The Stranger Things Season 4 Finale Refuses to Twist the Knife. Yet.

Spoilers ahead for Stranger Things season 4.

Are you, too, surprised we made it out like this? I’ll give the Stranger Things marketing machine its due: After weeks of teasers, trailers, interviews, theories, viral TikToks, and viral TikTok songs, it seemed the Netflix thriller might finally have reached its apex, and that the one thing waiting on the downhill slide might be…well, death. (Whether for the characters or the series itself remained arguable.) And given Gaten Matarazzo’s winking tease for Teen Vogue this week, during which the actor hinted at multiple deaths within the Stranger Things season 4 finale, I fully expected to be writing this review through my tears.

However the finale is, inconceivably, an exercise in restraint. I do know, I do know—that’s a ridiculous thing to say a few finale episode the length of a feature film. Stranger Things doesn’t know the right way to do restraint! There’s an excessive amount of money on the road!! Nevertheless, it’s true: Episode 9, “Piggyback,” does more to establish the following, final final battle than to actually resolve the one its season hinged upon. That dose of Marvel Syndrome might aggravate some viewers—even this author admits to an eye-roll before the credits—but, still, there’s something undeniably magnetic about knowing the top stays nigh. The blood remains to be boiling. The very best is yet to return. Like Max, perhaps we aren’t yet able to die.

The finale opens with our Russian crew—Hopper, Joyce, Murray, Yuri, and the One Dude Whose Name I Keep Forgetting (right, Dmitri!)—still landlocked in Sovietville. While Yuri hugs the buttocks/windshield of his helicopter, Katinka, Joyce and Hopper pull out sleeping bags and alter into Hulk Hogan T-shirts. Immediately, my vision sharpened: Are they…gonna bone? Joyce approaches a shirtless Hopper and expresses dismay at his scarred chest. “It’s not that bad,” he says. “, I needed to drop some weight anyway.” Excuse me, but let’s not imbue Dad Bod Hopper with toxic beauty standards, please and thanks.

Joyce mentions that a part of why she was willing to take this risk—you already know, breaking right into a Russian prison and all—is because they still have a date to get to, remember? “Remember?” Hopper replies, dumbstruck. “I’ve been dreaming about it.” He’s gonna get two orders of breadsticks at dinner, which truthfully I’m surprised isn’t something he normally does. “You’ve been dreaming about breadsticks and lasagna?” Joyce asks, laughing. Hop stands up straighter and sidles a little bit closer. “Should I even have been dreaming about something else?” Why is that this sexy?!

Finally, they lean in for the long-awaited kiss. (Someone call Murray!) But before they will get it on, the phone rings, ostensibly with the KGB listening. On the phone, Hop learns their kids are in trouble: As we saw within the penultimate episode, Dr. Brenner, a.k.a Papa, is dead, and Eleven is “indisposed.” Joyce’s kids are “off the grid,” too. (Watching Winona Ryder’s not-surprised-but-nevertheless-terrified little twitch here is completely heartbreaking.) Trapped as they’re in Russia, they realize they’ll never make it back in time to save lots of the youngsters—but they do have access to the creatures discovered within the Russian prison last episode, which implies they’ve access to Vecna’s “hive mind.” It’s back to the prison we go.


Meanwhile, the Surfer Boy Pizza gang—Eleven, Will, Mike, Jonathan, and Argyle—try (unsuccessfully) to book a flight via pay phone. Eleven realizes that, if Vecna can hijack Max’s mind, so can she; she’s done it together with her mother and with Max’s late brother, Billy, before. But for that she’ll need a sensory deprivation tank—or at the very least a bath with numerous salt in it—and Argyle knows just where to get a fix. They bus over to the local Surfer Boy franchise and take over the kitchen, with the assistance of a stiff joint, and discover the 600 kilos of salt Argyle promised. “First-ever mind fight held in a pizza dough freezer,” Argyle says. Right on.

The remaining Hawkins team—Nancy, Steve, Robin, Lucas, Max, Dustin, and Erica—devise a four-phase plan to take out Henry/Vecna/One. They agree to not deviate from the plan, irrespective of what. (Guess what I feel they’re gonna do? Deviate from the plan!) Everyone but Max, Lucas, and Erica all hop through the Upside-Down hole in Eddie’s trailer ceiling and wind up back in Vecna territory. The latter trio, still within the “real world,” search out Vecna’s location using lamps. Thus begins Phase One.

Now, now, you didn’t forget in regards to the Jocks, did you? Hawkins High’s golden boys are growing increasingly impatient, with Jason, particularly, looking increasingly deranged in every frame. Seems, they’ve got a lead: Someone saw Erica running out of the “murder house on Morehead.” Uh oh. Looks like a showdown’s coming, and on the worst possible time for Vecna’s would-be assassins.

Within the Upside Down, Eddie finds his electric guitar waiting for him, “like she was destined for an alternate dimension.” While en path to the UD-version of the Creel house, Steve thanks Nancy for giving him a thump on the top, metaphorically speaking, after which reveals his Winnebago fantasy from last episode—the road trips, the six mini Harringtons?—includes her. “You’re there,” he says. “You’ve all the time been there.” At this point, Steve was No. 1 on my Most Prone to Die list.

They find the Creel house and move into Phase Two, which involves baiting Vecna. Max removes her headphones and shuts off Kate Bush, which is greater than I’ve been in a position to do on TikTok. But things don’t quite go in keeping with plan: Even when Max isn’t running up that hill, Vecna isn’t taking the bait. So she sits down and talks to him, almost like she’s confiding in a detailed friend: “I considered what you said. About how I wanted my brother to die.” She admits to praying that something might occur to Billie back when he was alive, just so she wouldn’t need to live together with his abuse anymore. She’s tried to forgive herself but can’t. “So now,” she says, “now once I lie in bed at night, I pray that something will occur to me…In order that’s why I’m here. Because I just want you to take me away.” There’s inevitably some truth to this monologue, which is strictly why it really works so well. Inside seconds, Vecna’s in her head. Phase Three.

sadie sink as max mayfield in stranger things season 4


In a fully incredible turn of events, Eddie and Dustin determine to lure Vecna’s army of flesh-ripping bats to them with a rendition of Metallica’s “Master of Puppets.” (I highly recommend turning on subtitles for this part. Just take my word for it.) Dustin grinning and head-banging along is a highlight of the whole episode. But Steve, Nancy, and Robin are too busy fighting off Vecna tentacles to understand the Upside Down’s sick latest playlist. Lucas has his hands full, too: Jason has arrived on the scene, and he’s pointing a gun right at his teammate’s brow. Thankfully, Lucas has a killer right hook, and the 2 take to rumbling.

Eleven, now emerged within the salt bath and connected to Max’s mind, starts flipping through Max’s memories. But she’s struggling to succeed in the one where Max is (mentally) hiding from Vecna: last season’s Hawkins Middle Snow Ball, which is slowly turning right into a Vecna-themed murder party with bursting balloons of blood. As Hopper and Co. orchestrate a technique for trapping the demo-creatures within the prison pit and lighting them on fire, thereby weakening Vecna, Eddie and Dustin rally to wield off the remaining hell-bats. Shockingly, there’s too a lot of them, so Dustin surmises the one answer is to run back to the true world. But Eddie’s done enough running currently. This time, he’s going to fight.

Back in Max’s mind palace, Vecna is about to contort her limbs, but Eleven intervenes before he can kill her. When Max asks, we get what is going to surely change into one other iconic Eleven quote, emblazoned on Reddit graphics and T-shirts in all places: “I piggybacked through a pizza dough freezer.” But the great humor doesn’t last, as Vecna regains his strength and takes each Max’s unconscious body and Eleven’s writing one to his blood-red Creel lair within the Upside Down. “Papa is dead,” Eleven tells him, attempting to calm his wrath. “He made you into this. He’s the monster, Henry. Not you.”

But Vecna’s got a monologue he desires to perform, and Eleven is ru-in-ing it! “Do you not see, Eleven?” he tells her. “He didn’t make me into this. You probably did.” Classic victim-blaming!

We learn—again via monologue—that Henry/Vecna/One “became an explorer of a realm unspoiled by mankind” when a younger Eleven first sent him unwittingly to the Upside Down. There, he discovered “a method to comprehend my potential”: the Mind Flayer. But when Eleven and Co. defeated the Mind Flayer, Vecna looked inward, realizing he’d have to open the 4 gates himself in an effort to spur the apocalypse. He would then “pick up the pieces” of the broken world and remake it “into something…beautiful.” Alright, Thanos.

the stranger things cast in the season 4 finale


In the true world, Max begins to levitate, a sure sign things aren’t going so hot. Also, Eleven is coding within the salt bath, and Mike confesses his love in an effort to get her to stay around. He pleads together with her to fight, and so she does: The tentacles release from round her neck and joints. Nevertheless it is likely to be too late. Max’s limbs have already began snapping, and blood is streaming from her eyes. Eddie is getting eaten alive by bats. A demodog is inches away from chewing through Hopper’s face. Are we…losing?

In fact not. Eleven finds her bottomless reserve of power and bursts Vecna backward as Hopper and Joyce make a run for it. With the demo-beings contained within the pit, Murray rains fire from above. As Vecna’s restrained by Eleven, his tentacles release Nancy, Steve, and Robin (they were, uh, suffocating for a very long time there, huh?), and the bats surrounding Eddie collapse. One demogorgon survives, and Hop takes up Excalibur—sorry, some random sword on the bottom—to fight it.

Nancy, Steve, and Robin find the true Vecna within the Upside Down and prepare a roast. (Phase 4!) But he has a warning for Eleven: “This is simply the start. The start of the top. You might have already lost.” The trio set him ablaze, and a now-flaming Vecna rises to stalk them. Robin throws one other Molotov while Nancy advances on him, shotgun-blasting at closer and closer range. Steve just stands there lookin’ cute, as is his prerogative.

Finally, Nancy shoots Vecna through a window of the Creel house, leaving his ostensibly dead body smoldering on the front yard. But alas. Once they race downstairs, his body is gone.

It’s now or never: If anyone goes to die, the time has arrived. Eddie is, after all, the primary to go; unlike Steve, he’s unable to face up to quite a few bat bites. Although a latest character to the Stranger Things brigade—and thus one we’ve had less time to grow attached to—Eddie’s death is nevertheless a gut-wrenching blow, particularly when Dustin begins to sob by his side. “I didn’t run away this time, right?” Eddie asks his friend. No, Master of Puppets. You probably did not.

Back within the Creel house, Max has woke up, but she will’t see or feel anything. Her eyes have turned foggy; her limbs are shattered. Lucas screams to Erica to get an ambulance as Max blubbers, “I don’t wanna die. I’m not ready.” Of all her emotional scenes this season, Sadie Sink’s delivery here is her best. It’s absolutely horrid to look at. Lucas and Eleven each shriek with agony as 4 chimes erupt from Vecna’s grandfather clock, signaling Max has passed on—and the curtain between Hawkins and the Upside Down has fallen.

Viscous, red-hot cracks tear through the ground, splitting Jason in two as they carve a path of carnage. (Was that basically mandatory, after every part we’ve been through?) Buildings collapse into the track of UD lava because the earth rumbles and moans. Mike tries to get up the true Eleven, but she’s still in Max’s head, where she whispers, simply, “No. You’re not going.” Wait—does Eleven have resurrection powers I don’t learn about? Before we will discover, the screen cuts to black, and a “Two Days Later” card alerts us to a time jump.

hawkins on fire in stranger things season 4


Because the Surfer Boy Pizza Bros. drive back into town, they arrive up against an extended line of fully packed cars hightailing it out of Hawkins. Finally home, everyone shares tender, bittersweet reunions, some more optimistic than others: Robin sees Vickie at a makeshift relief camp and the 2 hit it off; Dustin, weeping, gives Mr. Munson Eddie’s guitar pick and a brave memory to recollect his son by; Nancy and Jonathan attempt to suss out if their relationship is “okay” (it’s not); and Lucas reveals Max is in a coma, one from which she might never get up. At Hopper’s cabin, father and daughter are together again, and Eleven even thinks Hop’s barely emaciated look is “bitchin’.” But Will knows, perhaps higher than anyone, that the day shouldn’t be won: Vecna remains to be alive, and Will can feel him, “that he’s hurt, he’s hurting, but he’s still alive.”

The hairs on the back of Will’s neck get up, they usually all look into the sky: A storm is coming. Snow—Upside Down snow, not real snow—begins to fall. Together, they walk to a clearing and find the flowers have withered and died. The Upside Down and Hawkins are merging. The ultimate battle has come.

And that’s the top: A next-season set-up worthy of a Marvel post-credits scene. “Only” one important character died—unless we’re also counting Max, whose fate stays to be seen. In some ways, “Piggyback” was not the sucker-punch I used to be expecting, though it delivers on the motion and the horror Stranger Things is beloved for. My first instinct was a bizarre disappointment. All this construct up, and I didn’t also have a panic attack by the top?

It’s true that not all fans will find “Piggyback” a very satisfying conclusion, especially given its run time and the best way its preceding episodes were split into chunks. There’s not much we learn here that we didn’t already know: Vecna is Henry/One, he’s on a mission to finish the world, and it’s going to be really hard to stop him. All those self same things are still true, except now Eddie is dead, Max is in a coma, and Vecna is probably going pulling a Voldemort and healing while the Hawkins-Upside Down merge marinates.

And yet. Perhaps I showcase a bent to fall for basic fan-baiting, however the moments “Piggyback” desired to feel epic did feel epic. By the point the credits rolled, I had enough adrenaline pumping through my system to crank out this story well into the wee hours of the morning. I don’t want to offer the Netflix series an excessive amount of credit—Stranger Things gets much more accolades than it truthfully deserves—however the show is likely to be on to something with its slow but regular approach. Forgive the crude analogy here, however it’s a bit like edging—bringing us closer and closer to what we all know is inevitable (an enormous, gravity-defying emotional release) but refusing to, on this case, actually twist the knife. Eddie’s death was a precursor to what, almost definitely, will probably be a more controversial loss next season. That might be Max. Or Eleven. Or—God forbid—Dustin.

Next season will probably be the show’s last. The battle is near. Perhaps, then, Stranger Things desired to make certain we were ready for the fight.

Associate Editor
Lauren Puckett-Pope is an associate editor at ELLE, where she covers news and culture.

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