When Stranger Things Season 4 dropped all but the last two of its nine episodes on Netflix back on May 27, it was anyone's guess how series creators the Duffer Brothers were going to resolve some of the biggest questions hanging overhead. The climax of "Chapter Seven: The Massacre at Hawkins Lab" finally provided much-needed context for Eleven's (Millie Bobby Brown) backstory prior to the events of Season 1, as well as the truth behind this season's Big Bad known as Vecna — or should we say, subject Number One/Henry Creel (Jamie Campbell Bower)? While tying the main villain to almost every single piece of the overarching story — especially with our main cast of characters split between three locations this season — seemed overly ambitious at the time, the result ties Eleven to Hawkins almost inextricably. By the conclusion of the fourth season, with "Chapter Eight: Papa" and "Chapter Nine: The Piggyback," another question rises over everything: Will Eleven be the savior of this once-quiet Indiana town, or the partial arbiter of its destruction?
Even in lieu of characters having most of the answers about Vecna's true backstory by the time Episode 8 begins, that doesn't make the creature himself, or the threat he poses to Hawkins — or the rest of the world, should he prove able to carry out his plan — any less terrifying. A large part of this is due to the realization that it really is Bower himself performing underneath the impressive visual effects makeup by Barrie Gower and team, and the end product is a character who has been warped by living in the Upside Down for as long as he has, but also twisted in the mind in terms of whom he blames for his situation. Vecna's presence lends a humanized element to the creatures of the Upside Down, as well as a dark parallel to Eleven and her powers — he's very well who she could have become, if not for the connections forged with friends and the family she created with Chief Hopper (David Harbour). Beyond that, however, there are even more truths about Vecna that unspool over the course of Season 4's final two episodes — ones that cast the events of the prior three seasons in a wholly new light. It's those reveals that are solid enough to leave me entirely convinced that these greater story arcs were embedded in the Duffers' strategy for this series from the jump because as far as Eleven's journey is concerned, everything manages to be neatly connected in a way that speaks to careful plot planning.
Granted, none of that happens without needing to move all the chess pieces around the board first — and given that the season only has two episodes by which to navigate our main cast now scattered to the four winds, suddenly those ultra-long runtimes start to make a lot of sense. (Although I'm not entirely certain that Episode 9 couldn't have been broken up into two episodes, since it clocks in at almost two-and-a-half hours of television, I was hard-pressed to find a spot that would have naturally served as a place to break momentum.) Before any grand reunion can begin to happen, though, the threat of Vecna has to be dealt with — and Eleven decides to take the rematch between them to a different plane altogether, which successfully solves the distance issue and results in some of the season's best visual elements, as the two do battle while her Hawkins friends orchestrate a plan of their own to hit Vecna right where it hurts.
As the two-part finale reveals, even the best-laid plans concocted by a misfit group of high schoolers can go awry — especially when you're dealing with all manner of supernatural threats in the Upside Down. There are losses, although those succeed at being ones that are equally predictable and not quite as dreadful as has been theorized online, considering that they happen more as a natural consequence of character journey and not in an effort to provide empty shock factor. If you've been watching Season 4 carefully, none of the deaths that play out will be particularly surprising. That brings me to a thought I had while watching these uber-lengthy episodes, and that is the fact that Stranger Things' next season (release date TBD) is going to really have to find more and more ways to raise its stakes, especially since it will also serve as the show's conclusion. There are only so many times certain characters can escape the clutches of death before it starts to become a purposeful plot contrivance rather than a decision that would make the most narrative sense as a resolution.
Yet ultimately, it speaks to the strengths of the show and its cast that Season 4 manages to extend moments of hope and poignancy even in the midst of greater circumstances that could quite literally signal the end of the world. The performances in these final episodes are staggeringly good; Noah Schnapp especially delivers in two particular scenes that serve as a testament to how far he's come as an actor. Although their presence at the end of the season makes you wish these interactions would have happened for Will a bit sooner, the place where his story concludes by then teases the possibility of Season 5 really allowing his character to come full-circle in his journey — not just with his close friends and family, but also his connection to the otherworldly goings-on in his hometown. Sadie Sink and Caleb McLaughlin navigate exchanges between Max and Lucas with a pairing of quiet maturity and relatable anxiety over where their relationship currently stands. Joseph Quinn and Gaten Matarazzo also lend the episodes some of their most significant emotional weight as Eddie and Dustin's friendship strengthens further. Meanwhile, on the adult side of things over in Russia, the long-awaited reunion between Hopper and Joyce (Winona Ryder) may leave audiences both fist-pumping in delight and screaming with frustration, depending on the level of hopes and dreams for the natural resolution of that storyline.
When Stranger Things initially premiered in 2016, there was likely no one at the time who could have predicted the extent to which it would become an utter phenomenon — not merely in the realm of television, but in the whole of pop culture. Now, six years later, the end is almost in sight, and it's a bittersweet realization. Based on how Season 4 concludes, Season 5 has the promise to be even bigger than anything that's come before it, which will more than likely mean another hefty price tag for Netflix, but also indicates a potentially epic finale for a show that has only continued to get bigger and dominate the public consciousness more and more with each passing year. The wait for Stranger Things' last season might be especially long and grueling, but that'll just give fans the opportunity to go back and do a series rewatch with all the new context we have — story details that make you realize just how entwined everything has been since the very beginning.
Both parts of Stranger Things Season 4 are now available to stream on Netflix.