[Ed. note: This post contains spoilers for the end of Stranger Things 4 part 2.]
In the battle against Vecna, Max dies. But Eleven — and the power of love — brings her back. It’s ultimately part of one of the show’s greatest strengths, and also one of its greatest weaknesses: showing friendships in various forms.
Like so many stories before it, Stranger Things 4 indulges the idea that the power of love is the greatest weapon of all, stronger than all the Molotov cocktails, nails, and guns that the Hawkins kids got from the supply store (ah, the ’80s). As Eleven has learned this season, it’s that affection that makes her powers stronger than One/Vecna’s, which are fueled by hatred and fear. Once reminded of the love in her life, Eleven is finally able to pin Vecna down, saving the lives of multiple people in the process.
That includes Max, although the move comes a bit too late to fully keep her safe. After serving as bait for Vecna, she becomes his “final sacrifice,” getting her bones broken and losing her vision during a low point. Once the fight is over, she dies in Lucas’ arms, unable to see or feel anything as Eleven looks on from her mindspace.
But then Eleven resolves to fix it: “No. You’re not going,” she says, reaching out to Max’s heart. She takes a deep breath and closes her eyes, focusing on the good times they’ve had — the first time they met, their first sleepover, reading comics, shopping, singing, high-fiving about how there’s more to life than “stupid boys,” and how Eleven is more than just what Hopper or Mike wants her to be.
The flashbacks are a reminder that Eleven and Max shared a deep friendship. So it’s a bummer that this is the first time in Stranger Things 4 that Eleven or Max got to communicate how notable that friendship still is to them.
With such a big cast, Stranger Things has no choice but to mix and match who hangs out with who — it’s an apocalypse! You go where you can be helpful, no matter who’s on your team (just ask Steve “Babysitter” Harrington). And so the show is adept at exploring how different people come together, bring out new energies, and form unique connections with each other.
Max and Eleven are a wonderful example of that. They have the kind of loving, meaningful bond that forms between two girls and can’t really be understood by the boys in their life. Their time as friends was brief — though she was introduced in season 2, Max didn’t really warm to El until season 3, giving them just a season of friendship before Eleven carted off to California with the Byers. But it was clearly significant, and not just to the plot of Stranger Things 3.
The problem is, it’s the only time their bond is really mentioned this season. Though Eleven was featured in Max’s “Running Up That Hill” memories from Stranger Things 4 part 1, the montage focused more on Max’s lingering feelings about Lucas. Indeed, as both girls have been going through it in season 4, their stories dovetailed into how they felt about their romantic interests. While Eleven struggled to connect with her new home and losing her powers, and Max dealt with survivor’s guilt and grief over losing Billy, their relationship didn’t get the same attention that Will and Mike’s did; neither mentioned having written to or called the other. The way the plot is structured around Eleven, Mike was her sole concern about life back in Hawkins.
In that vacuum, neither was able to bring up how being some 2,000 miles from their closest female friend would impact their ability to cope with bullying or loss. It’s certainly a strength of Stranger Things that the relationship could still seem meaningful, even after a season without seeing or really mentioning each other. But as the friendship montage played, it seemed obnoxious that almost all the Eleven and Max scenes were from season 3 (and mostly early season 3 at that). The show still struggles to fully pierce the depth of the girls’ friendship in the way it does the boys’. These relationships are literally lifesaving to them — and likely the young girls watching — but Stranger Things still has an easier time envisioning the desolate doom of the Upside Down than it does the world of female friendship.