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One disadvantage of the binge model of TV viewing is that it doesn't really leave all that much room for the effectiveness of cliffhangers, especially between individual episodes. Unless the cliffhanger is built into a season finale, you just wait the few seconds for the next episode to load, get the answers you were looking for, then move on. But thanks to a slight tweak to the release schedule, that's not the case for Stranger Things 4.
Because the Netflix hit chose to split its much-anticipated fourth season into two parts, with a month-long break in between, the show was able to end Season 4 Volume 1 with a very effective cliffhanger moment, revealing several key elements of the history of Hawkins and the Upside Down before breaking for a few weeks to set up the season finale. It's a big creative decision that sets up even more anticipation for the final two episodes to arrive one month from today, but according to producer and director Shawn Levy, it's also a decision that arose out of necessity.
"We didn’t think nine episodes were going to be ready in time, and we have made the world wait long enough," Levy told The Hollywood Reporter. "We always knew that if we could deliver the first seven, it’s such a satisfying breaking point and pay-off moment, that it’ll keep people fed for enough weeks so we can finish up volume two.
"Every streamer is playing around with different models. We’ve seen full-season, binge-worthy streaming, aka Stranger Things 1, 2 and 3. We’ve seen Disney+ and Hulu try a weekly model, which didn’t feel quite right for this. So, we’re happy that we were able to give our audience a huge meal of story. But it also gives us time to stick the landing by finishing the last two episodes really strongly and, as you’ve already now seen, this season relies on next-level visual effects and world-building, and as you can imagine, Volume 2 is very ambitious in its storytelling, and we need a little more time to finish strong."
Ambition has been a key word throughout the promotional cycle for Stranger Things 4, even keeping in mind the increasing scope and stakes of each previous season. A few months ago, Netflix announced this season is actually the penultimate arc of the show, setting up a fifth and final season coming soon. Meanwhile, the weeks leading up to Season 4's release were consumed with discussions of the feature-length runtime of several episodes. The upcoming Season 4 finale in particular is slated to run for two-and-a-half hours all on its own, longer than any feature film Levy (Free Guy, Real Steel) has directed at this stage in his career. But it's not just about padding out the runtimes. There are big reasons why Season 4 needs to be this long, and one of them is just how much it has to set up for Stranger Things 5. The cliffhanger in Episode 7 was huge, but Levy promises what's coming next might just dwarf it.
"I’ll just tell you that we are hard at work on Volume 2," Levy said. "There’s so much being written as far as the runtimes of these episodes, and the hefty runtime of Episode 9, in particular. Having seen both those finale episodes, they are as emotional as they are cinematic. Holy s***, they are definitely a treat for the eyes, but they punch you right in the heart. So, that’s what I’ll say about that.
"Season 5, I’ll just say this, we talk a lot — the Duffers and I — about sticking the landing. We tried to stick the landing with the final five minutes of every episode, and we definitely tried to stick the landing with the end of every season. So, ending next season is all about finishing strong. We have phenomenal ideas for Season 5, and we don’t want to stick around past the point where we see our path with clarity and confidence. So, Season 5 will no doubt be epic. It will be bittersweet for us to shoot and very bittersweet for audiences to watch. But hopefully, it’s also deeply satisfying because as we all know, as fans of many other shows, there’s few feelings as crummy as an unsatisfying ending — and there’s no chance in hell that we are going to give our passionate, loyal fans anything less than a deeply satisfying close in the final chapter."
Stranger Things 4 Volume 2 arrives July 1 on Netflix.