'Stranger Things 3' Heartbreaking Season Finale Brings Big Changes (RECAP)

Martin Holmes
Spoiler Alert Netflix

[Warning: The below contains MAJOR spoilers for the Stranger Things Season 3 Finale "Chapter Eight: The Battle of Starcourt"]

The Duffer Brothers seem pretty aware when it comes to the Stranger Things audience. There have been direct nods to the viewers throughout the third season, as if to say, 'hey, look, we know what you’re thinking.' For example, Murray (Brett Gelman) spoke for the fans when he called out Hopper (David Harbour) and Joyce (Winona Ryder) for their tiresome bickering. Yes, Stranger Things is often repetitive and predictable, sometimes to its benefit, sometimes to its detriment, but its creators are fully cognizant of that fact.

It’s no surprise then that the Duffer Bros realized that they couldn’t keep repeating themselves forever. A wink and nod will only get you so far. Merely acknowledging the predictability doesn’t fix the potential problem of diminishing returns. Eventually, there needs to be a shake-up to the status quo, and the third season finale contains at least three significant moments which could potentially alter the entire outlook of the show going forward. Whether any of them will stick for more than an episode or two remains to be seen.

Let’s start with the shake-up which could most easily be reversed with a couple of lines of dialogue: Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) losing her powers. Our telekinetic hero has exerted a tremendous amount of energy fighting the Mind Flayer throughout the season, and now she's infected. In a particularly gnarly scene, which starts with Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) slicing into her leg and shoving his fingers into the open wound, Eleven uses all she has left to eject the piece of Flayer from her flesh. Now she can’t even crush a coke can (New Coke obviously); she's just as vulnerable as all the other kids.

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A powerless Eleven creates even higher stakes for the melee at the mall with the Mind Flayer. The beast is not so easily defeated anymore. It’s why Hopper and Joyce order the kids to leave and let the grown ups do the protecting. But the party can’t go anywhere; they’re barricaded in the mall by Billy (Dacre Montgomery), who disabled Nancy’s car, and so the only option is to run, hide, or fight.

In a season which has had many superb actions sequences, the battle at the Starcourt mall is something to behold. There are nods to classic Jurassic Park as the tentacled creature smashes through the glass ceiling and stalks its way past the neon signs, trying to sniff out its prey. The attack requires the gang to think on their feet and work together once more. Lucas’ (Caleb McLaughlin) firework plan provides a momentary distraction, but it’s an unlikely hero who ends up sacrificing himself. After Eleven brings Billy back by talking about the memory of his mother, the mulleted one stands up to the Flayer, and in return, is killed on the spot, the tentacles puncturing his chest.

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Billy isn’t the only casualty of the episode. No, the second major shake-up is the “possible” death of Hopper. While the fight with the Flayer is taking place in the atrium, Hopper, Joyce, and Murray (aka team Bald Eagle) venture underground to destroy the Russian laser and seal the portal to the Upside Down. The Scoops Troop help navigate from Dustin’s (Gaten Matarazzo) radio tower, but the gang hit a roadblock when Hopper and Joyce call through to ask for Planck’s constant, the number needed to access the testing room. This leads to a brilliantly sweet moment where Dustin sings the Neverending Story theme with his summer camp girlfriend Suzie (she exists!).

In the underground base, Hopper and Joyce agree they make a good team and finally plan that date at Enzo's. Meanwhile, Murray sets off an alarm, allowing Hopper and Joyce to sneak into the control room to shut off the laser. But Hopper is attacked by Russian Terminator (this guy just won’t go away); the king of dad-bods eventually gets the upper hand and hurls Arnie into the energy pumping laser. This leaves Joyce alone to trigger the failsafe, knowing that the impact of the implosion will likely kill Hopper. The mustachioed cop nods, giving her the okay, and so Joyce turns they keys, obliterating the machine, closing the gate, and killing Hopper (and the Mind Flayer) in the process.

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But is Hopper really dead? The general rule of thumb, especially in horror, is that if we don’t see a body, then the person is still alive. We never saw Hopper’s corpse, and so logic dictates he's still breathing, even though he was stood right next to the machine when it went kaboom. Adding to that theory is the mention of “the American” in the mid-credits scene, in the Russian bunker, where scientists are feeding prisoners to a caged Demogorgon. It suggests we’ll be seeing a scraggily bearded Hopper at the start of Season 4.

For now, though, the show is treating Hopper’s death as real, and it is, at least in the eyes of the other characters. Just because we know he'll probably turn back up doesn't make it any less heartbreaking when Eleven finds the “heart to heart” note that her dad never got the chance to read her. In the letter, Hopper admits to being stuck in a dark cave for a long time, and how Eleven was the one that made him feel again. That’s why he got scared when he noticed her growing up and pulling away. He didn’t want things to change. He wanted life to be boardgames and Triple Decker Eggo Extravaganzas forever.

Will 'Stranger Things' End With Season 4?

Will 'Stranger Things' End With Season 4?

Find out what the creators and cast have said about the series' future.

“I was trying to turn back the clock,” he writes (narrated by Hopper over a particularly affecting montage). "But that's just not how life works. It's moving, always moving, whether you like it or not. And yeah, sometimes that's painful. Sometimes it's sad. And sometimes, it's surprising, happy. So, you know what? Keep on growing up, kid. Don't let me stop you. Make mistakes. Learn from them. When life hurts you, because it will, remember the hurt. The hurt is good. It means you're out of that cave."

Hopper realizes that it’s time for everyone to grow up, and that means accepting change. And that’s what Stranger Things is now dealing with itself. The third season finale ends with the biggest shift of all: the Byers (plus Eleven) are moving out of Hawkins (the "cursed" town according to a Cutting Edge report). That means the party is being split up. No more Dungeons & Dragons in the basement (Erica inherits the D&D manuals). No more Mike (Finn Wolfhard) and Eleven. No more Nancy and Jonathan. It’s time to say goodbye to the past and move on to new experiences.

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As I said earlier, whether Stranger Things commits to these changes in Season 4 is the big question. I’m sure Eleven will soon gain her powers back at the first sign of trouble. And I’m almost certain Hopper is still alive, even if it means he’ll be separated from the core cast for a while. But if any change should stick, it's the Byers moving town. A new setting would do the characters a world of good, while also providing fresh material for the show in general. The series is already adept at splitting its cast into different groups across various locations; it’ll just mean the distance is a little further than a bus ride to the mall.

Until next time, stay safe kids.

Additional Notes

-I would totally watch a Clerks-style spin-off of Robin (Maya Hawke) and Steve (Joe Keery) working at the video store. Wouldn't be mad if that was all Season 4 was, to be honest.

4 Ways 'Stranger Things' Season 3 May Not Be the End for [Spoiler]

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-"Mike, I love you too," says Eleven.

-Erica shaking her head at Murray's plans: "What, you’re just going to waltz in there like it’s Commie Disneyland or something?"

-If there is one fault with the finale, it's that Max didn't really get a chance to grieve her brother's death. Hopefully, in Season 4, she'll have a bigger role to play.

Stranger Things, Streaming, Netflix