Stranger Things Season 4 Episode 9 Review: “The Piggyback”

Photo courtesy of Netflix

Epic doesn’t even begin to describe the ending of Stranger Things season 4. Over episodes 8 and 9, We have been taken on a four-hour journey featuring a battle of epic proportions. They then leave us at the gates of hell, knowing more than ever that things are going to get worse before they get better.

In this final conclusion of Stranger Things season 4, we will break down episode 9, “The Piggyback,” look at all the themes, references, and observations, and then wrap up the entire fourth season.

Strap in: we’ve got a lot to cover.

If you want recaps on the previous 8 episodes, check out my individual reviews here:

*Spoilers all over the place. You’ve been warned…

Stranger Things Season 4 Episode 9: “The Piggyback”

We left episode 8 with everyone preparing for battle, and also left feeling pretty unsure of who will survive and who will live to fight another day. 

Everyone is trying to get back to Hawkins, but it looks impossible. The California crew cannot drive there in time, and Joyce, Murray, and Hopper are half a world away in the Soviet Union. They don’t know about Vecna and the opening of the fourth gate and the end of the world, but the other two groups do. Nancy, Steve, and the crew have armored up Rambo style (with Robyn wearing a red beret) and have entered into the Upside Down with a four-stage plan to kill Vecna.

Dustin and Eddie will be the decoys for the hell bats, Erica is the lookout, Max and Lucas will Bait Vecna, and Robyn, Steven, and Nancy will take him out. Back in Russia, Joyce and Hopper finally hook up, and they all wait for the “broken” helicopter to start working. 

But there’s a problem: Jason and the hick basketball players have tracked down Lucas, believing him to be part of the satanic curse influencing the Hellfire Club. 

Back on the West Coast, the crew realizes they will not make it back to Hawkins. But maybe there’s another way. While seeing a billboard depicting a happy family, Eleven remembers how she can use a sensory deprivation bath to go into the minds of other people. She did it with her mother and Billy; could she do the same thing with Max? The west coast crew makes their way to another Surfer Boy location, empties a freezer, and creates their own sensory tank.

The Soviet crew has contacted the U.S. and knows things are about to go to hell. Instead of escaping Russia, they go back to the prison knowing there is a gate there, with demogorgons. We are reminded about the “hive mind” and how one area can have an effect on all parts of the hive. Maybe by taking out the Demogorgon, they can weaken Vecna and give the kids a fighting chance.

In the mansion, Max is warding off Vecna by continuing to play the song of the summer of 2022, “Running Up That Hill.” When she turns it off, it’s time for Phase 2. Eleven has found Max in her subconscious, but Vecna hasn’t appeared. Max goes even deeper into her trauma, admitting how she wished Billy would die, more than what she had previously disclosed. The way she’s been presenting is is she wished it had been her. He made her life hell, and she’s opening up for the first time ever. Her noble admission wasn’t as noble as she made it out to be. 

But Vecna has emerged, and he’s impersonating Lucas. This whole thing is actually happening in the Upside Down/Vecna connection. In real life, Lucas sees Max in the trance–but then that D-bag Jason shows up, threatening to ruin everything. 

Eleven has gone into Max’s memory and sees her as a kid skateboarding somewhere in California. They are then transported to one of Max’s–and Eleven’s–happiest memories: The Snow Ball from season 2. Key songs such as “Every Breath You Take” by the Police and “Dream a Little Dream of Me” by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong play while Max is alone in the ball. And then Vecna appears.

To help Steve, Nancy, and Robyn get a clear run in the Upside Down to the Creel house, We get one of the most epic scenes you will ever see when Eddie shreds to “Master of Puppets” by Metallica to draw the hell bats away from them. More on this in the observations. Eddie continues to draw them away but instead of running, he stands his ground. He will no longer be a coward, but a hero, and face the hell bats head on.

Steve, Nancy, and Robyn have been attacked by Vecna and are being strangled by his tentacles. At the SnowBall, Eleven has burst through and taken out Henry/Vecna. But Vecna blames Eleven–and not Brenner–for creating him. He gets the upper hand and raises Max, ready to kill her. In a flashback, we realize that Vecna created the Mind Flayer. He wasn’t just a foot soldier but had been in control this whole time. What Will was feeling back in season one and two was really Vecna.

Eleven is still struggling in battle and the crew in California can do nothing but watch her trash around in the makeshift tank. To infiltrate her mind, Mike uses his feelings–instead of music–to reach Eleven. Now, all three groups are fighting in tandem to take out Vecna. In an astonishing scene that marries together “Running Up That Hill” with the Stranger Things theme song, Hopper destroys the Demogorgon, while Nancy, Robyn, and Steve pepper Vecna with Molotov Cocktails. 

Vecna is defeated, but it comes at a cost. Eddie has died a hero and Max also appears to be dead. Eleven uses some deep power to prevent this, but she’s still in terrible shape and was dead for over a minute. Now, she’s in a coma with a hint of what one of the plot lines may be in season 5–but more about that in the observations. But since Max was “killed,” it was the fourth death and chime of the clock, so it opened up the gates of hell, or the Upside Down, right into Hawkins. This is explained to the public as a massive earthquake, but we obviously know better.

The season finishes with some bonding between Nancy and Jonathan, and everyone is reunited, including Hopper and Eleven. I had completely forgotten that Eleven still thought he was dead. As we see ashes “snow” down on Hawkins, the hairs on the back of Will’s neck stand up. He feels the Mind Flayer. But this time, he won’t be the only one who sees it, because it’s really happening. And we now know what–and who–the Mind Flayer really is. 

Observations in Episode 9

Again, there’s a lot to cover in what is essentially a two and half hour feature film. The first thing to look at is the ending. We are left on a very ominous note, but that’s to be expected in the penultimate season. Everything has to go to literal hell if we are going to come back from it.

The season ends in a perfect mirror to the Empire Strikes Back. Empire is a movie that also ends on a note of unsurety. And this was always the intent. It’s like a three-act play, where the second act is often when things go to hell and that’s often the best act of a play. We know now that Stranger Things will end after season 5, so season 4 is like their second act. It’s The Empire Strikes Back. It’s Infinity War.

We even get a similar image to the crew in Hawkins staring at the smoldering ashes of Hawkins, completely unsure of things the same way Luke and Lea are at the end of The Empire Strikes Back. Even the positioning of the characters is pretty identical. 

Let’s look at some significant use of music, which has always been a key element of Stranger Things.

When that “Master of Puppets” scene hit, I freaked out. At first, I thought Eddie was playing “Crazy Train” by Ozzy Osbourne. When I realized it was Metallica, I had my sound system cranked so high that it bottomed out and completely distorted my speakers. Like the “Never-Ending Story” scene in Season 3, this scene came out of nowhere and the word epic doesn’t properly describe it. I have goosebumps still thinking about this. 

Besides featuring the original recording, the son of Metallic bass player, Robert Trujillo, contributed additional guitar tracks played by Eddie. 

There are also some interesting lyrics in “Master of Puppets” which seem to reference Vecna, and how he has been controlling everyone like puppets:

Master of puppets, I’m pulling your strings

  Twisting your mind and smashing your dreams

Blinded by me, you can’t see a thing

Just call my name, cause I’ll hear you scream”

Vecna was literally pulling their strings when he would raise his victims off the ground like they were a marionette. 

Then, I like the callback during Eddie’s death to “When It’s Cold I’d Like to Die” by Moby, which was also used with Will all the way back in season 1. And again, I had legit goosebumps during that mixing of Kate Bush and the Stranger Things theme. Just an astonishing use of past and present music to make something even more compelling. There’s something beautiful about taking a song from the 80s and combining it with a modern piece that is based in the 80s. 

Speaking of Kate Bush, thanks to Stranger Things, she has now set a record for the longest period of time for the debut of a song to it hitting number one with 37 years. 

Speaking of music, did this connection with songs and Vecna call back all the way to season 1? In that season, a key song was “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” by The Clash. Will was continuously singing it to himself while in the Upside Down. Did that ward of Vecna and allow him to survive there for so long?

A few more observations:

  • To me, I think the ending was a touch too long. I think they could have cut 10-15 minutes easily and have an even tighter movie. But we had been waiting three years for this, so I was not complaining at all
  • I can’t believe Steve is still alive. I really thought he was a goner. He didn’t even have a scratch on him. I think they took a little of the easy way out by killing a new character in Eddie, and then “killing” Max, only to have her survive. I really think a major character needed to be taken out this season.
  • The Russian sub-plot didn’t seem absolutely necessary. They still needed something for Hopper, Joyce, and Murray, but whether that was to limit cast members due to pandemic restrictions, or not, I don’t know if there was an ideal solution
  • Speaking of Russia, pretty upset there was no connection to the Upside Down and the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. It was right there with the Soviet connection, and they set it at the exact same time. Maybe this will be explored in Season 5 to explain what was happening In Russia the way that Hawkins said the gates opening was just an earthquake. 
  • Sadie Sink as Max is the clear MVP of this season. She seemed to be the driving force carrying the show forward. Millie Bobby Brown is still outstanding, and I thought Gaten Matarazzo as Dustin was at his best, too

1980s References in “The Piggyback”

80s references are not as overt as they have been in past episodes and seasons. I feel A lot of the 1980s references in other episodes and seasons were put in to capitalize on the nostalgia and hook people in–not that that’s a bad thing at all–as this is what the major draw to the show originally was. Now, Stranger Things is its own entity and they don’t need nostalgia in there just for nostalgia’s sake. 

But we still get some great ones like:

  • Joyce’s Hulk Hogan shirt right during the peak of Hulkamania
  • we see the return of Max’s Michael Myers mask from season 2
  • Vicki is obviously a deal ringer for Molly Ringwald–pun intended. 
  • References to Starsky and Hutch
  • Murray with the classic Star Wars line: “I’ve got a bad feeling about this…” 
  • Lucas reads Stephen King’s “The Talisman” to Max in the hospital. The Talisman is a story about a kid who goes across the country looking for the Talisman Hoping to save his mother. Is this hinting at what Lucas’ role will be next season? Will he be the one looking for a way to save Max and will go to the ends of the earth to do so? 

Speaking of Stephen King, the horror master tweeted ‌he was so on edge by the end of episode 8, he wasn’t sure if he could handle the last episode. 

And also speaking of movies, there are some key films that are a big influence on this season such as A Nightmare on Elm Street, Rambo, Red Dawn, IT, a bit of Ghostbusters, Aliens–even a bit of the A-Team. 

But, at this point, when it comes to the nostalgia factor, the show doesn’t have to resort to sticking in a He-Man figure in every other scene because it now stands on its own. The focus is on driving the story forward and I really think this show–especially season 4–can stand alongside some of those classic things we love from the 80s like A Nightmare on Elm Street, Goonies, Evil Dead, and similar offerings.

Stranger Things has cemented its own pop culture iconic-ness and kids will probably discover it decades from now. I could also see the characters, imagery, and situations being referenced in content 30 years from now in the same way Stranger Things references things from the past. It’s become a cultural touching point, and as I said, deserves its place alongside some of our favorite 1980s classics. 

Themes in “The PiggyBack”

At this point, we are into standard “love always wins” territory, but love hasn’t completely won yet. It was love that set Eleven free in her training, and it was the love of Mike that helped pull her back to reality. But at this point, is that love strong enough to fully save Max? 

One core theme throughout this season is about the monster and the hero. Do we all have this monster in us, and can it be overcome? Max definitely does. The monster in her is her true feelings towards Billy. She put on that noble front saying she wished she could take his place as reflected in “Running Up That Hill,” but this is only to suppress how she was really feeling. If Vecna represents our greatest fears, did she let the monster win? Are we not the heroes we think we are?

On the flip side of that is Eddie. He is perceived as a monster by the whole town, when, in fact, he is a genuine hero. He sacrifices himself for a town that hated him. No one could see his sacrifice, but the true hero doesn’t perform their acts for glory. They do them because it’s right and just. 

I feel how this theme keeps coming back and has been a part of the show since season 1: “We could be heroes, just for one day…

For too long, Eddie had run away from things instead of taking them head-on. Now, when given the opportunity, he turns around to face the hell bats. Like Vecna, the hell bats can represent our fears. They continually come at us, and they are relentless. But our fears don’t have to control us. They don’t need to be our master. 

Eddie didn’t have to “Come crawling fast.” He didn’t have to “Obey his master,” He had the power to crush the monster within him, and let that superhero come out–even if it’s just for one day. Max is dealing with the opposite of this, and many of the characters have been in conflict with themselves throughout season 4. Eleven has obviously struggled with the hero/monster issue, Lucas has struggled with the type of life he thought he wanted, Nancy has struggled with where her feelings really lie, and Joyce and Hopper have been conflicted in how they truly feel about one another. 

All of us face an internal battle of some sort. And it’s hard to understand our true selves. Is it the version of us we present to the world? Or is that just a coverup for how we really feel? We also don’t know the battle that’s that everyone is facing, and how showing empathy to one another goes a long way. 

Just look at Eddie. He was presenting this tough metal-head exterior and was seen as a monster by all of those around him. Little did we know how he struggled with his own fears and insecurities. His whole life, he chose to run away from those fears and never face anything head-on. Had other people known this, they may have shown him more consideration instead of treating him like the monster he clearly wasn’t. Dustin was the only one who saw his true self. He just had to be accepting and not dismissive.

Sometimes, the hero is the person we least suspect.  

Stranger Things Season 4 Final Recap

As of the time of writing this, Stranger Things season 4 appears to be the most streamed show, ever. Viewers have watched over 12 billion minutes of this show. A lot of this may be because of how long this season was–especially the last episode–but I don’t think that’s totally relevant. Stranger Things is the absolute backbone of Netflix itself and has set the record for most streaming viewers in a week. Netflix even crashed for a while when everyone rushed to watch the final two episodes. 

And if you wondered why this season was split into two parts, this may have to do with the financial predicament Netflix has found itself in. There’s no secret that the streaming giant has been suffering. Subscriptions were down, profits were down, and hundreds of people were laid off. Since Stranger Things is their bread-and-butter, they took a strategic approach to the release of season 4.

I hate the binge model of viewing. I prefer a weekly release as I believe it builds more of a collective viewing experience, audience, and community, so that might have been a minor part of the reason. Still, the main reason appears to be financial. By splitting the last two episodes a month after volume one, season 4 has now covered two financial quarters. This will help the bottom line when indicating viewership.

It also made people pay for at least an extra month. Many people jump onto Netflix for a single month (when they’re not borrowing passwords) when a series comes out they’re interested in. Since everyone would clearly want to finish the whole season, it required most people to purchase another month. Kind of a ratty move, but understandable knowing the situation they are in. 

Honestly, I didn’t think Season 4 would be this good. I knew it would be awesome, but I was worried that so many pandemic delays and restrictions would affect the final product. I’m glad I was wrong. They still found a way to take what is essentially a show with a singular direction, but continue to turn it on its head and set things up for the last season.

I loved season 3. I thought it played more into perfect 1980s nostalgia and had a bright and jovial tone to it–despite all the destruction. But season 3 looks like a cartoon compared to season 4. Like its characters, season 4 of Stranger Things is when it grew up. As I mentioned in a previous review, if season 3 was A New Hope, we can clearly see how Season 4 is The Empire Strikes Back.

It’s scarier, it’s more intense, and at its core–it’s a horror movie. The kids have grown up and the tone of the series has grown up with them. But what will this mean for season 5? The first half seems as if it will be pretty destructive, but it will obviously have to end on a high note.

Have we seen the series peak at its intensity and horror in season 4? Or is this just a taste of things to come? I’m not sure how far into the future season 5 will go, but it looks like it may just continue into 1986, and possibly 1987. The kids won’t be much older, but with each year that passes, more growth happens. These characters have been through a lifetime of growth over what has only been the span of 3 years. 

How far into the future are we going in Season 5? Time travel has been hinted at, so will the characters of Hawkins, Indiana, have to go backward in order to move forward? Does taking out Vecna mean going back in time to eliminate him at the source? Or have they grown enough in their abilities and experience that they will be able to handle anything the future holds?