Stranger Things Season 4 Ending Explained

The ending of Stranger Things season 4 features plenty of heartbreak and sets up an action-packed final season to come.

Steve (Joe Keery), Nancy (Natalia Dyer), and Robin (Maya Hawke) in Stranger Things season 4 episode 9
Photo: Netflix

This Stranger Things article contains spoilers for all of season 4.

Expectations were high for the Stranger Things season 4 finale.

That’s bound to happen when Netflix splits the penultimate season of its biggest hit into two parts, adjusts its shooting budget to essentially “infinite,” and then spends more than a full month teasing out the epic conclusion to come. The two episodes that make up Stranger Things season 4 volume 2 had a lot to deliver on. And thankfully for fans, those nearly four hours of television mostly succeed.

Like all Stranger Things finales, season 4 episode 9 “The Piggyback” is a cathartic, action-packed spectacle. Unlike the other seasons’ conclusions, however, this finale leaves some questions up in the air. Since the show has one more season to go, “The Piggyback” makes sure it’s setting up Stranger Things‘ last act as much as it concludes this one.

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Let’s break down the ending of Stranger Things season 4 and what it could possibly mean for the impending fifth and final season.

What Was Will’s Painting?

Before we get into the meat (gross) of the Stranger Things season 4 ending, it’s worth addressing a mystery that the show gets out of the way in episode 8. We know that Will (Noah Schnapp) has been working on a painting that he wants to show to his buddy Mike (Finn Wolfhard). It’s also quite clear that Will is struggling with the reality that he’s gay and has a crush on his best friend. So one would assume that the painting and the revelation of Will’s crush would be related. It turns out they only kind of are.

Will finally shows Mike his painting early on in episode 8. It’s quite a lovely work! It features their whole D&D group as Medieval knights trying to take down a dragon. Beneath that tableau, however, is a pretty clear subtext. Will carefully points out that Mike’s character is the guy with a heart sigil on his shield because Mike is the heart of their group. He then goes on to assure Mike that Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) still cares for him despite their youthful inability to communicate their feelings.

Here Will is obviously referring to his own situation and hoping Mike will pick up on it. Mike, beautiful dumbass that he is, has no idea what’s going on. Will’s mythical painting has now been revealed but the conversation about his crush will have to wait for season 5.

What Was Vecna’s Plan?

New Stranger Things big bad Vecna was the subject of many theories in the four weeks separating season 4’s first and second volumes. We even indulged in a few of those theories ourselves. One thing that no one could quite figure out though was what Vecna’s whole plan was. Based on his monologue to Eleven at the end of episode 7 it seemed as though he was interested in just the usual general evil things. Now, thanks to another conversation between numbers One and Eleven in episode 9, we have a better idea of what he’s after.

Vecna’s goal is still the generic “unleash general evil upon an unsuspecting world” thing but the method he’s using to go about doing so is very deliberate. Some fans (re: me) were confused as to how Vecna planned to dominate the real world operating at a snail’s pace of killing three people within a decade or so. As it turns out, he only needs to kill four.

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Recall that every time Vecna kills someone it opens up a gate between The Upside Down and Hawkins. Dr. Martin Brenner (Matthew Modine) notes that the metaphorical wall between the Upside Down and Right Side Up operates like a dam. A couple of cracks won’t hurt you – but enough cracks placed in strategic positions could be catastrophic. Vecna knows that the correct number of gates is four. He only has to kill four people to devastate the barrier separating realities. And that’s why his clock always chimes four times (something I don’t recall any of us picking up on).

What is The Piggyback?

Like all great Stranger Things finales, our central heroes have a plan to take down the villain threatening them. Team Nancy in Hawkins has a sophisticated four-part scheme to attack Vecna while he’s vulnerable. Team Hopper in Siberia opts to return to their Soviet prison and attack some of the captured Demogorgons. Since Upside Down monsters operate as a hive mind, attacking any Demo-creatures should buy the folks back in Hawkins some time.

It’s Team Eleven in the Nevada desert that has the most unique plan, however. Mike, Will, and company correctly realize that they’ll never make it back to Hawkins in time to help their friends defeat Vecna. Thankfully Eleven realizes that they won’t have to. Eleven, being a psychic and all, has access to certain abilities others don’t have. One of those abilities just happens to be psychokinetic in nature.

Eleven realizes that when Vecna attacks Max (Sadie Sink), he will enter her mind. Well, Eleven can do that too! She recalls that she was able to enter into both her mother’s mind and Billy’s before. So once Vecna hops into Max’s brain space, Eleven will join him and there they will have the psychic battle to end all psychic battles. About that though…

Is Vecna Defeated?

Eleven doesn’t do too well in her mind battle against Vecna. Perhaps it’s because Vecna, as Number One, is simply stronger than Eleven or that he’s just more familiar with both the Upside Down and other people’s brains. In any case, Vecna comes very close to defeating Eleven.

The only thing that saves Eleven’s skin is Mike’s desperate yelling at her unconscious form that he loves her. That gives her just enough psychic strength to blast Vecna away from Max before he can fully complete his dark ritual. Meanwhile over in Upside Down Hawkins, Steve (Joe Keery), Robin (Maya Hawke), and Nancy (Natalia Dyer) toss some Molotov cocktails at the weakened monster, taking him fully out of Max’s mind.

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Though the fire is devastating to Vecna, it does not fully defeat him. We don’t really see it happen but he apparently slinks off into the outskirts of the Upside Down to lick his wounds and recover. Near episode’s end, Will (who has a privileged connection into Vecna’s mind via his previous Mind Flayer experience) reveals that he is sure Vecna is still out there.

What Happened to Max?

Stranger Things season 4’s biggest lingering question is undoubtedly the fate of Max Mayfield. To put things bluntly: Max dies in the final episode and she dies horribly. The show absolutely does not shy away from damning her with the same Vecna-induced fate that Chrissy, Fred, and Patrick got. Her limbs are brutally broken, her eyes are whited out, and blood begins to ooze down her face like tears. The only aspect of Vecna’s kill ritual that he’s interrupted from completing is the total destruction of Max’s eyes and the crushing of her skull.

Still Vecna’s violence goes far enough to kill Max and open the fourth and final gate. Max’s biological death is confirmed by doctors in a Hawkins hospital later when Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) repeats their report that her heart stopped for a full minute. And yet…Max is somehow still alive, albeit barely. While still occupying Max’s mind, Eleven uses some of her psychic powers to urge her to stay alive. We’re unsure how but that apparently does the trick. Max’s body remains biologically alive though her consciousness is lost deep in a coma.

Here’s the thing about Max’s consciousness though. When Eleven visits her at the hospital and hops back into Max’s brain, her essence/conscience/personality/whatever-you-want-to-call-it is nowhere to be found. Max’s brain is empty as her body is broken. Surely, the real Max is out there somewhere – Stranger Things isn’t dark enough to give one of its child characters the Dementor’s Kiss. But where could she be? We suspect she’s off someone in the Upside Down, or a realm we have yet to see, trying to find a weapon to take down Vecna for good.

Who Dies in the Stranger Things Season 4 Finale?

In addition to Max’s sort of death, three other major characters bite the dust in these final two episodes. The first is Dr. Brenner when he sacrifices himself to help Eleven escape from the military. Next up is poor Eddie Munson who similarly sacrifices himself to a host of demobats to buy his friends more time. The final death is less sacrificial in nature and also kind of darkly funny. Basketball captain Jason Carver is killed when the Upside Down dam breaks and his body is sliced in half. Speaking of that moment…

What Happens to Hawkins?

Remember that “cracks in the dam” analogy from earlier? Well that turns out to be pretty important. By killing Max (even if only briefly), Vecna is able to open up the fourth gate necessary to fracture the barrier between the Upside Down and Hawkins. The ensuing effect is immediate and violent – killing at least 22 Hawkins citizens and displacing countless more. The story on the ground is that the town was struck by a freak 7.6 magnitude earthquake. But how much longer can the citizens of Hawkins swallow natural explanations for clearly supernatural events?

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Based on the final scene of season 4, even the most rational of Hawkins residents may not have a choice in the matter much longer. I suppose you could explain an interdimensional dam breaking away as an earthquake. But what’s the rational explanation for swirling black clouds brimming with red lightning that turn the environment under them into pure decay? Yes, the “earthquake” was only the beginning. The Upside Down proper has come to Hawkins now and its influence is only expanding.

What Will Happen in Season 5?

One thing that’s certain is that Stranger Things will be getting a season 5. Back when Netflix announced the release dates for season 4’s two halves, it also revealed that the show would be receiving a fifth and final season. Based on the events of this season 4 finale, it’s fairly easy to guess what route Stranger Things will go in its final act.

It’s all about Vecna. And it always has been. Vecna makes clear that he has been the one pulling the strings this whole time. The Upside Down is a malevolent, terrifying place but it’s a place our Hawkins heroes never would have even known about if the formerly-human Vecna had not tried to connect the two realms. Vecna has been seeking the services of Eleven as a dimensional key. He’s the one who enlisted both the Demogorgon and the Mind Flayer in this demonic mission.

In Stranger Things season 5, Vecna quite simply has to go. To save Hawkins and to save the world at large, Eleven will have to summon all of her psychic energy and abilities to take out Henry Creel forever. We wish her all the best.