Congratulations, Stranger Things fans: You’ve successfully made it through over nine hours of petrifying murders, extra-dimensional bats, and psionic bullying. And even after the seventh episode’s shocking revelations and monster mischief, you’ve still got almost four more hours to go!
In Season 4, we visited Hawkins National Laboratory, The Upside Down, a Russian prison in a frozen wasteland, and on a frenzied road trip in a hot-boxed pizza truck. By the end of Episode 7, you might feel overwhelmed with all of the information The Duffer Brothers have given you to process on your Stranger Things binge. Fret not— here’s our explainer for the final episode of Volume 1 to prepare you for the July 1 release of Volume 2. (Major spoilers ahead for Stranger Things Season 4, Vol 1.)
Hawkins Lab Massacre, explained
The seventh episode of Stranger Things Season 4 is titled “The Massacre at Hawkins Lab.” That’s exactly what we get — and more —from the final installment of Volume 1.
After seeing many bizarre flashbacks of El dripping in the blood of the other slain numerically-named kids she’s imprisoned with, we finally learn who really initiated the slaughter of the children at the lab and its staffers.
Dr. Martin Brenner (Matthew Modine) tortures answers out of 002, one of the teens who gave El a concussion via telekinetic bullying. Horrified by the strict parenting of “Papa” and scared of her tormentors, she begins to place her faith in Peter Ballard (Jamie Campbell Bower). He appears to be a caring employee overseeing the youthful experiment subjects at the lab.
Little does she know that “Peter” is hiding a major secret up his sleeve — or, more aptly, on his wrist: a 001 tattoo, complete with powers that seem to be on par with El’s (or greater, given his age and his malicious intentions). The white-coat tricks El into removing the chip that was keeping him under Dr. Brenner’s control and his abilities run rampant as he massacres nearly every living being at the site in a rampage.
Desperate to halt 001’s butchering, Eleven opens a gate to The Upside Down and flings him across it, inadvertently spawning the supernatural monster Vecna. Frightened, El runs away from the lab, circling back to the escape scenes from Season 1’s pilot episode.
Given the confusing chronological order of these flashback scenes, it is difficult to ascertain if El had already encountered the Demogorgon and cracked open the first gate to The Upside Down before the massacre or if that sensory deprivation tank experiment took place directly after the chaos. What we do know for a fact, however, is that 001 leads El to the drainpipe that she eventually uses to escape in Season 1.
Hopper’s prison break, explained
Meanwhile, in a brutal, ice-cold Soviet prison, Jim Hopper and his fellow prisoner, played by Thomas Wlaschiha, have a moment. In rare form, Hopper opens up why his daughter Sarah is dead: Agent Orange exposure. Shortly after, Hopper realizes that he and the other incarcerated men are being fattened up to be fed to a captive Demogorgon.
Their worst nightmare materializes right at the point when Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) and Murray Bauman (Brett Gelman) infiltrate the prison. The Demogorgon is unleashed and swallows most of the prisoners in several gross-out scenes, but Hopper and his POW buddy manage to narrowly escape with the aid of Joyce and Murray.
The Demogorgon has been closed off from the rest of the prisoners in a courtyard... for now.
The Upside Down gates, explained
Dustin Henderson (Gaten Matarazzo), Lucas Sinclair (Caleb McLaughlin), and Max Mayfield (Sadie Sink) have just been caught at Lover’s Lake by the cops, attempting to keep an eye out for their older friends who bravely leap into the depths of the lagoon and find at the bottom of it a gate to The Upside Down.
Sent to the Wheeler residence for interrogation, Dustin, Lucas, Max, and Lucas’ sister Erica piece together why, of all places, there’s a portal to a sinister alternate dimension at the town’s make-out spot. A strong psychic connection creates the gates:
- The first, the “Mothergate,” is accidentally triggered by El at the lab.
- The second was generated by Soviets who hoped to tap into The Upside Down’s potential.
- The newest gates, the kids brainstormed, must have been created wherever Vecna claimed a victim.
That means, thus far, there are at least four more new gates:
- Lover’s Lake
- Eddie Munson’s trailer
- An undisclosed road near the trailer park
- Victor Creel’s haunted mansion
It remains unclear whether or not Max’s connection with Vecna at the cemetery in Episode 4 (“Dear Billy”) successfully opened a portal to The Upside Down.
Hawkins and the Upside Down, explained
Steve Harrington (Joe Keery) makes the error of letting curiosity lead him astray — and, more specifically, dives through a squelching underwater portal to The Upside Down. There, in a barren Lover’s Lake, a swarm of bats attack him and remove nearly a pound of flesh before Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer), Robin Buckley (Maya Hawke), and Eddie Munson (Joseph Quinn) come to his rescue and defeat the bats.
They can enter buildings that exist in both planes, and they know stepping on any “vines” or critters in The Upside Down makes their location known, as they are all interconnected by a “Hive Mind” of some kind.
Armed with this knowledge, the teens head out to the Wheeler residence to see if they can find any of Nancy’s guns, but instead, all they find in her room are a pair of kitten heels and a barely worn-in diary. Perplexed, Nancy soon realizes that while this is her house, it is somehow frozen in the same year of Will’s disappearance — in other words, it is frozen at the point in which the first gate opened.
Both the Hawkins gang in the present Spring 1986 plane of reality (Dustin, Lucas, Max, and Erica) and the older teens stuck in The Upside Down in Fall 1983 (Nancy, Steve, Eddie, and Robin) bike to the site of Chrissy’s (Grace Van Dien) murder (Eddie’s trailer) to crack-open the gate. Robin and Eddie are pulled through the floorboards/roof in a delightfully trippy scene — until Vecna possesses Nancy.
As Steve is shaking a Vecna-controlled Nancy, she spirals to The Upside Down... in The Upside Down. This very meta-moment is a nightmarish manipulation by Vecna, who first takes Nancy to the site where her best friend (Barbara, played by Shannon Purser) was murdered by the Demogorgon (though, now it seems like she may have been an earlier victim of Vecna!). Nancy is later taken to the smokey-red place in The Upside Down, which the kids think may be “inside” Vecna’s mind.
Vecna’s origin story, explained
The specifics of where and when in these final minutes of Episode 7 aren’t as important as what Vecna ultimately reveals to Nancy: He wasn’t just “Peter Ballard” or 001; he was the eerie son of Victor Creel.
In a flashback montage in the episode’s last fifteen minutes, Vecna shows Nancy (while simultaneously telling El in her subplot) that he is Creel Junior — a budding psychopath who is solitary, misunderstood, and doesn’t feel that the natural law of the world is meant for him. Creel Junior believed his psionic powers made him a god among humans. He practiced his abilities first on animals and later on his sister and mother, mutilating and murdering them. Before he could get to his father, the young villain slipped into a coma from overusing his powers.
His father Victor is blamed for the crime, and Dr. Brenner takes Creel Junior under his wing. Once Dr. Brenner discovers Junior’s powers, he begins to find ways to recreate his abilities in other children (Project MK-Ultra and The Nina Project) by birthing other superpowered children like El.
The nature of the relationship between 001 and Eleven remains nebulous. While we know El is the daughter of Terry Ives (Aimee Mullins), we still aren’t quite sure who her father is — if she even has one — or what biological material was used to create her.
Vecna, Peter Ballard, 001, and Creel Junior are revealed to be one in the same, and his fascination with spiders implies that the “vines” that permeate The Upside Down are actually his legs. Moreover, Vecna is (ambiguously) revealed to be either the “Hive Mind” that dominates The Upside Down or is directly linked to it — “it” likely being The Mind Flayer, a shadowy vortex of malevolence and the primary antagonist of Seasons 2 and 3.
How Episode 7 sets up the Season 4 finale
Volume 1 ends with a significant revelation, tying together the many Vecna-connected strands Stranger Things had laid out since the very beginning. With this new knowledge, the Hawkins gang is much closer to finally understanding the Upside Down and may finally be able to defeat it once and for all.
Season 4 is not the end of Stranger Things, though. The Duffer Brothers confirmed the series will end with Season 5. With that said, we shouldn’t expect Volume 2 to resolve every narrative beat the season has introduced thus far. In fact, it may leave us with even more questions than answers.
Still, this is what’s left of Volume 1 that we think will happen in Volume 2:
- The California and Indiana kids will converge for the first time since the events at Starcourt Mall in Season 3.
- Hopper defeats the Demogorgon and escapes to the United States along with Joyce and Murray.
- The California kids find the site of the Nina Project and save a powered-up El.
- Nancy and Steve make it out of The Upside Down alive.
- Vecna’s gates are disabled.
Whether all of this happens remains to be seen until the remaining two episodes of the season drop on Netflix on July 1.
Stranger Things 4 Volume 1 is now streaming on Netflix.