Natalia Dyer, Gaten Matarazzo, Joe Keery, Joseph Quinn, Maya Hawke, Priah Ferguson, Caleb McLaughlin, Stranger Things

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

The end of "Stranger Things 4" is here, and Hawkins will never be the same. Sure, that’s the type of line that’s been bandied about pretty much every season since the show began, but this time, it genuinely feels true. The massive two-part finale of the new season just dropped, and with a runtime of nearly four hours, it’s a game-changer on every level.

When we last saw the Hawkins crew in volume 1, they were still scattered to the four corners of the world, with Dusin (Gaten Matarazzo), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), Max (Sadie Sink), and the older teens facing down Vecna in the Upside Down in Hawkins while most their friends were on a road trip towards the midwest. Meanwhile, Joyce (Winona Ryder) and Murray (Brett Gelman) just saved Hopper (David Harbour) in Russia, while El (Millie Bobby Brown) is still stuck in an underground laboratory, figuring out Vecna’s secrets.

The season’s penultimate episode covers a lot of ground, and is basically action-packed enough to seem like a finale all on its own. An inordinate amount of the episode is spent on Dr. Brenner (Matthew Modine), the creepy, paternalistic mad scientist who came back from the dead this season to rehash old times with Eleven. But by episode’s end, he’s dead for real, shot down by military snipers after trying to carry a sedated, newly re-superpowered El out of the bunker. His reintroduction, and the show’s forceful attempts to frame his as anything other than a controlling villain, were among the weaker parts of the season. So it’s super satisfying to see El walk finally away from him, refusing to entertain his dying wish that she simply understand that every heinous thing he’s done was for her. Yeah right, man. Rest in pieces.

Episode 8 reveals Vecna’s game plan

Maya Hawke, Joe Keery, Joseph Quinn, Stranger Things

The eighth episode features several major character moments, like Steve (Joe Keery) telling Nancy (Natalia Dyer) about his dream of starting a family (what an awkward topic to broach with your ex), and Will (Noah Schnapp) basically confessing his love to a poker-faced Mike (Finn Wolfhard) via a coded conversation about El. Still, in terms of the season’s endgame, its the chapter’s additions to overarching "Stranger Things" lore that may be their most important part.

Some of the mythology downloads in episode eight seem like vague stand-ins for clearer information we might get in season 5, like when Hopper and Joyce see Demogorgons preserved in liquid stasis and a hazy black dust cloud that’s somehow part of the Upside Down hive mind. El also accuses Brenner of training her so he could use her mind to search for Vecna, aka Henry AKA 001 (Jamie Campbell Bower), as opposed to the Russians, but he denies it, so we may never really know what’s true there. What we do know, though, is that Vecna is aiming to rip open the fabric between the real world and the Upside Down and spill otherworldly darkness into Hawkins.

Nancy sees this in a Vecna-prompted vision that she relays back in a state of shock, saying she saw Hawkins shrouded in flames and black clouds, an army of monsters, and her whole family dead. It’s pretty apocalyptic stuff, and Dyer does some series-best work here playing Nancy as thoroughly shaken up by the whole thing. It gets even more dire when the group realizes that Vecna is working in fours — four clock chimes, four gates, four kills — and just needs one more sacrifice to make it happen. Max volunteers to lure him in, and the episode ends with the Hawkins kids somberly heading into the Creel house, armed to the teeth and ready to go down fighting.

A four-phase plan

Sadie Sink, Caleb McLaughlin, Stranger Things

The "Stranger Things" finale is a behemoth of an episode, clocking in at 2 hours and 30 minutes. Nearly 2 hours of that time is devoted to the climactic cross-continental fight with Vecna, while an extended epilogue wraps up loose ends and pulls off a twist that sends the show catapulting towards its fifth season endgame. In Hawkins, the gang has a four-part plan to burn the bad guy’s lair to the ground, and it all goes pretty well for a while.

At the Creel house, Erica (Priah Ferguson) signals that the coast is clear of jocks and angry mobs, at which point Max lures Vecna in by turning off her ever-present Kate Bush soundtrack and getting into a dark headspace that will make her seem vulnerable. Lucas watches over her as she goes into a trance, pulled back into the Upside Down by Vecna. Meanwhile, Dustin and Eddie (Joseph Quinn) are meant to be chasing off the demo-bats in the Upside Down so that Robin (Maya Hawke) and Steve can torch the place once they spot Vecna.

This all goes pretty well, until it doesn’t. In a poignant moment, Max confesses that she prayed for her bullying brother Billy to die, then when he really did, she thought it was her fault. Lucas, who Max had just reconciled with earlier that night, appears to get freaked out by this, only it soon becomes clear that this mean version of him is actually a Vecna-induced hallucination. Meanwhile, the basketball team’s head a-hole Jason (Mason Dye) has tracked the group to the house, and when he sees Max in a trance, he thinks Lucas must be part of the cult he made up because he’s the worst. The two duke it out in a bloody fight, with Lucas telling Jason he never should have tried to fit in with jerks like him in the first place.

Meanwhile, outside Hawkins

Tom Wlaschiha, Brett Gelman, Winona Ryder, and David Harbour, Stranger Things

Although Joyce, Hopper, and Murray are still trapped in Russia with a helicopter that won’t start, they catch wind of what’s happening in Hawkins and figure they can help by taking out some demo-beasties. That means breaking back into the prison they just left, a plan that turns out to be pretty easy since the demogorgons are eating pretty much everyone else there by the time they arrive. Luckily, Hopper and Joyce get a rushed, cute moment of intimacy (Jopper hive rise!) before their lives are on the line again. Also, they’ve got flamethrowers this time.

That same night, somewhere on a highway in America, El has reunited with the Pizza van gang just in time to realize she won’t make it to Hawkins in time to save everyone. Instead, the group decides to stop at a Surfer Boy Pizza, which Argyle (Eduardo Franco) hilariously commandeers via some secret pizza boy pact and an offering of some of that good kush. The group fills the pizza freezer with ice water and salt to make El a sensory deprivation tank, so she can help Max from afar by going to that inky black astral projection space. There’s also a funny bit where El and Argyle force Mike to try pineapple pizza, and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) has a heart-to-heart with Will that, like all other conversations about Will’s sexuality this season, involves one person talking around a subject with coded language and the other one not saying much at all. Still, it’s a sweet brotherly moment and a much-needed gesture of love for Will.

The heroes are losing

Joseph Quinn, Stranger Things

By this point, this one-two punch of "Stranger Things" episodes has given almost everyone a big calm-before-the-storm moment that, for fans who are used to this TV show ripping their heartstrings out, makes it seem like any of them could die at any moment. Hopper and Joyce finally make out, Lucas and Max plan a movie date, Steve tells Nancy he pictures a future with her, and Eddie seems to have fully dropped his edgelord persona and is now besties with Dustin. Unfortunately, it’s that last group that the clock finally runs out on. Eddie and Dusin’s plan has an epic start: the metalhead shreds his electric guitar, playing "Master of Puppets" by Metallica to draw the swarm of demo-bats away from where Nancy and Robin are headed. Only, the bat swarm starts to leave the pair alone after cornering them in the Upside Down version of the trailer.

This is the point where everyone starts to lose. It’s a surprising turn of events given that "Stranger Things" has always adhered to the formula of ’80s adventure movies that typically see the teen heroes triumph. Not this time. It’s impossible to worry about just one person here, because everyone is suddenly in peril all at once. After Dustin hops back into the real world, Eddie decides to draw the bats away for good — to not run away, for once in his life — and is overwhelmed by a huge torrent of the flying, biting creatures. Max has been pulled into a warped version of her memories of the Snow Ball, while in the real world, Vecna levitates her and begins to snap her limbs. Hopper gets overcome by a demo-dog. Nancy, Steve, and Robin get choked out by those ever-present Upside Down tendrils.

The power of love, aww

Millie Bobby Brown, Stranger Things

El reaches Max and Vecna — who starts doing another villainous monologue about his vision for the world, that’s honestly pretty redundant after episode seven — but she can’t stop him from hurting Max. We see her body twitching in the pizza parlor freezer as she tries to stop the villain, but it’s just not working. Then, the hail mary, which is either one of the sweetest things "Stranger Things" has ever done or one of the most ridiculous. Will gives Mike a pep talk, telling him he’s the heart of the group. Mike, who’s had a bad case of "I love you" constipation for several seasons now, starts telling Eleven every nice thing he can think of the say about her. He says she’s a superhero with or without powers, and he’s loved her since the day he met her. He’s being her version of Kate Bush, basically, tethering her to reality when Vecna’s realm threatens to swallow her.

It works! El KO’s Vecna and his hordes of helpers — including the demo-dogs, demo-bats, and those vines — all fall away. This is an overwhelming, fast-moving scene, but it appears that El critically injures the villain in a way that makes him disconnect from the Upside Down hivemind. In the Upside Down (which is different than Vecna’s lair, so there’s two of him, apparently), the older teens hit the version of Vecna with all the plugged-in spidery tendrils with a molotov cocktail, effectively finishing him off, too. Only, he doesn’t seem that dead: before El’s face-off with the creature ends, he tells her, "This is only the beginning, the beginning of the end. You have already lost."

Heartbreak and ruin

Gaten Matarazzo, Joseph Quinn, Stranger Things

It turns out, he’s right. When the dust settles, the real-life Hawkins is in ruins, ravaged by a 7.4 earthquake that split the ground apart. Jason, laying on the fault line after his fight with Lucas, basically disintigrates, and he’s not the only casualty we know. By the time Dustin catches up to Eddie in the Upside Down, the rocker is bleeding from the mouth, having been bitten in ribbons by the demo-bats. "I didnt run away this time, right?" Eddie says. Dustin is there for him as he dies, a hero, even if no one else knows it.

Max isn’t faring much better. Vecna made her his final sacrifice, crumpling her up in much the same way he did with his past victims, and Lucas holds her as she admits in a panic that she can’t feel or see. She seems to die — doctors later say her heart stopped for over a minute — but El, still astral projecting, simply isn’t having it. She’s been by Max’s side this whole time, and is sobbing now, but she pulls herself together. Calmly and kindly, she whispers, "No, you’re not going." Somehow, as a blur of their memories rushes by, she makes Max’s heart beat again.

This whole season of "Stranger Things" has had a surprisingly religious through-line, from the townsfolks’ Christian zealotry to Vecna’s ritualized apocalypse to Max’s references to prayer, and in this moment, El seems almost angelic. The show has always grounded its fantasy elements in bits of sci-fi, too, and that could be the case here. El almost seems angelic or diety-like in her ability to resurrect her friend, but her powers have also obviously expanded since she regained them. It’s almost as if whatever dark hold Vecna holds over people, El has the opposite.

The new Upside Down

Joe Chrest, Stranger Things

Either way, when the action picks up two days after the fight, Max is alive but in a coma. Poor Lucas has already read all of "The Talisman" out loud to her. Some of the teens are helping out at the community center, where Dustin (noticably limping) tells Eddie’s uncle he was a hero. The news is calling Hawkins a gate to hell, opened by Eddie and the Hellfire cult, but Mr. Wheeler doesn’t trust all that BS. The pizza van gang makes it home, as do those the squad from Russia. Hopper and El reunite, and if we hadn’t already been crying for the last 40 minutes, we would be now. They’re not exactly happy, but they’re all together. Except, Will says he knows Vecna is still out there in some form or another. Then he gets a sudden chill, the same kind that indicated the Upside Down’s presence in season 2.

The season ends on an ominous, massive cliffhanger. Within moments of Hopper’s return, ash begins to fall. At the hospital, and the community center, and Hopper’s cabin, and Mike’s house, gray particles drift insidiously through the air while all our favorite characters look on. A group including the Byers family, the Wheeler siblings, and Hopper heads out to an open field. It looks like the one where the kids played in season 3, which may as well have been 100 years ago now. There’s a line straight through the blooming flowers: on one side, life. On the other, everything is dead and gray. On the horizon, red lightning cracks and black smoke chokes the sky. It’s Nancy’s vision, and Vecna’s dark dream realized: the Upside Down and the real world are now one and the same.