Warning: contains SPOILERS for the Stranger Things season 4 finale “The Piggyback.”
All of Max’s memories in the Stranger Things season 4 finale “The Piggyback” have their own significance and purpose to them. Max Mayfield (Sadie Sink) becomes one of Vecna’s (Jamie Campbell Bower) primary targets due to her trauma relating to her brother’s season 3 death. After Max escapes Vecna’s clutches in Stranger Things season 4, episode 4 “Dear Billy,” Vecna becomes even more ruthless in his pursuit. Likewise, with Max understanding Vecna’s killing methods more, she develops her own tactics in protecting herself.
Max arms herself from “Dear Billy” onward with a headset playing Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” after the power of music against Vecna is discovered. Of course, Max realizes that music alone doesn’t deter Stranger Things’ Vecna, as it’s not the song but the happy memories that the song elicits that save her. With Max being used as bait for the Vecna attack, Max knows she has to put “Running Up That Hill” away at some point. In turn, she takes herself to her happiest memory as a foolproof defense mechanism. Vecna, unfortunately, catches onto this plan and uses it against her by manipulating her memories.
Throughout “The Piggyback,” a psychic memory battle involving Max, Vecna, and Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) ensues. Max’s memories not only provide character development, as flashbacks often do, but they’re also used as weapons and defense shields. With Max subverting a Stranger Things season 4 death as a result of her and Eleven’s teamwork against Vecna, these memories not only become insightful but lifesaving – albeit, barely. Furthermore, Max’s Stranger Things season 4 finale memories warrant a further explanation due to their heightened importance. Here are all of Max’s memories from “The Piggyback” explained.
Letter To Billy
While this memory isn’t given a visual flashback in the finale, Max lures Vecna to her by recalling her visit to Billy’s grave. This finale moment seems like a straightforward confession on Max’s part about how Vecna’s words affected her there, but there are hidden layers to her monologue. Here, Max reveals some of her true feelings, which she has always struggled to be open about, and also manipulates Vecna into coming to her.
In Stranger Things’ “Dear Billy,” Vecna manifests Billy (Dacre Montgomery) as an apparition that emotionally terrorizes Max. Vecna’s Billy accuses Max of wanting her brother to die, insinuating that her love for Billy and the ensuing trauma of seeing him die has a complicated underbelly exposing Max’s true nature. When recalling this moment in Stranger Things’ “The Piggyback,” Max becomes seemingly honest with Vecna and tells him that a part of her did want Billy to die. She uses this confession to bait Vecna into believing that she herself wants to die as a result of having these negative feelings towards Billy’s death. Max’s conflicting feelings about her brother may be true – after all, Billy was abusive towards her. The anguish Max feels towards herself because of Billy’s death may also partly be true, but she wouldn’t honestly want Vecna to kill her knowing that making her his fourth victim would destroy Hawkins.
Young Max Skateboarding
Eleven sees a young Max in Stranger Things’ “The Piggyback” skateboarding in Los Angeles. The memory shows Max being confronted by a teenager taunting her for skateboarding, with young Max retorting back with, “Shouldn’t you bag your face?” and giving him her signature middle finger. The memory is relatively insignificant in and of itself regarding Max’s character development, as it provides information already known about her character. Max has tomboyish interests, she uses dismissiveness and sass as emotional defense mechanisms, and she’s faced a sense of adversity all her life. Eleven was exploring her way through Max’s mind and merely found herself in one of Max’s childhood memories. However, the skateboarding memory does become a launching point for Eleven into Max’s important Snow Ball memory.
The Snow Ball
Max’s primary defense mechanism outside of Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” is her happiest memory, which is the Snow Ball from the Stranger Things season 2 finale where she and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) kiss for the first time. During Stranger Things season 4, episode 8 “Papa,” Max explains that Vecna only uses her “darkest memories” against her, and therefore wouldn’t be able to weaponize her happiest memories. Therefore, she plans to seek refuge from Vecna while in the Snow Ball memory after luring him in.
The Snow Ball memory eventually becomes a battleground between Max, Vecna, and Eleven. Vecna realizes Max’s plan of retreating to the Snow Ball memory and manipulates it by inserting blood-filled balloons and placing his “Dream A Little Dream Of Me” anthem over the Snow Ball memory’s “Every Breath You Take.” However, Eleven is eventually able to save Max by entering the Snow Ball flashback through Max’s skateboarding memory.
During Eddie’s (Joseph Quinn) Stranger Things guitar solo, Max experiences a flashback of Billy aggressively banging on a sauna door while demanding her to let him out. This moment is taken from the Stranger Things season 3 episode “The Sauna Test” in which Billy is locked into a boiling sauna as a way to drive out the Mind Flayer, who’s possessing him at the time. Even though Billy was under the Mind Flayer’s influence at that moment, he still exhibited a history of aggression towards Max beforehand. When Billy raged against Max during “The Sauna Test,” the Mind Flayer was using aspects already innate in Billy as a weapon of survival. Likewise, during Stranger Things’ “The Piggyback,” Vecna uses a Billy flashback to figuratively force Max to “open the door” into her subconscious and attack her.
Both Vecna and the Mind Flayer have a way of digging into their victims’ worst fears and darkest memories as a way to psychologically tantalize them. Because Vecna does his killing remotely from the Upside Down, he has to psychically infiltrate his victims’ minds. By weakening them with dark memories, he breaks down any defenses that they may mentally put up.
Various S2 and S3 Flashbacks
When Vecna eventually infiltrates Max’s Snow Ball memory, Max resorts to mentally flashing through her past of all remotely happy memories as an emergency defense. The moment is a quick montage of scenes from both seasons 2 and 3 of Stranger Things. In addition to remembering various general moments of her being with her friends, Max remembers dancing in her room with Eleven, playing spin-the-bottle, watching a movie with Lucas, and talking to Eleven about Mike being a good kisser. As important as Max’s favorite Kate Bush song is, she envisioned a similar flashback montage when escaping Vecna during Stranger Things’ “Dear Billy.” Remembering her happy memories, even those that were only minutely powerful against Vecna, helped her eventually escape. In the finale, she uses the same tactic, only without “Running Up That Hill” to save her.
Eleven’s Flashback Meeting Max
Just as Max uses happy memories to fight against Vecna, so does Eleven. However, the context in Eleven’s case is slightly different in the Stranger Things season 4 finale. When Max dies, Eleven uses a Max memory to save her and, consequently, Hawkins. She remembers the moment when she and Max first met in Stranger Things season 2, which leads Eleven to remember other happy Max memories and eventually unlock a new Stranger Things Eleven superpower in which she brings Max back to life.
Other key Stranger Things Max flashbacks that Eleven remembers at that moment include their sleepover where they read comics, their mall hangout where they try on clothes, and their little sing-along bedroom party. Eleven also remembers revealing her telepathic powers to Max, having ice cream with her, and talking with her about making their own rules in life. The memories represent what Max means to Eleven. She is Eleven’s first major female friend, and she helps build Eleven’s confidence and personal strength. While this flashback sequence isn’t being remembered by Max, the scene of Eleven going through her Max-related memories while reviving her is a crucial shared Stranger Things moment between the two characters.
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