It’s been a week now since the final two episodes of Stranger Things season 4 dropped on the streaming service Netflix, and while I thoroughly enjoyed the finale by and large, one particular narrative decision has played on my mind ever since, and I’m still annoyed about it. Funnily enough, it’s a similar issue that can be found in the most recent Star Wars movie, The Rise of Skywalker.
The conclusion of this chapter of the hit Netflix series was brilliant, and in my Stranger Things season 4 part 2 review, I heaped praise on the two episodes for the epic scale of what we as audiences were treated to. But, the finale was not without its faults, and it all boils down to the fact that the Duffer Brothers and those involved with the big storytelling decisions on the show seemingly lacked the conviction to follow through with what could have been a huge emotional moment.
If you haven’t seen the Stranger Things season 4 part 2 ending yet, you might want to stop reading now, as there will be spoilers ahead. Also, if you haven’t seen The Rise of Skywalker yet… well, don’t bother, it’s the worst movie in the Star Wars timeline anyway.
We always knew that the big climax of season 4 was going to lead to some collateral damage, with the latest Stranger Things monster, Vecna, enacting his evil plan on the citizens of Hawkins. Indeed, one of the hottest topics on release day was fans discussing who died in Stranger Things season 4 part 2.
Eddie Munson, the loveable rocker, was arguably the most painful loss of the season and his death was handled pretty much perfectly. He was a new character to the sci-fi series, but one who fans had become enamoured with very quickly. Nevertheless, his brave sacrifice was a fitting way to go, and allowed fans to celebrate Eddie as a hero.
To put it simply, it made sense that Eddie met his maker. We may not necessarily have wanted him to go, but we can accept it because it felt right in terms of his character arc and from a storytelling perspective. As sad as it is, we can respect the creators’ decision, and in turn, they respect our emotional intelligence as viewers.
However, the fate of Max Mayfield (Sadie Sink) was far less conclusive, and to me, appears to signify a distinct aversion to killing off another fan favourite. The problem is that this time, the decision flew in the face of every storytelling cue that came before it.
Now, I should make it clear, I really didn’t want Max to die. Sadie Sink was the star of Stranger Things season 4, and going into the final two episodes, I was desperate for her to survive. Max’s character development in this season was fascinating to watch, and she provided the emotional heartbeat of the story.
So, as the final episode raced towards its big climax, it was painful to see Max heading down the path laid out for her, which ultimately led to her getting her bones cracked at the joints, her eyes almost bursting out of her head, and her mind seemingly lost to Vecna. She very literally, technically died.
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But, only for one minute. Luckily, Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) developed a new superpower out of nowhere which allowed her to revive Max – isn’t that great? Well, no, actually. It completely undermines the stakes of the situation, and Max’s ‘death’ becomes nothing more than an attempt to shock the audience for the sake of it.
If, as creators of the show, you don’t want to kill a character, that’s absolutely fine. Similarly, if you do want to kill a character, no matter how much we love them, the majority of viewers will always accept that.
What we don’t want is to be baited with a huge emotional moment, to then have that completely retconned in the next scene thanks to a convenient plot device that has no explanation and hasn’t been prefaced at all. It’s a problem that runs deep in popular franchises today.
Remember in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, when it appeared Rey had killed Chewbacca? A Star Wars character we had loved for more than 40 years was dead, and all because our protagonist made a mistake and couldn’t control her powers. It was a truly heartbreaking moment, but it made a hell of an impact.
Then, in the very next scene, it was revealed that Chewie was in fact alive. Turns out Rey destroyed a different spacecraft to the one Chewie was on. But wait, we didn’t see another spacecraft in the vicinity, and surely Rey would have seen the two ships? Well, it doesn’t matter, Chewie survived, just deal with it.
This is exploitative and lazy storytelling at its very worst, and is a far worse example of the crime Stranger Things has been guilty of. Yet it seems to be an almost inevitable part of franchise content in today’s cinematic landscape, with the likes of the MCU and DCEU also employing similar narrative tactics.
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Of course, in the comic book world, the idea of characters dying and coming back to life has long been par for the course. The key to successfully navigating situations like this, is all about timing, and laying the foundations.
When Superman dies, his loss is felt throughout the world, which makes his resurrection at the hands of the Justice League in Zack Snyder’s DCEU movie all the more significant. When Thanos obliterates half of all MCU characters with a click of his fingers, we relish the moment the Avengers reverse this five years later.
In Stranger Things, although we see Eleven get her powers back, it is never even implied that resurrecting the dead is now part of her portfolio of abilities. I’m not suggesting that we need every little detail spoon fed to us, but there is surely a balance to be struck where we at least have some semblance of foreshadowing for such a monumental shift.
Funnily enough, Rise of Skywalker is also guilty of imbuing our protagonist with the power to bring the dead back to life with no prior warning. It’s the kind of storytelling safety net that makes you think the writers aren’t quite sure what they want to happen, so they keep a ‘break glass in case of emergency’ idea on hand, just in case.
Major franchises really need to commit to their decisions, and introduce a sense of finality to their stories, or audiences will start to lose interest in the jeopardy characters face.
The story of the boy who cried wolf springs to mind, in that if you keep reviving our heroes, their journey becomes less and less believable, and therefore less meaningful.
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I have faith that the Duffer Brothers have a grand plan in place for Stranger Things season 5, and the decision to keep Max in the game will eventually pay off. To this point, their handling of the bigger picture has been exceptional, which is more than can be said for the debacle of the Star Wars sequels.
It’s just a shame that after the heartfelt and intense build-up to the culmination of Max’s story in season 4, her sacrifice and her extremely emotional death were rendered seemingly pointless just a minute later by a miraculously convenient plot device.