, the risky decision to have longer episodes paid off well. We have more time for characterization and for suspenseful build-up. There’s no need to rush the climax of each episode. Writer-directors the Duffer Brothers understand that much of the entertainment value for fans is the interaction of the characters’ personal dramas and they let that play out. But the final episode is 140 minutes (2 hours and 20 minutes) and the pacing in that episode is not conducive to the length. Especially the aftermath following the “defeat” of the villain Vecna.
Some of my gripes include:
A brief interruption to remind you that this newsletter continues to exist only because of paid subscriptions. That’s what keeps the Upside Down at bay.
Too Many Unresolved Plotlines
I’m cool with having cliffhanger endings to a series’ season, but that is only effective if you’ve closed the door on other storylines, so I at least get some sort of satisfaction for all my invested time, emotion, and gnawed fingernails. But the ending here is mostly more open doors and questions. Specifically:
C’mon, Vecna, Take a Hint?
Most viewers are savvy enough to know that when a villain gets blasted out of a second-floor window and we see their body crumpled on the ground, by the time the heroes reach the ground to check on him, he’ll be gone. I was really hoping they would do something less predictable. Especially because I didn’t want to see Vecna (Jamie Campbell Bower) return in the next series.
Once a villain has been defeated, I want the closure of having them stay defeated. One way writers get around this sometimes is to have a secondary villain that is killed as a substitute for the main villain. This secondary villain is usually so vicious, ruthless, and brutal that their death sates our need for closure enough to allow the main villain to live.
But we don’t have an evil henchperson here whose death brings closure. No, Papa (Matthew Modine) doesn’t count. In fact, it’s equally unsatisfying the way Papa dies: shot by a military black ops sniper. For his sins, either Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) should have killed him or even his fellow scientist Sam Owens (Paul Reiser). I’m not looking for any “poetic justice” ending—which are the laziest and most superficial kind of endings (like the obvious ones used in Jurassic World: Dominion)—but I don’t want an anti-climactic scene like this. Yes, I get that Papa gives his life trying to save her, which tells us that he really does see himself as some sort of god who’s created a savior in Eleven and blah, blah, blah.
None of that matters if the moment does not have the emotional impact commensurate with the long, long build-up.
Smells Like Teenage Romantic Angst
The relationships between Eleven and Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Joyce (Winona Ryder) and Hopper (David Harbour), and Robin (Maya Hawke) and Vickie are fine at the end, but everyone else’s romances are in turmoil. Will (Noah Schnapp) secretly loves Mike but is still closeted (it’s 1986, when anti-gay dinosaurs ruled the earth), so he suffers in silence. Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), who’ve been apart the entire series questioning their relationship (which every viewer questioned before they did), end up together pretending everything is fine. However, she secretly still loves her ex, Steve (Joe Keery), who also loves her.
Whew! So much teen melodrama, which is actually important to the show because it creates emotional connections that raise the stakes. We don’t want the characters to just survive, we want them to thrive and be rewarded with love. After all, it’s love that binds them all together in the first place—they fight for each other, not just themselves.
Still, to be so brave in their battle against supernatural supervillains, and so timid in expressing their own emotions and needs, doesn’t show growth. These relationship conflicts seem soapishly contrived.
Look Up, Damnit!
Visually puzzling is the last scene when Eleven and the Scooby gang walk over a hill to examine a field of flowers that has shriveled due to the encroaching Upside Down world. They all stare at the blackened flowers in horror. Then they look up and see the entire horizon sky filled with dark tornadoes and lightning. That’s a little like frowning at a spot of blood on your swim suit, then noticing a shark took your leg. Directing gimmicks shouldn’t ignore how people would really act.
I’m still very much looking forward to the next installments—in two years—but I’m hoping they are able end the series in a way that is both emotionally satisfying and storywise fulfilling. An ending that is earned, not just contrived. That leaves us wanting more, but okay that there isn’t more.
…Except for the inevitable spin-off series.