Is it surprising that we came out this way? Stranger Things’ marketing machine deserves credit. After weeks of trailers, interviews and theories, the Netflix thriller seemed to have reached its peak. The only thing that was left was death. It was unclear if the characters were being portrayed or the series. Given Gaten Matarazzo’s winking tease to Teen Vogue this Week, in which he hinted at multiple deaths during Stranger Things season 4, I was fully prepared to write this review through my tears.
The finale, however, is a difficult exercise in restraint. That’s absurd to say about an episode that is as long as a feature movie. Stranger Things isn’t good at restraint. Too much money and too much ego are at stake! It’s true, Episode 9, “Piggyback,” serves more to set up the next final battle than it does to resolve the one that its season was built upon. This dose of Marvel Syndrome may be irritating to some viewers (even the writer admits to having an eye roll before the credits), but there is something magnetic about knowing that the end is not far away. It’s still boiling. The best is yet ahead. Perhaps, like Max, we’re not yet ready for death.
First, there’s a lot to digest. Our Russian crew, which includes Joyce, Murray and Yuri, opens the finale (right, Dmitri!) )–still in Sovietville. Yuri is securing himself against the windshield/buttocks of Katinka’s helicopter, Joyce and Hopper take out their sleeping bags and put on Hulk Hogan T shirts. My vision became sharper immediately: Are they…gonna bones? Joyce approaches Hopper, a shirtless man, and expresses shock at his scarred chest. He says, “It’s really not that bad.” I am sorry, but we can’t imbue Dad Bod Hopper in toxic beauty standards.
Joyce mentions that they still have a date and part of the reason she was willing to take this chance–you know, breaking into a Russian prison. “Remember?” Hopper replies, dumbstruck. “I’ve been dreaming of it.” Hopper will get two orders at dinner of breadsticks, something that he doesn’t usually do. Joyce laughs, asking Joyce: “You’ve been dreaming of breadsticks or lasagna?” Hop sits straighter and sips a bit closer. “Should it have been dreaming about another?” Why is the conversation about breadsticks so seductive?!
Finally, they kiss and lean in for that long-awaited moment. Murray! Before they can do anything, however, the phone rings. It is allegedly with the KGB listening. Hop discovers that their children are in trouble by calling the KGB. (Watching Winona Ryder’s not-surprised-but-nevertheless-terrified little twitch here is absolutely heartbreaking.) They are trapped in Russia and realize that they won’t be able to rescue the children. However, they have access the Russian prison’s creatures last episode which means they can access Vecna’s “hive mind.” We go back to the prison.
The Surfer Boy Pizza gang, Eleven, Mike, Jonathan and Argyle, are trying unsuccessfully to book a pay phone flight. Eleven is aware that Vecna can take over Max’s mind. She’s done it before with Max’s mother and her brother, Billy. She’ll need a sensory-deprivation tank, or at the very least a salty bathtub. Argyle knows where to find one. With the help of a stiff joint they take control of the Surfer Boy franchise’s kitchen and find the 600-pounds of salt Argyle promised. Argyle declares, “First ever mind fight held inside a pizza dough freeze.”
The Hawkins remaining team, which includes Nancy, Steve, Robin and Lucas, as well as Max and Dustin, devised a four-phase plan for taking out Henry/Vecna/One. They pledge to stick to the plan no matter what. Guess what I think they will do? You can’t go against the plan! All except Max, Lucas, Erica, and Lucas all make the Upside-Down jump through Eddie’s trailer ceiling to get back into Vecna territory. These three men, who are still “real” people, use lamps to locate Vecna. This is Phase One.
You didn’t forget the Jocks, did? Hawkins High’s golden boy are becoming more impatient. Jason is particularly deranged. They have a lead. Someone saw Erica run out of the Morehead “murder house.” It looks like Vecna’s assassins are about to face off in a showdown.
In the Upside Down, Eddie finds his electric guitar waiting for him, “like she was destined for an alternate dimension.” While en route to the UD version of the Creel house, Steve thanks Nancy for giving him a thump on the head, metaphorically speaking, and then reveals his Winnebago fantasy from last episode–the road trips, the six mini Harringtons?–includes her. He says, “You’re there.”
They locate the Creel house, and they move on to Phase Two which includes baiting Vecna. Max takes off her headphones and turns off Kate Bush. This is more than I have been able do on TikTok. However, things don’t go as planned. Vecna refuses the lure even though Max isn’t running up that hill. She sits down with Max and confides in him: “I thought about your words. She confesses to praying for Billie’s death back when he was alive so that she would not have to suffer the abuse. She has tried to forgive herself, but she can’t. She says, “So now, when I lay in bed at night I pray that something will happen…So that’s why you’re here. Because I want you to take my away.” This monologue is inevitably true, which is precisely why it works so well. Vecna is in her head within seconds. Phase three
A delightful twist of events, easily one of the episodes’ high points, sees Dustin and Eddie trying to lure Vecna’s army of flesh-ripping Bats to them by singing Metallica’s “Master of Puppets”. (I highly recommend using subtitles for this segment.) Let me take it from you. While Eddie strums every note, Dustin is a master of the melody. But Steve, Nancy and Robin are too busy fighting Vecna tentacles to appreciate The Upside Down’s new tunes. Lucas is also busy: Jason has arrived and is pointing a gun at Lucas’ forehead. The two of them get into a heated exchange thanks to Lucas’s killer right hook.
Now that Eleven has emerged from the salt bath, she starts flipping through Max’s memories. She’s having trouble reaching the one Max (mentally) is hiding from Vecna. Season 2’s Hawkins Middle Snow Ball is turning into a Vecna-themed party complete with bloody balloons. Hopper and Co. set up a way to trap the demo-creatures and light them on fire. This weakens Vecna. Eddie and Dustin then rally to take out the remaining hell-bats. Surprisingly, there are too many. Dustin concludes that the only way to get rid of them is to return to the real world. Eddie has done enough running recently. He’s going to fight this time.
Vecna is about bending Max’s limbs in Max’s mind palace. But Eleven intervenes to stop him from killing her. Max asks Eleven how he managed to get into her head. We get the infamous Eleven quote that will be immortalized on Reddit. “I piggybacked through an pizza dough freezer.” However, the good humor does not last long as Vecna recovers his strength and takes Max’s unconscious body along with Eleven’s writhing one, to his Creel lair in The Upside Down. Eleven informs Max that Papa is dead, in an attempt to calm his fury. .
Vecna has a monologue that he would like to perform and Eleven is ready to ru-in it! He tells Eleven, “Does not you see? He didn’t force me to do this. It was you.”
Monologue again reveals that Henry/Vecna/One was “made an explorer in a unspoiled realm by mankind” by a younger Eleven who unwittingly sent him to the Upside Down. He discovered the Mind Flayer, which was “a way to realize my potential”. Vecna realized that he would have to open the four gates by himself to unleash the apocalypse after Eleven and Co. defeated Mind Flayer. Thanos would then “pick up all the pieces” and “make it beautiful again.”
Max starts to levitate in the real world. This is a sign that things aren’t going as well. Mike confesses to Eleven his love to keep her loyal. He begs her to fight and she does. The tentacles begin to release around her neck, joints and neck. It might be too late. Max’s limbs are already snapping and blood is flowing from her eyes. Eddie is getting eaten alive by bats. Hopper is only inches away from being chewed by a demodog. Is it… losing?
No, of course not. This is Stranger Things! Eleven discovers her unlimited power reserve and pushes Vecna to the backwards as Joyce and Hopper make a run at it. Murray pours fire from the top, despite the Demo-beings still in the pit. After Vecna is restrained by Eleven’s, his tentacles free Nancy, Steve and Robin. The bats around Eddie fall, and Vecna is freed by Eleven. Hop saves one demogorgon and takes up Excalibur–sorry for the random sword on ground–to defeat it.
Robin, Steve and Nancy find the Vecna real in the Upside Down, and make a roast. (Phase Four!) He has a warning to Eleven: “This only the beginning. This is the beginning of the end. “You have already lost.” He was set ablaze by the trio, and a glowing Vecna appears to follow them. Robin throws another Molotov, while Nancy advances on Robin, shotgun-blasting from closer and closer distance. Steve looks cute as can be.
Finally, Nancy shoots Vecna out of a Creel house window, leaving his apparently dead body in the front yard. But alas. The body vanishes when they race down the stairs.
It’s now, or never. If someone is going to die it is now. Eddie is the first to die. He is unable to withstand multiple bat bites, unlike Steve. Although Eddie is a new character in Stranger Things, and one that we have had less time to get to know, he has become a fan favorite. He was a loyal psuedobrother to The Hellfire Club and a misunderstood misfit who kept his spirit strong until the end. It is heartbreaking to see Dustin sob beside him. Eddie questions, “I didn’t run away this time?” You didn’t.
Max has woken up in Creel House, but she is unable to see or feel any objects. Her eyes are foggy. Her bones are broken. Erica screams at Lucas to call an ambulance, while Max blubbers, “I don’t wanna die.” Sadie Sink’s performance here is her best. It is absolutely horrible to watch. As four chimes from Vecna’s grandfather clock erupt, Lucas and Eleven shriek in agony, signifying Max has passed on and that the curtain between Hawkins’ and the Upside Down has been lifted,
As they tear through the floor with viscous, hot cracks, Jason is split in half as they create a path of destruction. After all that we’ve gone through, was this really necessary? As the earth rumbles, moans and spits out its UD lava, buildings crumble into the tracks. Mike tries to wake Eleven up, but she is still in Max’s head and whispers simply “No.” Wait, is Eleven able to use resurrection powers that I don’t understand? The screen goes black before we can figure it out. A “Two Days Later” card alerts us that there is a time jump.
Surfer Boy Pizza Bros. come across a long line full of cars speeding out of Hawkins as they return to town. Everyone finally returns home to share tender, bittersweet memories, some more optimistic than others. Robin meets Vickie at a temporary relief camp, and they get along well. Dustin weeps and gives Mr. Munson Eddie his guitar pick. He also has a brave memory to keep his son’s memory. Nancy and Jonathan attempt to figure out if their relationship “is okay” (it is not). Lucas discovers Max is in a coma and may never be able to wake up. Father and daughter are back together at Hopper’s cabin. Eleven thinks Hop looks a little bit “bitchin” and Hop is even more emaciated. But Will knows better than anyone that Vecna is still breathing and Will can feel his pain.
Will’s back hairs stand up and they all look at the sky. A storm is coming. Snow–Upside down snow, but not real snow–begins falling. They walk together to a clearing, where they discover that the flowers have died and withered. Hawkins and the Upside Down are merging. The end is near.
That’s it. A Marvel post-credits scene worthy of next season’s set-up. “Only” one main character was killed, except Max, whose fate is still unknown. Although “Piggyback”, in some ways, was not what I expected, it still delivers the action and horror Stranger Things is known for. My first instinct was a strange disappointment. This was all I felt, and I didn’t have panic attacks by the end.
Although “Piggyback”, as the episode ends, is not for everyone. We don’t learn much here that we didn’t know. Vecna, Henry/One, is on a mission, and it will be very difficult to stop him. These same facts are true even though Eddie is gone, Max is unconscious, and Vecna may be pulling off a Voldemort while the Hawkins-Upside Down merge.
Yet. Perhaps I am prone to falling for fan-baiting but the moments that “Piggyback”, wanted to feel epic, did feel epic. When the credits ended, I was pumped with adrenaline and had managed to finish this story until the early hours of the morning. Although I’m not going to give Netflix a lot of credit for Stranger Things, it gets far more praises than it really deserves. However, the show may be onto something with its slow and powerful approach. It’s like edging. We get closer and closer to the inevitable (a massive, gravity-defying emotional release), but we refuse to actually turn the knife in this instance. Eddie’s death was a prelude to what will almost certainly be an even more controversial loss next year. Max could be that. Or Eleven. Or–God forbid–Dustin.
The show’s final season is next season. The end is near. Stranger Things may have wanted to ensure that we were prepared for the fight.