Vecna (Jamie Campbell Bower) knew what he was talking about in more ways than one.
As the battle with the big bad of Stranger Things 4 reached its endgame, and the fourth season’s myriad storylines finally coalesced into one thread, Vecna told a super-powered Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), “This is only the beginning, the beginning of the end.” Sure, he was probably referring to the apocalyptic chaos to come in the real-world version of Hawkins. But he might as well have been talking about the massive season finale itself, as there was almost a regular length episode’s worth of runtime left to come once the battle started wrapping up.
We’d heard for months that the episodes in Season 4 would make the previous run seem brief in comparison, and it did not disappoint on that front. Every episode clocked in at over an hour, with most episodes averaging around 1 hour and 20 minutes in length. But even those seem short in comparison to the season finale, “The Piggyback,” which clocks in at a hefty 2 hours and 22 minutes.
For the sake of comparison, the Season 4 finale is longer than most feature films, including hits like Mad Max: Fury Road, The Social Network, and Looper. To be clear, those aren’t simple movies—and they still told their stories in a shorter span than the latest Stranger Things finale. It pushed past those and came closer to something like a Marvel Studios tentpole. It’s pretty much the same length as the first Avengers film, and mercilessly clocks in just a bit shorter than Avengers: Infinity War.
But the real question is, does it work? Was it worth it to produce a season finale longer than most films? There’s no easy answer, though your mileage will vary based on how much you love Stranger Things and how much you trust the auteur concept when it comes to the craft of TV and filmmaking.
The fourth season of Stranger Things took three years to finally get out in the wild, as the massive production had to grapple not only with the chaos of the COVID-19 pandemic, but also the fact that its core cast is mostly comprised of children—and those young people are prone to grow up quite a lot when viewers haven’t seen them in the three years between seasons. It was also a globe-trotting story that took the action far outside of Hawkins, Indiana, with storylines set in a Russian prison and on the West Coast. Plus, more time than ever was spent in the Upside Down and the twisty, sprawling nightmarescapes dreamed up by Vecna. So, all challenges considered, it overcame a lot and got a lot of things right.
The show remains as scary and well-constructed as ever, and for hardcore fans, many will welcome the chance to spend extra-long episodes hanging out with these disparate young heroes in the quieter moments between story beats and getting to know the new additions to the crew like Eduardo Franco’s stoner pizza whisperer Argyle (don’t knock the pineapples until you try them!), or Joseph Quinn’s dungeon master with a heart of gold Eddie Munson. There was also a lot of backstory to fill in when it came to Vecna and the Creel family, which addressed some massive gaps concerning the Upside Down and Eleven’s connection to it all.
Put simply, if you unabashedly love all things Stranger Things, you will probably like watching an episode so long it’ll require a couple of snack and bathroom breaks to finish.
But looking beyond the hardcore fans who will eat up every minute no matter how many there are or how they’re assembled, Stranger Things 4 is a big swing that doesn’t always connect the story to its ambition as it paints the saga with a bigger (and almost certainly more expensive) brush. If the Duffer brothers are telling the story they want to tell, they’ve created a generational hit and have arguably done well enough to earn the freedom to tell it however they want. But for the armchair critics, there are some things to nitpick with regards to the series’ biggest chapter ever. The far-flung stories had trouble connecting at times, and the argument has been made a few times that the season might’ve been better served either condensing Hopper’s Russia arc or breaking it off into its own standalone episode. Those small character moments are great, but there are reasons they’re trimmed in editing in most shows to keep the pace. These episodes are long, and oftentimes they feel it.
It was clear the finale was leading to a face-off in which each faction would play a role in their various locales to take on Vecna, and marathon-length episode or not, it was still incredibly cool to see Hopper (David Harbour) take on a demogorgon with a sword and Steve (Joe Keery) fire-bombing Vecna in slow-motion, all to the thumping beat of Kate Bush ripping through the sonic landscape of the Upside Down.
The episode’s extended coda almost had the feel of the multiple endings wrapping up Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings saga in The Return of the King (a film that clocked in at over three hours long, for those keeping count), taking its time to slowly, finally reunite all our heroes back in Hawkins. It’s clear “The Piggyback” was doing a whole lot of heavy-lifting to set up Stranger Things’ fifth and final season, which will presumably pick up with Hawkins largely in ruins as massive fissures have ripped the town to pieces as the Upside Down bleeds into the real world.
Watching this epic, massive battle unfold, it’s easy to forget Stranger Things started as a little-known Netflix show telling a relatively small, Stephen King-esque story about the fear of being a kid when the monsters under the bed might actually be real. For the most part, the show has deftly handled its evolution to big-budget spectacle while retaining that “little show that could” kind of charm. But putting together a two-and-a-half-hour episode? That’s starting to push the boundaries of how far it can hold the line, especially going into a final season that will almost certainly be bigger than the one that preceded it.
It makes you wonder if that line, kind of like the bedsheet rope running up (or is it down?) to the Upside Down, might break if pulled too far in the end.
Trent Moore is a recovering print journalist, and freelance editor and writer with bylines at lots of places. He likes to find the sweet spot where pop culture crosses over with everything else. Follow him at @trentlmoore on Twitter.
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