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The Ending Of Stranger Things Season 4 Explained

Every season of "Stranger Things" so far has been bigger than the seasons which came before, but even with that in mind, "Stranger Things 4" feels particularly big. It's a story that seems larger than not just Season 3, but every season so far combined, setting the stage for a major showdown that will conclude the series with a fifth season.

The sheer scope of "Stranger Things 4" means that there's a lot going on throughout the season, and it also means that the ending of the nine-episode saga leaves a lot of lingering questions, implications, and issues that Season 5 will need to resolve and contend with. Over the course of Season 4 we met a new villain in Vecna, learned his place in the mythology of the Upside Down, and watched as the Hawkins kids tried to stave off his plans for an all-out invasion of their world. The way it all ends, and what that ends implies about what comes next, is just as massive as the rest of the season.

So now that we've all binged the entirety of Season 4, let's unpack everything the ending tells us about what's coming. From romantic relationships to the future of reality itself, this is the ending of "Stranger Things 4" explained.

The fall of Hawkins

For four years in the world of "Stranger Things," Hawkins has been plagued by incursions into its reality from the Upside Down. It started small with a single Demogorgon, and has since swelled to include various gates between that world and this one, including new gates that Vecna used to infiltrate Hawkins and claim various victims.

By the end of Season 4, that infiltration has progressed to a full-on pre-invasion, as Max's near-death marked the end of Vecna's quest to claim four lives and the beginning of his planned invasion of our world through the Upside Down, beginning with Hawkins. Even as the Hawkins gang celebrated their survival of the battle with Vecna at the end Season 4, claiming victory in one battle in a larger war, their celebrations were interrupted by the beginning of an all-out assault. Rifts are now open across Hawkins, spilling across town and converging on the center of the city. Nancy's visions in Episode 8 are now reality, and Hawkins is a city under siege, whether the residents know it or not.

For the past four years, the gang of friends fighting the Upside Down in Hawkins has worked in the shadows, doing their best to stop the evil of that alternate dimension from spilling over into daily life. Now there's no more hiding, no more fighting in secret. The fight is here, right out in the open, and that means Season 5 will look very different from the battle that's come before.

Vecna's attack

The final images of "Stranger Things 4" show us an escalation of Vecna's assault on Hawkins. What started as a series of rifts opening beneath the town expands to include the familiar, snow-like particles of the Upside Down drifting in the real world, while the rifts begin to bellow smoke and red lightning crackles in the clouds over the city. Our heroes know very well what this means, even if no one else in town does. Something bigger is coming to Hawkins, and soon.

The question that remains as the season ends, though, is what exactly that bigger something will look like. We've become very familiar with the various kinds of creatures who exist in the Upside Down over the years, so is Vecna simply going to stage an all-out assault with as many of those beasts as he can summon? Is he going to bring the Mind Flayer to colossal life over the Hawkins skyline? This is what our heroes have to figure out as they head into Season 5, because the scale of the fight is going to be unprecedented.

Robin's happy ending

The Hawkins kids are facing an unimaginable force of darkness as Season 4 transitions into Season 5, but that doesn't mean their personal lives are completely lost in the shuffle. These kids all still have hopes and dreams and things they'd like to do outside the fight against the Upside Down, and they're going to keep pursuing them in some form. That's perhaps clearest in the story of Robin, who reveals a crush on a fellow student named Vickie at the beginning of the season, then sees things come a bit full circle by the end.

In Episode 8, Robin learns that Vickie has a boyfriend from out of town, but just one episode later, when she finds herself volunteering beside her crash at Hawkins High School, she learns that they broke up, and Robin and the newly single Vickie are left to bond in a real way for what seems like the first time, making sandwiches for refugees of the earthquake and laughing and joking together. Right now, it's hard to imagine what anyone's life will look like at the end of this fight, but Robin seems closer than ever to the kind of happy ending she deserves. Will she actually get it? Will Vickie get roped into the fight? We can't wait to find out.

Jonathan, Nancy, and Steve

Jonathan Byers and his girlfriend, Nancy Wheeler, are separated by geography for much of the fourth season, but there's also something else in the way of their relationship. Since moving to California, Jonathan has developed doubts about his ability to ever be enough for Nancy, particularly since he won't be going to the same college she's hoping to attend.

Meanwhile, back in Hawkins, Nancy is very aware of how distant Jonathan's been lately, and that awareness coincides with the re-emergence of Steve Harrington in her life. As they battle Vecna together, Nancy realizes that Steve has grown a lot since they broke up, and he makes that growth more apparent when he confesses to her that he's thought about raising a family and growing old with her constantly since they parted ways. It seems like a reconciliation might happen, but then Jonathan returns to Hawkins, putting whatever might have happened on pause. Will Steve continue to take the high road and keep his distance out of respect for Jonathan? Will Jonathan and Nancy realize their relationship has run its course? Will Jonathan come clean about the secrets he's been keeping? We don't know what that means for Season 5 just yet, but it's pretty clear that something has to give in this accidental love triangle.

Mike and El

Mike and Eleven began Season 4 with serious issues in their relationship, often stemming from personal problems within each of them. For Mike, a big part of the problem was not just the physical distance from El, who moved to California with the Byers family, but a perceived distance in their personalities. For him, El is an exceptional person, and he's simply not, and he's sure that one day she'll realize that and decide she doesn't need him. For El, who's been struggling with the loss of her powers at the end of Season 3, the problem is that she believes Mike doesn't feel as strongly about her as she feels about him, and that her own outsider status has made her into a kind of monster that she can never rehabilitate.

By the end of the season, of course, they both learn they're wrong. Will helps convince Mike that he's vital to their entire friend group, and to Eleven's life, as the heart of the party and the person who keeps everyone buoyed by hope. Through her work with Dr. Brenner, Eleven comes to realize that she's not a monster, and that she's simply been manipulated into perceiving some kind of wrongness in her mind and body. That leads to an emotional reunion and reconciliation at the end of the season, but of course the happiness is short-lived. Will they actually get a happy ending, or are they destined to be ripped apart again?

Joyce and Hopper

Joyce Byers and Jim Hopper spend almost the entirety of Season 4 trying to get back to each other, after Joyce receives a message from Hopper that reveals he's being held in a Soviet prison. Through no small number of mishaps and risky moves, Joyce finally finds her way to the prison, only to find that Hopper's life is in a fresh kind of danger. It's only at the very end of the season, as they're working to find a way to get back to America, that the two are able to come together as a proper couple once again.

Of course, the happy reunion doesn't hold out for long. Hopper and Joyce make it back to the States in time to find that the kids' fight against the Upside Down has gone very wrong, and that Hawkins is now engulfed in a full-on disaster as rifts open up across the town. Their relationship doesn't feel the least bit rocky, but the big question as we head into Season 5 is just how Hopper and Joyce will make it through this fight intact. They lost each other once already. Now they have to fight to make sure it doesn't happen again.

Will's turmoil

All of the Hawkins kids are going through their own major struggles in "Stranger Things 4," but Will Byers is going through one of the hardest rough patches of his young life, in part because he's doing much of his struggling alone. It's been speculated ever since a key moment in Season 3 that Will is gay, and that eventually he'll come out to his friends, and perhaps even reveal that he's in love with his best friend, Mike Wheeler. In Season 4, we got more than one moment in which Will seemed to allude to his secret, and one very potent moment near the end of the season where it seemed like he was almost going to say it, but he kept silent out of concern for the larger fight. Will's personal narrative remains stalled, but it's clear that he's aching to tell someone something about the secret he's keeping.

Then there's Will's other inner turmoil, something that hasn't really been addressed directly since Season 2. Will still has at least some connection to the Upside Down, thanks to his possession by the Mind Flayer at the end of Season 1, and since Vecna has launched his invasion, he's been feeling it more and more. Will he be able to hold himself together in the fight to come, or is he destined for an inner battle that's just as dangerous as the external one?

Brenner's real purpose

Near the end of "Stranger Things 4," Eleven makes a devastating discovery about her "Papa," Dr. Martin Brenner. She realizes, as Brenner pushes her to stay in his secret lab and cultivate her powers even further, that the experiments she remembers from Hawkins Lab were never about her. They were always about using her to get closer to Henry, Brenner's first patient who Eleven sent to the Upside Down, where he transformed into the creature the kids call Vecna. All of his efforts to grow and shape Eleven's powers were about Brenner's desire to reach Henry again, which makes him the real monster at the core of all the problems with Hawkins.

It's a major moment of catharsis for Eleven, who realizes that the problem was never her and her powers, but it's also an interesting wrinkle in the ongoing saga of what was really going on at Hawkins Lab. It's clear in Season 4 that there are still plenty of dark forces within the U.S. government who are squabbling over the nature of the lab, the Upside Down, and Eleven herself. What's less clear is whether or not anyone else knew about what Brenner was really trying to achieve. If someone did know, are they going to be out there trying to finish his work? Does anyone else know what Henry has become? These are questions that could have major implications for what's coming in the final season.

El vs. The government

Near the beginning of Season 4, Dr. Martin Brenner and Dr. Sam Owens form an uneasy alliance with the shared goal of getting Eleven's powers back to full strength through the use of the NINA machine out in their secret desert facility. By the end of the season, they're at odds again, as Owens tries to help Eleven escape to help her friends, and Brenner is determined to keep her in the lab longer to try and reach One in the Upside Down. Then the entire operation is disrupted when Lt. Col. Sullivan and his troops arrive, killing Brenner, capturing Owens, and trying to end the operation once and for all by killing Eleven.

All this means that by the end of the season, Eleven is a fugitive with few government allies left in her corner and dark forces in the human world who want her not just contained, but dead. This explains why she's going back into hiding in Hopper's cabin at the end of the season, but what we still don't know is just how far the government will go to capture her, especially now that rifts have opened all over Hawkins. Will the government realize they need Eleven more than they want her neutralized? Will Eleven be hiding from dark forces forever? It's a conflict that's arguably just as important to her survival as the fight against the Upside Down.

The Soviet agenda

The end of "Stranger Things 4" reveals many things, and not all of them come from the United States. During the process of escaping from Hopper's Soviet prison, Hopper and Joyce discover a secret lab full of preserve Demogorgons and Demodogs, as well as a chamber full of swirling particles the Soviets dub "The Shadow," which is later revealed to be the dark material that makes up the Mind Flayer. By the end of the season the facility is basically destroyed — but its presence, and Brenner's insistence that his experiments were all about fighting the Soviets, raises some interesting questions.

It's become clearer and clearer over the last two seasons that the Soviet government has their own operation tied to the Upside Down, perhaps geared toward weaponization of its creatures for a fight against the West. What remains to be seen now is how that fight will progress now that the prison facility is destroyed. Are there other facilities like that in Russia? How far have they progressed in their research, and what implications does that have for Season 5? Depending on the answers to these questions, the battle ahead could unfold on more than one front.

Where is Max?

In an effort to defeat Vecna before he could invade Hawkins, Max Mayfield staged a daring, self-sacrificing trap for the creature, using her previous connection to him to lure him out. After some coaxing, the plan worked, but what didn't work quite as well was the parts of the plan surrounding Max's effort. She was able to lure Vecna in and hide in a happy memory for a while, but the Upside Down's own pressure on her friends meant that the plot to kill Vecna was delayed, and Max was caught in the same psychic force that killed three other Hawkins teenagers. By the end of the battle, Vecna was driven away, but Max was dead, revived only by the force of Eleven's powers.

At the end of the season, Max is in a coma in a hospital bed, her limbs broken, her sight apparently gone, and worse, her consciousness seemingly unreachable. Eleven tries to go into her mind and find her, to search for some sign that Max is still in there somewhere, and isn't able to locate her. So where is Max? Does her strange in-between state mean that she got trapped in a new version of Vecna's Mind Lair? Is she simply so far gone that it'll take a while for her consciousness to return? Is she dead already and simply waiting for her body to give out? It's a big, potentially devastating question for Season 5.

The nature of the Shadow

The final two episodes of "Stranger Things 4" reveal several new elements of the show's backstory, including how Vecna began to shape the Upside Down to his own will. It's revealed through his own discussion of his backstory that, once he was sent to the Upside Down by Eleven's powers, he wandered the landscape until he found the Shadow and seemingly sculpted it into the Mind Flayer, making him the real power behind the entire invasion of Hawkins.

Even with that reveal in place, though, there's a good deal we still don't know about the Upside Down. It seems that many of the dimension's creatures, including Demogorgons, were already inhabitants when Vecna got there. Now they're all part of an extended hive mind of which he is apparently the master, with the Shadow retaining a sort of symbiotic connection to his will. So what is the Shadow, why does it work for Vecna, and what does that mean for the larger fight? There's still so much we don't know about the nature of this other dimension, and that feels like one of the biggest open questions going into Season 5.

The nature of Hawkins in the Upside Down

At the end of Part One of "Stranger Things 4," Nancy Wheeler made a shocking discovery about the Upside Down, or at least about the version of Hawkins that exists within the Upside Down. The entire landscape is apparently frozen in time, a version of Hawkins as it existed in 1983, when Eleven first opened the gate in Hawkins Lab and released the first Demogorgon. It seems that somehow, in that moment, a duplicate version of Hawkins emerged in the Upside Down landscape, only to remain frozen in time, never replicating the changing landscape of the real town on the other side of the gate.

At the moment, it's still not entirely clear what that means. It could simply mean that Eleven's powers accidentally created a weird mirror image of Hawkins Lab and the surrounding town at the moment she opened the gate. It could have something to do with Vecna's own invasion plans, and his attempts to open gates around the town. Or it could be something else entirely. Whatever's going on, it's clear that the mirror image of Hawkins in the Upside Down will remain an intriguing centerpiece of the conflict going forward into Season 5.

Vecna was right

In teasers leading up to the final episodes of "Stranger Things 4," and in the episodes themselves, Vecna made startling predictions about the future of Hawkins. He told Max, Eleven, and Nancy in various ways that Hawkins would fall, that their friends would die, and that they'd already lost the fight. The Hawkins kids staged a daring operation to try and stop him, and while they succeeded in fighting him off and stopping him from carrying out every part of his plan, they didn't stop everything. Max is still hovering near death, her loss still potent enough to count as his fourth soul, and he was still able to open rifts into Hawkins, devastating the town and killing numerous innocent people along the way. And of course, there were some lasting deaths — most notably Eddie Munson, who gave his life in the final battle.

So, in many ways that count, Vecna was right. He did make Hawkins fall, he did kill some of Eleven's friends, and he did succeed in launching his invasion of the real world from the Upside Down. It's clear at the end of the season that there's a big fight ahead, but in many ways the psychological wounds Vecna inflicted are going to be just as important as the physical ones going forward. He's shown them they can't win every fight. They can't beat back the Upside Down every time. So what makes them think they can win when it really counts?