The following contains spoilers for Stranger Things Season 3.
If nothing else, you can always say this for Stranger Things: it knows how to end a story.
Stranger Things is well and truly of the “TV show as a movie” archetype and as such; its endings always take on an added level of importance. The final episode is invariably the best installment of each season’s run.
The ending in Stranger Things Season 3 is no different. The final episode, “The Battle of Starcourt” reaps what the careful seeding of previous episodes sews. Viewers finally get to see the final battle between the forces of Hawkins and the forces of The Upside Down, led by the Mind Flayer. Characters make difficult choice and not all of them make it out alive.
So let’s break down that carefully crafted ending, explain what we can, and predict what it all means for the future of the show. For all intents and purposes, “The Battle of Starcourt” is the ending of Stranger Things Season 3. Save for a couple of codas at the end, it is all one hour-plus sustained climax.
We begin at, where else, Starcourt mall. After spending the entirety of the season apart, all of the important characters are now back together. Max, Eleven, Mike, Lucas, Will, Nancy, Jonathan, Dustin, Steve, Erica, Robin, Hopper, Joyce, and even Murray Bauman meet to discuss how to take down the Mind Flayer, which has infected (or “flayed”) a sizable portion of Hawkins in its bid for world dominance.
Hopper’s plan is a simple one. He, Joyce, and Murray will head to the mall’s depths to infiltrate the Russians and “turn the key” to shut down their machine keeping the gate to the Upside Down open. Once the gate is closed, the Mind Flayer should, in theory, be sapped of all power and release the flayed. Dustin, Steve, Robin, and Erica are welcome to play a role in this plan by taking the Toddfather car to the highest peak in Hawkins and provide radio support to “Team Bald Eagle.”
Eleven, Mike, Max, Will, Lucas, Nancy, and Jonathan are expected to do…nothing. Yes, for the first time in a long time, the adults of the Stranger Things universe decide to keep the children safe. You know what they say about the best-laid plans of mice and men though: they’re often interrupted by monsters from other dimensions.
Sure enough, Eleven and company’s escape attempt is thwarted by the flayed Billy Hargrove, who has destroyed their getaway car’s engine. The Eleven crew (nicknamed “The Griswold Family”) must hole up in the mall and try to reclaim the engine of the car that Eleven flipped. It’s easier said than done, especially since Eleven’s powers suddenly no longer work. When trying to repair the car, the Griswold family is nearly killed by Billy before Steve and Robin show up at the last minute to rescue them. They retreat back to the mall.
Complicating matters is that the Mind Flayer, himself, decides to descend into the mall and cause some destruction. Lucas leads a counterattack against the spindly monster, launching fireworks at him for a truly cinematic showcase. The fireworks can’t fully defeat the Mind Flayer though and Eleven soon finds herself in its clutches, brought to the creature by Billy. Billy and the Mind Flayer are of a mind to eliminate Eleven, the biggest threat to them. Eleven is able to use the childhood memories she gleaned from Billy though to encourage him to fight back against the creature’s mind control. Billy selflessly sacrifices himself to give the kid’s more time to survive.
They’ll need all the time they can get because below Starcourt, things aren’t going swimmingly for Team Bald Eagle. Hopper kills some Russians and steals their outfits easily enough but the team runs into an issue when Murray realizes he doesn’t actually know the code to open the vault to the key after all. He thought he did because Alexei told him it was “Planck’s Constant,” an important sequence in physics. He did not, however. Thankfully, Dustin reaches his girlfriend Suzie in Utah and gets her to recite it (after a very lovely rendition of the song from the Never-Ending Story).
Hopper retrieves the key and he and Joyce head to the main hold to blow the gate to kingdom come. Unfortunately, Hopper’s newly gained Russian nemesis, Grigori, arrives to kick Hopper’s ass. While Hopper and Grigori battle next to the humming machine, Joyce somehow uses her Giannis Anteteokounmpo-level wingspan to operate both keys at the same time. She tries to wait for Hopper to break free and make it back to the safe room but she sadly runs out of time. The Mind Flayer is on the verge of killing their children so Joyce flips both switches. The machine blows up, taking Hopper with it and the gate closes. The Mind Flayer falls over, dead.
Here is where the two codas come in. The main climax of “The Battle for Starcourt” is straightforward enough but if anything from the ending needs explaining, it’s likely what comes next.
The show flash forwards to three months later. Via a news report called “Horror in the Heartland” from WCPK-TV, we find out that the rest of the world is finally starting to realize that something is up with Hawkins, Indiana. Thirty people died due to the explosion under Starcourt including Hawkins’ beloved chief of police Jim Hopper. The news report also mentions mysterious deaths, cover-ups, and chemical leaks. Some believe a rise in Satanism is to blame for Hawkins’ issues. The news report is sure to flash an image of a Dungeons and Dragons Dungeon Masters Guide at this point.
Robin and Steve get jobs at Family Video. Robin is happy to point out in their job interview that they weren’t fired, the mall just burned down. Then we find out that Joyce has decided to go through with the selling of her house after all and finally leave town. That means Joyce, Jonathan, Will, and even Eleven will be heading to a new home. The departing crew says their goodbyes with those staying behind and Eleven finally gets to read the touching letter that Hopper wrote her but never read.
It’s all a bittersweet end to Stranger Things Season 3…OR IS IT? Because Stranger Things has decided to take a leaf out of Marvel’s book and feature a post-credits scene. As snow falls, the camera slowly pans from the credits to a wintry compound. Text-on-screen informs us that this is Kamchatka, Russia.
Two Russian soldiers walk down a hall of locked doors looking for a prisoner to let out. As one reaches for a door, the other says “No. Not the American.” Huh, American you say? There just happens to be a presumed-dead American on Stranger Things who was last seen standing in front of a portal. Though never explicitly confirmed, it would seem that Hopper survived the implosion of the gate. How exactly is unclear but it’s possible that Hopper slipped through the gate into the Upside Down and then exited back into the real world via another gate. The Russians have been known to experiment with such technology.
Instead of “The American,” the Russians grab another prisoner and drag him to a room. There is becomes clear what his purpose is: he’s food. The soldiers turn a wheel, opening up a cage within the room. Out steps a monster…and not just any monster. That’s right! The Demogorgon is back! In their exhaustive “do-not-spoil” requests to journalists, Netflix highlighted the return of the Demogorgon as something to avoid. It seemed then that the Demogorgon would pup up at several points throughout the finale but in reality they saved season 1’s flower-headed villain for the very end.
This, of course, begs the question: how is the Demogorgon alive? Didn’t Eleven blast this fool all the way back in season 1? She most certainly did. Thing is: there isn’t one Demogorgon. As seen in season 2, the Demogorgon is one specific species of the Upside Down phylum. Like amphibians, they have multiple stages of life, beginning as larval slugs before progressing all the way to the upright-walking beasts that so love to terrorize Hawkins, Indiana. Demogorgons share a hive mind with the Mind Flayer, allowing the beast to control and command them. Since the Mind Flayer is now gone (WE THINK), it’s unknown whether this Russian Demogorgon is acting of its own accord.
Whoever controls or doesn’t control this Demogorgon is a moot point, however, as its presence represents a grim reality. The Hawkins crew’s attempt to rid the world of Upside Down monsters has failed once again. Hawkins may currently be monster-free but across the world, a little piece of the Upside Down lives on.
Certainly that won’t cause any issues in Stranger Things Season 4, will it?
Listen to our analysis of Stranger Things on the Sci Fi Fidelity podcast: