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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.