Which Stranger Things 4 Plotlines Actually Paid Off?

This article contains major spoilers from the final two episodes of "Stranger Things" season 4.

There's a lot going on in "Stranger Things" season 4. With multiple locations across states and continents, plots with inspirations that range from "Nightmare on Elm Street" to "Dazed and Confused," and a sprawling ensemble cast, it seemed impossible that the show would completely come together for its season finale. But the final two super-sized episodes of season 4 are now on Netflix, and they somehow made each disparate plotline part of a larger, epic story.

Still, a puzzle is only as good as its pieces, and now that it's over, it's clear that some pieces of "Stranger Things" season 4 are better than others. So which plot points paid off, and which ones fizzled out? Which were a slog and which led to moments that were worth the wait? Let's break it down and dig into the good, the bad, and the strange.

The California kids: paid off, but with a caveat

Did the parts of this season in which Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Will (Noah Schnapp), Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), and Argyle (Eduardo Franco) drove around America, half of them blazed as hell, strictly need to happen? I mean, not really, but they were enjoyable. Thanks in large part to Franco's endearingly affable performance, Argyle is a winning addition to the Hawkins defense team. The season wouldn't have been nearly as fun without him forcing Mike to try pineapple pizza or theorizing that Project Nina is a small girl hidden in the desert. 

Unlike some of the other humor this season, the California kids' plot actually did a good job balancing out some of the season's heavier moments. Jonathan's plot didn't amount to much, sure, but it was nice to see him chill out, have fun, and support his brother when it counted.

Speaking of which: let's talk about Will. His plot this season was a bit of a trainwreck. I very lightly applaud the Duffers for finally attempting to make him canonically gay, but also don't applaud them for revealing it through a series of coded, repetitive, excruciatingly embarrassing conversations that left the oft-neglected character more isolated than ever. Also, it's pretty wild that all culminated in the anticlimax of him using his own crush on Mike to motivate his straight-seeming bestie to confess his love to his girlfriend. That's not exactly the character breakthrough writers might think it is.

The Hawkins defense squad: a mixed bag of payoff

In terms of well-executed character arcs, none this season will beat Max's (Sadie Sink). The grieving teen got caught in Vecna's crosshairs not once, but twice, and both instances were chances for the show to craft a surprisingly profound narrative about depression. Of course, fans don't want her ending the season in a coma, but I do think he arc paid off: pulled back from the darkness, she ended up declaring her desire to live, while all her friends and loved ones tried their best to guarantee that would happen.

And then there's Eddie (Joseph Quinn). The metalhead character's plot certainly came full circle this season, as he reminded viewers with his dying words, which were all basically a rehash of stuff he said in other episodes. Eddie was a great character, and it would've been very cool to see him stick around, but if he had to go, it makes sense that he went out the way he did. He grew into a hero this season, and ended it by stopping to fight his battles rather than run from them.

The rest of the Hawkins gang is a mixed bag. Steve (Joe Keery) is another standout, as this season saw him get plenty of major hero moments and finally tell Nancy (Natalia Dyer) he thinks he's become the man she needs him to be. She didn't exactly reciprocate, but definitely had a soft spot for her ex by the end of the season. Robin (Maya Hawke) got some great character development, though her plot with Vickie (AmyBeth McNulty) was almost nonexistent and took enough eleventh-hour turns that it started to feel like "Stranger Things" just doesn't know how to let its queer characters fall in love.

Lucas' (Caleb McLaughlin) plot is another that will likely be polarizing. The show has long-since been scrutinized for its treatment of Black characters, and while Lucas' showdown with zealot jock Jason (Mason Dye) could be considered cathartic, it was also frustrating to see the kind and clever character once again stuck in opposition with someone who seems to be coded as racist. Can't Lucas just have a good time? I know Hawkins is mid-apocalypse, but I'm going to need to see everyone to show up for one of his basketball games next season.

The Russian rescue: may have paid off, but was insufferable first

Let's be clear, here: this season's Russia plot can be divided into two different parts, each of which offers a wildly different viewing experience. There's before Joyce (Winona Ryder) arrives to save Hopper (David Harbour), and after. Before she and Murray (Brett Gelman) get there, this is the most tedious plot of the season. Hopper seems like he's in a completely different show, one that's about pain and torture and atonement for past wrongs and the type of internal character growth that doesn't really work when sandwiched between scenes of stoner pizza boys and serial killer monsters.

The Russia plot finally picks up some steam in the last few episodes, though, and a lot of the earlier pacing problems evaporate when the group has to escape and then return to help El from afar, facing off against demogorgons and demo-dogs all the while. Most importantly, Hopper and Joyce get their reunion, complete with him checking in about Eleven, her making him promise not to die again, and the pair finally sharing a hasty but intense kiss.

Despite this, every other facet of the Russia plot, namely anything involving peanut butter loving smuggler Yuri (Nikola Djuricko) or prison guard Dmitri (Tom Wlaschiha), absolutely does not pay off. No scene in volume two makes the action grind to a halt more than when Yuri is talking about making love to his lady helicopter. I cannot express enough how little these guys seem to matter in the grand scheme of things. Also, there's no way Joyce and Murray would have survived that plane crash, right?

Eleven and Dr. Brenner: did not pay off

If one plot point in "Stranger Things" season 4 seems even less important than the trials and tribulations of the peanut butter smuggler, it's Dr. Brenner's (Matthew Modine) return. Much of the season's bloated runtime could be cut down if the camera didn't simply love this character, a thoroughly creepy man who somehow almost immediately gets back on Eleven's good side despite having abducted her as a child, tortured her mom, and brainwashed her into calling him her Papa while depriving her from having a normal life.

The show seems weirdly invested in making us see some depth in this mad scientist character, but really, he's just there to usher the plot along. Eleven needs to regain her powers and understand Vecna, and series writers chose to bring Brenner back to do that when it actually could've happened a lot quicker, and without retraumatizing the show's hero for no real reason. Was the conclusion of this arc satisfying? Sure. But did it ever need to go down like this in the first place? Absolutely not.

Vecna: paid off

Though the path to Vecna's origin story was long and winding, it certainly paid off. The biggest Big Bad the kids of Hawkins have ever faced is powerful and scary, capable of crumpling up unsuspecting teenagers like wads of paper to throw in the trash. The first version of his origin story, told via Victor Creel (Robert Englund) in episode four, is a classic haunted house tale. The second version, told from his own point of view, is just as frightening.

Does every aspect of Vecna's mythology make sense? No, not exactly. The constantly referenced spiders seem to only loosely tie in to his ethos, and it's unclear why his inability to turn Eleven to the dark side made him want to ruin the whole planet. Still, it's thrilling to see "Stranger Things" finally start to assemble an overarching explanation for everything that's been happening for the past four seasons, and Vecna is responsible for nearly all of the season's most powerful, touching, and terrifying moments, including that heart-stopping final showdown.