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 3, Episodes 8: The Battle of Starcourt. 5+ stars. There’s no denying the supremacy of the season 3 finale. It’s more brutal and emotional than the other finales — and that’s saying loads — and the epilogue sees a parting of friends reminiscent of the Grey Havens. I haven’t been affected by cinema on this level since Peter Jackson’s Return of the King. The opening sequence promises the gloves are off: El’s self-surgery is excruciating to watch, and the loss of her powers a tragedy. It leaves everyone to face down the Mind Flayer without the usual El-ass-poundings. Fireworks come into play — “Satan’s Babies” the equivalent of dynamite — and the spectacle is staggering. And yet the fireworks aren’t enough: the way El defeats Billy is transcendent, and better than any psychic beating. Meanwhile, Hopper and Joyce are in the mall’s underground to close the Gate, which they can only do by Hopper sacrificing himself. More tears. But to repeat, the epilogue is even sadder: the Byers house has been sold and Joyce is leaving Hawkins with Will, Jonathan, and El. The farewells between everyone, especially Mike and El, are played with affecting honesty, and it genuinely hurts to think of these friends being separated after all they’ve been through together. This is three months after the Starcourt battle, and El still doesn’t have her powers back. Mike tries acting casual as he and El plan to arrange holiday visits, but he’s clearly hurting inside. As is every viewer. This episode is so magisterial I award it a 5+.

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2. Season 2, Episode 9: The Gate. 5 stars. The season 2 finale starts on Mike’s strongest moments, finishes on his earned reward, each involving the re-entry of Eleven into his miserably 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. Mike has been a shell, and to see him come alive again is sublime. In a particularly heart-rending scene, he goes ape-shit on Hopper, physically attacking him for keeping El hidden all this time. The reunion is short lived, as Eleven must leave right away with Hopper to close the gate. Will, for his part, needs an exorcism: having just been strapped to a chair and worked over in episode 8, he is now tied to a bed, and Joyce proceeds to burn the Mind Flayer out of him by shoving three electric heaters close to him on full blast it’s a wonder his skin doesn’t fry. As both Will and his possessor roar in agony, Jonathan begs Joyce to stop, and Nancy seems equally appalled by this humiliating cruelty, until she outdoes Joyce by grabbing a hot poker and jabbing it into Will’s gut (a scene that still astounds on repeat viewings). As if things couldn’t get worse, Steve and the kids are attacked by Billy, who is clearly a psychopath by this point, as he takes his beatings with maniacal laughter. 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.


3. Season 1, Episode 8: The Upside Down. 5 stars. The season 1 finale may rank third, but it’s still one of the best TV finales I’ve ever seen, tense and emotional, and 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 — gunshots from Nancy, morningstar beatings from Steve, a firebomb from Jonathan, all around a strobe effect of blinking lights. 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. We’re still reaping the benefits of Steve’s turnaround; he’s been a fan favorite in seasons 2 and 3, and will probably be so in season 4. 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. It’s one of the rare cases that a fake death works, because season 2 kept all the main characters (except Hopper) thinking she was still dead, until the very end.

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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 Noah Schnapp and Millie Bobby Brown. Will, having taken Bob’s well-meaning but stupid advice, is no longer just infected by the Upside Down. He’s possessed by the Mind Flayer. 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 in every frame, 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. They’re both trapped: Hopper keeps her confined under strict rules for fear of losing another “daughter”, while Eleven accuses him of being no better than “papa” — she feels just as caged in the cabin as she was in the lab — resulting in her telekinetic tantrum of hurling things at him and shattering windows. Finally, the episode ends on the first death of the season: Dustin’s cat, devoured by his pet pollywog that’s molted into its next stage, a baby demogorgon. Will the Wise is a vastly underrated episode, probably because there’s not much action. Frankly I think 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.

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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 makes effective threats with a cigar cutter), 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. Mike’s plan is to trap Billy in the sauna room when the pool is closed. (Before springing this misguided trap, he tries to patch things up with El, but is not successful; she admits to spying on him and Lucas and hearing their sexist theories about the “female species”, to Mike’s outrage.) When they do trap Billy, he doesn’t stay trapped for long. El hurls a barbell loaded with weights at him; he throws it off, seizes her, lifts her up and chokes her; Mike clubs him from behind; Billy prepares to kill Mike, when Eleven — screaming so that hell itself can hear her — levitates him and then throws him literally through a brick wall. This confrontation well exceeded my expectations.

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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” is a clever choice and works on multiple levels. The demogorgon is a 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. Mike’s fall made my heart skip when I first saw it, and I wasn’t predicting El’s telekinetic rescue. It’s damn good storytelling. 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. Later it seems that Will is working against his possessor: he tells Mike he knows how to stop the creature: that there is a location in the tunnels which his possessor “doesn’t want him to see”, and so a team is sent to investigate, but that turns out to be a nasty trap; Will was lying, almost completely possessed now, and an ugly slaughter ensues. 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.

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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 far grander spectacle is at the end, when she locates the source of the Mind Flayer by communing in the Void with Billy. It’s of series’ most compelling sequences. 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 brutal moment when she pulls herself out the Void and removes her bandana 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 a very evil speech on behalf of the Mind Flayer. There’s good stuff elsewhere in this episode, especially with Team Dustin, as Steve and Robin are interrogated and tortured. Steve’s face becomes a repeat of Jonathan’s ass-kicking in season 1 and Billy’s in season 2; it seems that Steve is obliged to undergo this sort of treatment every year.

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10. Season 1, Episode 1: The Vanishing of Will Byers. 4 ½ stars. The opening D&D scene is precious and goes a long way to planting this episode in my top ten. 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. It has to be in the top ten, even if just barely.

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11. 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. Mike is right, Halloween is the best time of the year, and here the frights are out in full force, as Max scares the shit out of them with her Michael Myers costume, and Will gets the biggest scare of all, as he finds himself in the Upside Down being chased by the Mind Flayer. I always have a bad moment when Will is crouched behind the building and the creature funnels its way down the stairs to grab him. Back at Mike’s house the two boys have a touching moment — my favorite Mike-Will moment as they take 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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12. Season 3, Episode 7: The Bite. 4 ½ stars. In which El is bitten by the Mind Flayer and put on borrowed time. She’s just emerged from a harrowing trip in the Void where Billy latched on to her mind and located her in Hopper’s cabin. The flayed beast descends on the cabin and punches more than a few holes through it. 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. The Fun Fair is pure eye candy, and this episode has good rewatch value for the holiday theme.

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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 not nearly as bad as people make it out to be, and it’s really grown on me. 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 has telekinetic abilities like El, but instead of moving objects she makes people see things that aren’t there (or not see things that are). She 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.” If not for some of the hollow characters in Kali’s street gang, this would place even higher on my list.

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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 high esteem of this episode.

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15. Season 2, Episode 8: The Mind Flayer. 4 ½ stars. I hate putting this so low (in the bottom half of the list) because it’s such a ripper, but that only shows how strong I consider the above episodes. The first half is the season 2’s crowning action sequence, resulting in the death of Bob, and the sight of him being torn apart by a pack of demo-dogs is almost enough to turn Joyce into a gibbering lunatic. The only weakness is that Bob’s death is telegraphed a little too obviously (at three particular points I said to myself, “He’s not going to make it”), but other than that, the lab siege is superbly executed. 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 a tearjerker. 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 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.


17. Season 1, Episode 7: The Bathtub. 4 ½ 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 makes The Bathtub a pause after the fury of The Monster and a calm before the storm of The Upside Down. But it’s no short-change; El’s use of the bathtub to locate Will in the shadow version of Castle Byers is creepy as hell.

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18. Season 3, Episode 3: The Case of the Missing Lifeguard. 4 ½ stars. If “Mad Max” is the underrated gem of season 2, this is the one for season 3. It opens on 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. She also spies on Billy, but that turns out to be not so fun, and ends on an incendiary moment when Billy meets El for the first time. As Mind Flayer he has a flashback to her closing the Gate on him in season 2, and registers her as the supreme threat. Meanwhile Hopper has been dragged to the abandoned lab kicking and screaming by Joyce. Having ridiculed her concerns so nastily, he perhaps gets his just deserts when he is jumped from behind by the Russian Terminator. 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.


20. Season 3, Episode 1: Suzie, Do You Copy? 4 stars. Some of 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. It’s a nice catch-up on the old characters while introducing new ones, especially Robin at Scoops Ahoy. There are some tonal misfires, especially in Hopper’s scenes with Mike and El, that are played for laughs when they should be more serious.

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21. 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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22. 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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23. 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. He’s a crackpot conspiracy theorist, and when Nancy and Jonathan enlighten him with the truth, he hatches a plan to sell their story to the media, but only if they leave out the wild parts (about the Upside Down) no one will believe. By watering down the truth — suggesting that Hawkins Lab is guilty of poisoning people — they stand a better chance of convincing the public. Which is all fine and well; it’s his zany and obnoxious behavior that 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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24. 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. (A cliffhanger: their actual battle with the beast comes in episode 6). On whole The Flayed is episode of information gathering for all the teams. There is a touching moment at the hospital where Mike shares his candy with El, asking her if her “species” likes M&Ms; his awkward way of apologizing. El seems to get it, thankfully. Mike deserves a few graces, given how Hopper’s manipulations have put him through the ringer.

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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. Meanwhile, Hopper revels in his victory over Mike — tripping to the song “You Don’t Mess Around with Jim” — and it’s only fitting that he gets shafted by Joyce, who stands him up for dinner while he keeps boozing it up and cursing his waiter. The gender battle was a pretty good idea, though perhaps played too much for laughs.

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

Each season of Stranger Things has a tone crafted for its needs. The first was the innocent magic, the second a dark highway, and the third an all-out apocalypse. While all of them are excellent, I’m not going to pretend they can’t be ranked. They can, and for me that ranking is 2–>1–>3.  Here’s why.

Season 2. The Year of Estrangement. l call it that because almost everyone is alienated in some way, whether from others or themselves, and from the world outside of Hawkins. 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.

Some fans have reservations about it for these very reasons, and they point out other supposed “flaws”:

  • “Too dark”. Where in season 1 the influence of Spielberg balances that of King, and in season 3 the abundant humor off-sets the extreme darkness, in season 2 there is nothing to supplement the unrelenting dark tone. But for me that’s not a problem. 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 the scariest season; that’s a plus in every way.
  • “Slow pacing”. The pacing in season 2 is indeed a slow build, but slow builds can be just as dramatically effective, sometimes even better, and for this season it was the right approach. The tension hits a raging crescendo in the final two episodes, and a flawless reentry of Eleven.
  • “Emo Mike”. The complaint is that Mike Wheeler is no longer the spirited leader of season 1. He’s down and sour, especially to his friends. (The exception being Will, the only one Mike can relate to as someone suffering with his own damage. Or perhaps it’s that Will is the only one worthy of Mike’s affection, on grounds that if Mike is suffering so badly, then so should everyone else.) Mike even shits on Max, copying Lucas’s hostility towards Eleven in season 1, oblivious to his hypocrisy. Why fans complain about this bad-attitude Mike is beyond me. It’s called an evolution of character and it resounds to season 2’s credit. It’s good drama. I would have resented season 2 had Mike moved on too easily after Eleven’s season-1 sacrifice. His broken spirit made me love him more, cemented him as my favorite character in the series, and even inspired me to write my own series of fan-fiction (which, as a warning to the wise, makes his suffering in season 2 look blissful).
  • “The Lost Sister”. Even the rogue episode has grown on me incredibly. It isolates Eleven on a dark journey where she can explore her homicidal impulses. The urban hell she finds herself in is an inspired setting (reminiscent of The Dark Knight), and the whole theme of noble vigilantism plays into season 2’s theme of alienation and estrangement. It also gives her the “bitchin” punk look — her best incarnation in the three seasons. It’s true that some of the street gang characters are over the top, but the episode isn’t about them, so the caricatures don’t end up mattering much.

Season 2 also contains some of the best child acting ever 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.

Stranger Things 2, in sum, is a dramatic apex that’s more rewarding than any other TV season I’ve seen — and that includes season 4 of Breaking Bad. It nailed all the right chords for me. (5 stars)

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 opening D&D scene with Mike, Lucas, Dustin, and Will remains my favorite of the series; it’s supremely iconic. D&D was my life when I was their age. The D&D theme is somewhat ironic given the sci-fic nature of Stranger Things — where D&D is all about the medieval outlook and magic — and yet it works perfectly.

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, though I don’t think the “extraneous” moments in seasons 2 and 3 are as bad as some have been them out to be.

The Big Bad of season 1 stands in the shadow of what followed. It doesn’t possess people or absorb flayed bodies. But as a predator it does all it needs to do. The season has a constant feel of emergency to it — that Will needs rescuing before the demogorgon makes him its next supper. For the kids’ first dip into the Upside Down, that’s a worst nightmare come to life. The tension never lets up; it’s easy to wring suspense out of rescue missions.

The finale, like the season-2 finale, is one of the best TV finales of all time, tense and emotional, and with the right payoffs and surprises on all sides of the story. Steve makes an amazing atonement for his assholeries. 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. And El’s sacrifice is heartbreaking, devastating poor Mike who had just promised to take her in as a member of his family.

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)

Season 3. The Summer of Love. Assessing the third season is difficult because in some ways it deserves top ranking. It’s the most visually breathtaking, and certainly the most emotional. It takes bold risks. But it also trips in a few places.

Thankfully it didn’t trip where I thought it might. Stranger Things 3 conveys the heartbreaks and growing pains of being pushed out of childhood, and I admit I was nervous about this theme at first. The Duffers always wanted Stranger Things to be a show about kids, intended for adult viewers. The studios kept rejecting that idea, telling the Duffers to either make the kids older or tone down the show for a younger audience. The Duffers held their ground, and Netflix finally got the point. The question I had going into season 3 is how the Duffers would accommodate the fact that this point is now moot. Mike, Lucas, Dustin, and Will are young adults — high school students only a year shy of where Nancy and Jonathan were in season 1. Would that kill the magic of Stranger Things?

No, the characters remain compelling precisely because we’ve been invested in them since they were kids. We feel their fear of change — their almost desperate need to slow down time as they mature. Will wants to keep playing D&D with his guy friends (he could be either gay or asexual), while his friends care more about girls and have lost considerable interest in D&D. Hopper wants El to stay young forever. This theme drives emotional scenes, and they’re well earned.

Another concern I had were the repeated assurances that season 3 would be the “grossest” one yet, inspired by the body-horror films of David Cronenberg. Now, I enjoy Cronenberg films for what they are, but they’re not particularly scary. Of the three ways to scare an audience, the gross-out method is the least effective; the third-tier basement level. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it can only do so much on its own. It’s the top two levels of terror and horror that really scare, and seasons 1 and 2 blended terror and horror very well. If season 3 was going to focus on grossing us out, then it ran the danger of sacrificing the real scares.

That too was a groundless fear. The body-horror elements are well used in season 3, and in fact, the new incarnation of the Mind Flayer — a hideous fusion of mutilated human beings — is the most impressive creature in the series. Another huge score.

Here’s where the season did stumble:

  • “Douche Hopper”. The over-douching of Jim Hopper almost betrayed his character. He’s always been rough around the edges, but lovable for it. In Stranger Things 3 that changes rather dramatically. His treatments of Mike and Joyce are downright vituperative. I don’t object to Hopper being jealous and over-protective of his daughter, and indeed I approve the idea of him trying to stop Mike from dating El. But the way he goes about this is so overwrought. Ditto for Joyce. Hopper actually denigrates her for refusing to go out with him, and casts her a sexually frustrated idiot when she raises concerns about magnetic fields not working in Hawkins. Jim Hopper is a cartoonish rage-a-holic in season 3, and it never lets up.
  • Humor. There has always been a humorous element to Stranger Things, but in season 3 the humor becomes part of the tone and actually becomes a comedy. For example, when Hopper needs to commandeer a civilian’s car for police business, he and Joyce treat the whole thing like a supremely laughable joke. Characters like Mayor Kline and the writers at The Hawkins Post are completely cartoonish. Mike and El’s breakup was a great idea, but it’s played too much for laughs in episode 2. A lot of the humor in season 3 is genuinely funny, as we’ve come to expect in the series, but in other places it should have been reined in with a heavy hand.
  • Contrived Plotting. There’s some lazy writing this season, as the most important events just “happen” to the show’s main characters. The Mind Flayer needs a new host, and just happens to possess Billy. Nancy just happens to pick up a hot tip that leads her and Jonathan to the mysterious rats. Steve just happens to work in the Starcourt Mall, where his bro-buddy Dustin comes to him with the intercepted Russian transmission. Etc.
  • Karen Wheeler. This is a minor point, but I personally found her story to be a cop-out. The stage had been set for a calamitous affair with Billy Hargrove — in the season-2 finale and season-3 premiere — but the subplot gets dumped and goes nowhere. As wasted opportunities go, this is one of the most egregious I’ve seen in a TV series. It would have been a bold move, and also given Mike’s mother a juicy role for a change.
  • Dress. This one isn’t even a valid criticism on my part, because it’s completely accurate: the ’80s summer attire. We used to scorn the bell bottoms of the ’70s, but in hindsight, our underwear shorts and tank tops and billowy hairdos were just as ghastly. Nancy’s dress is an eyesore; Hopper’s mustache and Magnum P.I. look are (again) clownish. It’s hard to believe we all looked like this, but indeed we did. Don’t get me wrong, the summer setting of Stranger Things 3 is wonderfully inspired, especially the 4th of July theme. It works like Halloween worked for Stranger Things 2. But for the sake of aesthetic, I pray there will be no more summer outings and bare thighs. Once is enough. Set season 4 in the winter, please.

It pains me to point out these flaws (the last one about dress is tongue-in-cheek), because again, in many ways Stranger Things 3 one-ups the previous seasons. Millie Bobby Brown deserves special mention. She hasn’t lost any of her acting chops, and she stunned even me in a few scenes. That girl can cry. The scene where she hurls a heavy-weighted barbell at Billy and throws him through a brick wall is a ripper. Another is when she stops Jonathan from cutting her leg open so that she can rip out the piece of the Mind Flayer herself — an incredibly painful scene to watch. Stripping El of her psychic powers was a bold move for the series, and the Duffers are to be applauded for it. Everything about Millie’s performance amazes me; she’s still is the best thing about Stranger Things.

And if season 3 on whole doesn’t quite measure up to seasons 1 and 2, the finale reigns supreme. The Duffers always turn out finales with staggering payoffs, but this one is best of all, and capped off by the deaths of two major characters. The first being Jim Hopper (though that could be a false flag), and the second Billy, whose death is the bigger tear-jerker for the way El “defeats” him. The epilogue is even more traumatic. With El now adopted by Joyce and moving out of Hawkins 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 we can be confident she’ll get them back in season 4. The Duffers have a mighty challenge ahead of them, if they want to outdo themselves in the season 4 finale.

In sum, season 3 is excellent but brought down by some tonal misfires. In some ways it’s an inverse of season 2. Where in season 2 the Duffers bravely made the kind of sequel many directors fear to make, in season 3 they went the people-pleasing road. Most of those results are pleasing to me as well, but not the cartoonish elements. (4 ½ stars)