If you spent much time over the past month-plus hypothesizing what the final two episodes of Stranger Things Season 4 might bring, you were probably consumed by a single question: Who was going to die?
In the interim between the season’s first seven episodes being released over Memorial Day weekend and the last two installments dropping on Friday, Stranger Things sleuths zeroed in on the fate of Steve Harrington (Joe Keery), whose floppy-haired, reformed-bad-boyfriend days many expected to be numbered after his run-in with giant bats. Were their bites venomous? Is there rabies in the Upside Down? Would Steve ever get a chance to reconcile with Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer)?
Indeed, as the eighth episode got underway, the Duffer brothers seemed eager to tug on our heartstrings. There was Steve, telling Nancy about his dreams for the future, laughing at childhood memories, and thanking her for helping make him a better person. There was Dustin Henderson (Gaten Matarazzo), Steve’s longtime foil, paired off instead with Eddie Munson (Joseph Quinn). The stage seemed set for Steve’s heartbreaking exit.
But everyone’s favorite babysitter made it out of Season 4 alive. So did the rest of the show’s core characters. The most notable deaths to take place over the last two episodes belonged to Martin Brenner (Matthew Modine), a.k.a. Papa, the longtime leader of Hawkins National Laboratory who fell in a dramatic shootout between government stooges in a helicopter and Netflix’s per-episode budget; Jason Carver (Mason Dye), this season’s fear-mongering antagonist who ended up on the wrong side—er, sides—of a newly opened gate to the Upside Down; and dear beloved Eddie, who died in Dustin’s arms after taking on a colony of bats by himself. (Rest in power, my dude; we’ll always have that totally gnar rooftop Metallica solo.)
Eddie’s demise was the most tragic of the bunch, but it didn’t come as a shock: As a newcomer with a limited story line, his fate seemed imperiled ahead of the finale, much like Billy Hargrove’s (Dacre Montgomery) did in Season 3. Episode 9’s most stunning and crushing loss seemed to come when the kids failed to rescue Max Mayfield (Sadie Sink) from Vecna’s curse in time. As Moby’s “When It’s Cold I’d Like to Die” swells, Max shudders in the lap of Lucas Sinclair (Caleb McLaughlin), her arms and legs broken and blood covering her face, before finally going still.
Except, well, then she immediately comes back to life. Just two scenes after Lucas weeps and screams for help over Max’s body—a tour de force performance by McLaughlin in a season frequently beset by the growing pains of a cast of no-longer-little kids—we see Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) work a miracle. “No,” she says, before nose-bleeding Max back to life. “We make our own rules.”
Herein lies the problem: Coming out of Season 4, it’s no longer clear what death means on Stranger Things. If Eleven can magically resurrect people, what are the stakes of the show’s near-constant life-or-death situations? And if any character can come back to life at any time, how seriously should the audience take a series regular’s demise?
Max, after all, is not the first Stranger Things figure to come back from beyond the veil. Among the periphery characters, take Brenner; he only died in Episode 8 because he reappeared in this season’s fifth installment, having previously been presumed dead since the Season 1 finale. Among the headliners, there’s Jim Hopper (David Harbour). In the Season 3 finale, he vanishes amid the closing of a gate to the Upside Down, leaving his will-they-won’t-they sparring partner, Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder), in pieces. Yet then Hopper reappears, apparently alive, in a not-particularly-subtle post-credits scene.
Even Eleven has pulled a similar trick, disappearing at the end of Season 1, being mourned by Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard) and the gang, and then showing up at the top of Season 2 safe, sound, and hungry for Eggos. Stranger Things has used this same storytelling device with villains too. This season culminates with the Big Bad, Vecna, tumbling to the ground from his house-slash-lair’s attic after two Molotov cocktails and a round of shotgun blasts from Steve, Nancy, and Robin Buckley (Maya Hawke) … only he’s gone when the trio arrives to look for his body downstairs (itself an homage to Michael Myers’s post-fall vanishing act in 1978’s Halloween).
What’s notable here isn’t just that Stranger Things seems reluctant to kill off any of its main characters; it’s not unique in that respect, and resurrection is a fixture of the genre. What’s notable is that the series seems reluctant to even let audiences think it might dare to get rid of any member of the core cast, despite the premise underlying the show.
In the case of Hopper, only 20 minutes of running time elapse between Joyce realizing he vanished and the post-credits scene in which a Soviet prison guard points to a closed cell and says, “No, not the American”—an unmistakable hint that the Hawkins police chief survived. This season, the gap between Max going still to the moment El begins to resurrect her is just two minutes and 10 seconds.
That’s not even Stranger Things’s shortest presumption of death. That honor goes to Will Byers (Noah Schnapp), who seems doomed when Joyce and Hopper finally reach him in the Upside Down in Season 1. How long does it take between Joyce crying “He’s not breathing!” for our mopey king to sit up with a gasp? One minute and 21 seconds.
On the one hand, the showrunners clearly understand the emotional resonance that the death of a series mainstay would have. Time and again, the characters are shown grieving, from Lucas’s moving performance this season to Joyce, at long last reunited with Hopper, telling him that she mourned him for the eight months she believed he was dead. “We had a funeral,” she says softly. On the other hand, there are only so many times that the show can play some version of the back-from-the-dead card. By playing it again to close Season 4, Stranger Things raises questions about both the fabric of the show and the expectations for a fifth and final season.
As for the first part of that: Eleven suddenly showing she can resurrect the dead raises a long list of follow-up questions. Could she always do this? Is there a time limit to her powers? Even if this is a new ability she developed while training this season in an underground bunker in Nevada, then why didn’t she try to save Eddie? (She hadn’t met Eddie as a result of the Byers family’s move to California, but surely her Hawkins-based pals could have made his case.) And is it still possible that El could undo the deaths of other characters, like Billy, Bob Newby, and Barb?
Yet it’s the latter concern—what this portends for Season 5—that feels more central in determining whether Stranger Things can ultimately deliver a satisfying series conclusion. With the barrier to the Upside Down now fractured and Vecna revealed as the show’s ultimate villain, the motley crew of Hawkinsites will undoubtedly face mortal peril again. Next season, fans will once again study the tea leaves and fret about the survival of figures like Steve, Max, and Hopper. But with Stranger Things repeatedly reversing course on death, would a scene in which, say, that Upside Down rabies variant finally kicks in have the same stakes? If a fan favorite falls in agonizing fashion, what reason is there to think that it’s for good?
At this point, I know what I’ll do the next time a major character seems doomed: sit tight and wait for the miracle a few minutes hence.