Here are the 8 episodes of Stranger Things ranked.
Episode 8: The Upside Down. 5 stars. This is everything a finale should be: scary and emotional, with the right payoff and unexpected surprises on all sides of the story. At the Byers’ house, Jonathan and Nancy bait the shadow beast with blood, and when it appears (on top of a sudden visit from Steve), hell breaks loose — gunshots from Nancy, morningstar beatings from Steve, a firebomb from Jonathan — in a furious strobe effect of blinking Christmas lights. At the Hawkins Institute, Hopper and Joyce enter the shadow realm and find Barbara’s corpse and Will barely preserved alive, facehugger-style out of Alien (above image). And at the school, the kids are apprehended by Hawkins goons after El goes bad-ass and kills some of them, and while Lucas stands up to the shadow beast impressively with the slingshot, it is El who vaporizes it, sacrificing herself to an emotionally devastated Mike.
Episode 3: Holly, Jolly. 5 stars. The end of this episode is my favorite scene of the series, when the kids see Will’s body dragged from the river. They have no reason to believe it’s a fake body, and Mike’s reaction in particular — yelling at El and running home enraged — had me in tears. The use of Peter Gabriel’s cover for David Bowie’s “Heroes” over this tragedy is a genius piece of scoring. The whole episode builds to this climax in one strong scene after another: the opening sequence of Barbara assaulted in the shadow realm; the dreadful scene in which El relives her killing two guards at Hawkins Lab, when she was dragged back to her cell for refusing to kill a cat; Joyce’s powerhouse scene, as she communicates with Will through the use of Christmas-tree lights, and he tells her to get the hell out of the house as a creature suddenly bursts out of the living room wall.
Episode 6: The Monster. 5 stars. The title defines the episode in every frame, because the true monster isn’t what it seems. It’s neither the shadow creature (who just feeds according to its nature), nor even El (who opened the gate to the shadow world and let the creature through, in a terrifying flashback). The monsters, rather, are revealed to be people like Doctor Brenner, who recruits college kids for his nasty experiments which result in catatonic lives and child abductions. Or people like Steve, whose jealousy triggers life-threatening fist-fights. Or kids like Troy, whose bullying is carried to the extreme of forcing Mike to jump from the quarry’s cliff by by holding Dustin at knifepoint. All of these scenes are incredibly pulverizing to watch (I though Jonathan was going to literally beat Steve to death), but especially the last. Mike’s fall made my heart skip a beat, and El’s telekinetic rescue completely astonished me. And her reconciliation with Mike is simply sublime.
Episode 1: The Vanishing of Will Byers. 4 ½ stars. The opening D&D scene is my second favorite of the series (if you need to know my third and fourth, they would be El’s rescue of Mike from the cliff-fall in episode 6, and his emotional promise to make El his girlfriend in episode 8, which is thwarted as she sacrifices herself). The boy’s 10-hour campaign is a perfect summation of my nerdy childhood and shows why the game was so fun in the early 80s. It establishes their amazing acting skills through great personas — Mike the group leader (and so of course the dungeon master), emotionally vulnerable, and the undeniable soul of Stranger Things; Lucas the pragmatic skeptic; Dustin ruled by his appetites and amusing in every frame; and Will the sensitive kid who won’t be getting much screen time. The chemistry between these kids is simply incredible, and the premiere sells their characters with ease.
Episode 4: The Body. 4 ½ stars. This is a chapter of slow-burns and stinging revelations, in which Hopper and Jonathan, along different paths, come to realize that Joyce isn’t crazy and that Will may still be alive. Hopper finds the fake body at the morgue, and Jonathan hooks up with Nancy, who has also seen the creature without a face in searching for Barbara. The kids also realize Will is alive (despite their tragic certainty at the end of episode 3), when El channels his voice over the radio. Three particular scenes stand out: (1) the gymnasium incident where El freezes Troy and makes him piss his pants; (2) the loss of Doctor Brenner’s son in the shadow realm — we don’t see anything, but his frantic cries to pull him out of the gate are terrifying and of course too late; (3) Joyce ripping down her wallpaper and seeing her terrified son shouting to her in a flesh-encased portion of the wall. That would be my fifth favorite scene of the series, and it gave me a goddamn nightmare.
Episode 5: The Flea and the Acrobat. 4 stars. In which the kids learn about the shadow realm, and others get a direct taste of it — Hopper at the Hawkins institute, and Nancy in “Mirkwood” forest. Now that everyone is on to the fact that Will is probably alive, they decide to take action, but things end badly for all involved. El sabotages the shadow gate’s magnetic field, ruining Dustin’s plan with the compasses, prompting a jealous fight between Mike and Lucas. She then smashes Lucas unconscious, driving a final wedge between them before running off. But the pivotal scene is at the end, with Jonathan and Nancy out in the woods, and Nancy enters the gate and gets her (and our) first full view of the shadow beast. There’s great exposition in this episode, as the science teacher answers the kids’ questions about parallel universes, and the kids do their own research on the shadow realm in a D&D manual.
Episode 2: The Weirdo on Maple Street. 4 stars. The kids’ most iconic scene may well be their prepubescent horror at a girl who almost gets naked in front of them. Mike handles himself with the decorum fitting his leadership role, but the reactions of Lucas and Dustin are downright hilarious. (Lucas: “Do you think she slept naked??” Dustin: indignantly mimicks her taking off her dress.) The other thread to this episode is the party at Steve’s house, in which Nancy loses her virginity. I wasn’t a fan of Nancy at this stage, and certainly not Steve; their characters are annoying in the worst way of teens. But the later episodes pay this off incredibly well, so it turns out to be a good foundation. By the final episode, Nancy and Steve have become likeable precisely for how the horrific events force them to move beyond their hollow concerns for high school popularity and sexual esteem.
Episode 7: The Bathtub. 3 ½ stars. The weakest episode is still pretty good. The prologue is the best part: the road chase where El flips a van. But there’s something about her use of the bathtub to find Barbara (dead) and Will (alive) in the shadow realm that while creepy left me underwhelmed. I think it’s the way all the characters — Hopper and Joyce, Jonathan and Nancy, the four kids — finally come together. These characters are at their best when they’re facing challenges on their own, especially the kids and teens who have to transcend their immaturity. Here they are all basically gathered around El so she can get the information they need. The Bathtub is good, but it’s basically a pause after the fury of The Monster and a calm before the storm of The Upside Down.