If you’ve spent a lot of time over the past month-plus speculating about what the last two episodes of stranger things Season 4 could bring, you were probably consumed by a single question: Who was going to die?
In the interval between the first seven episodes of the season airing on Memorial Day weekend and the final two episodes falling on Friday, stranger things detectives zeroed in on the fate of Steve Harrington (Joe Keery), whose days as a bad reformed, limp-haired boyfriend many expected to be numbered after his encounter with giant bats. Were their bites poisonous? Is there rage in Upside Down? Would Steve ever have the opportunity to reconcile with Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer)?
Indeed, as the eighth episode began, the Duffer Brothers seemed eager to tug on our heartstrings. There was Steve, telling Nancy about his dreams for the future, laughing at her childhood memories, and thanking her for helping him become a better person. There was Dustin Henderson (Gaten Matarazzo), Steve’s longtime foil, paired instead with Eddie Munson (Joseph Quinn). The stage seemed set for Steve’s heartbreaking exit.
But everyone’s favorite babysitter made it out alive in Season 4. So did the rest of the show’s main characters. The most notable deaths in the last two episodes belonged to Martin Brenner (Matthew Modine), aka Papa, the longtime head of Hawkins National Laboratory who fell in a dramatic shootout between government cronies in a helicopter and the Netflix budget per episode; Jason Carver (Mason Dye), this season’s scaremongering antagonist who found himself on the wrong side — er, sides — of a recently opened door to the Upside Down; and dearly beloved Eddie, who died in Dustin’s arms after attacking a colony of bats on his own. (Rest in power, homie; we’ll always have this totally gnar on the roof metallica solo.)
Eddie’s demise was the most tragic of the bunch, but it didn’t come as a shock: as a newcomer with a limited story, his fate seemed in jeopardy heading into the finale, much like Billy Hargrove’s ( Dacre Montgomery) in season 3 The most amazing and crushing loss of episode 9 seemed to come when the kids failed to save Max Mayfield (Sadie Sink) from Vecna’s curse in time. As Moby’s “When It’s Cold I’d Like to Die” swells, Max shivers in Lucas Sinclair’s (Caleb McLaughlin) lap, his arms and legs broken and blood covering his face, before finally coming to rest.
Except, well, she immediately comes back to life. Just two scenes after Lucas cries and cries for help over Max’s body – a tour de force performance from McLaughlin in a season frequently beset by the growing pains of a cast of children who are no longer small – we let’s see Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) working a miracle. “No,” she said, before nosebleeding Max to bring him back to life. “We make our own rules.”
Therein lies the problem: when Season 4 comes out, it’s no longer clear what death means on stranger things. If Eleven can magically resurrect people, what are the stakes of the show’s near-constant life or death situations? And if any character can come back to life at any time, how seriously should audiences take the disappearance of a series regular?
Max, after all, is not the first stranger things figure of returning from beyond the veil. Among the peripheral characters, take Brenner; he only died in episode 8 because he reappeared in the fifth episode of that season, having been presumed dead since the season 1 finale. Among the headliners is Jim Hopper (David Harbor). In the Season 3 finale, he disappears in the middle of a gate closing to the Upside Down, leaving his sparring partner, Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder), in pieces. Yet Hopper reappears, seemingly alive, in a not particularly subtle post-credits scene.
Even Eleven pulled off a similar trick, disappearing at the end of Season 1, mourned by Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard) and the gang, then showing up at the top of Season 2 safe and sound and greedy for Eggos. stranger things also used this same storytelling device with villains. This season culminates with the Big Bad, Vecna, falling from the attic of his house after two Molotov cocktails and a series of shotgun blasts from Steve, Nancy and Robin Buckley (Maya Hawke)… only he’s gone when the trio arrives to search for his body below (itself a tribute to the vanishing act after the fall of Michael Myers in 1978 Halloween).
What is remarkable here is not only that stranger things seems reluctant to kill off any of its main characters; it’s not unique in that regard, and resurrection is a staple of the genre. What’s remarkable is that the show seems reluctant to even let audiences think he could dare to get rid of any main cast member, despite the show’s underlying premise.
In Hopper’s case, only 20 minutes of time elapses between Joyce realizing he’s missing and the post-credits scene in which a Soviet prison guard points to a locked cell and says, “No, not the American.” – an unmistakable clue that Hawkins’ chief of police survived. This season, the gap between Max coming to rest and when El begins to resurrect her is only two minutes and 10 seconds.
It’s not even stranger thingsthe shortest presumption of death. That honor goes to Will Byers (Noah Schnapp), who seems doomed when Joyce and Hopper finally reach him in Upside Down in Season 1. How long does it take between Joyce yelling “He’s not breathing!” for our mopey king to sit with a gasp? One minute and 21 seconds.
On the one hand, the showrunners understand the emotional resonance that the death of a pillar of the series would have. Time and again, characters are shown grieving, from Lucas’ emotional performance this season to Joyce finally being reunited with Hopper, telling him she mourned him for the eight months she believed he was dead. . “We had a funeral“, she says quietly. On the other hand, there is only a limited number of times the series can play a version of the map of the return from the dead. Playing it again to close the season 4, stranger things raises questions about both the fabric of the series and expectations for a fifth and final season.
As for the first part of that: Eleven suddenly showing she can raise the dead raises a long list of follow-up questions. Could she still do this? Is there a time limit to his powers? Even if this is a new ability she developed while training this season in an underground bunker in Nevada, then why didn’t she try to save Eddie? (She hadn’t met Eddie following the Byers family’s move to California, but surely her Hawkins-based friends could have argued her case.) And is it still possible that El could undo the deaths of other characters, like Billy, Bob Newby and Barb?
Yet it’s that last concern – what it portends for Season 5 – that seems more central to determining whether stranger things can finally deliver a satisfying conclusion to the series. With the Upside-Down Barrier now fractured and Vecna revealed as the series’ ultimate villain, the ragtag Hawkinsites team will no doubt face mortal peril once again. Next season, fans will again study the tea leaves and worry about the survival of characters like Steve, Max, and Hopper. But with stranger things Repeatedly reversing the tide of death, would a scene in which, say, this variant of Upside Down rage finally come into play have the same stakes? If a fan favorite goes down agonizingly, what reason is there to think it’s for good?
At this point, I know what I’ll do the next time a major character seems doomed: sit tight and wait for the miracle in a few minutes.
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