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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 only thing waiting on the downhill slide could 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, in which the actor hinted at multiple deaths in the Stranger Things season 4 finale, I fully expected to be writing this review through my tears.
But the finale is, inconceivably, an exercise in restraint. I know, I know—that’s a ridiculous thing to say about a finale episode the length of a feature film. Stranger Things doesn’t know how to do restraint! There’s too much money on the line!! Nevertheless, it’s true: Episode 9, “Piggyback,” does more to set up the next, final final battle than to truly resolve the one its season hinged upon. That dose of Marvel Syndrome might aggravate some viewers—even this writer admits to an eye-roll before the credits—but, still, there’s something undeniably magnetic about knowing the end remains nigh. The blood is still boiling. The best is yet to come. Like Max, perhaps we aren’t yet ready 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 change 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. “You know, I needed to lose weight anyway.” Excuse me, but let’s not imbue Dad Bod Hopper with toxic beauty standards, please and thank you.
Joyce mentions that part of why she was willing to take this risk—you know, breaking 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 honestly 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 closer. “Should I have been dreaming about something else?” Why is this sexy?!
Finally, they lean in for the long-awaited kiss. (Someone call Murray!) But before they can get it on, the phone rings, ostensibly with the KGB listening. On the phone, Hop learns their kids are in trouble: As we saw in 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 absolutely heartbreaking.) Trapped as they are in Russia, they realize they’ll never make it back in time to save the kids—but they do have access to the creatures discovered in the Russian prison last episode, which means they have 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—are trying (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 with her mother and with Max’s late brother, Billy, before. But for that she’ll need a sensory deprivation tank—or at least a bathtub with a lot of 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 help of a stiff joint, and discover the 600 pounds 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 not to deviate from the plan, no matter what. (Guess what I think 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 in the “real world,” hunt down Vecna’s location using lamps. Thus begins Phase One.
Now, now, you didn’t forget about the Jocks, did you? Hawkins High’s golden boys are growing increasingly impatient, with Jason, in particular, looking more and more deranged in every frame. Turns out, 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 at the worst possible time for Vecna’s would-be assassins.
In the Upside Down, Eddie finds his electric guitar waiting for him, “like she was destined for an alternate dimension.” While en route to the UD-version of the Creel house, Steve thanks Nancy for giving him a thump on the head, metaphorically speaking, and then reveals his Winnebago fantasy from last episode—the road trips, the six mini Harringtons?—includes her. “You’re there,” he says. “You’ve always been there.” At this point, Steve was No. 1 on my Most Likely 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 more than I’ve been able to do on TikTok. But things don’t quite go according to 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 close friend: “I thought about what you said. About how I wanted my brother to die.” She admits to praying that something might happen to Billie back when he was alive, just so she wouldn’t have to live with his abuse anymore. She’s tried to forgive herself but can’t. “So now,” she says, “now when I lie in bed at night, I pray that something will happen to me…So 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 exactly why it works so well. Within seconds, Vecna’s in her head. Phase Three.
In an absolutely incredible turn of events, Eddie and Dustin decide 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 entire episode. But Steve, Nancy, and Robin are too busy fighting off Vecna tentacles to appreciate the Upside Down’s sick new playlist. Lucas has his hands full, too: Jason has arrived on the scene, and he’s pointing a gun right at his teammate’s forehead. Thankfully, Lucas has a killer right hook, and the two take to rumbling.
Eleven, now emerged in the salt bath and connected to Max’s mind, starts flipping through Max’s memories. But she’s struggling to reach the one where Max is (mentally) hiding from Vecna: last season’s Hawkins Middle Snow Ball, which is slowly turning into a Vecna-themed murder party with bursting balloons of blood. As Hopper and Co. orchestrate a method for trapping the demo-creatures in 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 many of them, so Dustin surmises the only answer is to run back to the real world. But Eddie’s done enough running lately. 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 will surely become another iconic Eleven quote, emblazoned on Reddit graphics and T-shirts everywhere: “I piggybacked through a pizza dough freezer.” But the good humor doesn’t last, as Vecna regains his strength and takes both Max’s unconscious body and Eleven’s writing one to his blood-red Creel lair in the Upside Down. “Papa is dead,” Eleven tells him, trying to calm his wrath. “He made you into this. He is the monster, Henry. Not you.”
But Vecna’s got a monologue he wants to perform, and Eleven is ru-in-ing it! “Do you not see, Eleven?” he tells her. “He did not make me into this. You 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 means to realize my potential”: the Mind Flayer. But when Eleven and Co. defeated the Mind Flayer, Vecna looked inward, realizing he’d need to open the four gates himself in order to spur the apocalypse. He would then “pick up the pieces” of the broken world and remake it “into something…beautiful.” Alright, Thanos.
In the real world, Max begins to levitate, a sure sign things aren’t going so hot. Also, Eleven is coding in the salt bath, and Mike confesses his love in order to get her to stick around. He pleads with her to fight, and so she does: The tentacles release from around her neck and joints. But it might be too late. Max’s limbs have already started 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?
Of course 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 in 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 long time there, huh?), and the bats surrounding Eddie collapse. One demogorgon survives, and Hop takes up Excalibur—sorry, some random sword on the ground—to fight it.
Nancy, Steve, and Robin find the real Vecna in the Upside Down and prepare a roast. (Phase Four!) But he has a warning for Eleven: “This is only the beginning. The beginning of the end. You have already lost.” The trio set him ablaze, and a now-flaming Vecna rises to stalk them. Robin throws another 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. When they race downstairs, his body is gone.
It’s now or never: If anyone is going to die, the time has arrived. Eddie is, of course, the first to go; unlike Steve, he’s unable to withstand numerous bat bites. Although a new 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 did not.
Back in the Creel house, Max has awakened, but she can’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 watch. Lucas and Eleven both shriek with agony as four 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 floor, splitting Jason in two as they carve a path of carnage. (Was that really necessary, after everything we’ve been through?) Buildings collapse into the track of UD lava as the earth rumbles and moans. Mike tries to wake up the real 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 know about? Before we can find out, the screen cuts to black, and a “Two Days Later” card alerts us to a time jump.
As the Surfer Boy Pizza Bros. drive back into town, they come up against a long 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 two hit it off; Dustin, weeping, gives Mr. Munson Eddie’s guitar pick and a brave memory to remember his son by; Nancy and Jonathan try 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 wake up. At Hopper’s cabin, father and daughter are together again, and Eleven even thinks Hop’s slightly emaciated look is “bitchin’.” But Will knows, perhaps better than anyone, that the day is not won: Vecna is still 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 stand up, and they 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 final battle has come.
And that’s the end: A next-season set-up worthy of a Marvel post-credits scene. “Only” one main character died—unless we’re also counting Max, whose fate remains to be seen. In some ways, “Piggyback” was not the sucker-punch I was expecting, though it delivers on the action and the horror Stranger Things is beloved for. My first instinct was a bizarre disappointment. All this build up, and I didn’t even have a panic attack by the end?
It’s true that not all fans will find “Piggyback” a particularly satisfying conclusion, especially given its run time and the 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 end the world, and it’s going to be really hard to stop him. All those same things are still true, except now Eddie is dead, Max is in a coma, and Vecna is likely pulling a Voldemort and healing while the Hawkins-Upside Down merge marinates.
And yet. Maybe I showcase a tendency to fall for basic fan-baiting, but the moments “Piggyback” wanted to feel epic did feel epic. By the time 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 give the Netflix series too much credit—Stranger Things gets far more accolades than it honestly deserves—but the show might be on to something with its slow but steady approach. Forgive the crude analogy here, but it’s a bit like edging—bringing us closer and closer to what we know is inevitable (a huge, gravity-defying emotional release) but refusing to, in this case, actually twist the knife. Eddie’s death was a precursor to what, almost certainly, will be a more controversial loss next season. That could be Max. Or Eleven. Or—God forbid—Dustin.
Next season will be the show’s last. The battle is near. Perhaps, then, Stranger Things wanted to make sure we were ready for the fight.
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