We are at the end of the fourth season of Stranger Things, and what a ride it has been. The season finale, called “The Piggyback,” sees our Hawkins heroes battle Vecna, while friends in Russia and Nevada assist from afar. And while this episode lays the groundwork for an exciting fifth and final season, it also leaves death and bloodshed in its wake.
Breaking Into A Prison
Having escaped the Russian prison, Murray and Dmitri are keeping an eye on slick-as-baby-oil Yuri as he repairs the helicopter, their only means of getting back to the U.S. Yuri sabotages the repair efforts, unbeknownst to anyone else, because he still has KGB money on his mind and has no intention of helping the Americans. Inside the small church, Joyce and Hopper are cleaning up and getting into warmer clothes. Joyce steals a glance at Hopper and sees his horribly scarred back — evidence of the abuse he endured in the prison. She asks him about it, and he laments that he regrets ever sending her a message in the first place, putting her life in danger. She assures Hopper that she would make the same decision again, if it meant seeing him again. Plus, she points out, they still have a date on the books they never got to take. After some smooth, coded, double-entendre language, Joyce and Hopper kiss. And Jopper shippers everywhere rejoiced!
Later, while Yuri is still working on the helicopter, Hopper tells the others that he finally received a call back from someone associated with Dr. Owens, and he’s learned that El escaped the lab and that she’s with Joyce’s kids. He feels frustrated that they would never make it to Hawkins in time to help them, but Joyce reminds him that all of the Upside Down creatures are connected to the hive mind. So killing one hurts them all. Hopper says they should get back into the prison to destroy that black cloud of particles, and maybe that will give the kids an upper hand in their fight. Murray just wants to know why they’re now breaking back into a prison they just broke out of.
While Dmitri stays behind with Yuri to motivate him in some way to fix the helicopter and actually help everyone, Joyce, Hopper, and Murray head back to the prison. And breaking in is easier than they had anticipated: just about everyone there is dead, and they meet no resistance from anyone. Inside the lab of the prison, however, they see that all the suspended-animation tanks that held Demogorgons and their dog counterparts have been shattered, and the creatures are nowhere to be found. Not only that, but the black cloud of particles is also gone.
Hopper comes up with a plan: wanting to take advantage of the hive mind aspect of their enemies, he tells Joyce and Murray that they need to bring the Demogorgons to the central arena where the massive fight occurred earlier, and while Joyce locks down the doors on the arena, Murray will rain down fire from above with the flamethrower. Hopper then locates one lone Demodog in the laundry room and gets its attention. He then runs like hell, so the Demodog (and the others) will follow him. Joyce watches helplessly on the closed-circuit monitors.
The Four-Part Plan to Save The World
The Hawkins kids are huddled together in the RV, going over their four-part plan to take down Vecna: locate Vecna; bait him with Max, thereby putting him into a trance; draw the Demobats away from his house; and enter the house to kill him. After double checking their assignments, they head to Eddie’s house to jump through the fissure in the ceiling to get to the Upside Down. There, Steve, Nancy, and Robin head to that world’s Creel house counterpart, while Dustin and Eddie stay put.
Phases One and Two
At the Creel House, Erica, Lucas, and Max are quietly searching for Vecna with their lanterns, and Erica eventually finds him. Knowing this kicks off Phase One of their plan, Erica runs outside and radios the others that Vecna’s been located. Max and Lucas are ultimately led by their lanterns to the attic area upstairs, and Max tries to get Vecna’s attention. Nothing seems to be working, so Max shares out loud her guilt over her brother Billy’s death. She admits that because he made her life such a living hell, she used to pray that he would die, so she could be free of him. When he did die, back at the Starcourt Mall battle, she says she just stood there, because she wasn’t sure he was worthy of being saved. She hasn’t been able to forgive herself of wanting Billy dead, so the reason she is here at the Creel house is to ask Vecna to help her disappear.
Lucas then interrupts her and is horrified at what she’s just shared. He lambastes her and tells her that “normal” people don’t wish others dead, and that he’s glad she’s the one who will die tonight. But Max soon realizes that it’s Vecna talking to her through Lucas and that she is already under Vecna’s spell. She tries to run from him and escape the Creel house, but she is trapped. She then tries to escape through her memories, focusing intently on the happy times she’s shared with El and the others. She ultimately ends up at the Hawkins Middle School Snow Ball Dance that we saw at the end of season 2. She seems safe at first, but evidence of Vecna’s presence appears as balloons filled with blood burst and flower arrangements decay. Vecna enters the main ballroom and throws Max against the far wall.
Meanwhile, Lucas frantically signals Erica with his flashlight through the window, and Erica radios the others to initiate Phase Three.
The goal of Phase Three is to draw the Demobats away from Vecna’s lair. So Dustin and Eddie place an oversized amplifier on the roof of Eddie’s Upside Down house, Eddie plugs in his guitar, cranks the volume up to 11, and he breaks into Metallica’s “Master of Puppets.” This plan works: the bats hear the distortion and set out to find the source of it.
Dustin keeps an eye out for the bats’ arrival, and he tells Eddie when to shut things down so they can take cover from the impending flight of death headed their way. They jump off the roof and run inside Eddie’s house just in time. But the bats begin finding other ways of entering the house, and soon, the guys are trapped. Eddie helps Dustin jump through the ceiling fissure to safety, but Eddie stays behind to buy everyone more time. He then runs out of the house and bikes like mad down the street, drawing the bats away from Dustin.
Meanwhile, Steve, Nancy, and Robin see the bats fly away from the house and enter through the front door. Nearly every square inch is covered with a hive-mind tentacle, so they very carefully maneuver their way across the foyer and up the stairs. They reach the top of the stairs without stepping on anything — even Robin is successful, bless her precious, clumsy heart — but then the entire house shakes, knocking everyone off balance. Soon, the three are tangled up and hanging in mid-air, their necks slowly being strangled by the evil tentacles.
Piggyback from a Pizza Dough Freezer
Having escaped the military onslaught at the now-destroyed underground lab in Nowheresville, Nevada, El and the guys have pulled over at a gas station. Jonathan is on the pay phone, trying to get a plane ticket to Hawkins, but he is getting nowhere. El then realizes that she can help Max and the others from where they are, by entering Max’s mind, like she did with her mother’s mind and with Billy’s. When Vecna/Henry/One enters Max’s mind, El will be there waiting, and she will piggyback to Vecna. El then explains that she would need a bathtub and a LOT of salt to achieve this goal, so naturally, Argyle knows just the place where she can carry out her superpowered mission: a local Surfer Boy Pizza restaurant.
They pull into the parking lot of the restaurant, and after smooth talking the lone worker who’s closing up the restaurant for the night (and offering a little “smelly plant” incentive), Argyle and the others shoo him away and lock the doors. Back in the kitchen, Mike, Will, and Jonathan prepare a sensory deprivation tank for El from the pizza dough freezer, while Argyle makes a pizza, because of course he does. After a while, Jonathan and Will have completed the makeshift tank, and El enters the water.
She easily begins her search for Max, while the lights flicker wildly (which Argyle seems to love). While she tells the guys everything she is seeing, she witnesses Lucas and Max in the Creel house, trying to locate Vecna and ultimately doing so, and she then sees Max fall into the deadly trance. At that moment, El enters Max’s mind and arrives at a Max memory. She’s somewhere in California, surrounded by kids skateboarding in an empty culvert. And she sees Max, but Max is probably 11 years old or so, and she can’t see or hear El. Will asks El if she sees any evidence of the Mind Flayer in the memory. El says no, but there is something out of place here: a record player playing “Dream A Little Dream Of Me.” El realizes that this must be a memory within a memory, and she sees the dark, red, menacing clouds of the Upside Down in the distance. She knows she’s near Max and Vecna.
The Final Showdown
When things finally come to a head, there are fans all over the place getting hit with plenty of proverbial stuff. Basketball jock Jason and his teammates have found Max, Lucas, and Erica at the Creel house and are threatening to wake up Max, which would ruin absolutely everything. Hopper slipped while he was running away from the Demodog and is this close to becoming Demodog chow. Steve, Nancy, and Robin are slowly suffocating to death by way of creepy tentacles. And Eddie is being swarmed by a couple trillion Demobats.
We see Vecna holding Max against the wall of the Snow Ball Dance ballroom. And as he is about to kill Max, he himself is thrown across the room and suspended in mid-air, writhing in pain. El has arrived, and Max is currently safe. But the tide turns quickly, and Vecna regains control. He ultimately sends El and Max to his lair in the Upside Down. He tells El that, before he kills her, he wants her to see the destruction he will cause. He shows her glimpses of her loved ones — Hopper being attacked by a Demodog, Eddie getting swarmed, Lucas fighting Jason — and he tells her that he just wants her to watch.
At the pizza restaurant, the guys know El is in serious trouble. She’s having trouble breathing, and blood is coming from both nostrils. Will reminds Mike that he’s the heart of the group, and he needs to tell her to fight. Mike tells El that he loves her and that he’s afraid she will one day realize that she no longer needs him. He tells her he fell in love with her the moment he saw her, in those woods that night she escaped the Hawkins lab. He tells her that she’s capable of moving mountains and flying. But right now, she has to fight.
She hears Mike. His voice reaches her through the dimensions, and she summons the will to fight Vecna. While Vecna takes over Max’s mind and slowly breaks her bones, the tentacles that hold El release her, and she captures Vecna with her powers, and he releases Max and is unable to move. With Vecna currently disabled, everyone else gets the upper hand: Hopper defeats the Demodog, Murray blasts the other creatures with the flamethrower, the bats that are swarming Eddie all collapse and die, and Max is released from Vecna’s hold and is alive, albeit barely.
Steve, Nancy, and Robin are also released from the tentacles in Vecna’s house, and they quickly make their way to Vecna himself. They ignite a few Molotov cocktails and light Vecna up. Vecna falls backwards out of a window and onto the ground two stories below. But by the time they rush downstairs to finish the job, Vecna is nowhere to be found.
Meanwhile, Dustin runs over to Eddie when the Demobats fall to the ground. He is still alive, but barely. Dustin tries to pick him up to carry him, but Eddie tells him to leave him there. He makes Dustin promise to take over the Hellfire Club. A heartbroken Dustin agrees, and Eddie then passes away. He becomes a hero of a town that was set out to destroy him.
And if that weren’t devastating enough, while Lucas holds Max, she succumbs to her injuries. And since she is Vecna’s fourth victim, Vecna is able to enact his ultimate plan to take over Hawkins. We then watch large fissures open up and cut through Hawkins from the four corners and meet up in the middle of town. The entire city is now a gate to the Upside Down.
A few days later, Argyle, El, and the guys are driving into Hawkins while a line of cars is headed the other way. We hear local news reports that a 7.4 earthquake has rocked the town, and many residents are fleeing. The high school has become a shelter for those misplaced by the fissures that destroyed homes. The hospital is overflowing with patients, including Max who was brought back to life by El, unbeknownst to everyone. Max is in a coma, with all four limbs in casts. But she is alive.
The guys take El to Hopper’s cabin to hide her away, since she shouldn’t be in Hawkins at all. While they’re cleaning up the cabin, a government vehicle drives up, and out come Joyce and Hopper. El and Hopper reunite, and while everyone is hugging everyone else, Will feels the hair on the back of his neck stand up in that all too familiar way. He still feels Vecna, and he knows he will return. Then, the skies darken, and the final shot of the season shows us the town of Hawkins, looking like a war zone with huge clouds of dark smoke billowing upward. And red thunder begins to tear through the clouds.
The fifth season of Stranger Things will be its last. And while we have no idea when that season will air, the Duffer Brothers have said in various interviews that the season is already mapped out, and the wait for season five will most likely be much shorter than the three-year wait between seasons 3 and 4.