Warning: This article contains spoilers for Stranger Things season 3.
The Stranger Things season 3 ending, "The Battle of Starcourt," is an explosive climax that changes the show's status quo - possibly forever. Stranger Things season 3 sees the threat of the Mind Flayer return after Russian scientists open a secret Gate project beneath Hawkins Mall; though they don't know it, they've allowed the Mind Flayer's consciousness to reach into this plane of existence once again.
This time round, the Mind Flayer decides to be subtle and cautious. It's already been defeated once, and thus knows that there's at least one being in Hawkins who can stop it. Eleven is its target, and to this end it begins by possessing humans as hosts (or "The Flayed") until it's identified her. Then, it begins to use the raw organic matter to create a new body, a monstrous form based on its shape in the Upside Down. The Mind Flayer's goal is to capture and absorb Eleven into itself, thus removing the girl who can close the Gate. Indeed, it's even possible the Mind Flayer could use Eleven to create more Gates, thus ensuring it can never be stopped.
Stranger Things season 3's finale has a dual focus, with two battles going on at once. On the surface, the kids struggle to keep Eleven safe from the Mind Flayer, a task made all the more difficult by her losing her powers. Meanwhile, miles underground, Joyce and Hopper lead a mission to destroy the Russian Gate. Here's what happens in Stranger Things season 3's ending - and how it sets up the future.
How The Mind Flayer Is Defeated (For Now)
Hopper's initial plan in the Stranger Things season 3 finale is a simple one; get Eleven as far away from the Mind Flayer as possible while he, Joyce, and Murray Bauman break into the Russian base and shut down the Gate. Once the Gate is closed, the Mind Flayer's mental connection with the Upside Down will be broken and Eleven will be safe. The different missions are coordinated by Dustin, who uses his Cerebro transmitter rig to ensure everyone can communicate.
Unfortunately, it doesn't take long for things to go wrong. Hopper, Joyce, and Murray head underground, but the kids swiftly realize they can't leave Starcourt Mall; the Mind Flayer has tracked them down, and the creature uses Max's stepbrother Billy to delay them until it arrives itself. Eleven's friends are forced to run interference, delaying the Mind Flayer for as long as possible. Lucas proves particularly useful, spotting the potential of using fireworks as weapons against the Mind Flayer.
Beneath the surface, Murray successfully trips the necessary fuses to set the Gate generator to blow. All that's needed is for Hopper and Joyce to get to the Gate room and switch the generator on, which will cause it to self-destruct and destroy the Gate. In order to accomplish this, they need to work their way past all the Russian soldiers and scientists - and deal with the head of security, a Russian "Terminator" who by now has a vendetta against Hopper.
Billy’s Death Redeems Him & Honors The Child He Was
There's one big problem with the kids' desperate attempts to keep Eleven safe; they're utterly dependent on a finite stock of fireworks. Making matters worse, Billy manages to knock Eleven unconscious and drags her to the Mind Flayer's feet. All seems lost as Lucas and his friends run out of fireworks, and the Mind Flayer looms over Eleven's terrified form.
In Stranger Things season 3, episode 6, Eleven reached into Billy's mind and established a mental connection with him in order to track down the source of all the chaos in Hawkins. In doing so, she saw glimpses of his childhood, of moments of joy and happiness, and of the trauma Billy had suffered that turned him into a bully. Eleven is able to use that knowledge to reach out to Billy and remind him of his humanity.
Billy overthrows the Mind Flayer's control, an impressive feat in itself, and sacrifices himself to delay the creature and buy a precious few minutes. It's a powerful act of redemption, made all the more touching because Billy's death is watched by his stepsister Max.
Hopper’s Sacrifice Is Stranger Things' Biggest Loss Yet (But Is He Really Dead?)
Victory in Stranger Things season 3 comes at an even greater price, as Jim Hopper sacrifices himself to close the Russian Gate. A last, desperate brawl between Hopper and the Russian Terminator takes the two into the Gate room, and is only resolved when Hopper knocks him into a turbine. Unfortunately, this damages the generator, making it impossible for Hopper to get out of the Gate room. He gives Joyce a long look, and then nods to her to trigger the generator, causing the self-destruct. He and Joyce have both been warned that anyone still in there will risk being blasted by powerful energy that will literally reduce them to dust. When it's all over, Joyce staggers into the Gate room find that Hopper is gone.
The clear implication is that Hopper has been killed by the explosion, the biggest sacrifice yet in the seemingly unending battle against the threats of the Upside Down. Given there's no body, of course, it's entirely possible that this is a bait-and-switch; the Russians swiftly evacuate, and Stranger Things season 3's mid-credits scene notes that they have an American prisoner. Whatever the case may be, Joyce is heartbroken; Joyce and Hopper had literally just begun to admit their feelings for one another.
Why Eleven Loses Her Powers (& How She Could Get Them Back)
Hopper isn't the only thing Eleven has lost over the course of Stranger Things season 3, though; she's also lost her powers. Over the course of the series, Eleven's telekinetic feats have increased in scale to the point where she seemed almost unbeatable. This, after all, is the girl who single-handedly closed a Gate to the Upside Down. It seems even these vast abilities can be pushed too far, and Eleven manages one last feat - flipping a car at a group of Russian soldiers - before they fade away. No reason is ever presented for this in the show, but it looks to simply be a case of burn-out.
This effectively serves as the completion of Eleven's arc in Stranger Things season 3. There's a sense in which this season was all about Eleven growing up, becoming a person in her own right, shaped by her own interests and desires rather than by Hopper and Mike. Stranger Things season 3 was about Eleven learning what it really means to be a human being, and given that's the case, it's quite fitting that the season ends with her losing the abilities that separated her from the rest of humanity. Although Eleven experiences this as a loss, in truth it's hard not to feel that she gains more than she loses, in that she can now be a normal - if somewhat awkward - teenage girl. Interestingly, Millie Bobby Brown had actually suggested Eleven should lose her powers. "I want to build her to be a strong person without her powers," she noted in an interview last year. "But right now it’s very about her powers and I think taking that away slowly would be cool."
While it's going to be good to see Eleven develop as a character without her powers, they're too integral to Stranger Things for her to be powerless through the entirety of Stranger Things season 4. Mike believes they'll return over time, but from a plot perspective that would be a little dull. More likely is that Eleven will need to conduct some sort of quest to learn why she's lost her powers and how to get them back; perhaps her lost sister Kali, introduced in season 2, could help her.
The Byers & Eleven Leave Hawkins - Is This The End Of Gang?
The Stranger Things season 3 ending skips forward three months, revealing that the Byers family are leaving Hawkins. This had been teased throughout the season, with Hopper telling Joyce he knew she was renovating the family home in the hopes of selling it. Hopper was Joyce's last connection to Hawkins, but now she associates the town with too much grief and pain. It's unclear where the Byers family are moving to, but it seems to be some distance away, to the extent the kids believe they'll need Dustin's Cerebro to communicate. What's more, it turns out that Joyce has taken custody of Eleven, and El is leaving Hawkins with them. It's unclear whether Eleven has been formally adopted, or whether Joyce just considers herself Eleven's most appropriate guardian. Naturally, all this leads to some pretty tearful goodbyes.
This doesn't mean the gang won't get back together again, though; they're all planning to keep in touch and even pay visits, and Mike wants to have Eleven over for Thanksgiving and again at Christmas. What's more, it's safe to assume the kids all team up once more in Stranger Things season 4; Netflix originally wanted seasons 3 and 4 to film back-to-back, concerned over the actors' aging during production.
Hawkins Lab Still Exists - And A Gate Is Still Slightly Open
Hawkins has been through a lot for a small, backwater town, but its trials may not be over just yet; the Stranger Things season 3 ending reveals that Hawkins Lab still exists. The US Government entered into an agreement with Jim Hopper to keep the lab closed, but that agreement may well have died with Hopper.
That's certainly hinted at by the arrival of Dr. Owens, the scientist who took over Hawkins Lab after Dr. Brenner. Owens is more of a shades-of-gray character than an outright villain like Dr. Brenner, and he disagreed with his predecessor's methods. Of course, given Stranger Things season 2 revealed that Brenner is still alive, it's possible that Hopper's death will mean a far more immoral scientist takes charge of the facility again.
Another disturbing shot reveals that the Russian Gate between Hawkins and the Upside Down is still open just a crack. Presumably, that crack wasn't enough for the Mind Flayer to retain control of its organic form on Earth, but it suggests that the barrier between reality and the Upside Down is paper-thin at Hawkins. That in itself may lead the US Government to reestablish the Hawkins Lab and perhaps even extend it underground, if only to keep an eye on the Gate. Hopefully, they won't decide to risk re-opening it themselves.
The Russians Have A Demogorgon
Although the US military successfully captured the Russian Gate facility, their raid seems to have taken time, and all the Russian scientists and soldiers escaped. Stranger Things season 3's mid-credits scene returns to their secret research base in the Kamchatka Province, and it reveals that the Russians have a Demogorgon, which they're feeding prisoners to. This was teased in episode 6, when Dustin and Erica broke into the Russian base at Hawkins and discovered both large cages and electric cattle prods, presumably for use in guiding Demogorgons into the cages. The Russians then transported these Demogorgons to their base in the Kamchatka Province. It's interesting to note that the Demogorgon is still alive, which suggests that it was a wild animal, not infected by the Mind Flayer's virus and thus killed when its connection to the Upside Down was shut off.
It's clear that the Russian Government remain interested in the Upside Down, and they have at least one major biological sample from there. That could mean they return to Hawkins in order to make a third attempt at breaking through; alternatively, it could potentially set Stranger Things season 4 up to leave Hawkins and head to Russia. It's true that Alexei insisted that the Russians could only open a Gate at Hawkins, but they've been monitoring the Hawkins Gate, and their observations may help them find a way to create their own.
If the Russians do indeed want to continue experimenting with the Upside Down, then they'll be interested in everybody in the US who knows about it. Stranger Things season 3's ending scene teases an American prisoner, who may well be able to tell them what's happened in Hawkins before; and if the American is unwilling, he could be forced. The Hawkins gang may well find themselves drawn into the heart of the Cold War in Stranger Things season 4.