Stranger Things Season 4, Part 1 Ending Explained: Confront Your Demons

In its first season, "Stranger Things" was a humble love letter to the works of Steven Spielberg and Stephen King, with more than a pinch of John Carpenter for good measure. But as the Duffer Brothers' series sky-rocketed in popularity, so too did it grow in terms of both its scale and its retro pop culture influences, nodding to everything from 1980s teen rom-coms to "The Terminator." Season 4 is easily the show's biggest outing yet, with an overarching story that's as much about people facing their inner (and outer!) demons as it is about escapist, summer blockbuster fun.

"Stranger Things" season 4 establishes one of its core themes (trauma) with its opening scene, which flashes back to a disturbing, violent incident involving a young Eleven at Hawkins National Laboratory in 1979. Cut to 1986, and the teenage Eleven (played yet again by Millie Bobby Brown) is struggling with bullies and the loss of her superpowers at her new home with the Byers in California. Elsewhere, Eleven's friends in Hawkins are all dealing with problems of their own, only for a mysterious new threat to emerge in the form of an Upside Down creature known as Vecna. And if all that wasn't enough, it turns out Jim Hopper (David Harbour) is alive and not-so-well after his presumed death in the Battle of Starcourt Mall, having been captured by Russian soldiers and sent to a remote prison camp in Kamchatka.

With two more super-sized episodes to go, the nightmare is far from over for the show's heroes. Thankfully, however, season 4 volume 1 ends with a series of satisfying reunions, dramatic reveals, and nerve-wracking cliffhangers that lay the groundwork for an exciting and, like it or not, possibly heartbreaking conclusion to come in volume 2.

From Russia with love

While the "Stranger Things" kids are busy dealing with monsters (both literal and figurative), the adults have been fixated on saving Hopper this season, with Joyce (Winona Ryder) and Murray (Brett Gelman) undertaking a whirlwind rescue mission that sends them from sunny California to frost-bitten Alaska and Russia. In the meantime, Hopper has been staying plenty busy, between plotting how to escape from the Kamchatka prison and, when that fails, scheming to survive his and his fellow inmates' impending cage match with a Demogorgon.

Even with all that going on, season 4 pauses long enough for Hopper to deliver a poignant monologue in which he admits the truth about his toxic behavior and why he sees himself as a curse unto others. It's a welcome bit of character development, not least of all coming after Hopper spent most of season 3 being a jerk to those he cares about amidst his ongoing struggles with PTSD. By voicing his greatest fears out loud, Hopper has finally taken his first step towards processing his trauma in a healthy manner — that is, one that does not end with him sacrificing his life to save the day, believing he has little else of value to offer his loved ones.

Speaking of loved ones, season 4 volume 1 ends with Joyce and Hopper in each other's arms, having taken control of the Kamchatka prison and kept the Demogorgon at bay (for now). For as much as Hopper has been working on himself by reflecting on his painful past, Joyce has also come into her own this season, dealing with dubious smugglers, surviving plane crashes, and even plotting how to break into a prison, all to save a person she cares about. There may yet be hope for those would-be lovebirds.

Where there's a Will, there's a way

Meanwhile, back in the U.S., the "Stranger Things" kids (who are rapidly on their way to becoming young adults) are on a collision course headed into the last two episodes of season 4. For the time being, Mike (Finn Wolfhard) and his group are relatively safe, at least until they find their way to the secret facility in Nevada where Dr. Brenner (Matthew Modine) and Dr. Owens (Paul Reiser) are doing their very best to restore Eleven's powers (aka The NINA Project). Thanks to an assist from Dustin's computer-savvy girlfriend Suzie (Gabriella Pizzolo), Mike and the gang are now on their way into the lion's den.

Between being hunted by Lt Col. Sullivan (Sherman Augustus) — who also knows where NINA is located after torturing the information out of one of Owen's soldiers — and tracking down Eleven, Mike did find room for a brief heart-to-heart with Will (Noah Schnapp), who's clearly got something to tell his old friend. Season 4 has so far failed to do right by Will, saddling the character with a terrible haircut and continuing to dance around the subject of his sexuality. Will the final two episodes better flesh out his interiority and allow him to find some sense of acceptance from both Mike and himself? That's what the Duffer Brothers are hinting at, but it remains to be seen if they actually deliver on that promise.

The truth about Vecna

Lastly, the heroes in Hawkins figure out that Vecna creates a new gate to the Upside Down every time he kills someone. They also deduce that he attacks people by tapping into their guilt and depression over traumatic events from their past, which is how he nearly killed Max (Sadie Sink) before her Kate Bush-assisted escape. It's just too bad nobody remembered that poor Nancy (Natalia Dyer) has such an incident in her own past (namely, Barb's death), allowing Vecna to take control of her mind just as she, Steve (Joe Keery), Robin (Maya Hawke), and Eddie (Joseph Quinn) find their way back from the Upside Down into our world.

Luckily, being attacked by Vecna allows Nancy to uncover the truth about the Freddy Krueger-style monster, just as Eleven (over in Nevada) unlocks her repressed memory of what happened on that terrible day glimpsed in the season 4 prologue. It turns out Vecna was once Henry (Jamie Campbell Bower), the son of Victor Creel (Robert Englund), and the real culprit responsible for murdering his siblings and mother. He's also One, the first test subject in Dr. Brenner's telekinesis experiments, who was later fitted with a device to restrain his powers when it became clear just how malicious he really is.

Now that Eleven has begun to face her own demons by recalling how Henry manipulated her into unleashing his powers before she banished him to the Upside Down (transforming him into Vecna), the stage has been set for their final showdown. But if there's one season 4 has taught us, it's that no one should have to battle their demons alone — meaning that it's up to Eleven's friends to help her however they can.

"Stranger Things" season 4 volume 2 hits Netflix on July 1, 2022.