Let's Talk About The MVP Of Stranger Things Season 4

This article contains major spoilers for the final episodes of "Stranger Things" season 4.

Max Mayfield (Sadie Sink) is the best part of the new season of "Stranger Things." The latest edition of Netflix's flagship series is massive and sprawling, with countless moving parts and a core cast that now numbers over a dozen people. With a project this ambitious, it's no surprise that some parts of the new season are muddled: tonal shifts don't always cohere, some plots are better than others, and not every character gets their chance to shine. Max does, though.

When the character joined "Stranger Things" back in season 2, she was instantly loveable, but she also felt at least a little bit like part of a necessary writers' room equation: the boy-heavy D&D group needed to add a girl who could be friends with El (Millie Bobby Brown). Yet by season 4, the character is central to the story's mythology, with her depression and grief – and resilience in the face of them – key to the Upside Down overlord Vecna's master plan. In the last two episodes of the new season, she's also unexpectedly become the show's heart.

Sink proved herself the season's standout early on, in the tremendous episode "Dear Billy." In it, Max is plagued by visions from Vecna that feed on her pain. Since her brother Billy (Dacre Montgomery) died, Max hasn't been doing much besides frowning at the guidance counselor and drowning out the world with Kate Bush cassettes. Only, it turns out the music helps even more than she thinks. When Vecna puts Max in a trance, levitating her body in an attempt to sacrifice her to help the Upside Down grow beyond its dimensional borders, she can only be saved by a song she's tied to.

Max has become one of the show's most vital characters

It's the words to Bush's song "Running Up That Hill (Deal With God)" that bring her back, echoing the deep, hidden truth about Max that Vecna has brought into the light. When Billy died, the monster reveals, it made Max wish she were dead instead. As Bush sings in the chorus of the phenomenal song: "And if I only could/I'd make a deal with God/And I'd get him to swap our places." Her words pulls Max back into herself, and when she awakes, she's happy to be alive.

Even if the rest of the season had let Max blend into the background, the end of "Dear Billy" would still be an extremely powerful scene in itself. It's a sequence that inspired a million tears, in part because Bush's song is employed so perfectly in a moment of high tension, but in part because — despite the fantasy context — it's one of the most real things the show's ever done. 

Sometimes, the teens in "Stranger Things" feel like archetypes, like characters based on memories of teens movies rather than on anything real. But Max's depression feels real, as does her attempt to hide it. Teens have been keeping feelings associated with their undiagnosed mental illnesses secret for as long as teens have been around, out of fear of being misunderstood or seen as abnormal or a burden. I knew teens like that. I was a teen like that. Seeing Max's private pain writ large, channeled through a showdown with an otherworldly monster, puts a name and a frightening face to the thing that haunts young people everywhere.

Vecna uses her depression against her

This makes the last episode of "Stranger Things" season 4 all the more heartbreaking. In it, Vecna sets his sights on Max once again, only this time, she's completely sure she can face him. She tells Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) she'll cling to her happiest memories, which include the two of them kissing at the Snow Ball. But when the moment of truth arrives, and she's alone with the monster, that memory just doesn't seem to be enough. This is real too. Depression, grief, and anxiety are isolating by design: they make the real world seem blurry and far away, while this lonely, terrible feeling seems present and unignorable.

Sink puts in amazing work here. She plays Max for much of the season as a withdrawn and sullen kid, one who seems younger than ever in the face of all these big, adult situations she's been thrown into. But in this moment, as Vecna holds her in his grasp, the truth is clear in every inch of her face: Max just wants to live. "The Piggyback" has more upsetting twists of fate than any other episode in "Stranger Things" history, from Eddie's death to the earthquake to that final, ominous cliffhanger. But nothing else hurts as deeply as seeing Max get crushed by Vecna. Seeing her bones break and her eyes start to bleed, after everything she's made it through, feels like a dark night of the soul for a series that's never been this bleak before. Knowing that she sometimes thinks she deserves it for wishing Billy dead makes it even tougher to watch.

Friendship fights off the darkness

But then there's Eleven. El, who broke up with Mike (Finn Wolfhard) on Max's advice, who picked out her first real clothes with her, and who is now laying in a salty, cold pizza freezer in hopes of reaching her. Her best friend. When Max seems gone for good, and Lucas sobs with her in his arms, El is there in spirit. At first, she cries too, but then she seems to be overcome with a sort of resolute calm. She composes herself, then, in a whisper imbued with love and confidence, says, "No. You're not going." Once again, this is a deeply emotional and real moment couched in extremely high-concept storytelling. On the one hand, El is a superpowered teenager restarting her friend's heart via astral projection. On another, she's someone who loves her friend deeply, and who will hold on for her when she's not able to hold on herself. I've been there, too.

Max is at the heart of "Stranger Things," now. It's hard to see the season cut to black with her fate still up in the air – to have our last impressions of the character be Sink's traumatizingly good performance as Max, in a panic, tells Lucas that she doesn't want to die. The show has always been about love between friends, but it's never demonstrated what that love can look like in such a profound way before. Whether it's Lucas reading Stephen King to her at her hospital bedside, or El clinging to her from beyond the veil, or the team in Russia heading back into their own personal hell to help her the only way they can, "Stranger Things" ends with love for the person who needed it most. Max Mayfield, a survivor and a fighter.