After this list, check out the season 2 rankings.
Episode 8: The Upside Down. 5 stars. This is everything a finale should be: scary and emotional, with the right payoff and 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 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 and devastating poor Mike. Aside from Mizumono (the second season finale of Hannibal), this is the best finale to any TV show I’ve seen.
Episode 3: Holly, Jolly. 5 stars. The last act of this episode is the best of the season, when the kids see Will’s body dragged from the river. They have no reason to think it’s a fake, and Mike’s reaction is powerful — yelling at El and running home enraged. Peter Gabriel’s cover for David Bowie’s “Heroes” is perfect scoring for this tragedy. 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 everywhere, because the true monster isn’t what it seems. It’s not 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 pulverizing to watch (I thought Jonathan was going to literally beat Steve to death), but especially the last. Mike’s fall made my heart skip, and El’s telekinetic rescue completely astonished me. Her reconciliation with Mike is sublime.
Episode 1: The Vanishing of Will Byers. 4 ½ stars. The opening D&D scene is my fourth favorite of the series (if you need to know my second and third, they would be the twin-climaxes of the finale, in which Mike’s promise to make El his girlfriend is thwarted as she sacrifices herself, while in the Upside Down Will is finally rescued and barely resuscitated). 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 acting skills through great personas — Mike the group leader (and so of course the dungeon master) and the soul of Stranger Things; Lucas the pragmatic skeptic; the hilarious Dustin ruled by his appetites; and Will the sensitive kid who won’t be getting much screen time. The chemistry between these kids is incredible, and I fell in love with them right away.
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 boys dressing up El and Mike becoming increasingly smitten by her; (2) the gymnasium incident where El freezes Troy and makes him piss his pants; (3) Joyce ripping down her wallpaper and seeing her terrified son shouting to her in a flesh-encased portion of the wall. That last would be my fifth favorite scene of the series, and it gave me a goddamn nightmare.
Episode 5: The Flea and the Acrobat. 4 ½ 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 is 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. 4 stars. The road-chase prologue is the best part: it begins on a tender moment, with Mike telling El how nice it is that she’s back home, only to leave home immediately as fugitives; the road chase is intense, and El delivers her most spectacular feat of the series when she flips the van; it ends on a perfect reconciliation between Lucas and El/Mike. The rest of the episode is somewhat underwhelming, centering around the plot of getting El in the bathtub to locate Barbara (dead) and Will (alive). I think it’s the way the three groups of 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 themselves. Here they are just gathered around El so she can get the information they need. The Bathtub is still very good, but it’s a pause after the fury of The Monster and a calm before the storm of The Upside Down.