After this list, check out the season 2 rankings.
Episode 8: The Upside Down. 5 stars. This is everything a finale should be: tense and emotional, with the right payoffs 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, all around a strobe effect of blinking 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. 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. Certainly one of the best finales to any TV series I’ve seen.
Episode 3: Holly, Jolly. 5 stars. The final act of this episode is a piece of undiluted cinematic art. Hopper and the kids see Will’s body dragged from the river, and they have no reason to think it’s a fake. Mike’s reaction is heart-rending as he accuses El and runs home enraged, to the scoring of Peter Gabriel’s cover for David Bowie’s “Heroes”. The whole episode builds to this climax in one strong scene after another: the opening sequence of Barbara killed in the shadow realm; the 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 breakthrough with Will, as she communicates with her son through the use of Christmas-tree lights, and he tells her to get out of the house as the Demogorgon 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 (like Terry Ives) and child abductions (Jane = Eleven). 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 hard-hitting (I thought Jonathan was going to beat Steve to death), but especially the last. Mike’s fall made my heart skip, and El’s telekinetic rescue isn’t as predictable as you’d think it would be. Her reconciliation with Mike is sublime.
Episode 1: The Vanishing of Will Byers. 4 ½ stars. The opening D&D scene is precious. 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. Eleven’s encounter with Benny Hammond is a perfect introduction of her character. In the short space of his screen time I really loved the guy and was pissed at the goons who shot him.
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 is one of my favorite scenes of the series, and it gave me a 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 him and Mike 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.) Another great scene is El’s flipping the game board as she tries to convey the concept of the Upside Down. 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 way of teens. But it’s precisely for this reason that their story arcs pay off so well in the later episodes.
Episode 7: The Bathtub. 4 stars. The prologue is the best part, and could stand its own as a short film: it begins on a tender moment, with Mike almost making a move on El, 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 in the junkyard. The rest of the episode is also good, though somewhat underwhelming, as it centers 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 very good, but it’s a pause after the fury of The Monster and a calm before the storm of The Upside Down.