What does the ending of Stranger Things mean?

WARNING: This article contains all the spoilers for Stranger Things. Run away now if you haven’t seen it yet.

The end of season 1 of Stranger Things was wonderfully, deliberately ambiguous. Every solid, tangible bit of resolution was balanced by something unclear. For me, and a hefty part of the internet, it felt like a smart way to end a series that celebrated the unknown and the unknowable. It did leave a few people scratching their heads, though: 

With all this in mind, let’s look at the ending and try to provide a clear, Iron Giant-explicit closure to some of the big questions it left unanswered. Spoiler: it’s still going to be really ambiguous. 

Is Barb really dead?

Let’s start with a simple one: is there any hope for Barb? Sadly not. Not only is Barb definitely dead, but she barely escaped an even more horrible end than the one we saw in the show - just take a look at the concept art below. 

This Screencrush interview with Stranger Things artist Aaron Sims explains how Barb escaped this even-more-gruesome death: 

“In the final design, they ended up veering away from that because it became too unrecognizable,” said Sims. “It was difficult to tell exactly what had happened to her; it wasn’t an issue of it being too graphic, but rather, that the viewer needed to see something that was very recognisably dead.” 

There you have it: ‘very recognisably dead’. Eleven even confirms that Barb is beyond help, so there’s zero chance of her coming back in season 2, even in a show so full of supernatural possibility.  At least it leaves her schedule free to play Squirrel Girl, eh? Every cloud. 

What’s up with Will?

Even though we barely saw him, season 1 of Stranger Things is Will’s story. That’s why that ending is so important. Has Will’s time in the Upside Down changed him, physically or mentally? Here’s what the Ross Duffer had to say in an interview with Variety:

"We love the idea that [the Upside Down] is an environment that is not a great place for a human being to be living in. Will’s been there for an entire week, and it’s had some kind of effect on him, both emotionally and perhaps physically. The idea is he’s escaped this nightmare place, but has he really? That’s a place we wanted to go and potentially explore in season two. What effect does living in there for a week have on him? And what has been done to him? It’s not good, obviously."

This Looper article offers a different, darker perspective, suggesting that while some of what we see is hallucinatory, the long-term effects on Will’s psyche could be disastrous: 

"...there's also the chance the kid's entire concept of reality has been marred by his trauma...Will has been physically and/or mentally incepted by what laid beneath, and the manifestations of that are starting to emerge (like puke slugs, yech) in secret. The Duffer Brothers have declared that Season 2 of the show would time-jump a year to grapple with the repercussions ahead for all the show's characters and confirmed that Will is, unquestionably, not okay right now. (The fact that they referenced the suicide scene in Stephen King's IT when talking about the subject, coupled with Will's fascination with the Clash song, "Should I Stay or Should I Go," is absolutely shudder-inducing.)"

Another theory, suggested by reddit user manutd875, suggests a different, more tangible possibility: 

"I think it is Will, no illusion or anything, but he "carried something with him" if you will from the other dimension. I predict that the slug that he coughed will grow into one of the "demogorgon" creatures later on. Also, given the waffles at the end, there is no way that Eleven is dead, she is either residing in another dimension, or somehow survived. I also believe that Hopper is affiliated with that government organization in some way now, he got inside their car outside the hospital, and the fact that he left something for Eleven shows that he somehow knows something that no one else does. Overall, I really enjoyed the show though, can't wait for season 2!"

So sum up: it’s not looking good. Yes, it’s a victory that Will is back, but the long-term consequences will probably define the second season of Stranger things. And they’ll be horrible, because of course they will.  

Is Eleven still alive?

Eleven’s fate is the most deliberately ambiguous bit of the ending. We’re led to believe she’s killed herself to destroy the demogorgon. There’s more to it than that, though. Hopper makes a deal with the government agency to find and save Will, giving Eleven up to the authorities. During the closing moments of season 1 we see him hiding Eleven’s favourite food, Eggo waffles, in the woods, but we don’t know exactly why. Has he seen her? Or is he just guilty about selling her out? Here’s what Matt Duffer had to say in that Variety interview: 

"Obviously something happened to her when she destroyed and killed that monster and we don’t know what she went. Hopper is left with this guilt because he sold her out. We wanted to leave it sort of mysterious exactly what he knows… Have there been sightings in the woods or is he hoping she’s out there or has he already made contact with her? We don’t answer any of that, but we like the idea of potentially putting her and Hopper together."

Screenrant has a different take on things - or at least, a more detailed one. 

"...it’s more likely Eleven was transported to another dimension through or with the Demogorgon. We know the creature retreats to the Upside Down when it’s injured since that’s what it did following Nancy, Jonathan, and Steve’s attack. But, we don’t know what happens to a Demogorgon when it dies. Eleven’s powers target a living being from the inside (the bully’s broken bone, the brains of Brenner’s people), but the Demogorgon reacted differently by disintegrating into the particles of matter — and there’s no precedence within Stranger Things for what those particles are or a Demogorgon on the brink of death is capable of. Perhaps it returned to the Upside Down, or it traveled to an entirely new dimension, and carried El along with it — this seems the most likely since the cloud of Demogorgon particles envelop El prior to her disappearance."

Whatever happens, it won’t be as simple as Eleven just turning up in season 2. In fact, our biggest hint could come from a game of Dungeons and Dragons played in the show. Just as the first episode foreshadowed the demogorgon, the last episode offers hints about Eleven’s whereabouts, hinting that she could be the ‘lost knight’ from their game. We go into more detail here in our Stranger Things season 2 predictions, but the short version is that she’s almost certain to come back. And that leads us to the final big question…

Is the demogorgon dead?

Probably, if only because having the same evil entity in season 2 would be a massive creative misstep. That said, there are hints in season 1 about what we could see next. Here’s Aaron Sims again on the the mysterious egg that we see in the Upside Down: 

“The egg was a design for something you actually see a couple times in the show, whether you recognize it or not. There are a couple encounters where we see the Demogorgon hunkered over, eating something - when Nancy goes into the Upside-Down through the tree, and when Eleven finds the creature in her “vision”, it’s hunkered over this egg, feeding off of it. It’s not clear whether or not this is the creature’s offspring - we don’t even know if it’s the same species. The only info we have is that the creature is feeding off this egg somehow.”

It’s too deliberate to just be an accident. Screenrant suggests that it might be another creature altogether: 

"It’s unclear if the egg is where the Demogorgon came from — though that seems unlikely since El faced the Demogorgon prior to opening the gate to the Upside Down and it would be strange to show viewers the egg at this point in time if it’s simply to explain that the beast came from an egg. But, if the egg isn’t where the Demogorgon came from, then that begs the question of what exactly hatched from it. It could be another Demogorgon or another creature entirely."

We know almost nothing about the Upside Down - and to be honest, it’s probably better that way - so there’s an infinite number of unspeakable creatures that could feature in season 2. It’s safe to speculate that we’ll see something related to that egg, but I’d like it to be more than just another monster. Part of what made season 1 so good is that it took a familiar, safe small town and made it bizarre and dangerous. Perhaps the smartest thing to do would make that mysterious, threatening egg actually benign - a good egg, if you will - and have the real threat come from within. I’m looking at you, Will.

Decided you know what everything in season 1 means? Make sure you check out our Stranger Things season 2 predictions