Last month, in the aftermath of the Stranger Things Season 4, Vol. 1 release, actor Jamie Campbell Bower raised eyebrows when he told Vanity Fair that he didn’t view his character, Vecna, as the show’s primary villain. By the time of this interview, the tentacled Freddy Krueger look-alike had three recent murders (RIP, Chrissy, Fred, and Patrick) and an attempted murder under his belt, but the Harry Potter alum was steadfast in his opinion. “I never saw him as the villain,” Bower said, “because I understood him.”
The implicit suggestion was that Dr. Brenner was the real big bad, but Bower’s statement also reinforced a theory established by Dustin—the show’s Mr. Exposition—earlier this season, in which he surmised that the Mind Flayer was the Upside Down’s leader and that Vecna was merely an impressionable kid turned foot soldier. With the help of Vecna, the idea went, the Mind Flayer could create enough gates (i.e., cracks in the dam) to destroy Hawkins and eventually the world.
Dustin’s theory presented a familiar trope: A troubled, misunderstood child with special powers is thrown into a lab, taken advantage of by a mad scientist, and eventually banished to a shadow realm where he finds solace in a manipulative, evil mentor. Stockholm syndrome sets in and adrenaline does the rest, right? Well, not quite.
As it turns out, to understand Vecna is to understand the little boy named Henry who loved black widow spiders and had a sinister streak—note the dead animals, mother, and sister—before he ever met Dr. Brenner. In Vol. 2’s big reveal, we find out that it was Vecna controlling the Mind Flayer of previous seasons, not the other way around, which means nearly every major death since the series debuted in 2016 (Barb! Bob! Billy! Assorted security guards!) can be linked in some way to the vengeful humanoid.
Despite all the evidence pointing toward Vecna as pure evil, Eleven attempted to empathize with the beast during their battle inside Max’s mind by invoking a shared trauma as one of Dr. Brenner’s lab rats. But Vecna demurred, suggesting his final form and the resulting chaos was her fault, not that of an “ordinary, mediocre man.”
“He could not shape us, he could not change us,” Vecna said. “Do you not see, Eleven? He did not make me into this—you did.”
In blaming Eleven—whose defeat of the former orderly originally sent him to the Upside Down—for setting everything in motion, Vecna implies that there wasn’t any saving him; that he was doomed to “transcend his human form” to become the predator he was always “born to be.”
Once exiled to this new dimension, which Vecna referred to as a “realm unspoiled by mankind,” the misanthrope became an explorer and created the hive mind and Mind Flayer with the shadow particles he discovered. Four years after Vecna’s banishment to the bogeyman underworld, Eleven (through one of Dr. Brenner’s exercises) accidentally opened a gate that inevitably introduced the demogorgons and Mind Flayer to Hawkins, where they would wreak havoc throughout the show’s first three seasons under the instruction of the former test patient.
With the reveal of Vecna as the series’ ultimate villain, the Duffer brothers pulled a bait and switch that at once threaded each season together and presented more questions about where the show’s plot may move in its fifth and final installment.
The mystery of “Why Hawkins?” was finally resolved through Vecna’s arc in Season 4, but with only one season left, a few key loose threads remain.
For the fifth consecutive season we ask: What exactly is the Upside Down?
In Season 1, Will is stuck in the Upside Down and eventually found by Hopper and Joyce. Because the sole focus of the first season is that rescue mission, the series doesn’t teach us much about the alternate Hawkins besides that it’s the home to the demogorgon and a series of deadly vines. Season 2 followed with the introduction of more creepy crawlers (Dart the slug turned out to be a pretty bad house pet!) and the Mind Flayer, who possessed and manipulated Will before being banished back to his underworld and, in Season 3, reappearing in the Starcourt Mall alongside Billy and a new Soviet Union plotline. Season 4 peeled back more layers of the onion by introducing fans to the concept of multiple gates strung together and Vecna as the puppetmaster supreme, yet we’re still uncertain of his realm’s origin and its striking resemblance to Hawkins.
In Vecna’s recollection of his first days in the Upside Down, we’re shown a mostly barren hellscape that resembles nothing close to the alternate Hawkins Nancy’s crew explored at the tail end of Vol.1. Many online Stranger Things experts have pinned Upside Down Hawkins, which is frozen in time on November 6, 1983 (the day Will Byers went missing), as some type of parallel universe or alternate dimension, but if that’s the case, why has the landscape evolved so much since Vecna’s arrival in 1979? Could Vecna have rebuilt the Upside Down the same way he turned shadow particles into the Mind Flayer, perhaps to somehow make it easier for him to break the barrier between worlds? Or did Will—who headlines our third question—have something to do with it?
For their part, the Duffer brothers have said Season 5 will provide missing Upside Down lore ranging from monster hierarchy to the land’s basic functions, which means we’ll have plenty of time to theorize between now and its release sometime in the 2030s. Kidding, probably, but the Duffer brothers have hinted that a significant time jump could be on the way, one which may result in Jonathan and Will finding out their mother has a secret acting career.
What role will the governments play in Season 5?
Since introducing the Soviet Union plotline in Season 3, the show’s writers have yet to provide much clarity on the communist regime’s purpose for researching the Upside Down. I’ve previously theorized that controlling and/or understanding the Upside Down was a Space Race–esque pissing contest, but the events of Season 4 (namely the Soviets using a demogorgon to fight and kill prisoners) make it seem like the plan was always to weaponize the alternate dimension’s monsters in an effort to “win” the Cold War.
That could be why Lt. Colonel Jack Sullivan and the U.S. government have been so paranoid and stubborn regarding Eleven, whom Sullivan may view as some sort of Soviet weapon of mass destruction sent to demolish his country, beginning with its most beloved (sarcasm) town. Sullivan still seems hellbent on capturing and killing Eleven, but here’s hoping Dr. Owens—who’s likely alive after eluding an on-screen death in Season 4—can finally convince the intransigent military man that the teenager is the solution, not the problem, in Season 5.
And at the local government level, I’m just wondering whether the Hawkins real estate market will ever recover. If it doesn’t, though, at least Steve and Nancy will be able to afford a big enough home to house their six kids. (Sorry, Jonathan.)
How is Will’s connection to Vecna going to come full circle?
Poor Will Byers. His disappearance in Season 1 kicked off a chain reaction for the ages, which in addition to unleashing monsters and opening underworld portals also resulted in his arrested development and isolation from his peers. In Season 3, Will lurked in the periphery while his friends’ relationships and story lines took center stage, and Season 4 was no different.
For the second finale in a row, though, Will felt a tingle on his neck that hinted at his expanded role while foreshadowing immense danger for the rest of the town.
“He’s not going to stop,” Will warned as the full gang reunited in Hawkins after what most locals assumed was a 7.4 magnitude earthquake. “Ever. Not until he’s taken everything and everyone. We have to kill him.”
It’s still unclear how Will survived for an entire week inside the Upside Down back in Season 1, or why he continued to see flashes from the replica Hawkins when he returned home while other dimension-crossers have been relatively unphased.
One popular theory is that Will and Vecna share a secret relationship established when the young child entered the Upside Down, which could somehow play into Vecna’s long game. It’s a stretch, but what if Vecna views the vulnerable outcast as a potential partner in crime, despite the former’s own insistence that he essentially wants to watch the world burn all on his lonesome? Maybe after Eleven disappointed him, he’s still searching for the Pinky to his Brain.
“When you’re different, sometimes you feel like a mistake,” a teary-eyed Will, seemingly alluding to his sexuality, told Mike during their heart-to-heart on the way to rescue Eleven from the Nina Project.
While Will’s experience is distinct, no one on the show understands being an outsider better than Vecna, who may have seen a bit of himself in the young boy after Will vanished on the way home from an evening of Dungeons & Dragons in 1983.
Who will die (a real death)?
In my season preview, I begged the Stranger Things gods not to kill off any fan favorites this time around, and much to my dismay, we lost Eddie Munson, the most metal dude of all time. Then again, Eddie wasn’t on the show until this season started. Stranger Things has yet to fully commit to killing off one of its main characters, and as my colleague Claire McNear noted, the death and resurrection construct has turned into a bit of a storytelling crutch for the franchise. Put simply, something has to give.
Millie Bobby Brown seems to agree.
“The Duffer brothers are sensitive Sallies who don’t want to kill anybody off,” she said. “We need to have the mindset of Game of Thrones. Kill me off! They tried killing David [Jim Hopper] off and they brought him back! It’s ridiculous.”
During phase four of the Hawkins crew’s plan to defeat Vecna, Max was “killed” before being brought back to life by Eleven, who apparently can do that type of thing now after never showcasing that specific skill throughout the series. Hopper also managed to make it out of Russia on 100-to-1 (later downgraded to 1,000-to-1!) odds after seemingly dying in Season 3, and Steve survived despite giving one of the most I’m-about-to-die monologues of all time in the Winnebago.
Seemingly blinded and immobilized by severely broken bones and a vacant consciousness, Max should at the very least be suffering from life-altering physical and psychological wounds if she ever awakens from her coma (which of course she will). Outside of her, some have speculated that Eleven will end up sacrificing herself to fix the problem she inadvertently created, while others have theorized that Steve has already been infected by a demobat bite (which Ross Duffer shot down, while not ruling out the possibility of the fan favorite’s eventual doom).
Whether it’s Steve, Eleven, Max, or one of the other original Stranger Things kids/adults, one thing seems certain heading into the show’s final season: Somebody more important than Billy and more beloved than Eddie will perish in Season 5. It’s not a matter of if, but whom.
A previous version of this piece misstated the year of Will’s disappearance; it was 1983, not 1979.