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)