Cold open: As Joyce (Winona Ryder), Hopper (David Harbour), and Murray (Brett Gelman) speed toward Starcourt Mall, Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), Will (Noah Schnapp), Max (Sadie Sink), Nancy (Natalia Dyer), Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), Steve (Joe Keery), Robin (Maya Hawke), and Erica (Priah Ferguson) watch in horror as Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) writhes in agony on the floor. A piece of the Mind Flayer is lodged inside her leg, moving around like some kind of chest burster. (Yes, the Duffer brothers have definitely seen movies in the Alien franchise, why do you ask?) Jonathan tries to extract the critter to no avail (he actually sticks his hand inside her bloody wound, and for a brief moment, Stranger Things 3 becomes David Cronenberg's Crash), so El takes things into her own hands. Literally. She uses all of her superpowers to remove the creature from her leg and tosses it across the mall's floor. Dazed, it goes to slither away — until Hopper's giant shoe comes crashing down to squish it like a bug. For the first time all season, the entire Stranger Things ensemble is together onscreen. Fist-effing-pump! Credits!
Everyone except Billy: The kids provide Joyce and Hopper with a download on what's happened over the last seven episodes: The Mind Flayer, the human goo, you know the drill. This show has been weird!
Anyway, it's time to close the gate for good, which is what Hopper and Joyce came to the mall for anyway. Murray pulls out a hand-drawn map of the secret underground Russian lair and proceeds to explain what they need to do — only to have Erica tell him why he's completely wrong. "You're just going to waltz in there like it's commie Disneyland or something?" Erica says, misnaming the stunned conspiracy theorist as "Murray Buttman." After Murray takes offense and mocks Erica's age, she attacks harder: "I'm 10, you bald bastard." An icon.
With Murray bodied, Dustin and Erica offer their services to the adults as navigators. Hopper says no at first — which gives Dustin just enough time to have a really nice moment with Will, Mike, and Lucas. They're best friends again! (Although so much remains unsaid between these four, it'll be interesting to see how their relationships change further over future seasons.) The reunion over, Hopper tells Dustin he can navigate for them, but only above ground and via walkie talkie. Good thing Dustin is here to help, too, because the only radio signal strong enough to penetrate the Russian hideout is ... Cerebro, Dustin's handy Plot Device from Camp Know Where that was first introduced in Episode 1.
More hellos, goodbyes: Joyce reunites with Will and promises her son she'll be fine. (An odd thing about Stranger Things 3: Joyce's raison d'etre in Stranger Things 1 and Stranger Things 2 was to keep Will safe, and while that sort of drove her actions in the back half of this season, it was certainly pushed into the background.) At the same time, Eleven reconnects with Hopper. She tells him her "battery is low" after dealing with the shin burster but she can still fight. Hopper acknowledges she's the best fighter there is, but he wants her safe — the Mind Flayer is out to kill her after all — so he's going to do this mission without her. They hug tightly, and as Eleven gets up to leave with Mike, Lucas, Will, Max, Nancy, and Jonathan, Hopper calls to his former teen adversary. "Mike, be careful." It's about as close to an "I love you" as these two are ever going to get.
Hopper and Joyce and Murray and Dustin and Erica: Hopper, Joyce, and Murray head to the storage elevator and travel down to the Russian compound to steal the failsafe keys and close the gate. Murray thinks their plan is so good, the Russians won't even be alerted to their presence. Moments later, the joke's on him: The elevator door opens and four Russian soldiers are standing in their way. Murray tries to lie about their true intentions, but why run a con when Hopper can just shoot everyone? "I'm improvising," Hopper says as he puts on a Russian military uniform now covered with bloody bullet holes.
The trio gets through security — the uniforms and Murray's Russian language skills have some benefits! — and after Murray heads into the air ducts to disable the laser, Hopper and Joyce have another tender moment. "If we actually do make it out of here, we deserve to celebrate," Joyce says. Hopper agrees. They set a date for Friday night at Enzo's, but 8 o'clock won't work for Hopper. "El likes to watch Miami Vice on Fridays. It starts at 10, so I can't be out late on Friday," Hopper says as the time is switched to 7 o'clock. Damn, why is it so dusty in this recap?
Murray puts the base into a frenzy by turning off the power to the laser in the lab room — and Hopper and Joyce use the distraction to break into the vault and grab the failsafe keys. It's just too bad Murray didn't actually know Planck's Constant — the code Alexei (R.I.P.) told them they needed for the vault room. Fortunately, Dustin's listening with Cerebro.
Let's pause here to flash back to Episode 1 and "Suzie with a Z," Dustin's girlfriend from Utah who looks like "Phoebe Cates only hotter." She's the whole reason for Cerebro, and — as expected — she actually exists! Better, she knows Planck's Constant. Dusty-bun and Suzie-poo exchange teen love platitudes, and when he asks her to tell him Planck's Constant she makes one demand. And so, we get Dustin and Suzie (with a Z) singing a duet of Limahl's "Never Ending Story" at the top of their g-d lungs, autotune and all. What a moment. Hopper unlocks the vault and they're one step closer to closing the gate for good.
Nancy and Jonathan and Mike and Eleven and Lucas and Max and Will: In an effort to keep El safe, the group heads to the parking lot and attempts to leave Starcourt behind. Too bad Billy got there first, disabling Nancy's car and lying in wait for them to arrive. It doesn't take long for Billy to reveal himself, revving his engine like we've walked into a remake of Christine as the kids retreat back into the mall.
Billy is a problem: If he knows they're at Starcourt, then the Mind Flayer does as well. How are they going to escape if the car won't start? Lightbulb time for Jonathan: They can take the ignition cable from the car Eleven used to kill the Russians. Unfortunately, turning the car over is difficult, and Eleven's battery isn't just low, it's seemingly dead. Her telepathic powers are gone. The kids succeed in getting the car flipped and just as they're about to leave again, Max notices something on the roof. It's the Mind Flayer. As everyone scrambles, ol' Flay Face smashes to the floor, roaring in rage. All that's missing is a falling banner that reads "When dinosaurs ruled the Earth." And if you were caught flat-footed by that Jurassic Park reference, don't worry: The next scene is full Spielberg cosplay, with the Mind Flayer using his tentacles to search for Eleven and her friends as they cower and hide. Thanks to Lucas and his distractionary slingshot, they all escape — but they've now been separated: Nancy, Jonathan, Lucas, and Will go to restart Nancy's car, while Eleven, Mike, and Max continue to use the mall for cover.
Billy, of course, remains in the parking lot. (He's just been sitting in his car the whole time, having some alone time.) When Nancy and Co. come outside to leave, he's ready to strike — and when their car doesn't start, even after all that story padding with the ignition cable, Billy comes racing toward them at full speed. Nancy holds her ground, firing round after round at Billy's windshield (we stan a legend in Nancy!!), but it does nothing to stop the Mind Flayer's No. 1 fan. And just as it looks like Billy is about to crush Nancy and T-bone Jonathan, Will, and Lucas — crash! Steve and Robin, having left Dustin and Erica earlier to see what was happening back at the mall, arrive at precisely the right moment to knock Billy off his path. The six pals drive off as the Mind Flayer gives chase.
Just then, as Billy stumbles out of his car, Eleven, Mike, and Max come outside. Oops! Billy sees them immediately, stalks them back inside, and violently knocks Max and Mike unconscious before pushing a powerless Eleven into a wall. The Mind Flayer, alerted to Eleven's presence, stops chasing Nancy's car and returns to Starcourt.
Everyone again including Billy: Underground, Hopper and Joyce are moments away from ending all of the above trauma. But just as they're about to turn the failsafe keys, Darth Drago makes his an appearance and starts to attack Hopper.
It's bad timing because The Mind Flayer has arrived at Starcourt Mall as Billy presents Eleven as a human sacrifice. Would it surprise you to learn this drama is diffused by yet another deus ex machina? Just as Eleven is about to become flay food, something explodes on the side of the Mind Flayer's face. It's one of Lucas' fireworks from Episode 7. "Flay this, you ugly piece of sh--." This is good.
A brief break to discuss the Duffers' filmmaking prowess: The parallel editing this season has been remarkable and this sequence recalls the kind of stuff George Lucas did so well in the original Star Wars trilogy (especially, don't laugh, in the climax of Return of the Jedi). What unfolds over the next 10 minutes is the most harrowing, intense, heartbreaking, and entertaining part of Stranger Things 3: As Nancy, Jonathan, Lucas, and Will firebomb the Mind Flayer, Eleven tries to connect with Billy. But rather than pleading with her tormenter, she simply acknowledges the happy memory she landed in earlier: a young Billy on the beach with his mother. They were happy then. He was happy then. There's still part of that boy buried deep inside Billy (as it turns out, his cries for forgiveness to Max during "The Sauna Test" were perhaps legitimate). And when the Mind Flayer comes to finish Eleven off and send the world to the apocalypse, Billy ... stops his master — at least for a moment, until the Mind Flayer brutally murders Billy with his many tentacles as Max, now conscious again, watches on in horror. (Lots of black blood in this scene, righteous!)
At the same time, Hopper and Drago have what's definitely their last battle royale. This fight has spilled into the main room of the lab, which is already under severe duress thanks to Murray. And just as it looks like Darth Drago might decapitate Hopper in the laser's spinning propeller (sure), the Hawkins police chief knocks Darth Drago back on his heels, takes advantage of the Russian's injuries (the old finger to the bullet wound routine), and throws him into the prop like a Nazi in an Indiana Jones movie. America, f--- yeah!
Unfortunately, the celebration is short-lived. Hopper is trapped in the lab, and with the kids out of fireworks above ground and Billy's sacrifice becoming less relevant by the second, Eleven is about to become flay food. If Joyce doesn't turn the failsafe keys, El and everyone else will die; if she does turn the keys, Hopper's a goner. It's "Not Penny's Boat," Stranger Things edition. Joyce exchanges a look with Hopper, closes her eyes, and flips the keys to the right.
The screen cuts to black.
But this isn't The Sopranos. After a moment, the action returns and the laser explodes, disintegrating the Russian scientists inside the room. Hopper is never seen again — but notably, we don't see his body.
As the gate closes, the Mind Flayer ... just dies. (I was hoping for more goo to be honest. What a roller coaster of emotion these recaps have taken me on, but that's where we are! Give me goo!) Mike runs to hug Eleven and Max tends to Billy. "I'm sorry," he says, before dying. R.I.P. Billy, you were a bully and a hunk.
Just in time, Dr. Owens (Paul Reiser) arrives with the U.S. military, and as they infiltrate the Russian base they find... nothing. The Ruskies have vanished.
Outside the smoldering ruins of the Starcourt Mall, Joyce reunites with Will yet again. As they hug, she spots Eleven. It only takes one look to break her heart: Hopper isn't coming back.
Three months later: Epilogue time! A promo for a tabloid news show called Cutting Edge takes a look at Hawkins, Indiana, aka "hell," where stranger things have happened over the last three years — and mystery deaths have rocked the town (hello, photo of Barb). It seems what happens in Hawkins doesn't actually stay in Hawkins.
With Scoops Ahoy having been destroyed, Steve and Robin head to Family Video to interview for jobs. Here are Steve's favorite movies:
-"Animal House, for sure."
-"Uh, Star Wars." ("The one with the teddy bears")
-"The movie that just came out. The one with the DeLorean and Alex P. Keaton and he's trying to bang his mom."
At the Byers' residence, Will and Jonathan are packing up — it looks like Joyce has followed through on her plan to move out of Hawkins. The whole gang is there: Lucas and Max mock Dustin for "Never Ending Story," Will puts his Dungeon & Dragons game in the giveaway pile (it's "not possible" he'd want to join another party, d'aww), and Jonathan and Nancy share a final goodbye. (Nancy is our queen!) Eleven is packing to leave too — she's still without her superpowers but has found a new surrogate family with the Byers. Mike comes in to help El finish packing and they have one last awkward moment. (He likes presents, and she does too. Presents are good, kids.) As Eleven turns to leave, she finally admits to having heard Mike say that he loves her in the cabin on the Fourth of July. Mike stammers. El gets one last mic drop: "I love you too," she says as they kiss.
But the show is not done with Eleven just yet: As Joyce goes through Hopper's things, she finds the letter he wrote Eleven and Mike back in Episode 1 — the one he ignored in favor of threatening Mike and lying about Mike's grandmother. (Men and their feelings, right?) As it turns out, wow, Hopper had some profound things to say about love and growing up! (Read his full letter here because I'd rather not be crying alone.) Eleven finishes the note and then joins Joyce, Will, and Jonathan on the ride out of town — they're ready to start over together.
Credits scene: Psych! We're at a snow-covered Russian military facility. Inside, two guards are looking for someone. "No, not the American," one says. Hmm. HMMMMMM.
Leaving the American for another season, they pull out a different prisoner and drag him screaming down into the depths of the facility. He's thrown into another cell and the unidentified man begs the guards to let him go. We soon see why: From behind a locked door comes a Demogorgon. It lets out a bloodcurdling scream and attacks. Cut to end credits, see you next season.
Burning questions: So, is Hopper dead? All signs point to no — we never saw him die and the Russian guards in the credits scene literally reference an "American." It would be a shock if that mystery person was anyone but Hopper. The better question is, how is Hopper alive? The good money is on Stranger Things 4 providing an answer.
Movie of the episode: It's got to be Jurassic Park, which is so obviously referenced in the initial Mind Flayer-attacks-the-mall scenes that Steven Spielberg could get a co-directing credit. Jurassic Park is streaming on numerous digital platforms, including Amazon Prime Video.
Quote of the episode: I strongly urge you to read Hopper's entire letter to Eleven, but I'd like to point out this part in particular: "I know you're getting older, growing, changing. I guess, if I'm being really honest, that's what scares me. I don't want things to change. So I think maybe that's why I came in here, to try and make stop that change. To turn back the clock. To make things go back to how they were. But I know that's naive. It's just not how life works. It's moving, always moving, whether you like it or not. And yeah, sometimes it's painful. Sometimes it's sad. And sometimes, it's surprising." Sounds a lot like Stranger Things 3.
TV Guide episode rating: 5 out of 5
Stranger Things is now streaming on Netflix.
Previously: Episode 1, "Suzie, Do You Copy?" | Episode 2, "The Mall Rats" | Episode 3 "The Case of the Missing Lifeguard" | Episode 4, "The Sauna Test" | Episode 5, "The Flayed" | Episode 6, "E Pluribus Unum" | Episode 7, "The Bite"