just released its epic final showdown. Who lives? Who dies? Can anyone defeat the monstrous Vecna?
Two extra-long finale episodes hit Netflix on July 1 (although). We already . So let’s dive into the two-hour-long Episode 9, The Piggyback, and recap the climactic plot points, Easter eggs and character arcs. (Plus lots of spoilers!)
Stranger Things is set in 1980s Indiana, where a teen with powerful psychic powers escapes a sinister government installation. Eleven joins forces with local nerds Mike, Dustin, Lucas and Will to battle demogorgons, the Mind Flayer and other monsters, including the chillingly calculating Dr. Brenner.
Episode 8 ended with Brenner dying in the dust of the desert, but he’s left a whole heap of trouble behind: His experiments on psychic kids led to Eleven zapping troubled youngster Henry Creel into the parallel dimension of the Upside Down to become season 4’s demonic villain Eternal.
Meanwhile Sheriff Jim Hopper, Joyce and Murray try to escape a brutal Russian gulag with the help of duplicitous former guard Antonov (aka Enzo) and madcap smuggler Yuri. Episode 9 opens with Jim and Joyce facing the same problem as Eleven, Will, Mike, Jonathan and Surfer Boy brochacho Argyle: They have to get back to Hawkins before Vecna kills again and opens a fourth gate to the dark dimension. Steve, Nancy, Robin, Dustin and Eddie Munson tool up to infiltrate the Upside Down and stake Vecna in his coffin, while Lucas and Erica enter the terrifying Creel mansion to offer Max as bait. In the series finale, only the Hawkins kids (and Kate Bush) can save the world.
In Russia, Yuri keeps stalling (literally) as he pretends to work on his helicopter Katinka. Nearby, Joyce and Hopper undress in tandem, revealing the toll taken on Hopper’s body by his stay in the brutal gulag. Yet despite being battered, bloodied, gaunt and shaved of the head, David Harbor has possibly never been hotter? Having decided he’s a curse on anyone who cares about him, Hopper still found hope in dreams of Enzo’s bread sticks and lasagna, not to mention smooching Joyce (in a Hulk Hogan T-shirt).
In Hawkins, Nancy and the crew prepare their Upside Down commando raid. It sounds so simple, right? Dustin and Eddie know they’re decoys, but as soon as someone says “We are no heroes,” you just know they’re going to pull some pretty heroic crap before the credits roll.
As Erica, Lucas and Max explore the creepy Creel house, phase one begins… except a passer-by spots Erica, guiding Jason and his newly acquired handgun to the murder house on Morehead.
On the road, Eleven spots a billboard depicting a happy family and has flashbacks of her mother Terry. If she can enter the minds of her mother or Billy in previous seasons, she realizes she can follow into Max’s mind and face Vecna. It just means busting into a Surfer Boy Pizza. Luckily they have Purple Palm Tree Delight.
The mind fight is on
Hopper gets through to Owens’ assistant, who brings them up to speed on the danger in Hawkins. In their matching parkas, Hopper and Joyce realize they too can join the fight from where they are. It just means busting back into the Soviet jail. Luckily they have a flamethrower.
Are you ready for the biggest metal concert in the history of the world? In the Upside Down, Eddie discovers a demonic copy of his ax and rips into Metallica’s Master of Puppets to draw a horde of demon bats across a hellish dark dimension. I love how it isn’t just Eleven bringing her superpowers to the fight. The unique personalities of ordinary folk play a crucial role, as Argyle’s pizza-making and Eddie’s shredding also help save the world.
You might be forgiven for forgetting Jonathan was there this season as he’s mostly been in the background of a show with so many characters. But in one of the season’s heartfelt intimate moments, he reconnects with Will. In another poignant moment, following Steve’s speech about kids in episode 8, he shares another vulnerable heart-to-heart with Nancy in this episode. Oh, he’s really going to die, isn’t he?
Running up another hill
As Max listens to her secret weapon, Kate Bush, she and Lucas exchange cute notes. Then she turns off her Walkman.
Phase two begins.
But it doesn’t work. Eleven can see Max, but the guest of honor is a no-show. Max digs deeper into the taunting that Vecna aimed at her and faces her own emotional demons by acknowledging her darkest thoughts about her late brother Billy. And she admits that her bravery and possible sacrifice is rooted in self-loathing rather than nobility. Finally, Vecna makes his presence felt by cruelly impersonating Lucas and then Billy. Meanwhile, Eleven is already projecting herself to the Creel house, and then takes another step into Max’s mind as she finds herself amidst a memory of Max skateboarding.
It’s time for phase three.
Max finds herself in the Hawkins Middle School Snow Ball of 1984 as The Police’s 1983 mega-hit Every Breath You Take plays — just like at the moment when Lucas and Max kissed at the end of season 2. Then there’s a striking image of balloons bursting in a shower of gore as the school dance turns into something darker to the strains of Dream a Little Dream of Me by Ella Fitzgerald — the song playing on the radio when Henry Creel murdered his family.
In the Upside Down, Robin and Steve and Nancy are all grabbed by choking tentacles as Eddie and Dustin go into battle. (Battle, geddit?) To help Dustin escape, Eddie heads back into the Upside Down for a sword fight with a swarm of demon bats. See? Hero crap. Called it!
Eleven cuts in
Lucas realizes he never wanted to be popular and normal, but his fight with Jason smashes Max’s musical lifeline. Fortunately, Eleven hits the dance floor just in time to face the demon she inadvertently created.
The creature formerly known as Henry Creel regains the upper hand, crucifying Eleven against the now-familiar door of the murder house as Max is raised up to become the final sacrifice. Eleven deploys not her telekinetic powers, but her empathy for Henry. Unfortunately it doesn’t land as Henry doesn’t blame the ordinary, mediocre man Brenner for turning him into Vecna. He blames Eleven.
In a flashback, we see Vecna/Henry/One exploring the Upside Down, a realm he sees as unspoiled by humans. He becomes “the predator he was always meant to be” with the aid of the hideous Mind Flayer. “It was always you,” sobs Eleven as she flashes back to the Mind Flayer’s possession of Billy’s form in earlier seasons, realizing it was actually Vecna seeking to open gates from the Upside Down.
Whereas ’80s pop helped Max escape Vecna, now it’s Mike’s words that are music to Eleven’s ears as he finally says “I love you.” With or without powers, she’s his superhero. It’s notable that this season is built around families and friends maintaining their connection to one another no matter how far away they are. Things go wrong when characters stop talking, like Jonathan and Nancy, or Lucas snubbing the Hellfire Club, or even Henry Creel turning on his family. But Mike and El’s love letters, Hopper’s dream of date night, Max’s notes, Mike calling Eleven as she in turn reaches out to Max — these are all people shouting their love for one another, refusing to let their connection fade.
In an epic climax that will surely have everyone cheering, Running Up That Hill swells as Eleven blasts Vecna with her signature move. Joyce and Jim strike down the final demogorgons while Steve and Robin hurl Molotov cocktails. And Nancy? She doesn’t miss.
But the victory is bittersweet as Eddie dies in Dustin’s arms. The moment is a little undercut as none-more-metal Eddie drifts away to the strains of Moby, but it’s still sad.
And Max, broken and blinded, dies in Lucas’ arms — completing Vecna’s quartet of kills. The words of the apparently defeated villain ring in our ears ahead of the fifth and final season.
“This is only the beginning,” Henry/Vecna warns Eleven. “The beginning of the end. You have already lost.” As the clock chimes, a terrifying vast gate tears open the town of Hawkins. What an ending! The villain defeated, but an even bigger threat looms! What a cliffhanger!
Er, yeah, except there’s still 30 minutes left.
He’s not going to stop
The last half hour is full of emotional payoffs with the gang emotionally reuniting amid the fallout. Two days later, a “7.4-magnitude earthquake” rocked the town, killing and injuring dozens of people. To add insult to injury, the heroic Eddie Munson and the innocent Hellfire Club are blamed for satanic goings-on. Still, at least Dustin is able to tell Eddie’s uncle the truth (mostly).
Having already saved the world, the gang volunteers to help the relief effort. Robin’s crush, Vickie, joins her on PB&J duty, and it seems that romance may be on the cards after all. Hopper and Joyce have a tearful reunion with Eleven, who searches a dark and empty mindscape for Max — who it turns out is alive but in a coma.
Chillingly, Will still has a connection to Vecna/Henry/One after his possession in season 2. And he knows that the terrifying demon is hurt, but still out there. The hairs on the back of his neck stand up as clouds gather and weird particles rain down on the people of Hawkins, poisoning plants and opening a fearful portal. This is a repeat of the moment in season 2 episode 1 where Will saw a vision of the Mind Flayer before it possessed him — except this time everyone can see it, because it’s actually happening…
And so the stage is set for Stranger Things season 5!
- Steve survives!
- The Surfer Boy Pizza brochachos give us an epic A-Team style tooling-up scene, with added pizza pie.
- It seems ridiculous that amid demons and government conspiracies, the fate of the world is nearly derailed by a dick in a varsity jacket. But the handsome, popular douchebag is one of the biggest ’80s movie tropes, so it’s fitting that he plays a key role in this ’80s-obsessed show.
- Technically, Max and Vecna fight in a mental realm, so why are their powers limited to be the same as in the real world?
- Murray quotes Star Wars (“I got a bad feeling about this”) as the grown-ups sneak back into prison, while Robin’s post-tentacle quip (“I don’t believe in a higher power or divine intervention, but that was a miracle”) echoes that famous scene with Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta in Pulp Fiction.
- Antonov (aka Enzo) appeals to Yuri’s better nature by referring to his experience at Damansky in the 1969 Sino-Soviet border conflict.
- Eleven likes pineapple pizza. Try before you deny.
- Joyce has a flashback to the death of Bob Newby, her boyfriend in season 2, played by Sean Astin.
- At Max’s bedside, Lucas reads The Talisman, a 1984 fantasy novel by Stephen King and Peter Straub. Intriguingly, this is also a story of a parallel dimension that ends with an earthquake — and the novel then reveals multiple parallel realms.
- The closing credits track is Spellbound by Siouxsie and the Banshees. Why does no one think to stick a Walkman on the comatose Max?
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