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When the posters for Stranger Things season 4 was released, its ominous tagline was revealed: "Every ending has a beginning." Now that Volume 2 is out, we can say that the show delivered its promise, with the two-hour-plus finale setting up the fifth and final season where (we assume) Vecna uses the forces of the Upside Down to level Hawkins and take over the world.
After the villain was established as the most powerful monster in Stranger Things history in Volume 1, the Hawkins gang went on offense and attacked Vecna on multiple fronts (and multiple continents). Read on for a rundown on what went down, based on the different locations of the split-up Hawkins crew.
Volume 2 starts with the end of two trances, as Eleven emerges from the Nina tank flashback and Vecna releases Nancy from her trance with a message. He shows her a vision of large gates ripping through Hawkins with four chimes of the grandfather clock, and an army of monsters emerging to kill everyone, including her family. With the reveal of his plan, the kids learn there's a reason Vecna's clock chimes four times: he needs to open four gates to make a huge rip through the barrier between dimensions. He's only one kill away from the end of his plan.
Max and Nancy come up with her own four-phase plan to bring the fight to Vecna before he can claim anyone else. First, Erica will station at the playground while Max and Lucas go into the surface Creel House and Steve, Nancy, and Robin travel to the Upside Down Creel House. Second, Max will bait Vecna and they'll both enter a trance, leaving Vecna's physical body vulnerable. Third, Eddie and Dustin will lure the bats that protect the UD Creel House away. Last, Steve and Co. will enter the unprotected house and kill Vecna while his body is unconscious.
The plan is good, but facing off against Vecna without the full might of the Hawkins crew (including Eleven and Hopper) wouldn't go well. Luckily, through Eleven's astral projection and Hopper's military contacts, they both figure out how to help attack from afar. El's plan is where episode 9 gets its name, "Piggyback": El will project into Max's mind and piggyback off her to enter the trance and take Vecna down once and for all.
Okay, obviously there's a lot of action to recap in the Russia plot, but the most important thing is the JOPPER KISS! So much history lead to this! So much fan yearning fulfilled! We even got a second one which apparently wasn't scripted (opens in new tab)! (Thank you Winona Ryder and David Harbour.) Everything about the Jopper ship sailing was so lovely and true to the characters, from Hopper joking about dreaming of the food at Enzo's to their deep trust in each other while suggesting the plan to go back into the prison, while everyone else was deeply skeptical.
Speaking of the prison, we got a good amount of Upside Down lore from Jopper and Co.'s discovery of the Russians' secret lab, where they were apparently in the middle of dissecting of a demogorgon when Hopper was rescued. They somehow got a hold of some particles similar to the ones that came out of Will when his connection to the Mind Flayer was severed in season 2. When the adults hear that the kids are off to face Vecna, Joyce decides to flambé the particles and weaken the Upside Down hive mind while the kids are fighting.
When Hopper, Murray, and Joyce get back to the prison, the particles have been freed from the broken tank, and they have reanimated the museum of demogorgons and demodogs. Though it looks like a close call (with Hopper pinned down by a demodog during the mid-battle "are actually they gonna lose?" montage), the adults succeed at torching the creatures, at the same time that the other teams are attacking Vecna. In another stroke of perfect timing, they look up to see that former guard Dmitri has actually convinced Yuri to fly Katinka the helicopter, to aid in the group's second escape from the prison.
While Jopper reunited at the end of episode 7, the West Coast contingent of the Hawkins gang (Mike, Will, Jonathan, and Argyle) still have to find Eleven's underground bunker in episode 8. There's plenty of heavy emotional content along the way, mostly from Will finally revealing his mysterious painting: a rendition of their D&D group as medieval knights fighting a dragon. Will painted a heart on Mike's shield, and there's a whole speech about how Mike is the heart of the group and how Eleven needs him.
(Counterargument: Will is the heart of the group. He was the one holding them together while Mike and Lucas were off sucking face and Dustin was hunting Russians in season 3. The speech is clearly meant to show Will's crush on Mike, but also, Mike's useless. Give some of that love to yourself, Will.)
Once they do find Eleven, she's a bit busy dealing with Brenner refusing to let her help Max with her plan. He would rather drug Eleven and lock Owens in a closet, leaving his fate to the anti-Eleven branch of the army. Then Brenner tries to outrun the military siege while holding her, but he's gunned down by a helicopter. Eleven, now awake, uses her supercharged powers to take the helicopter down before staying at Brenner's side while he dies, though she doesn't offer her "Papa" forgiveness.
In episode 9, Eleven and Co. are still stuck in Nevada, unable to find a flight to Hawkins (though that wouldn't get them there in time anyway). El comes up with the piggyback plan, while Argyle comes in clutch and suggests turning a Surfer Boy location's pizza dough freezer into her sensory deprivation machine. While waiting for Will and Jonathan to set up the tank, Mike almost gets the nerve to tell El he loves her. Meanwhile Jonathan reminds Will that he'll always be there for him, no matter what. (Yay, Will love!)
Eddie's Trailer in the Upside Down
Eddie and Dustin's phase of the plan starts off without a hitch. The boys are totally in sync as great friends, even having a sweet bonding moment in episode 8 where Eddie tells Dustin to never change. So the pair easily pulls off the hell-bat distraction plan: a performance of Metallica's "Master of Puppets" dedicated to Chrissy.
Once the bats are headed their way, the duo takes cover in the trailer, and succeed at holding them off, with Dustin getting back through the portal unscathed. Unfortunately, the bats are drawn back toward Vecna's body, and Eddie decides to be the hero and lure them back into attacking him. There are flashes of his earlier scenes talking about heroism (him telling the crew he just ran when Chrissy was in trouble, telling Steve that he and Dustin are no heroes) as he sacrifices himself to make sure Steve and Co. get their chance.
His death scene is tearjerking, not just because a new favorite character is gone again so soon. Dustin's with him when he dies, and Eddie asks, "I didn't run away this time, right?" He tells the younger boy to look after everyone else, and brings up his belief that this was the year he was gonna graduate. His last words to Dustin are "I love you, man" (improvised by Joseph Quinn (opens in new tab)).
Creel House/Max's Trance/Vecna's Lair
Max passionately volunteered herself to bait Vecna, planning to use Kate Bush to draw her out of the trance before she dies. However, once she starts talking about Billy to draw Vecna out, we learn that her mental issues go beyond the guilt over his death. She reveals that she also used to wish that something bad would happen to her brother, because (as some Billy fans conveniently forget) he was a racist, violent asshole who regularly tormented her. She wanted him to disappear, and she thinks that's why she just watched as he died, because she "didn't know if he deserved to be saved."
In a horrifying turn, Vecna uses Lucas as a puppet, saying that maybe Vecna should kill her. (I was so relieved when the show revealed that she was in the trance.) Once she's in, Max enacts her plan to use her happiest memory to hold off Vecna, which happens to be the middle school dance from season 2. She's able to hide in her memory of the gym for a bit, before Vecna finds her. Soon after, El does too, traveling through a memory of Max's childhood skatepark to find the rapidly-decaying gym.
Eleven is able to blast Vecna away from Max at first, but once the surprise wears off, he defeats El, restrains both of the girls, and takes them to his red-tinged lair (which reminds me of Sherlock's mind palace, so I'm going to call it a mind palace). There he gives a classic villain monologue, telling El (and the audience) what happened after she banished him to the Upside Down. Once he realized he wasn't dead, Vecna explored the dimension "unspoiled by mankind" and discovered the particles, forming them into the predator he always wanted to be, what he drew as a child dreaming of black widow spiders: the Mind Flayer.
It was Vecna all along: the king of the Upside Down who killed Barb, killed Billy, sent his hive mind monsters up to the surface to plague the town of Hawkins ever since season 1. When Eleven opened her second portal (the first we saw in season 1), it was the gate he needed to get to the surface. After she closed the first two seasons' gates, he sought a way to get her power, and sent the Mind Flayer after her in season 3. And he succeeded, figuring out how to open gates through trances and deaths and beginning his master plan.
When he's done explaining, he heads over to kill Max, and El's forced to just watch. It feels like the Hawkins gang might actually loose this one. Luckily, Mike can talk to her through the layers of trances. He finally (finally) tells El he loves her, and she draws deep into her power and pushes Vecna off of Max, holding him off until Steve and Co. can attack his physical body and destroy the mind palace.
Unfortunately, El was too late. Max was already floating, with her bones breaking and eyes bleeding, by the time El stopped him. She's only free from the trance for a minute, long enough to tell Lucas that she doesn't really want to die, before she succumbs to her wounds. She physically dies, but Eleven's still there, and won't let her go. She uses her powers to pull back her BFF's consciousness so Max comes back to life (though in a coma, with all her bones broken).
Also, shout out to Lucas during this whole finale. He doesn't have an active role besides taking Max out of her trance when the time is right, but he's her emotional anchor throughout Volume 2. He does have to deal with basketball bully Jason holding him at gunpoint refusing to hear the truth about Chrissy (which, go away, Jason. This isn't about you.) Jason even steps on the Walkman, taking away Lucas's chance to get Max out of the trance. But Lucas gets the victory of knocking the jock out, and his reaction to Max's short death is absolutely heartbreaking. ("Erica, help" was the third great improvisation (opens in new tab) of the finale).
Creel House in the Upside Down
Steve, Nancy, and Robin travel through the Upside Down to the Creel House pretty easily, even though they think they're lost at one point. Robin's pretty nervous (and a "super klutz"), but Steve and Nancy are used to this and stay calm. They're also totally flirty, with Steve admitting that the dream he mentioned in episode 8, of traveling the country in an RV with 6 kids, included her in it.
That emotional bombshell will have to wait (unfortunately until season 5) as they move on with the plan. Once Eddie and Dustin lure the bats away, the trio enters the Creel house and finds its covered in vines they have to avoid. (Which, are the vines Vecna's tentacles? Have all the vines been connected to Vecna, even the ones that grabbed Barb in season 1? These are the thoughts that keep me up at night.)
Pretty immediately, Robin steps a vine and they all come alive, strangling the teens. There they stay, being slowly choked out until Eleven blasts Vecna and Murray torches the demodogs, and the hive mind's preoccupied enough for the vines to go slack.
The trio gets upstairs and find Vecna strung up on his vines, unconscious while he deals with Eleven in the mind palace. They torch him with Molotov cocktails, and when he wakes up, Nancy shoots him with a sawed-off shotgun. Her last shot knocks the villain out of the Creel attic window, but when the trio goes down to the front door, his body is gone.
The aftermath of Vecna's plan takes up the last half-hour-ish of the finale, as the town reels from the villain's success. With Max's short death, the fourth portal opens and tears through Hawkins to converge with the other three at the center of town. The expanding gates also level houses and kill dozens of residents in its wake (including Jason, who's torn straight through the torso).
As the crew gathers supplies to help families who are left without homes, the West Coast group finally gets home after two days of driving (plus Argyle, so maybe he'll be back next season!). Max is in the hospital in a coma, and when El goes into the void to search for her friend's consciousness, she can't find anything. We also get ends to some emotional arcs of the season. Jonathan and Nancy are back to coupledom, but she's obviously still thinking about Steve. Robin talks with her crush, who has a boyfriend but still may be interested. Dustin also tells Eddie's dad that he's gone in another heartbreaking conversation.
The show ends with a tearful father-daughter reunion, as the adults get back to Hawkins. It's only been a year, maybe less, but Hopper and El's reunion hits extra hard when she says that she always left the door open and never believed he was really gone. We get those sweet minutes of joyful relief before the season ends with a reminder of the war that's coming, as we see that the ash, smoke, and dead vegetation of the Upside Down are coming to the surface through the portals. Will still has his connection to the hive mind, and he can feel that Vecna's still out there. So we're left with the skies darkening and the smoke billowing, as we wait for the war to come.
Quinci LeGardye is a Contributing Culture Editor who covers TV, movies, Korean entertainment, books, and pop culture. When she isn’t writing or checking Twitter, she’s probably watching the latest K-drama or giving a concert performance in her car.
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