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The Ending Of Stranger Things Season 4 Part 1 Explained

Like a tentacle vine from the Upside Down, "Stranger Things" burrowed its way into audiences' hearts and minds when it debuted on Netflix in the summer of 2016. The show combined elements of horror, mystery, sci-fi, and fantasy with 1980s "kids-on-bikes" nostalgia that appealed to a broad audience. "Stranger Things" fandom grew with Seasons 2 and 3, then those fans have had to wait three long years for another fix. But finally, the kids from Hawkins are back

They're bigger if not better; Mike, Will, Dustin, Lucas, and Eleven are now freshmen in Season 4 (though the actors are now 17 to 19, due to COVID delays and an already ambitious production schedule) and they're all having a hard time with high school. The episodes are bigger too, with an average runtime of about an hour and 20 minutes. 

Season 4 picks up a little less than a year after where Season 3 left off, with the Byers and El having moved to California and Hopper being held captive in a Russian prison camp. The supersized episodes, multiple locales, frequent flashbacks, and a considerable number of new characters mean that we're following more storylines than ever this season. "Stranger Things 4" isn't necessarily more confusing than previous installments; there's just a lot more to keep track of. This is where our characters are, what they've learned so far, and what they're doing at the end of Chapter 7.

Mike, Will, Jonathan, and Argyle are headed to Nevada

It seemed like "Stranger Things 4" was going to be bicoastal, with the California contingent set to have their own spring break storyline. But things go downhill out west, and fast. There's tension between Mike, Will, and El, and that's even before El bashes the local mean girl Angela in the face with a skate. The Lenora Hills police arrive at the Byers' residence to book El for assault, but the military and the Hawkins lab are looking for her, too. 

Dr. Owens' team assigns a security detail to the Byers' house, breaks El out, and convinces her to go to his underground lab, where he may be able to restore her powers. She panics when she sees Dr. Brenner again and has to be sedated, but her telekinetic abilities start to come back, and she decides to participate willingly in "the Nina project." But government forces, led by Lt. Colonel Sullivan, are hot on their trail. After a harrowing shootout, Mike, Will, and Jonathan escape with a wounded guard in Argyle's van. The guard dies, but not before giving Mike a pen that contains a secret phone number. 

The number isn't meant for a phone, but a computer. Mike maps them to Salt Lake City, where Dustin's hacker girlfriend lives. Suzie (who thinks they're trying to win Dusty a video game console) informs them her PC has been confiscated as punishment for changing Dustin's Latin grade. However, her many siblings create a distraction that allows them to sneak into her dad's office and trace the IP address to coordinates in Nevada. When last we see them, they're ready to hit the road again and rescue El with a printout of the location in hand. 

Jason's mob is out for vengeance

Jason Carver sure thinks he's the good guy, but it's obvious to every "Stranger Things" fan from his first appearance at the pep rally that he's actually one of this season's many antagonists. We know that his girlfriend Chrissy was seeing the guidance counselor, presumably because her mom contributed to her body image issues, but the way she interacts with Eddie suggests her relationship with Jason may not have been everything the couple presented it as.

Just about everybody suspects Eddie is responsible for Chrissy's murder, but because her death is so unusual, with no signs of physical contact, there are lingering questions. The police theorize that Chrissy was at Eddie's trailer to buy drugs, which Jason refuses to believe. He doesn't like the way the cops are handling the case, so he assembles his basketball team (including Lucas), and takes matters into his own hands. Jason beats it out of Eddie's bandmate that Dustin might know something. Lucas helps his friends evade the jocks, but they catch up to Eddie at Lover's Lake. 

Jason and teammate Patrick swim after Eddie as he tries to escape in a boat. That's when Vecna kills Patrick in spectacular fashion. Rather than this convincing Jason of Eddie's innocence, the jock doubles down. Jason interrupts a public forum with a fiery speech that mirrors his Episode 1 pep talk in which he insists that Eddie has made a deal with the devil and that the Hellfire Club is a dangerous satanic cult. Most of the townspeople join him to hunt down Eddie and the rest of the gang, defying the curfew. They're still out there with metaphorical pitchforks raised at the end of Part 1.

Vecna's kills open gates

The Hawkins gang is desperate to clear Eddie's name and defeat Vecna before Max becomes his next victim. They follow Dustin's compass, which goes haywire around otherworldly energy, to Lover's Lake, where Patrick met his end only hours before. Nancy recalls that passageways between dimensions seemed to appear around kill sites. The older kids — Nancy, Robin, Steve, and Eddie — take the boat to see if this holds true for Vecna, while the younger kids — Dustin, Max, and Lucas — stay on the shore. 

Steve finds a gate at the bottom of the lake, but he gets ensnared by a vine and pulled into the Upside Down. He's attacked by demo-bats before he's saved by Nancy, Robin, and Eddie, who follow each other through the ominous glowing tear. Demo-bats are guarding the "Watergate," so the crew retreats to Upside Down Skull Rock, then the Upside Down Wheeler house. There, they can hear the other kids in the real house, where they're being held for questioning.

Eddie uses a chandelier to signal SOS in Morse code, then Dustin and Nancy communicate via Lite Brite. He reminds them that if every attack creates a gate, there should be one in Eddie's uncle's trailer (not to mention one near where Fred died, which may yet come into play). Steve, Nancy, Robin, and Eddie jump on the Wheelers' bikes and ride seven miles to the trailer park where, sure enough, there's a big, red gash in the ceiling. It provides an escape route, but it also establishes an important fact that may be of even more consequence in Part 2: Vecna's attacks — and possibly any death involving the Upside Down and its energy — open gates. 

The Upside Down is stuck in the past

Once they're in the Upside Down, Nancy suggests they arm themselves with guns she keeps in her bedroom. The group is surprised to learn that Nancy's the firearm-owning type, but they're happy to have access to her rifle and pistol. Unfortunately, when they arrive at the alternate version of the Wheeler house and rummage through Nancy's room, the guns are nowhere to be found. Nancy thinks she knows why when she picks up an old diary. In her real bedroom on the surface, the diary's pages are filled up with entries, but in this dimension, Nancy's journaling stops around the time she started dating Steve. She whispers that the Upside Down must be in the past. 

We don't yet understand the extent to which Nancy's hypothesis is true. Her room is frozen in time about three years back, and it's possible that the whole place works according to the same timekeeping system. A more likely explanation is that in the Upside Down, time is variable. Nancy's bedroom is probably standing still at what's either her most guilt-ridden moment (Barb's death) or her first contact with its otherworldly creatures. Similarly, the Upside Down Creel house — which appears to be a vital location, perhaps even the dimension's center — may well turn out to be stuck in 1959, the year in which the horrific tragedy occurred there. If time is relative on the other side of those gates (and especially if it's tied to individual experience), that adds a fascinating new component to "Stranger Things" lore that could help explain quite a bit about the show's mysterious underworld. 

Hopper escapes the Demogorgon, but not the Russian prison

The storyline that's the most disconnected from the rest of the show (at least so far) is the plot involving Joyce and Murray's attempt to spring Hopper from a Russian prison. Joyce receives a package from Russia that contains a doll. She contacts Murray, who instructs her to break it, and she finds a ransom note. Someone calling themselves Enzo wants them to bring $40,000 to Alaska in exchange for their friend. 

It's not a very realistic plan — Enzo (real name: Dmitri) gives them 100 to 1 odds — and it goes disastrously wrong. Hopper breaks his foot to slip out of his cuffs and run, but is captured at the agreed-upon meeting place when their go-between, Yuri, double-crosses them for more money. Joyce and Murray manage to overtake Yuri in mid-air thanks to Murray's blackbelt-level combat training, but since they don't know how to fly, they crash the plane.  

Back at the prison, Murray successfully impersonates Yuri and gets them inside, where they see Hopper, Dmitri, and about a dozen other captives in a pit, preparing for a fight. A mechanized, reinforced door opens, and out comes a Demogorgon. It quickly dispatches most of the prisoners, but Hopper manages to keep it at bay with a makeshift torch. Meanwhile, Murray tries threatening the guards into opening the pit door, but they stay loyal to mother Russia, so Murray resorts to martial arts again. When it's all over, Hopper and Dmitri are on the other side of the door from the Demogorgon, but at the moment, they're all still stranded in Russia.

Max and Nancy are still possessed by Vecna

One of the reveals that packs the most punch in Part 1 is Max's realization that her mind has been corrupted by Vecna. Early on, we're led to believe that her depressive mood, visits to the guidance counselor, and break up with Lucas have to do with the trauma she suffered witnessing Billy's brutal death and the impact it had on her family. Her abusive stepdad left, but she and her alcoholic mother are near-destitute in the trailer park. Max doesn't want the counselor's help, but she does want information about Chrissy. When she can't pry any details from Ms. Kelly, Max steals her key and reads her files.

She discovers that Fred Benson, Nancy's deceased reporting partner, was a patient too, and that all three of them had the same symptoms: headaches, nightmares, nosebleeds, and visions. Max sees the grandfather clock that appears to Vecna's victims shortly before he takes them and knows she only has about a day left. She has a full-blown encounter with Vecna at Billy's grave before she's brought back by the sound of her favorite song. As long as she's got her Walkman, she's safe, but that's still a pretty precarious position to be in.

Meanwhile, Nancy chases Steve into the Upside Down, but neither of them has made it out yet. The younger kids start to pull them through the gate in Eddie's trailer, but Nancy is possessed by Vecna just as she's about to climb the rope. While Max saw visions of Billy, Nancy relives Barb's death and then ends up in the Upside Down's deconstructed version of the Creel House, where she witnesses scenes from Vecna's childhood. Steve is left frantically trying to shake her back to consciousness.

Eleven meets One...

Season 4 begins with a flashback sequence that implies Eleven used her powers to kill all the children and most of the guards at the Hawkins lab, just prior to the starting point of the show. What actually happened in the highly classified facility that night is the central mystery of the first seven episodes.

Dr. Owens and Dr. Brenner think El can restore her abilities by reprocessing her memories in the Nina machine. When she's floated in water and hooked up to its sensors, El relives a series of confusing and sometimes painful memories — many of which she's suppressed — until they begin to make sense. A creepy but compassionate lab assistant named Peter Ballard begins to confide in Eleven, especially when it becomes clear that she's been subjected to vicious bullying by the other children. After one of their attacks leaves her with a concussion, Ballard tells her that Dr. Brenner intends to let them finish her off next time, as he fears she's too powerful and difficult to control. She believes him, as she witnessed the staff beat him for what she assumes was his kindness to her before. He offers to help her run, and in return, she telekinetically removes a small device from under his skin. 

It's at this point that El realizes Ballard has powers, too. Earlier, he said she reminded him of number One. El replied that Papa told them he didn't exist, but Ballard countered that Papa often lied. After she tore out his chip — which may have been a tracker, a device to block his power, or both — he tells El that he's like her, and then he shows her his tattoo. It reads 001. 

...and learns the truth

El had suppressed the Hawkins Lab massacre, but her sessions in the Nina machine convince her she was a cold-blooded killer. She fears she retaliated for their bullying, as she'd done with Angela. When the full picture comes into focus, she learns the truth. In a way, El is marginally responsible for the massacre, but only because she freed One. Through her memories, we see that One committed the mass murder once his powers were restored. El only caught him in the act when she didn't stay hidden, which leads to their dramatic and extremely expository final confrontation. 

Peter Ballard is actually the son of Victor Creel. The family moved to Hawkins because he was giving his parents trouble and they thought a fresh start might fix everything. It didn't; we see the still-disturbed young boy kill a rabbit in the same manner that Vecna killed Chrissy. The Creels were seeking the wisdom of a doctor when their son, fearing he'd be institutionalized, possessed and murdered his mother and sister and framed his father. That doctor turned out to be Brenner, who covered up One's crimes and took him back to his lab, to study him and make more individuals like him. 

One begins to twist Eleven's limbs, but she summons all her strength and basically dissolves him. This opens what might be the first gate to the Upside Down and transforms One into Vecna. The incident explains why Vecna lurks around the Creel house, but we still know very little about the origin of his powers. It's also notable that El's attack opens the gate in the rainbow room, which strongly indicates her gifts (and by extension, the Creel boy's) came from the Upside Down. 

Real '80s cultural history informs the story

"Stranger Things" has always made the most of its retro setting, aesthetically speaking, with period-correct fashion and music as well as details like presidential campaign signs and movie posters. Season 4 takes the historical and cultural references to a whole new level, as the Satanic panic that gripped the country in the mid-'80s factors directly into the plot. In the world of the show, basketball captain Jason thinks the Hellfire Club is a demonic cult that's ritualistically sacrificing children. He claims he's heard about the phenomenon on the news, and he has a pretty easy time swaying most of Hawkins to his point of view. Lucas's sister protests that Hellfire's just a club for nerds, but Jason and his mob err on the side of hysteria, and even Mike, Dustin, and Lucas's parents have their doubts. 

This storyline is completely based in reality. Around the time the series takes place, America was irrationally concerned with Satanism. Kids who liked Dungeons and Dragons or Ozzy Osborne became scapegoats for cultural shifts that made some people uncomfortable. Anyone who's actually played D&D knows how silly that is. But edgy teens weren't the Satanic panic's only victims. Anyone could be suspected of corrupting or abusing children, including daycare workers whose lives were ruined by accusations. 

Since "Stranger Things" isn't finished with its own moral hysteria storyline, things are probably going to get worse for the Hellfire Club before they get better. However, the series is the perfect platform to explore this strange and relevant chapter in America's history.