“Stranger Things” Season 4 has finally come to an end.
After debuting in late May with seven jumbo-sized episodes, the series returned on July 1 to close out with two more huge installments (the season finale runs a whopping 2-hours-and-30-minutes). After waiting nearly three years for new episodes, it was perfect. Once again, “Stranger Things” captured the zeitgeist, rocketing an old Kate Bush song to the top of the charts and giving social media something to talk about (mainly about who they didn’t want to die in the finale). But all good things must come to an end, including “Stranger Things.”
Perhaps what makes these last two episodes even more important/seismic is the fact that this really is the beginning of the end. Next season, “Stranger Things 5,” will be its last. There have already been discussions about spin-off series (this is Netflix’s most popular and arguably most important franchise), but the mainline series’ days are numbered.
But what happened in the finale and what does it mean for the show as it enters the homestretch? Read on to find out! (We’ve broken up the action by geographic location.)
HUGE SPOILERS for the “Stranger Things 4” finale follow; only read once you’ve seen the final two episodes!
Yes, we are (somehow) still in Russia during the final two episodes of this season. Hopper (David Harbour), Joyce (Winona Ryder), Murray (Brett Gelman) and Dimitri (Tom Wlaschiha), along with a captive Yuri (Nikola Đuričko) escape the secret Russian prison where Hopper had been held. On the way out, they discover that the prison has been doing some weird stuff with creatures from the Upside Down – there are Demogorgons in glass jars and, most provocatively, a swirl of sentient particles that are later identified as The Shadow. (More on that in a minute.)
They escape the prison in the most “Shawshank Redemption” style possible, tunneling through an underground sewer line to reach freedom, only to hear machinegun fire back at the prison. The Demogorgon that Hopper and Dimitri were supposed to fight has gotten loose and is now eating many, many people. Once they return to Yuri’s compound, which includes the forgotten church now filled with counterfeit Levi’s and jars of American peanut butter, Yuri shows them their way out of Russia – a rickety homemade helicopter. Of course, while fixing “her” up, he takes a key component away from the machine and stalls for time. Typical Yuri.
Feeling desperate, Hopper instructs Dimitri to stay with Yuri and get him to finish the helicopter. He and Joyce and Murray are going to return to the prison to destroy the Upside Down ephemera that they walked past earlier. The Upside Down operates as a hive mind, Hopper reasons, so destroying that stuff in Russia can actually help the gang back in Hawkins. They trudge back into the prison compound, only to see that pretty much everybody has been eaten.
A half-eaten guard tells them that those particles, The Shadow, went into the Demogogon specimens and were resuscitated. That means instead of one monster, Hopper and the motley duo are contending with many monsters.
Hopper tells Joyce (yes, they are very much an official thing now, complete with passionate smooch) that he’s going to die. But he’s not going to die. He instructs Joyce to electrify the cells and for Murray to burn them with the flamethrower. Hopper will act as bait. Of course, when he gets into the pit, Murray roasts most of them but there’s one that just won’t stop. How does Hopper kill this monster? With a giant sword that wouldn’t look out of place in He-Man’s hands; Hopper ultimately decapitates the Demogorgon. The evil of the prison is quieted, and it hopefully helped those more directly with the conflict. (Still: what were the Russians doing with all of this Upside Down stuff? We demand answers! Our guess that there was actually a portal in Russia that would whisk them back to Hawkins. We were wrong.)
As they look over the burnt, mutilated corpses of man and monster alike, Yuri and Dimitri are spotted overhead with that rickety ass helicopter. Hey, they got it together. (Dimitri actually gave Yuri a rousing speech about how his cowardice makes him look bad in the eyes of Mother Russia.) They are off to America, with several pitstops undoubtedly along the way.
On the Road
Meanwhile, on the road, Eleven has been reunited with Will (Noah Schnapp), Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) and her new BFF, we’re assuming, Argyle (Eduardo Franco). The boys had been on a cross-country road trip and finally discovered her in the middle of the desert, at a top secret research facility. (Long story short: some evil government guys showed up, Eleven used her powers to destroy a helicopter, Dr. Brenner was shot and killed.) Together, they made a bid to quickly return to Hawkins.
But, finding no suitable source of transportation, Eleven has an idea – she can “piggyback” into Max’s (Sadie Sink) consciousness, helping her defend herself from Vecna when he comes to attack her. (The volume of imaginary realms in these last two episodes is something else.) Of course, to do this, she must approximate the tank that allowed her remote viewing in Hawkins Lab (and, later, the secret underground bunker where Brenner imprisoned her this season). As we’ve seen on previous season she needs a bathtub (or something very much like it) and a whole lot of salt.
Argyle proposes a solution: they visit a Surfer Boy Pizza that has opened up near where they’ve stopped. They meet the worker at the restaurant, who is very much like Argyle, who seems iffy about the whole “allowing them to use a freezer and a bunch of the restaurant’s salt to prepare for a psychedelic vision quest” thing. Jonathan bribes him with a joint. The kid says yes. And they get to work.
Here’s where things get a little bit tangled (we’ll get into further explanations in the following section) – Eleven finds herself in Max’s consciousness while Vecna/Henry/One (Jamie Campbell Bower) attacks her. Eleven first tries to get Max to directly acknowledge her, tiptoeing through the precious memories that Max is trying to hide from Vecna in. It doesn’t work so she tries a different approach. Vecna invades these good memories, curdling what Max thought was a safe space. (Balloons from the winter formal where she and Lucas danced pop, now filled with blood, etc.) Eleven shows up and puts him in his place … at least for a while.
Before leaving the underground lab, she was told by Brenner and Owens that she wasn’t ready yet. She was going to fail her friends. And Vecna was going to win. (They probably said “Henry” or “One” instead of Vecna.) Eleven ignored them, was ready to leave, and that’s when the other military guys showed up and started shooting everybody (because of course they did). Vecna also tells Eleven that she’s not ready, that she’ll be beaten. And that when she sent him to the Upside Down, it was a totally primitive land. He communed with the powers that be, he made himself the dark wizard that he is now and he orchestrated all of the previous attempts to take over our world. (Also Brenner kept sending her into the Upside Down to look for Henry, that jerk.) She is going to fail, he assures her. And he’s right.
The Upside Down
Some of the finale’s most exciting and, indeed, most heartbreaking moments occur in the Upside Down. To explain: the Hawkins gang has made a plan – Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) and Erica (Priah Ferguson) are staying with Max (or at least Max’s physical form), while Steve (Joe Keery), Robin (Maya Hawke) and Nancy (Natalia Dyer) sneak into the Upside Down to kill Vecna/Henry/One. Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Eddie (Joseph Quinn) are also in the Upside Down, using Eddie’s heavy metal mastery to distract the Demogorgon bats which encircle Vecna’s lair, so Steve, Robin and Nancy can infiltrate with ease.
Of course, nothing goes to plan.
Lucas and Erica are intercepted by the school bullies who think Eddie (and, in turn, Lucas) are responsible for the series of grisly murders that have rocked Hawkins; Robin, Steve and Nancy are beset by nasty vines in the Upside Down version of the Creel house; and Eddie and Dustin, after initial success luring the bats away from the Creel house, are then violently attacked by them. (One question: if the Upside Down is frozen in 1982, has the Upside Down version of Eddie’s guitar been sitting there since then? It seems newer!)
In short, the Upside Down plan is a catastrophe.
Most importantly, Eleven is unsuccessful in vanquishing Vecna in Max’s mind. He takes control of Max and (in real life) she levitates off the ground. Her arms and legs are broken, she’s blinded and her heart stops. Kate Bush cannot save her now. In Hawkins, they have failed, but the repercussions are really felt in the Upside Down.
Once Steve, Robin and Nancy get free of the vines (thanks in part to Eleven’s work in Max’s mind and Hopper’s in Russia), they attack Vecna/Henry/One, setting him on fire and watching him burn. After they push him out a window, they see that he is gone. Then they hear it: the four chimes of the grandfather clock, one for each of Vecna’s victims (and for the four portals he intends to open, driving Hawkins into darkness). Max is gone. And Vecna is still out there.
Meanwhile, at the Upside Down version of the trailer park, the bats are swarming. Eddie decides to make one last stand. He’s run away from so much in his life. Dustin has already gone through to our world when Eddie cuts the bedsheet rope back to our world, marooning Dustin there. Dustin is, understandably, upset. Eddie goes back to fighting the bats. Dustin makes a tower and gets back to the Upside Down but hurts (maybe breaks?) his leg in the process. He hobbles towards Eddie trying to save him. But the bats engulf Eddie. By the time Dustin gets to Eddie, he’s nearly done. He tells Dustin that he thought this was going to be the year when he finally graduated, echoing a sentiment from earlier in the season. He tells Dustin he didn’t run. And then … he dies. It’s heartbreaking. Not only because Eddie went from loser to hero (something Dustin repeats to Eddie’s uncle later in the finale) but because Joe Quinn was such a force of nature this season – his character was so bombastic, so nuanced, so funny. He will be missed. RIP Eddie.
But the gang’s exploits in the Upside Down have real world consequences. Unlike in previous seasons, this isn’t going to get tidily wrapped up with a portal to the Upside Down closing. Threat averted. Moving on. This season, things will have lasting consequences. Which brings us to …
It’s two days later.
Let’s get one thing out of the way first: Max is still alive. Sort of. She’s in a coma. Both of her arms and both of her legs are broken. It’s not looking good for her eyesight. But she is still technically alive. Lucas is seen reading to her in the hospital room (Stephen King and Peter Straub’s “The Talisman,” which the Duffer Brothers are in the process of adapting with Steven Spielberg) and obviously hoping for the best. But it’s not looking good.
And while Steve, Nancy and Robin probably thought they vanquished Vecna, they did not. Max was technically dead (someone says that her heart stopped beating for several seconds), Vecna’s evil haunted grandfather clock chimed four times and the gates between our world and the Upside Down opened in Hawkins. (The sequence of the Upside Down invading Hawkins is pretty amazing. Astronomical budgets justified!) More than 20 people died and the town is basically being evacuated as Argyle, Mike, Will, Jonathan and Eleven make their way back into town in the Surfer Boy Pizza van.
The government is blaming the destruction on earthquakes. But as they creep past the church, the telltale signs of the Upside Down are there – gnarly vines enrapturing whole parts of the building. It seems to be over, maybe because Max actually lived. But this is a very different Hawkins.
Mike, Will, Argyle, Jonathan and Eleven head to the Wheelers house. The gang is reunited. Also Argyle is there. Nancy sees Jonathan for the first time. They embrace and crush Steve’s dream of a reconciliation (please note: this was everyone’s dream). Dustin tells Eleven and Will about Max. They go visit her and see Lucas reading to her. Eleven tells the comatose Max that she’s here.
Robin, Steve and Nancy volunteer at a school gymnasium that has been turned into a shelter. (Robin sees her crush from band and yes, there is a connection! Over very bad-looking peanut butter sandwiches!) Dustin is there too and tells Eddie’s uncle that his nephew died a hero, which is a deeply affecting moment. (The police still suspect that Eddie was responsible for the Vecna murders, because that’s a lot easier.) Dustin really looked up to Eddie. At least Dustin will make a great leader of the Hellfire Club next year.
Argyle, Mike, Will, Nancy Jonathan and Eleven all go to Hopper’s trashed cabin to try and fix it up. This is where Eleven will hide out from the government guys that attacked the underground facility. Argyle is also there for some reason (he finds some mushrooms in the nearby forest). Will and Mike have another heart to heart. Will tells Mike that he can feel Vecna; he’s hurt but he’s not dead. (These premonitions, we should remember, have been a part of Will’s personality since he returned from the Upside Down.) Will says Vecna won’t stop until he’s taken everything and everyone.
Eleven goes into her old room, making sure to keep the door open three inches. She spins an old Coke bottle and uses its scratch turning to return to the black astral plane. She screams for Max. But she doesn’t answer. Nobody is there. Hopper comes in. It is very emotional and very satisfying. Joyce is there too. There is much hugging.
But before anybody gets too comfortable, Will gets his trademark Upside Down-related goosebumps and the sky darkens. They look heavenward. It starts to “snow” the floaty particles from the Upside Down. Everyone that is still in Hawkins can see them. Dustin rushes out of the gymnasium. Hopper leads the gang out to a field. There’s a line where the color is drained from the grass and all of the wildflowers are dead. They look out, at Hawkins, smoke billows into the atmosphere. It’s hell on earth. And in the smoke clouds, that red lightning of the Upside Down crackles. Eleven looks towards it, resolute. Joyce and Hopper hold hands. They are looking into the future. Into the final showdown between themselves and the Upside Down. Vecna must be destroyed for Hawkins to be saved.
Cut to black. “Spellbound” by Siouxsie and the Banshees plays. A tiny “Stranger Things 4” logo gets bigger and bigger as it moves towards the camera.
A timeline for the final season hasn’t been revealed yet but one thing’s for sure: it’s going to be epic.