Stranger Things: The 25 Episodes Ranked

I’ve covered the three seasons of Stranger Things on whole (for me, the ranking is 2–>1–>3), and now for the individual episodes.

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1. Season 2, Episode 9: The Gate. 5+ stars. The sophomore finale starts on Mike’s strongest moments, finishes on his earned reward, with each involving the re-entry of Eleven into his shattered life. It’s everything I hoped for in his story arc for this season, and the right place to reconnect El with the main cast. Any earlier than the finale would have cheapened her sacrifice in season 1. In a particularly heart-rending scene, Mike attacks Hopper for keeping El hidden all this time. Will’s exorcism is a ripper, as Joyce proceeds to burn the Mind Flayer out of him by shoving three electric heaters close to him on full blast. El’s closing the gate is the moment of glory, but the Snow Ball epilogue is the series’ best scene, as we see all the boys ending up paired with the “right girl”, dancing to the creepy ’80s stalker song, “Every Breath You Take”. It’s so moving, so right, and more than I dared pray for in the sequel season.

Stranger Things Chapter 8: The Upside Down
2. Season 1, Episode 8: The Upside Down. 5+ stars. Like the season 2 finale, this one is one of the best TV finales ever made, with the right payoffs and surprises on all sides of the story. At the Byers’ house, Jonathan and Nancy bait the shadow beast, and when it appears (on top of a visit from Steve), hell breaks loose. Steve is used brilliantly here; I was sure he was going to be killed as a convenient throw-away villain, but he turned out to be the surprise hero in a way that really worked. Meanwhile at the lab, Hopper and Joyce enter the shadow realm and find Barbara’s corpse and Will barely preserved alive, facehugger-style out of Alien. Hopper’s flashback to his daughter flatlining is a powerful juxtaposition over Will’s resuscitation; all along saving Will has been about him coming to terms with the daughter he could never let go. Finally at the school, El’s sacrifice is heartbreaking, and devastates poor Mike, who had just promised to take El in as a member of his family.

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3. Season 3, Episodes 8: The Battle of Starcourt. 5 stars. The weakest season contains a socking finale that justifies its existence. The opening scene of El’s self-surgery is one of the series’ best — excruciating to watch, and a bold move on the Duffers’ part. By stripping the hero of her powers, everyone is left to face down the Mind Flayer without the usual El-ass-poundings. The poundings come from fireworks (“Satan’s Babies”) and the spectacle is staggering. And yet fireworks only go so far: the way El reaches Billy and saves him is transcendent. The epilogue inverts the fairy-tale ending of season 2. The Snow Ball paid off nine dark episodes of estrangement and horror; it was the happy ending we earned. The Farewell to Hawkins caps off a sunnier season, and the farewells between everyone, especially Mike and El, are played with affecting honesty. It genuinely hurts to think of these friends being separated after all they’ve been through together.

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4. Season 2, Episode 4: Will the Wise. 5 stars. After the first three episodes of season 2 comes a shift in tone and blistering performances from both Noah Schnapp and Millie Bobby Brown. Possession is a scary concept to put on screen, but it’s also the riskiest because it’s hard to do right. Noah nails it with subtleties even Linda Blair didn’t pull off in The Exorcist. There are no jump scares here, just the slow creep of dread as Will alternates between being shaken and terrified, to making resolute demands (that his mother run him a freezing bath, because his possessor “likes it cold”), to stalking about the house confused. Millie also gets in her best scene of the season, as she and Hopper have a shouting match when she returns from stalking Mike in episode 3. This results in her telekinetic tantrum of hurling things at him and shattering windows. Will the Wise is a vastly underrated episode, probably because there’s not much action, but frankly it’s almost as good as the finales for the dramatic performances.

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5. Season 1, Episode 3: Holly, Jolly. 5 stars. A widely-praised episode for good reason. The final act is sublime. 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 furious reaction as he accuses El and runs home enraged, to the scoring of Peter Gabriel’s cover for David Bowie’s “Heroes”, is a rare piece of cinematic art. 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. It was this episode that fully hooked me into Stranger Things. I binged the rest of the episodes from this point, and have never looked back since.

6. Season 3, Episode 4: The Sauna Test. 5 stars. Plans are put into motion here. Dustin, Steve and Robin recruit Lucas’ sister Erica to crawl though vent shafts; her reward is getting stuck with them inside an elevator that drops into a Russian hell. Hopper beats information out of the mayor, and learns that the mall owners have been buying up property in Hawkins for some reason. But it’s the kids who confront the menace heads on, in a dramatic face-off with Billy, one of the series’ most intense scenes. When they do trap Billy, he doesn’t stay trapped for long. They engage in a barbell-throwing match, which ends with him almost choking her to death before she throws him through a brick wall.

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7. Season 1, Episode 6: The Monster. 5 stars. There are so many defining moments in this episode: Mike jumping off a cliff, El’s telekinetic rescue, Jonathan beating the shit out of Steve, and our first look at El’s mother, Terry Ives. The title “The Monster” works on multiple levels. The demogorgon is the monster, of course, but it’s just a creature that just feeds according to its nature. El thinks of herself as the real monster, because she brought the creature into the world to begin with. But that award should go to Doctor Brenner, someone who recruits college kids for his nasty experiments which result in catatonic lives (like Terry Ives) and child abductions that turn kids into numbers for grand-scheme lab experiments. Steve could be a monster too; his jealousy triggers life-threatening fist-fights. Or kids like Troy; his bullying is carried to the extreme of holding Dustin at knife point and almost making Mike kill himself. The reconciliation between Mike and El, with Dustin overshadowing, has become one of the series’ most iconic moments showing the power of friendship.

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8. Season 2, Episode 6: The Spy. 5 stars. There’s a heavy Exorcist vibe running through this season, but it becomes most blatant in the medical scenes of The Spy. The opening scene (above pic) is clearly inspired by Regan McNeill’s hideous PEG procedure, and Will Byers is having it even worse, convulsing under the doctors who ask him where it hurts, to which he can only scream “everywhere”. Winoda Ryder, for her part, plays the hysterical mother as convincingly as Ellen Burstyn did, and Joyce even shouts down a table of doctors for their incompetence as Chris McNeil did when professionals tried explaining Regan’s possession as mental illness. The episode is a ripper in other parts too, notably Steve and Dustin’s, who are now joined by Lucas and Max in a rather foolish attempt to bait Dustin’s demogorgon into the open and kill it. As if that weren’t enough, the bonding between Steve and Dustin has become the fan favorite pairing of season two, and for good reason. Their moments together in this episode are among the best in the season.


9. Season 3, Episode 6: E Pluribus Unum. 5 stars. This episode is sandwiched between two mighty El moments. The first is the ass-pounding she gives to the Mind Flayer, as she barely saves Nancy from joining the flayed. The grander spectacle is at the end, when she locates the source of the Mind Flayer by communing in the Void with Billy. Communing is something El has done only once before, when she tapped into her mother’s memories in season 2. When she mines Billy’s head, she finds herself on a beach bombarded by his chaotic memories, which allows Billy to latch on to her telepathically. It’s a terrifying moment when she pulls herself out the Void only to find Hopper’s cabin empty and all her friends gone. She’s still in the Void after all — in some replica version of the cabin — and Billy emerges from around a corner, advancing on her, delivering an evil speech on behalf of the Mind Flayer. Hopper’s side of the story is awful; he, Joyce, Murray, and Alexei are painful to watch in their over-the-top comedic silliness; my high ranking of this episode is for El’s scenes.


10. Season 1, Episode 7: The Bathtub. 5 stars. The prologue to this episode 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 centers around the plot of getting El in the bathtub to locate Barbara (dead) and Will (alive). This is the only episode in season 1 in which the three groups of characters — Hopper and Joyce, Jonathan and Nancy, the four kids — finally come together, which is nice to see. El’s use of the bathtub to locate Will in the shadow version of Castle Byers is creepy as hell.

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11. Season 2, Episode 1: Mad Max. 4 ½ stars. A massively underrated episode. What the season-2 premiere establishes is the cost of last year’s events, and that the sophomore season will do everything a proper sequel should do. The innocence of Hawkins has been lost. Everyone is estranged, from others and themselves. Mike still pines for Eleven, calls out to her every night in vain on his walkie talkie, and shits on his friends; Nancy hasn’t gotten over Barb and is crushed by guilt. This all adds up to a superb way of reintroducing us to the old characters who will never be the same, and I remember breathing a sigh of relief to see that the characters were being taken seriously like they deserve, especially the above dinner table scene where Mike is being forced to throw away his toys for his unruly behavior at home and school. Will isn’t doing any better. He won’t become possessed until episode 4, but he’s in a bad way suffering post traumatic stress on top of receiving hellish visions from the Upside Down. His exam with Dr. Owens offers the first taste of the season’s Exorcist vibes; subdued and sinister. By the end of this episode, it’s clear that season 2 is in excellent hands, and will be the kind of sequel most directors avoid in favor of pandering to the mainstream.

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12. Season 1, 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. The Vanishing of Will Byers introduces all the other characters too (Joyce, Hopper, Nancy, Jonathan, Steve) with great economy.

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13. Season 2, Episode 7: The Lost Sister. 4 ½ stars. Judged by most fans and critics to be the worst episode of the series, it’s actually a very good one. It aligns with season 2’s over-arching theme of estrangement and alienation, as we see Eleven traveling to Chicago and joining a street-gang led by her long lost “lab sister”. Kali and her gang hunt down and kill scientists who worked for Doctor Brenner, and the episode focuses on Eleven coming to terms with her power and ultimately rejecting the use of that power for homicidal revenge. The atmosphere evokes The Dark Knight, as El goes on a vigilante tear by night with her new friends, and it’s a crucial part of her character arc. She boasts to Kali’s gang, when they doubt her commitment, that she has killed many people — but that had always been in self defense. Now she tastes the thrill of cold blooded murder, and it’s only at that point (in the above pic) she realizes she doesn’t belong here. Her departure is great: Kali warns her that her friends in Hawkins can’t save her, and El says, “No, but I can save them.”

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14. Season 1, Episode 4: The Body. 4 ½ stars. This chapter is a major turning point in season 1, 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, basically making her over into the “ideal girl” as imagined by twelve-year old boys, with rather ghastly results; (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 gave me a nightmare and goes a long way in counting for my very high esteem of this episode.

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15. Season 2, Episode 8: The Mind Flayer. 4 ½ stars. Many fans would put this episode in the top five, but the Jurassic Park vibes only do so much for me. The death of Bob is admittedly epic, however; the sight of him being torn apart by a pack of demo-dogs is almost enough to turn Joyce into a gibbering lunatic. In the second half, all the main characters come together at the Byers house, and Mike gets the idea that Will may know how to kill the thing, thus beginning an emotional ordeal by which Will is strapped to a chair and worked over in turns by Joyce, Jonathan, and Mike. They share intimate memories with Will, and in particular Mike’s recollection of becoming friends with Will on the first day of school is well played. The tension in the final standoff (above pic) is impressive for not a single shot being fired. I nearly had a heart attack when the demo-dog came smashing through the window.

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16. Season 2, Episode 2: Trick or Treat, Freak. 4 ½ stars. The Halloween episode has tremendous rewatch value. There’s Ghostbusters mileage first of all, as Mike bitches at Lucas for dressing up as the leader Venkman instead of (the African-American) Winston, to the latter’s indignant cries of racism. I always have a bad moment when Will is crouched behind a building and the Mind Flayer funnels its way down the stairs to grab him. The best moment is back at Mike’s house, as the two boys have a touching moment, taking comfort in each others damage. It’s almost as if Mike thinks Will is the only one worthy of his affections, on the logic that if he suffering so much (from the loss of El) then so should others suffer. There are also the initial flashbacks which pick up right after El banished the demogorgon in season 1. She barely escapes from the Upside Down and returns to Mike’s house (the only place she’d ever felt safe in her life). It’s hard to say if she thinks that Mike has sold her out or not, but her look of pain is heartbreaking as she realizes she can’t return to him yet.

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17. Season 3, Episode 7: The Bite. 4 ½ stars. In which El is bitten by the Mind Flayer and put on borrowed time. El dishes out her usual ass-poundings but she’s finally met her match: it seizes her leg and almost pulls her through the ceiling. The scene is intense, as her friends hold her back in a tug of war, and Nancy puts her rifle to good use, but El’s leg is infected. Inside the mall there’s a clever reversal of roles, when Dustin and Erica assume command of Steve and Robin who are still recovering from being drugged and tortured. They duck into a showing of Back to the Future and there’s some entertaining fallout when Steve and Robin need to puke in the bathroom. Meanwhile, Hopper and Joyce and Murray Bauman get mired at the the town fireworks party, where amusement park rides and fun houses become a hunting ground for the Russian Terminator; he kills Alexei and almost takes out Hopper too.

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18. Season 3, Episode 3: The Case of the Missing Lifeguard. 4 stars. This one opens on delightfully crass teenage humor, when El spies on Mike in the Void, and sees him furious at the way she dumped him in episode 2; he and Lucas are belching, farting, and denigrating the female “species” (a word El doesn’t know) as illogical and emotional; it’s a very entertaining use of the Void, which El usually uses for serious purposes. But this is ultimately Will’s episode, who realizes the Mind Flayer is back in Hawkins. This is after a long and personally hard day in which (a) Mike and Lucas mock the D&D campaign he is running for them, and to which (b) he responds by storming off in the rain, prompting (c) Mike to blast him for “not liking girls”. The tree fort scene is heartbreaking, as Will breaks down and cries, tearing up the photos of him and his friends, and smashing his sacred hideout with a baseball bat.

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19. Season 1, Episode 2: The Weirdo on Maple Street. 4 stars. The best scenes are at the Wheeler house with El and her new friends. By far the most iconic is the boys’ prepubescent horror at this girl they just met 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 mimics 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 obviously not Steve either; their characters are annoying in the way of entitled teens. But it’s for this reason that their story arcs pay off so well in the later episodes.

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20. Season 2, Episode 3: The Pollywog. 4 stars. Of all the episodes in season 2, this one channels the spirit of season 1 most visibly. The boys are in fine form working tightly together, and even Mike comes out of his shell to take a proactive role, as he chastises Dustin for harboring a creature from the Upside Down. Sensing hostility, the thing makes a dash for the corridor, and the boys engage in a mad chase through the school halls, and into bathroom stalls, until Dustin secretly finds it and smuggles it under his cap. Stand-by-Me bickering is on full display here, as Dustin is willing to defend his new pet against the others no matter the cost. Then there is Mike’s jealousy over Max; he tells her point blank that she’s not welcome in their party. It would be an amusing hypocrisy given Lucas’ jealousy over Eleven last year, except that it’s genuinely sad. That sadness is compounded when Eleven, furious with Hopper, decides to break his rules and pay Mike a visit at the school and lash out at Mike from hiding. The final scene announces serious business ahead, as Will (very foolishly) faces down the Mind Flayer and gets possessed for his efforts.

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21. Season 1, Episode 5: The Flea and the Acrobat. 3 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 good 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.

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22. Season 2, Episode 5: Dig Dug. 3 ½ stars. The middle episode of season two is good but brought down by the obnoxious character of Murray Beauman. Frankly he almost ruined Nancy and Jonathan’s story for me. His zany and obnoxious behavior grates, and I didn’t care for the way he engineered Nancy and Jonathan’s first fuck. Meanwhile Hopper has become trapped in the underground tunnels spreading into the town, which allows the character of Bob to show his use, as he realizes that Will’s drawings of “vines” are actually those very tunnels under Hawkins connecting to lakes and quarries. It’s Eleven who gets the best part of the episode, as she flees Hopper’s cabin in search of Terry Ives. When she finds her mother, she obtains more misery, as if that were possible; Terry has been living a waking nightmare ever since being electroshocked into a blank state.

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23. Season 3, Episode 5: The Flayed. 3 ½ stars. In which the elevator keeps dropping, and Team Dustin (himself, Steve, Robin, and Erica) land in a vast underground bunker, finding the Russians working to reopen the Gate to the Upside Down. Meanwhile, Hopper and Joyce come to Alexei’s house, where they are attacked yet again by the Russian Terminator, and then proceed the next day to Illinois to recruit the thoroughly irritating-but-necessary Murray Bauman. Nancy and Jonathan join the Mike & El team, since Nancy has seen a hospital patient (during the awful Mind Flayer activation at the end of episode 4) turn black like Will did during his season-two exorcism. Their collective sleuthing leads them to the home of the newspaper editor, littered with blood and toxic chemicals, and then back to the hospital, where hell breaks loose and ends on our first solid look at the new Mind Flayer: a gross composition of mutilated human beings. On whole The Flayed is episode of information gathering for all the teams.


24. Season 3, Episode 1: Suzie, Do You Copy? 3 stars. The premiere’s best scenes were teased in trailers: Dustin’s return home from summer camp, and the heat between Billy and Karen Wheeler at the pool. Dustin has created the mother of all ham radios, and Billy wants to shag Mrs. Wheeler to kingdom come. Outrageously, that subplot goes nowhere, and it offends me that the Duffers teased a Billy-Karen affair (in the season-two finale and this premiere) only to drop it flat. As for our hero the young Wheeler, it’s nice to see him and El kissing in her bedroom, to Hopper’s constant outrage. Given that Hopper is about to put this relationship on ice, it’s important to see the passion that has defined Mike and El since the Christmas Snow Ball six months ago. The problem with this episode (and the one below, that follows it) are the tonal misfires, especially in Hopper’s scenes with Mike and El, that are played for laughs when they should be more serious. Turning season 3 into a comedy, especially in the early episodes, was a bad move.

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25. Season 3, Episode 2: The Mall Rats. 3 stars. It could be alternately titled “The War of the Sexes”. The rats who matter here are less the critters being absorbed into the Mind Flayer, and more the kids, who take a field trip to the Starcourt Mall as they declare war on the opposite gender. El is treated to sights she’s normally not allowed to see, and the shopping spree is Max’s attempt to convince El there is more to life than boys — and that El should “dump Mike’s ass” unless he comes back to her crawling on all fours. The boys (minus Dustin), for their part, are on a mission of amends. This is Lucas’ attempt to convince Mike that buying El a gift will make everything right between them. Will is perhaps the only sane one: he just wants to go home and play D&D. The boys and girls finally run into each other, sling some nastiness back and forth, and El dumps Mike indeed. The gender battle was a pretty good idea, but it was played way too much for laughs. Season 3 was really brought down by the overused comedy.

Parallels between My Stories and Stranger Things 3

There are strong parallels between Stranger Things 3 and my fanfiction series written over the course of last year. I wrote my stories with no knowledge at all of what would happen in season 3, so these similarities are striking to say the least.

1. El dumps Mike, at the engineering of Hopper. In the TV series (episodes 1 & 2), Hopper manipulates Mike, and also threatens him, in order to break up the relationship between him and Eleven. In my story, Hopper manipulates Eleven rather than Mike, in order to achieve the same goal. In each case the person being manipulated by Hopper doesn’t come clean: in the TV series, Mike starts avoiding El but lies about his reasons for doing so, to which she responds by “dumping his ass”. In my story, El tells Mike that she needs to break up with him, but won’t say why, which breaks his heart.

2. Will Byers is either gay or asexual. The TV series (episode 3) strongly implies that Will is either gay or asexual, since he has no interest in girls. In my story, Will is asexual.

3. Dangers of the Void. In the TV series (episode 6), Mike warns Eleven of the dangers of communing with Billy in the Void. She has only tried this once before, when she accessed the memories of her mother in season 2 (and her mother was a willing subject who wanted to show El what Dr. Brenner did to her). Sure enough, when El accesses Billy’s memories, he is able to latch onto her mind, and see where she is in Hopper’s cabin. In my story (the murder mystery of Black Rose), El warns Hopper of the same dangers, when he wants her to access the memories of a comatose hospital victim. She tells her father that the victim may rebel against her intrusion or even die from shock. Sure enough, that almost happens; the victim’s monitors bleep momentarily, though she doesn’t end up dying.

4. El loses her psychic powers, thanks to a creature of the Upside Down. In the TV series (episode 8), El loses her powers for at least three months, after a piece of the Mind Flayer gets in her leg. In my story, she loses her powers for two days (January 22-24, 1987), when she’s snared on the shadow tree and injected with anti-psychic sap.

5. El leaves Hawkins. In the TV series (episode 8), Joyce moves out of Hawkins, taking Will, Jonathan, and El. In my story, Hopper (who survives the Battle of Starcourt) leaves Hawkins with El (in April, 1987), when he takes a job as Sheriff of Yamhill County in Oregon.

 

The Seasons of Stranger Things Ranked

The first season was the childhood magic, the second a dark highway, and the third a farewell to innocence. You can debate whether season 1 or 2 is the best (I say 2), but there’s no denying those two are top-notch — the storytelling, acting performances, plotting and drama are compelling from start to finish. You can’t say that about season 3.

There’s a desperate and lonely feel to the first two seasons that made Stranger Things what it was, and more than just a sci-fic show about other-dimensional aliens. It was about authentic characters, whose traumas made us feel invested in them. There was abuse (Eleven’s at the hands of Dr. Brenner, Max’s at the hands of Billy); there was grief (Nancy’s for her best friend Barb, Joyce’s for her boyfriend Bob, Hopper’s for his daughter Sara, the kids thinking Will is dead, Mike thinking El is dead); abandonment (El’s homelessness, and searching for her mother); bullying (from Troy and then Billy); homicidal urges (which El struggled with); torture (of Eleven in the lab, her mother years before, and Will by the Mind Flayer). When you strip those elements away, as season three did, and fill in cheap comedy, it’s hard to keep caring about the characters. Let’s go through each season, from 2–>1–>3.

Rank #1 — Season 2: The Year of Estrangement

What I love about season 2 is that all the main characters are alienated in some way, whether from others or themselves, and suffering traumas they can hardly speak of. Eleven is isolated, torn between a new father figure and a mother she wants to find; Mike is a shell, believing his girlfriend dead but unable to let go; Will is possessed; Nancy is drowning in guilt; Dustin can find acceptance only in a dangerous pet. It took nerve for the Duffers to treat their characters this honestly, and especially to emasculate its lead character Mike while keeping Eleven out of reach until the end. This is what sequels should be like, and for me it’s is the height of the series, not only in terms of the thrills and scares, but the emotional ride. It all comes together in a hugely dramatic payoff. Stranger Things 2 is the best season because it’s the most immersive, and doesn’t flinch from the cost of what went on before.

Here are the second season’s mighty strengths:

  • Emo Mike. Mike has undergone a dramatic change from season 1. He’s no longer a spirited leader, but down and sour, especially to his friends, except Will — the only one Mike considers worthy of his affection. Mike’s logic seems to be that since he’s suffering, then so should everyone else, which is why Lucas and Dustin’s gaiety is so intolerable. Mike even shits on Max, copying Lucas’s hostility towards Eleven in season 1, oblivious to his hypocrisy. Fans have complained about this bad-attitude “Emo Mike”, and they’re probably the same ones who complained about the way Lucas treated El in season 1. All they’re saying is that they don’t like good storytelling. This was the necessary direction for Mike Wheeler’s character, and it’s what makes his story-arc so compelling. The loss of El has shattered him, and we feel that loss through him as we should.
  • Darker Roads / Halloween Theme. Where in season 1 the influence of Stephen Spielberg balances that of Stephen King, season 2 favors the latter with an unrelenting dark tone. For me that’s a strength. The darkness of the season aligns with the theme of estrangement, and it’s what makes the end game so rewarding. The Snow Ball pays it off. The Exorcist homages are another huge score, making season 2 by far the scariest; that’s a plus in every way. The elements of Halloween — both inside and outside the narrative (Stranger Things 2 was released right before Halloween of 2017) — also supplement the horror theme brilliantly. It’s the boys’ favorite time of year, as it was certainly mine when I was their age; for that matter, it still is my favorite holiday.
  • Eleven and Will. Season 2 contains, no exaggeration, some of the best child acting seen on TV: Will’s possession scenes, Eleven’s psychic tantrum in Hopper’s cabin, Mike’s rage against Hopper for keeping El hidden, and more. Of course, these kids act superbly in all three seasons, but in Stranger Things 2 they hit a record high. Will’s possession scenes in particular run the gamut, as he throws convulsive fits one moment, trembles in terror the next, and then stares down people with the menace of a demon. The shouting match between El and Hopper — the psychic tantrum culminating in the exploding windows — is Ross Duffer’s favorite scene of the season, and you can certainly make a case for it.
  • New Teams. The Duffers mixed things up to progress character arcs, and so it’s not always the same groups doing the same things. So we get El and Hopper together, before El leaves to find her lab sister. Mike and Will are paired up (since Mike can’t stomach anyone else), before Will gets completely possessed. Lucas and Max bond, feeling the seed of romance. By far the most cherished pairing is Steve and Dustin, who find common ground in their girl troubles; Steve has just lost Nancy, and Dustin has no hope of winning Max. So Steve proceeds to counsel Dustin in all the right ways of hitting on girls, which calls forth amusing remarks about sexual electricity. Nancy and Jonathan are the only repeat-team from season 1, which works fine, as they take their sleuthing skills to a higher level. All of these pairings were good calls.
  • The Lost Sister. Why everyone hates this episode is beyond me. It’s a gem. It takes Eleven on a much needed dark journey so that she can come to terms with her homicidal urges, and see how clearly she loves the people of Hawkins once she is away from them. She experiences the lure of vigilantism, but ultimately rejects that when she realizes that one of her victims is more pathetic than evil. The episode ends in a superb scene, starting with her vision of Mike and Hopper (who are just realizing that Will has unleashed an army of demo-dogs on the lab), to Kali’s use of an invisibility cloak to escape the cops, to El insisting that she return home — not because her Hawkins friends can save her, but because she can save them.
  • The Finale. As excellent as the season-1 finale is, it has nothing on the season-2 climax. Unlike the demogorgon, the Mind Flayer is sentient and all-powerful, and clearly too much for El to destroy. She must shut the Gate on the thing, sever its ties to our world, and isolate it in the Upside Down. In so doing, she’ll kill everything connected to it, including the army of demo-dogs, but also Will. So Will needs an exorcism — by spatial heaters instead of holy water — and it’s a great homage to the scariest film ever made. Meanwhile, Steve and the kids attack on the underground hub to draw the demo-dogs away from El and Hopper. When those two missions succeed, El can begin, and the momentum has piled like a juggernaut. Millie Bobby Brown does an amazing job conveying stress and exhaustion and fury all at once, and the flashback to Papa in episode 7 — “You have a wound, Eleven, a terrible wound, and eventually it will kill you” — is what allows her to summon the requisite rage to close the Gate.
  • The Snow Ball Epilogue. The fairy tale ending of season 2 pays off everything we’ve been through. Each of the boys ends up dancing with the right girl: Lucas gets Max after a clumsy proposal, Will gets a bashful admirer (his “Zombie Boy” status working for him, for a change), and Dustin is rejected by every girl he asks until the elder Nancy comes to his rescue. Then El finally arrives (I wasn’t sure this would happen on first viewing), and she and Mike dance to the creepy stalker song, “Every Breath You Take” — a perfect fit, not only because Mike and El’s relationship has always been rather weird, but because El has been stalking Mike for a whole year. The Snow Ball epilogue is so affecting, so right: the kids earned this closure, and by God so did we.

Stranger Things 2, in sum, is a dramatic apex that nailed all the right chords for me. (5 stars)

Rank #2 — Season 1: The Quest for Will

The starter season that brought back the magic of my youth is pretty much beyond criticism. As a twelve-year old I enjoyed the same kind of autonomy as Mike, Lucas, and Dustin. Today’s era of helicopter parenting and social media has all but wiped out the best in children, and Stranger Things 1 could be the wake-up call if only enough parents would listen. The season is so meticulously crafted that not a single scene feels wasted. Even the quietest character moments advance the story. In this sense it’s the most polished season.

Here in particular is what makes the first season so great:

  • Will’s abduction. The quest to find Will gives the season a constant feel of emergency, that he needs rescuing before the Big Bad makes him its next supper. It’s easy to ring tension out of rescue missions, and the tension stays constant throughout all the episodes. And if the demogorgon stands in the shadow of what follows — it doesn’t possess people or absorb flayed bodies — as a predator it does all it needs to do. For the kids’ first dip into the Upside Down, that’s a worst nightmare come to life. There are heavy shades of Alien, especially when Will is captured by the predator and joined to a facehugger. Not to mention the slug he vomits at the end. Giving Will minimal screen time this season also worked wonders in ratcheting up the suspense. The only glimpses we get are through Christmas lights repurposed as a Ouija Board, his terrified shouting through Joyce’s living room wall, and Eleven’s vision of him hunkering down in the shadow version of Castle Byers.
  • Mike and El. They are to Stranger Things as Frodo and Sam are to Lord of the Rings. Without them the story is hardly worth telling. Since watching season 1, I’ve had many dreams of Mike and El, sometimes as an invisible spectator, sometimes with me taking the role of Mike, other times as my past 12-year old self interacting with them and Lucas and Dustin. Most of the time in Mike’s basement, where El still lives secretly, and the idea of that doesn’t seem surreal. From the start Mike is clearly in love with El though he’s hardly aware of it and could never admit it. He protects her, fights with her, cries with her, as only soulmates do. The pivotal moment is at the end of episode 3, when Will’s fake body is dragged from the river, and they all think it’s real. Mike’s furious reaction as he yells at El and runs home enraged, to the scoring of Peter Gabriel’s cover for David Bowie’s “Heroes”, is a rare piece of cinematic art. From that point on, Mike and El’s relationship is the keystone of the series.
  • Jim Hopper. Before he was ruined in season 3, Jim Hopper was boss. Introduced as a chain-smoking, pill-popping alcoholic, and obviously scarred by the death of his daughter and subsequent divorce, he recovers his purpose as he leads the hunt for Will Byers. He becomes invested in Joyce Byers, whom everyone thinks is crazy, including himself, until he uncovers the government conspiracy proving Will’s death was faked. By the time he and Joyce venture into the Upside Down on a suicide mission, Hopper has become as lovable as the kids of the series, and he obtains the perfect redemption in the rescue of Will: his desperate resuscitation of Will, as he replays his daughter’s flatlining in the hospital — to the theme of Moby’s “When It’s Cold I’d Like to Die” — is absolutely sublime.
  • Sacrifice. El’s sacrifice is simple, the resolution predictable, but only in way that tragedy needs to be. It devastates poor Mike who had just promised to take her in as a member of his family. It’s a rare case when a fake death works, because everyone (except Hopper) will keep thinking she’s still dead for a full year, until the end of season 2. All the traits are in place that define Eleven as a vulnerable hero: the nosebleeds; the hysterical exhaustion; the cost of using her powers; and the overwhelming guilt she suffers, knowing the Upside Down’s intrusion is her fault. “Goodbye, Mike,” sounds almost like a suicide she thinks she deserves.
  • Friendship. The friendship between the four boys works on many levels to those of us who grew up in the ’80s. The opening D&D scene is precious — possibly my favorite of the series. The dynamics between the boys is a perfect summation of my nerdy childhood; their chemistry is amazing; their bickering and in-group fighting completely compelling. They go to any length to save their friend, and while it’s the adults (Hopper and Joyce) who actually pull off Will’s rescue, there’s a clear sense throughout Stranger Things that adults are often the problem, and can only do much without help from kids who believe in limitless possibilities.

This season is a platinum success, which I rank second not because it’s anything less than excellent, only because season 2 is even better. (5 stars)

Rank #3 — Season 3: The Summer of Love

The third season has problems that I foreshadowed at the top. I’ll take the good and bad in turn.

The Good. Here’s where season 3 shined:

  • Eleven. She’s always the best thing about Stranger Things, but season 3 takes her to the next level without turning her into a cheap superhero. She’s still vulnerable. Her showdown with Billy in the sauna is a jaw-dropper, and while she ends up giving him an ass-pounding, it doesn’t come easy, and he almost chokes her to death. She fights the Mind Flayer twice and is almost torn apart by it. Then she is bitten and infected by it, and later she has to stop Jonathan from cutting her leg open so that she can rip out the flayed critter herself — one of the most searing scenes of the entire series. It was a bold decision for the writers to strip El of her powers at the moment she needs them most, and the way she “wins” against Billy at Starcourt is transcendent. Everything about Millie Bobby Brown’s performance still amazes. And damn, that girl can cry.
  • Summer of Love/Growing Pains. The Duffers are good at exploiting seasonal themes. Halloween fit the horror thrust of the previous year, and the Fourth of July aligns with the summer-of-love theme. It’s the boys’ last summer before starting high school, and in some ways the end of their childhood. They like girls now, except for Will. He may be gay or asexual, but he really just wants to keep playing D&D without romantic intrusions. Hopper, for his part, also doesn’t like all of this romance, though he sees it from a father’s perspective, wanting El to stay his little girl forever. Season 3 is about the desperate need to slow down time so that certain things aren’t lost too soon. The theme drives emotional scenes that are well earned, especially in episode 3, when Will flees the ridicule of Mike and Lucas; he takes refuge in Castle Byers, which he then smashes down with a baseball bat in tearful rage.
  • The Big, Big Bad. The new incarnation of the Mind Flayer is a fusion of mutilated human beings, and by far the most impressive creature in the series so far. This is one point on which season 3 supersedes the previous. It’s an homage to David Cronenberg’s body horror films and wonderfully deranged: besides possession of a host (first Will, and now Billy), the Mind Flayer manifests in this world through an assemblage of corpses. That’s a lot of dead people required, and the Hawkins body count is higher than ever before, which makes it harder and harder to keep this town’s horrifying secrets under wraps.
  • New Teams again. The Steve-Dustin pairing from season 2 is wisely repeated. They hook up right away, after Dustin is rudely ditched in the first episode by Mike, Lucas, and Will after a short-lived welcome home from summer camp. Then they are joined by newcomers Robin and Erica to comprise the Mall Team. The other teams are mostly good too: Mike, Lucas, and Will clash against El and Max who have declared a war on boyfriends, until they all join as one team against the Mind Flayer threat. Nancy and Jonathan are the usual pair of detectives, and they do well together. The one team that fails is Hopper and Joyce… but more on that below.
  • The Finale. The Duffers always turn out finales with mighty payoffs, but this one is best of all, and capped off by the deaths of two major characters. The first being Jim Hopper (even if he’s not really dead), and the second Billy, whose death is the bigger tear-jerker for the way El “wins” against him. Her liberation of Billy is a crowning moment of triumph because she’s powerless, thanks to the Mind Flayer’s infection. She reaches him by exploiting what she did with her powers in episode 6, when she went inside his mind and saw him as a child who loved his mother. Meanwhile the other kids are throwing Satan’s-Baby fireworks at the creature, doing whatever they can to bring it down. The result is a staggering display of explosive apocalypse for the glorious Fourth.
  • The Farewell Epilogue. The epilogue inverts season-2. Where the Snow Ball Dance brought everyone back together after a long road of isolation, the Farewell to Hawkins sees a parting of the ways after a summer of love. With El now adopted by Joyce and thus leaving with Will and Jonathan, it genuinely hurts to think of her and Mike on another stretch of separation from each other. It also hurts to think of her without her powers, even if she’ll probably get them back in season 4. But we can’t blame Joyce for leaving. She has suffered two seasons of trauma over Will, almost losing him both times; she saw her boyfriend Bob Newby torn apart right in front of her; and she had to kill Hopper to save Hawkins. There’s no way she could not move out of Hawkins after this. It’s a very moving epilogue, and the Duffers have a serious challenge ahead of them, if they want to outdo themselves in the season 4 finale.

The Bad. These are non-trivial failings, and the first two in particular went a long way to bringing down the overall rating of the season.

  • Misfire #1: Cheap Comedy. There’s always been humor in Stranger Things, because the characters can be genuinely funny. In season 3 the show goes beyond this by playing situations themselves for laughs, and turning the series into a sitcom — and it’s not funny. When Hopper needs to commandeer a civilian’s car for police business, for example, he and Joyce treat the whole thing like a supremely laughable joke. Characters like Mayor Kline and the editors at The Hawkins Post are completely cartoonish. Mike and El’s breakup was a great idea, but again it’s played for laughs. Erica’s brat humor works to an extent, but should have been reined in at times. The comedy problem produces a horrible clash in tone.
  • Misfire #2: Jim Hopper ruined. In particular, the cartooning of Jim Hopper was so off the scales that it ruined his character. He’s always had a rough side, but balanced with hidden tenderness. In Stranger Things 3 that balance is gone. Hopper’s treatment of Mike is downright vituperative. I don’t object to him being jealous and over-protective of his daughter, and indeed I approve the idea of him pulling asshole maneuvers to stop Mike from dating El. (I had him do something similar in my own fanfiction novels.) But it’s not taken seriously. Ditto for his treatment of Joyce. Hopper denigrates her non-stop, yells and screams like a rage-a-holic, and it never lets up. This is no regression of character; it’s a cartoonish perversion of his character.
  • Misfire #3: Lazy Plotting. There’s some lazy writing this season, as important events just “happen” to the show’s main characters. The Mind Flayer needs a new host, and just happens to possess Billy, who is driving by the dangerous location. Nancy just happens to answer the phone at the newspaper office, and pick up a hot tip that leads her and Jonathan to the mysterious rats. Dustin intercepts a Russian transmission and takes the information to his bro-buddy Steve, who just happens to work at the very place taken over by the Russians. Eleven learns that Billy is doing bad things, because she just happens to spy on him in the Void as part of a spin-the-bottle game with Max. None of this kind of lazy plotting can be found in seasons 1 and 2.
  • Misfire #4: Karen Wheeler. The go-nowhere subplot with Karen Wheeler and Billy is outrageous. Having teased an affair between these two at the end of season 2, and picking up that thread right way at the start of this season, the Duffers drop it altogether with no payoff to the subplot at all. They should have had the courage of their initial convictions, and threw Karen and Billy in the sack. The repercussions would have been dramatic and severe, and gone a long way to reattaining the edginess of season 2.
  • Misfire #5: Where’s the Upside Down? The main villain of Stranger Things is the shadow realm itself. In season 1 we saw Barb killed in the Upside Down, Will hiding in the shadow version of Castle Byers, Nancy entering the shadow forest, and Hopper and Joyce passing through the Gate to rescue Will. In season 2 the Upside Down burrowed into Hawkins, through the underground tunnels, where Hopper got snared; we also saw the Upside Down through Will’s eyes, thanks to his possession. In season 3 we never see the shadow side. The night atmosphere with floating particles never puts in an appearance.
  • Misfire #6: Low Jeopardy. Also significant is the lack of relentless threat to any of the kids. In seasons 1 and 2, Will’s abduction and possession kept the tension burning from the start. In season 3 the new victim is Billy Hargrove, and he’s a bad guy, so we don’t really care if his possession ends up destroying him. We do learn that Billy is just being used to get to Eleven, but the Mind Flayer doesn’t succeed in getting inside her until the finale. Prior to this, for seven whole episodes the kids have dramatic face-offs with Billy and/or the Mind Flayer, which are very good, but in-between they’re just sort of hanging around.

Worth reading is The Guardian‘s Stranger Things 3: A Flawless Finale – But What a Slog to Get There. The season-3 finale is admittedly grand, but that’s mostly what it relies on to redeems it. Also check out The National Review‘s In Its Third Season, Stranger Things Strays from What Made It Great, which pulls no punches at all.

Season 3 gets a pass from me, mostly for the staggering finale, and for the other positive elements I mentioned that appear sporadically. (3 stars)