Stranger Things season four was already bigger and better than anything the show had done before. It was clearly more expensively produced, with a larger cast and a surer sense of why all the monsters, heroes and hangers-on were there. The double-bill denouement – held back for a month by Netflix to allow hype to build – is more expansive still. It’s crazily, luxuriously sprawling, running to nearly four hours, and does everything fans could have expected plus several dollops more. But if it hasn’t quite overstretched itself yet, you do wonder where Stranger Things can possibly go from here.
Where were we? In Hawkins, Indiana, in 1986, waiting for a gang of plucky teens to mount a final assault on Vecna, the demon who roams a dank dimension beneath the town. Psychic superheroine Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) has unlocked memories from a childhood spent in a secure facility for kids with strange powers, revealing that she opened up the interdimensional portal while confronting One, a murderous fellow inmate, thus turning him into the vengeful Vecna. A group of sympathetic adults, meanwhile, are stuck in a grimy Soviet Union prison, battling a creature left over from a previous season.
A showdown looms – but hey, we’ve got four hours, there’s no rush. And so season four’s last two episodes are surprisingly talky, giving almost every character a tender, watershed two-hander with a significant other. Lost love is lamented, halting young love gets closer to being properly expressed, and the show’s barely discernible – although fans who pore over every scene have certainly discerned it – hints about Will (Noah Schnapp) being gay become something more overt during his moving speech about learning to live with being “different”.
Stranger Things might be an indulgent 1980s homage to horror, cold war thrillers, hacker movies, fantasy, and films like The Goonies or Stand By Me where a bunch of unsupervised kids try to save the day but its creators, the Duffer brothers, aren’t just superficial pasticheurs. They understand what underpins their reference points, and in particular they get how the “neighbourhood apocalypse” genre works. These stories say that it’s OK to be different – to be shy and angry, or a Dungeons and Dragons nerd, or secretly gay, or a heavy metal freak – because your small town might just be the most important place in the world, and maybe you’re not different, but special.
The Duffers appreciate that all this is a metaphor for coming of age, so they sprinkle their finale with universal life lessons about slaying your personal monsters and growing up. Eventually you’ve got to stop listening to Kate Bush on your Walkman, take off your headphones and engage with the outside world. Sooner or later, you’ll have to stop being the class joker and admit there are things you believe in and people you love. One day, you’re going to summon the courage to look your father in the eye and say: “Dad, my values are not aligned with yours, so I’m leaving your underground telekinesis laboratory and I’m not coming back.”
Once this emotional framework has been carefully put in place, the fireworks finally begin and they don’t disappoint, with no big surprises (various characters find themselves on the edge of defeat in a fight to the death before visions of what truly matters to them give them the strength to rally at the last second) but a lot of impeccable judgments. The decisions over which character intervenes when, and how, are perfectly made – as are the ones over who dies and why. The problem of splitting the action between Indiana, Nevada and Kamchatka is reconciled smoothly enough. Metallica and Journey can expect well-earned surges on Spotify, their old hits having been wielded with flair and precision. When the flames sputter and the vampire bats stop flapping, the survivors know who they are and are back where they belong.
It could even be an ideal finale for the whole show – except when it’s all apparently over and you tap the progress bar at the bottom of the screen, there’s still half an hour left.
Anyway, Netflix have commissioned a fifth and final season. It’s hinted that this will involve a disaster on a global scale rather than a conspiracy only a select few geeks know about – and with the core cast no longer minors, some adjustments are surely necessary. But Stranger Things is at its best when it’s local, intimate, innocent and homespun, and it feels like we’ve told that story now. We’ve left home.