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  • Writer's picturecasey

Stranger Things episode 4.09 "Chapter Nine: The Piggyback"

I’ve loved Stranger Things from day one. I think the pilot is one for the books and each passing season has managed to enrich the world and its visual effects while still bringing it all together in a delightfully satisfying finale. I’ve always thought this series was very sure of its footing and felt the story has been chugging decisively along down its painstakingly premeditated path. I compare it a lot to Harry Potter because both stories stand out to me as very classic, down to earth explorations of the Hero’s Journey and prime examples of how and why story structure is so important. After finishing the endeavor that was season four, I don’t feel like the show is any less “good”- I watched the whole thing and was never bored (even this two plus hour finale; I’ll get into this season’s formatting in a second). I think the Duffer Brothers are prime storytellers who know exactly what they’re doing and how to keep your interest, so when I finally let out a breath after finishing the episode that took up literally my entire night, I didn’t feel disappointed by the quality; I felt betrayed by what they did with my rapt attention. “Chapter Nine” was effective for me in that I believe that I felt everything I was intended to feel- I just didn’t like those intentions. This is the first season that broke up the group without quite managing to pull them back together at the last minute in that ultra-satisfying and cohesive payoff of previous years. The story lacked the punchy, decisive confidence it’s always had, and it showed. And I’ll say it. I don’t want to watch a two-and-a-half-hour episode of TV. I rarely even want to watch a two- and-a-half-hour movie. I love the creativity and flexibility that TV has come to have as a medium, but the odd release of season four of Stranger Things did nothing but hamper my viewing experience. I couldn’t wait to dive into the season as soon as it came out, so I quickly finished episodes 1-7 before the strangely staggered release of the final two episodes, which dropped a month after the initial debut. One month is a weird amount of time. Mid-season finales are still a regular occurrence with network shows as they break for a couple months, often overlapping with the holidays, to put the rest of the season together. Such breaks are rarer with streaming, but Netflix has seemed to be into the concept lately, dropping other seasons in two parts as well. All the same, just one month is an unusually short period of time that seemed to serve no purpose other than to garner intrigue and suspense. Promotions were all over Netflix’s social media, billboards went up, and an itch remained unscratched in my brain as I couldn’t yet check this season off my list and mentally move onto other things. The whole viewing experience just felt deliberately taxing- to be made to wait, just to then be made to set aside an entire night to watch the final episode that could have easily been broken up into two or even three- something that would have also added some balance to the “Volume 1” and “Volume 2” approach. But honestly, I can only complain so much about all of that because ultimately, I was a full participant in this whole experience. I followed the directions, eagerly watching every hour-plus episode in record time, waiting patiently for the finale, and then making a night out of it, just like I was supposed to. And at no point did I want to turn it off.

Winona Ryder, David Harbour, Noah Schnapp, Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobby Brown, Charlie Heaton, and Natalia Dyer in "Chapter Nine: The Piggyback". Image courtesy of IMDb.

So let’s talk about what happened. I love a Stranger Things finale. A clear plan laid out by a ton of kids with a lot of moving parts and very clear, very high stakes. Every season finale feels like watching the Duffer Brothers drop the last piece into the most complex puzzle I’ve ever seen- and then dump 500 more pieces onto the table and reveal that we’re not done yet. So I had a lot of trust going into this episode. I’ve been watching Mike, Will, Jonathan, and even Eleven do a whole lotta nothing this season, but I dismissed everyone who wanted to tell me as much. It was all about to come to fruition; everything would make sense and it would all be for a reason. But it wasn’t. I think Max is what kicked the Stranger Things train off its track. Or rather, what flipped the switch sending it in a new direction, one that I would be happy to follow, but that the show seemed to resist. To use my Harry Potter comparison, Max’s character is like if Cedric Diggory didn’t die and instead went on to become more interesting, useful, and endearing than Harry ever was. How fun, right? But then imagine that happened, our hearts and attention were successfully shifted somewhere else, yet the story continued to treat him as that same tragic auxiliary character that only exists in relation to Harry. Leading up to “Chapter Nine”, this season felt like the end of the Mike and Eleven show and the embracing of a true ensemble, and I loved that. Mike did, and I don’t feel like this is an exaggeration, nothing. If he just wasn’t in this season at all, the final outcome wouldn’t change. And I didn’t have a problem with that! He’s cute and goofy and fun to be around, and he and El’s relationship problems were the lighter B or dare I say C story to Max and Lucas’ loaded, important, and well-rounded journeys. And that said, El was still a centerpiece in other ways. I love the story of One, I didn’t need to see Brenner again, but I was happy to explore her past and have that aha moment of what really connects her to the Upside Down. Eleven needed her face-off moment with Vecna, but if the lead-in to this battle (and “Running Up That Hill” being the anthem of the season) proved anything, it’s that Max is an equal to El, in both significance and strength, and we’ve spent too much time with her now to be satisfied with her suffering being nothing but an emotional catalyst for Eleven. Even at a glance, this final showdown puts Max and Lucas front and center. They are the ones physically present, with a job that doesn’t involve being a diversion or killing extraneous bats or being states or continents away. The two of them alone are the ones facing the real test with the truly dangerous job of confronting Vecna, Max in her mind’s eye and Lucas protecting her in the flesh. Eleven has a grand plan to piggyback off of Max, but no one suiting up and diving into the Upside Down knows about that. They’re ready to do this on their own, and we see all the risks, fears, and bravery involved in that. While we have that knowledge of what’s going on elsewhere, I was never fully interested in seeing those extraneous moving parts come together. I don’t want Eleven to save them. I want this plan to work. The one with the people and stories that I’ve been made to feel invested in throughout this season.

Sadie Sink and Caleb McLaughlin in "Chapter Nine: The Piggyback". Image courtesy of IMDb.

But I understand that the plan was never going to work. This was the penultimate battle, the one that we lose. The gate had to be opened and we’re supposed to feel loss and sadness at that. This is “The Half Blood Prince”- but Max is no Dumbledore. A casualty was inevitable, but the way it came about wasn’t. My trust in the Duffer Brothers and in this story persists; I believe that season five will shed new light on these things and maybe my feelings will change, but each season is also a story in itself, and the message we’re sitting with now as we wait for the final season isn’t one that I respect or feel good about. Leading up to this episode, Max’s journey was a moving story about processing grief and carrying on in the world after experiencing loss. It was the perfect blend of a generalized, relatable thematic idea applied to a specific, well-drawn character in a way that is both powerful and moves the plot forward. Eleven has the history with Vecna that she’s off unpacking, but this has become personal for Max too. Vecna, as is his M.O., has forced Max over and over again to confront her emotions regarding Billy’s death, the complex combination of guilt and grief that I can only imagine comes from losing a presence like that. And every time, Max comes out stronger. She becomes a bigger challenge to Vecna every time he tries and fails to break her, each instance actually cementing her will to live. It was a beautiful and powerful personification of grief, depression, that voice in your head that wants the worst for you, and the idea that it’s possible to fight it all. I feel a huge urge to hug and apologize to everyone I know who related to Max and had to watch what happened to her next. Of course Vecna caught onto their plan, to Max using herself as bait. That had to happen, right? What seems like a genuine plot hole to me though is the fact that Vecna, with his pension for finding those emotions that people want to hide, didn’t see through Max the second he looked inside. He didn’t see that firm resolve? The now-solidified desire to be alive? To pretend for a second that I’m qualified to write Stranger Things, I’ll tell you what I think should’ve happened. When Vecna takes the bait and finds Max and Lucas, Max herself would give the whole plan away with just her strong sense of self. She’s too strong for Vecna and he wouldn’t want to admit that, but the stakes are high for him right now too. He needs one more body to open the gate, a bunch of kids are closing in on his body on the other side, and he’s all the way over here with the first girl he might not be able to break. Lucas is the only other one here, and he’s got plenty of complex emotions of his own to process. Lucas has been bullied for being black since the pilot, and I had a lot of respect for this season not toning itself down at all in a lot of ways, racism included. Watching Erica be chased down in the dark by a white boy three times her size was hard to watch; watching Lucas have a gun pointed at him by the deranged captain of the basketball team was hard to watch. But some important things are hard to watch. None of it felt inappropriate or out of place until the episode ended and there didn’t seem to be any kind of takeaway from it. Hawkins became a character itself this season, and it turned out to be an underdeveloped one. The town never learned the truth, never had to see themselves or anyone else in a new light, nor was bigotry a direct cause for anything that happened. My issue wasn’t that it was hard to watch, it was that it was just hard to watch. It was gratuitous pain and heartbreak for nothing but the sadness value of it. The world already does that to us all enough.

Caleb McLaughlin and Sadie Sink in "Chapter Nine: The Piggyback". Image courtesy of IMDb.

So while Vecna is rooting around in Max’s head, finding himself to be no match for her, Lucas sees what’s happening to Erica outside. He has to contend with the fact that these were the people he wanted to be friends with so badly, that these are the people he chose over his real friends who are ready time and again to do the right thing. So Vecna switches gears. Lucas’ heart is heavy and he hasn’t been on the same self-fortifying quest that has prepared Max to face this very moment. Vecna possesses Lucas instead, and Kate Bush doesn’t work for him. In walks the basketball captain who learns the truth too late. Maybe Eleven is able to do a kind of double piggyback and go from Max to Lucas- I would at least feel like she accomplished something if she was able to pull that off. But honestly, I don’t really feel the need to get into the logistics of her agonizingly slow stroll through Max’s head. If there’s anything we’ve learned from Max, it’s that self-sufficiency and processing your past for yourself is possible. Max and Lucas planning their date is heartbreakingly precious because neither need the other. They’re arguably the two most

independent and capable characters in the whole show. Max is comforted by Lucas’ company, but she would have been capable of all the same things without it. For Eleven to not be able to do anything until she hears Mike say he loves her is frankly insulting to everything Max has just been through. So however Eleven would find her way into battle with Vecna in Lucas’ mind instead of Max’s in this scenario doesn’t really matter to me. She’s not gonna do anything in there anyway. We lose Lucas and the gate opens. This would obviously all still be very sad. It had to be sad. But it would be sad with thought-provoking thematic takeaways. It would be about the direct consequences of realizing prejudice too late, about grappling with survivor’s guilt, self-sufficiency, and the idea that doing everything right isn’t always enough to save the world (or even just the people you love ((but does that make it any less right?)). When the credits rolled on this episode, I was uncharacteristically silent. It was a downer of a season finale and it had made my mood heavy, but I had nothing to say about it. I let the event of the Volume 2 release consume my night and have my full attention, and it truly just left me up past my bedtime, drained and in a funk. I felt manhandled into feeling sad at what was clearly the writer’s hand, not the story’s. Vecna breaking Max wasn’t that last puzzle piece dropped perfectly into place; it was mashed in there where it didn’t fit, and her subsequent coma isn’t those 500 new pieces I can’t believe I didn’t realize we still needed (I’m over the “are they really dead?” game this show keeps playing). When I step back and look at this puzzle, I don’t see the illuminating, cohesive image that past finales have gifted me. It feels like I did all that work just to step back and look at the final product and see something that was upsetting to put together but doesn’t mean anything. All that and I haven’t even touched on poor Eddie, gay Will, or anything at all that went on in Russia. Guess that’s what happens when one episode of TV is one of the longest things I’ve ever watched in my life. If you want to talk about that stuff or anything else I missed or was wrong about, hit me with a comment or start a discussion over in the forum!

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