Warning: This article contains spoilers from Stranger Things season 4, Volumes 1 and 2.
The stage is set. Now, it's the beginning of the end.
Netflix announced in February that Stranger Things is officially coming to an end with season 5, which is, generally speaking, what series creators the Duffer Brothers have been saying they'd do for a while now. But we're actually here after the conclusion of season 4's two volumes of episodes, which offered viewers a glimpse of where things are going.
Here's what we know about how the penultimate season is preparing us for the series finale.
A dangerous new world
Netflix Millie Bobby Brown in 'Stranger Things'
It's a brave new world for the citizens of Hawkins, Ind., and potentially the whole planet.
The small town faced its own natural disaster in season 4. Vecna (Jamie Campbell Bower) was able to realize his plan to destroy the barrier between the world of Hawkins and the world of the Upside Down, sending devastating fissures through Hawkins that left many dead and many more still missing.
The media are calling it a 7.4-magnitude earthquake, while there are rumors about a "doorway to Hell" being opened. What we know for certain, based on the final shot of Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) and co. staring off into the distance, is that whatever is in the Upside Down is now coming into their world — and there's no dimensional barrier to stop it.
Vecna, meanwhile, isn't dead. Will (Noah Schnapp), upon re-entering Hawkins, says he can feel him. He's wounded, but not out for the count. So, will Vecna return for season 5? Like that psychic kid's Magic 8 Ball in Papa's lab, signs point to yes. Bower is still playing coy. When asked by EW in an interview if he signed on for multiple seasons when he first took the role, the actor simply replied, "You're so smart... I couldn't possibly say, it's gonna be my answer. I couldn't possibly tell you. Anything I say is going to be wrong."
We do know that Vecna, a.k.a. Henry Creel, a.k.a. One — or "Vecna/Henry/One," as he's dubbed in the show — brings the story of Stranger Things all the way back to the beginning. He's the one who caused Eleven to accidentally open a portal to the Upside Down. He's the one who created (or tamed and now controls) the Mind Flayer. He's been the driving force to push the Upside Down into the real world. Season 4 already had that "we're going back to where it all started" vibe, but this could be amped up even further for the grand finish.
As far as one of the other remaining threads, Sadie Sink admittedly doesn't know what happens to Max at the end of season 4. The character tried to flee Vecna when he invaded her mind, but he was able to kill her. Eleven brings her back to life, but Max is now in a coma. When Eleven attempts to find her in her mind, all that stares back is the empty void.
"I'm not sure where we're going and what Max's state is. It's definitely all up in the air right now," Sink told EW.
Dr. Martin Brenner (Matthew Modine) had warned Eleven that Vecna doesn't just kill, he consumes. He takes in all of his victims: their powers, their memories, everything. So it would stand to reason that even though Max has a heartbeat, her mind could be held prisoner by Vecna — if she is still alive somewhere.
Back to Hawkins
Netflix Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) is ready to save her friends (again!) in 'Stranger Things' season 4.
Matt and Ross Duffer, the architects of Stranger Things, had once called season 4 their Game of Thrones season because it takes place across so many locations. But the brotherly duo confirmed during an appearance on the Happy Sad Confused podcast that season 5 will be set entirely in Hawkins.
"We wanna go back to a lot of the things we did in season 1," Matt said. "A lot of the original groupings and pairings that we had in season 1 — there's something nice about coming full circle."
For the first time on Stranger Things, a season finale did not wrap things up but instead left its audience with a cliffhanger. That's because season 5, Matt continued, is "going to be moving."
"I don't know that it's going to be going 100 miles an hour at the start of 5, but it's going to be moving pretty fast," he said. "Characters are already going to be in action. They're already going to have a goal and a drive, and I think that's going to carve out at least a couple hours and make this season feel really different."
This seems to be in line with what the brothers said previously about a time jump between the penultimate and final seasons because the teen stars will have aged considerably. As Matt explained to TV Line, "Ideally, we'd have shot [seasons 4 and 5] back to back, but there was just no feasible way to do that. So these are all discussions we're going to have with our writers when we start the room up."
Answers to the Upside Down
Netflix Robin (Maya Hawke), Steve (Joe Keery), and Nancy (Natalia Dyer) assemble to face Vecna in the Upside Down in 'Stranger Things' season 4.
Since Hawkins is going back to the beginning, so too is the Upside Down.
Stranger Things season 4 answered a lot of questions we had about this parallel dimensions, but there are still lingering threads. For one, what exactly is this place? Like, what really is it? Brown told Variety that the Duffers talked to her about the subject: Eleven does open "the rift" to this alternate world, but she believes the Upside Down "was always there."
"I don't think that she created the Upside Down. No, I think that it was always there. I think she just created a gate to it which no one could before," she said.
There's also the question of the Upside Down's appearance. The flashbacks in season 4 to when Eleven first hurled Vecna/Henry/One through the rift show a vast wasteland filled with demogorgons and a giant floating mass that Vecna/Henry/One transformed into the Mind Flayer. But in the present, the Upside Down is trapped in the year 1983, the same year when Will was first trapped in the dimension all the way back in season 1.
The Duffers confirmed this is a "very significant" element to their story, one they weren't sure they would introduce in season 4 at first. "[It] really is a huge part of season 5," Ross told Variety ahead of season 4's Volume 2 launch. "So we wanted to just put it out there and get people talking about it."
When EW asked Bower about it, the actor replied, "That is an interesting question and one that, without guessing, I wouldn't have a clear answer on."
Love is in the air
Mike (Finn Wolfhard) and Will (Noah Schnapp) have a heart-to-heart in 'Stranger Things' season 4.
Though the stakes on Stranger Things couldn't be higher heading into season 5, season 4 planted the seeds of love that may or may not sprout when the show returns.
Joyce (Winona Ryder) and Hopper (David Harbour) reunited after busting the former Hawkins police chief out of Russia. Things were getting pretty hot and heavy between them after the big escape... until their travel companions put the kibosh on the moment. Returning home to Hawkins, they each had a touching reunion with their kids. The show, however, made a point to highlight Joyce and Eleven's embrace after El's tear-jerker reunion with Hopper. Could these two lovers, Joyce and Hopper, join their families together into one big happy family?
Steve (Joe Keery) had also confessed his love to Nancy (Natalia Dyer) in the midst of their Upside Down adventures, but the heartthrob was visibly gutted to see his crush run back into the arms of Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) in Hawkins. That's not necessarily to say Nancy and Jonathan will stay together. There were a couple more hints that there's trouble in paradise. Jonathan still hasn't told Nancy that he's not currently planning to attend the same college as her. (Though, that decision did hinge on staying close to his mom and brother in California, and it looks like everyone's back in Hawkins for the time being. So...)
Robin (Maya Hawke), meanwhile, seemed to be getting along with her own crush again after seeing this Molly Ringwald-looking gal among the volunteers helping out displaced Hawkins families in the finale. To quote Billy Eichner, "Let's go, lesbians!"
Then there's Will. All season long — and perhaps even earlier than that — we've been getting strong hints that the kid would be coming out of the closet as LGBTQ. It still seems rather clear that he is, but there was never that moment of emotional exhale, i.e. the moment when the character overcomes his own fear of rejection from his family and friends to accept his true self. Perhaps this will be coming in season 5. Here's hoping.
Netflix Gaten Matarazzo, Joe Keery, Sadie Sink, and Maya Hawke on 'Stranger Things'
Season 4 changed up the format of Stranger Things. Each episode ran more than an hour, but the final three were heavy-hitters. Episode 407 had a runtime of 1 hour and 38 minutes, 408 ran 1 hour and 25 minutes, and the 409 finale episode ran 2 hours and 30 minutes. It's all preparing us for the series finale, though the Duffers don't expect season 5's episodes to be quite as long.
"The only reason we don't expect [it] to be as long is, this season, if you look at it, it's almost a two-hour ramp up before our kids really get drawn into a supernatural mystery," Matt explained on the Happy Sad Confused podcast. "You get to know them, you get to see them in their lives, they're struggling with adapting to high school and so forth, Steve's trying to find a date, all of that. None of that is obviously going to be occurring [in season 5]."
However, it is looking like the show's grand finale will have a feature-film length. "We're more likely to do what we did here, which is to just have a 2.5 hour episode," Matt said.
The Duffers and their writers room are still finalizing the season 5 story. Harbour told U.K. GQ, "I think we'll [shoot] next year. They're finishing writing it this year, and they need to prep and stuff, so hopefully it'll be this year." Harbour predicted season 5 will premiere sometime in mid-2024, "based on our track record." A lot can happen in between now and then.
EW's Ultimate Guide to Stranger Things is available online or wherever magazines are sold.