Stranger Things Season-Finale Recap: The Fourth Gate

Stranger Things

The Piggyback
Season 4 Episode 9
Editor’s Rating 5 stars

Stranger Things

The Piggyback
Season 4 Episode 9
Editor’s Rating 5 stars
Photo: Courtesy of Netflix

Hive mind, baby! It’s all about that hive mind. Traditionally, Stranger Things likes to scatter its cast around Hawkins and then eventually bring the whole crew together by the end of the season to fight whichever Upside Down monster is plaguing them at the moment. Doesn’t it always feel better when the band gets back together? Season four has felt different for many reasons, but mostly because the main cast feels more separated than ever — tossing some of them in prisons in other countries will do that, you know? And yet still, Stranger Things has found a way to make everyone feel connected in taking on this season’s villain, even if there was no conceivable way of getting everyone physically in Hawkins for the final showdown (this show isn’t really concerned with the physics of space and time, but I’m glad they didn’t push things too hard), and the way they do it is through hive mind. See? There was a good reason they explained the concept to us repeatedly this season! Hive mind and the cosmic connection between things lurking in the Upside Down play a crucial role in season four’s epic final bow.

But before we get to the main action in Hawkins, shall we set the scene a little? Great idea! I’m glad I thought of it. Let’s kick things off in the Soviet Union because I cannot contain myself. I know there are life-or-death stakes and gorgeous, wild visuals and big sci-fi storytelling swings being taken here, but I do not care because oh my god you guys, mark today down in your diary, for it is the day JOYCE AND HOPPER FINALLY KISSED!! Did I immediately begin to wonder when the last time Hopper had brushed his teeth was? You bet. Did I enjoy it nonetheless? I mean, I dedicated years of my life to waiting for this moment and now I feel a little dead inside, so uh, yes of course I enjoyed it, what a stupid question to ask.

It happens while they’re still standing around and waiting for a call back from Dr. Owens’s people. They’re changing into clean clothes and it’s the first time Joyce really sees what’s been done to Hopper; he’s super thin and has scars all over his back. He tries to play it off like it’s not a big deal. He apologizes for ever sending her that message. She might be alive, but he still carries guilt over the danger he put her in. But Joyce knew it would be dangerous and she made her own choice to make the trip. Even knowing everything that’s happened, “I would choose it again,” she says. They have cute banter about that date at Enzo’s they still need to go on and how Hopper has been dreaming about it (the dreams are food-related, the man is very hungry). Then Joyce says that Hopper should use his imagination when thinking about what could happen after dessert. Then Hopper says “who needs imagination?” before swooping in for a frenzied make out. Then I say, between sobs, “all of my dreams are coming true right now.” It’s great and I’m sweating.

That is, of course, when the phone finally rings. Through one of Owens’s agents, Hopper and Joyce learn that Eleven and the Byers boys are en route to Hawkins to fight some sort of evil and no one has been able to make contact with them. They’re beside themselves. Everyone is well aware that Yuri is dicking them around with his claim that the helicopter isn’t working, but even if he were able to get them out of the Soviet Union right then and there, they still would never make it back to Hawkins in time. They feel useless … until Joyce remembers, yep, you guessed it, hive mind. They saw those demogorgons and that Upside Down dust back at the prison and they know that those monsters are all part of one organism. If they can hurt them here and wound the hive, maybe, just maybe, it would give the kids a real chance to defeat the monsters back at home. So, after eight episodes of trying to get Hopper out of that prison, they willingly go back into a place that is now under siege by a whole pack of demogorgons.

Our team out in Nevada feels just as useless as Hopper and Joyce. There’s no way they’ll be able to get to Indiana in time to save their friends. It’s Eleven who comes up with a way to reach them regardless of distance: a piggyback. She’s been able to mind-travel into people’s memories before — she did it with her mother and Billy. Since Max is planning on letting Vecna into her memories, Eleven could mind-travel to Max, where she could then enter her memories and fight Vecna there. Inside Max’s mind. It’s a mind fight, everybody. We’re squaring up for a mind fight.

In order to properly do this, Eleven will need some sort of makeshift sensory-deprivation tank. There are no inflatable swimming pools in school gymnasiums this time around, so instead, Argyle leads them to the local Surfer Boy Pizza and convinces the guy working there (Surfer Boy Pizza exclusively hires friendly high dudes, apparently) to let them use the pizza dough freezer and all of the salt they have. And it works! It’s not long before Eleven tracks down Max, who is now under Vecna’s trance, and is able to enter her memories.

Back in Hawkins that means we’ve completed Phase Two of Nancy Wheeler’s Four Phase Plan to Save the World. While Max, Lucas, and Erica are at the Creel house waiting for Vecna to take Max (phases one and two), everyone else, in their spiffy new battle attire (it’s got a real Red Dawn vibe, doesn’t it?), is taking their places in the Upside Down. Dustin and Eddie are tasked with luring the demobats away from the Creel house by way of an epic guitar solo (phase three). This will clear the way for Nancy, Steve, and Robin to get inside the house and kill Vecna while he’s still in his trance with Max (phase four). Sounds simple right? Aw sweetie, that’s so cute.

Things get dicey pretty quickly. Eddie’s Metallica performance on the roof of his trailer in the Upside Down works in distracting the demobats, but maybe too well. When the bats breach the inside of the trailer, Eddie tricks Dustin into going back through the gate and into their own dimension to keep him safe. He decides to take on the demobats on his own in order to buy the team at the Creel house more time. After days of tearing himself apart for being a coward who runs, Eddie stops running and faces a truly terrifying swarm of alternate-dimensional bats head on.

Over at the Upside Down Creel house, it’s not long before the vines take hold of Robin, Steve, and Nancy, trapping and strangling all of them. As if Steve Harrington hasn’t been choked out enough already this season! Anyway, things seem dire for that group, too.

And what of Max and Lucas and Eleven and Vecna? Oh, buddies. Strap in. It takes a little work, but eventually Max’s plan of hiding in her happiest memory works and we find her back at the Snow Ball, where she had her first kiss with Lucas. This season has been chock full of callbacks to Stranger Things moments big and small, so it feels right that we’d revisit such a memorable one for the big climax. The warm and fuzzy nostalgia doesn’t last long, however, as Vecna invades this memory and informs her that he knows all about her plan — he can see and feel everything her friends are doing. But just when Vecna is about to do his creepy hand-to-forehead fatality move, he gets thrown back by some defiant, invisible force. It’s Eleven. She’s come to rescue her friend.

“If you touch her again, I will kill you, again,” Eleven tells him. For as fierce and threatening as that sentiment is, this mind fight takes a turn in Vecna’s favor real fast. He’s so happy to see Eleven because now she can watch as he kills all of her friends and destroys Hawkins before destroying the world. He ends up bringing both Eleven and an unconscious Max to his mind lair and tying them up with those vines. Now, if you only remember two things about Vecna after all of this they should be that the guy hates moisturizer but really loves a monologue. I mean, the amount of yammering this guy does! I guess it’s hard to fault him too much since this time the yammering he does reveals information that completely rewrites everything we thought we knew about the Upside Down and … all of Stranger Things, really. No big deal or anything.

The spiders should’ve been the clue. You see, when Eleven cast One into the Upside Down after the massacre at the lab, he found a realm with untapped potential, one that he was able to mold into what he wanted. Dustin’s theory about Vecna being the Mind Flayer’s “five star general” was all wrong — Vecna/One/Henry has been in charge all along. He is the creator and king of the Upside Down as we know it. The reason the Mind Flayer/Shadow Monster from season two looked like a giant spider? It’s because Vecna/One/Henry is obsessed with them. When Eleven closed the gate after that? Vecna built that Flesh Monster version of the Mind Flayer not to kill Eleven, but to steal her powers. She didn’t just lose them after her battle with the monster in season three — they were taken from her on purpose. (Remember, Brenner did warn Eleven that One consumes his victims, taking everything from them.) He needed them in order to make his own gates so that he could consume this dimension. It was Vecna. It’s always been Vecna. It was always going to come down to Eleven versus One: They are mirror images of each other, Vecna derives his power from darkness, pain, and anger, while Eleven has found her strength in the light and through knowing real love. It’s your classic good versus evil — you know Stranger Things loves a throwback.

So who wins this matchup? Well, it’s complicated. Things are looking bleak for our side. Eleven is strung up and has no fight left. Vecna is proceeding with killing Max. When she begins to levitate, Lucas is unable to play her Kate Bush tape because Max’s walkman was crushed when Jason barreled through the door to point a gun at Lucas and demand he stop the satanic ritual he thinks he stumbled upon. Fucking Jason, everybody. Max’s bones begin to snap and her eyes bleed. Eddie is being attacked by the demobats and it doesn’t look good. Steve, Robin, and Nancy are running out of time (and air!). In the Soviet Union, Hopper is trapped by a demodog.

But then the tide turns all at once: Joyce, refusing to let another man she loves be eaten in front of her, saves Hopper. They’re able to get all the demogorgons back in the pit and Murray burns their asses to the ground with a flamethrower. The hive mind does its thing — the bats all fall to the ground, and the vines release their grip on Steve, Robin, and Nancy. Thanks to the cheesiest speech in the world from Mike about how much he loves and believes in Eleven (give Mike and Will more to do in season five!), she is empowered to fight once more and she blasts Vecna away from Max, who falls into Lucas’s arms, unable to see or feel anything. After the demogorgons are destroyed in the Soviet prison, Vecna screams out in pain again. The plan is working. Steve, Robin, and Nancy are able to get to Vecna’s physical body and they light that piece of shit up with some molotov cocktails before Nancy takes out her sawed-off shotgun and blasts that guy so hard, he falls out of the window.

Unfortunately, friends, I’m here to tell you that this is in no way a win for the good guys. Vecna’s body isn’t there when they go to check, which means he is still out there, hurt but still alive. Eddie, sweet, dear Eddie, dies from his wounds in Dustin’s arms. “I didn’t run this time, right?” he tearfully asks his friend. Max, too, succumbs to her injuries as Lucas screams out, holding her.

And then Vecna’s clock chimes four times. His plan worked, he made his fourth gate. All four of the gates continue to grow until they create one giant “x” that rips through Hawkins. But that problem is for later because, guys, Max is dead. We find Eleven sobbing over Max and Lucas in her dark void place until suddenly she decides that no, Max is not dying today. She places her hand over Max’s heart and we see flashes of their friendship, of their happiest moments, as Eleven wills her friend to live again. I have chills just thinking about how the emotional crux of this massive TV series comes down to the deep friendship between two teenage girls. I know this whole sequence is heart-wrenching, but the absolute joy I feel when I think about it!

Two days later, the pizza van contingent finally makes it to Hawkins where they find a mass exodus of citizens, finally fed up with the string of tragedies that have befallen their town after this, what is being covered up as an earthquake. It’s a reunion mostly full of relief for the gang, but there is a pall cast over the whole thing — Max is in a coma and they’re not sure if she’ll ever wake up.

Everyone heads over to Hopper’s cabin to clean it up so that El can use it to hide out since on top of everything, you know Sullivan and the military are still on the hunt for her. She’s alone in her room, wracked with guilt, blaming herself and her unpreparedness for what’s happened to Max. But then there are footsteps. Hopper walks in. It is joyful and lovely and heartbreaking all at once. They repeat some of their most memorable moments, about the door being left open three inches and looking bitchin’. Am I crying just thinking about it? I will not be sharing that information at this time!

But it is another reunion cut short with foreboding. Will feels those old tinglies on the back of his neck again and a dark cloud appears in the sky, covering everything. They all walk out into a field of flowers to look at their town scarred by Vecna’s gate and find the field is already half dead. Those instantly recognizable dusty particles begin to slowly fall all around them. It’s just like what Vecna showed Nancy. The Upside Down has arrived in Hawkins.

More Strange Things!

• You know, just when I’ve written off Jonathan Byers, he pulls me back in by tending to his younger brother, who is obviously dealing with (or not dealing with, as it were) a lot of emotional turmoil. Will never explicitly comes out (maybe season five?) and Jonathan never asks, but it’s clear what he means when he tells Will that “there is nothing in this world, absolutely nothing, that will ever change” how much Jonathan loves him. All over a salt bath in a pizza-dough freezer!

• Who would’ve thought at the start of this series that Steve Harrington would turn into the romantic leading man he is today? Just in case it wasn’t clear from all the longing glances and pregnant pauses, Steve tells Nancy that in his fantasy about driving his six kids around in a Winnebago, she’s there, too. “You’ve always been there,” he tells her. Listen, if a frantic makeout during a time of crisis when neither of you have showered in days is good enough for Hopper and Joyce, it is good enough for these two!! Just get to it, already!

• You’re killing me with all the fat jokes, Stranger Things. You do not need them, I promise you.

• Is Caleb McLaughlin the MVP of the season? In this episode, he’s so great in both the fake-out “Max is actually in the Vecna trance” scene when Lucas turns on her, squaring off against Jason, and during Max’s death scene. The wailing! I’ll never get over the wailing! Other contenders for the title are Sadie Sink, Joseph Quinn, Joe Keery, and the demobats. Discuss!

• “I think it’s my year, Henderson. I think it’s finally my year.” It’s fine. WE’RE ALL FINE.

• A lot of gruesome images here in this final episode but the one of the fourth gate cutting through an at-the-time alive Jason’s body? Yeah, that one will take a while to shake off.

• One of my absolute favorite things about Stranger Things is how it gives everyone in the group a chance to have their hero moment, to solve some puzzle, or fix a problem. No one is just dead weight along for the ride and the series is always stronger for it. Even silly stoner Argyle becomes an asset!

• I refuse to believe Steve wouldn’t make at the VERY LEAST one crack about Robin choosing to wear a beret at a time like this!

Stranger Things Season-Finale Recap: The Fourth Gate