Why South Park is Cancel Exempt

In my celebration of All in the Family I thought about South Park and how it’s managed so incredibly to survive the era of cancel culture. Some have suggested that, like Family Guy, the animation has something to do with it. Perhaps to a small degree. People could be more receptive to offense when the world is a cartoon and “doesn’t look real”. But last year’s furor over Dr. Seuss makes me doubt very seriously that this is a significant reason.

There’s a big difference between South Park and Family Guy in any case, and it’s one that makes Family Guy not a good example of a show that has “survived cancellation”. Seth MacFarlane has actually succumbed to a significant amount of woke pressure. Family Guy doesn’t joke about the same things it did back in 2005, especially when it comes to LGBTQ issues. MacFarlane has even recast actors to match the skin color of the animated characters they voice. South Park, on the other hand, has never pandered like this or watered down its offenses. Just the opposite: Trey Parker and Matt Stone have gone in the other direction — escalating offense, pushing the envelope more each year. The question presses: How do these guys keep getting away with it, when anyone else would be panned and erased into obscurity?

I finally came across a satisfying explanation. According to this critic, South Park has been impervious to cancel culture for the following three reasons, each of which is critical.

(1) The frog-in-the-pot phenomenon. South Park has acquired its exempt status by a slow build — increasing its offensiveness gradually over time, crossing new lines that were previously thought uncrossable. Parker and Stone didn’t plan their success that way. Just the opposite: in interviews they say they never expected success and thought it was a given that they would be cancelled sooner than later. Their mindset has always been, “Since this is probably our last season, let’s push things further.” That consistent fearlessness in taking offense to the next level (instead of dialing back as Family Guy did) was, ironically, a key to their success. It’s like the urban legend of the boiling frog: if you want to cook a frog, you don’t have to kill it first; all you have to do is put it in room temperature water and heat the water very slowly. If you heat the water too quickly, or put the frog into hot water, it will jump out. But if you heat it slowly enough, the frog will remain in the water until it boils to death. Parker and Stone have been slowly cranking up the heat in their pot for 25 years now, and because of that, the frog has yet to jump. [In this analogy, the “frog” is Comedy Central” and “jumping” is canceling the show.] They might have cranked up the heat too fast on a few occasions and made the frog agitated, but as of today, the water is still on its way to boiling. If you look back at old South Park episodes, they are incredibly tame compared to what the show would later be like. That slow build has laid the groundwork for the show’s invulnerable status. If, for example, they had created an episode like “With Apologies to Jesse Jackson” (season 11, episode 1) — which uses the word “nigger” 42 times — back in season 1 or 2, the frog would have leaped from the pot in a heartbeat.

(2) Equal opportunity offense. South Park makes fun of absolutely everyone, including themselves. There is not a single person, group, or idea that is off-limits when it comes to criticism. Parker and Stone don’t choose sides. Atheists are skewered as much as religionists, Democrats are blasted as much as Republicans — often both sides within a single episode. Take the episode “Goobacks” (season 8, episode 7), for example, which satirizes events taking place at the U.S. border with undocumented immigrants crossing over. South Park ridicules those who are completely against it and those who are in full support of it. (The TV interviewer has two guests: “On my right is pissed-off white trash redneck conservative; on my left is aging hippie liberal douche-bag.”) The South Park philosophy that absolutely nothing is off limits is an important part of the show’s untouchable status. If you are equally offensive to everyone, it’s actually the ultimate form of equality. It’s almost like the offensiveness of the show cancels itself out. The show is never trying to push an agenda or make you feel a certain way about a topic. It makes fun of everything and lets you decide what you want to believe. Parker and Stone aren’t preaching to you. They’re showing the flaws in your beliefs as well as those of people you disagree with. Because of this, South Park is the last true social satire to exist in the mainstream — finding comedy in the absurdity of our society, rather than taking sides.

(3) South Park is not, in the end, offensive. That sounds contradictory, but to those who watch entire episodes of South Park, and invest in watching a lot of episodes, it becomes clear that the show is not ultimately offensive. Consider one of the most controversial episodes, “Red Hot Catholic Love” (season 6, episode 8), which follows Father Maxi as he goes to the Vatican to help deal with the Catholic priest molestation scandal. When he arrives, he learns that every single Catholic priest in the entire world molests kids. That may sound offensive, but Parker and Stone aren’t literally suggesting that all priests are pedophiles. They’re using hyperbole and caricature to highlight a real issue. That’s what they do in most episodes: take real issues and exaggerate them to make a point. The actual message of “Red Hot Catholic Love” is neutral and inoffensive: that if you look too deeply into religious texts, you create expectations and ideas that are absurd in modern times; but if you refuse any set of moral standards, your expectations and ideas can become just as absurd. The episode follows the same formula as almost every episode of South Park: (a) select a topic; (b) hyperbolize and exaggerate to the point of silliness; (c) end with a neutral opinionThe reason there is so much outrage about things that happen in the show is because people who are offended probably don’t watch the entire episodes. You can’t claim a show is offensive based on short clips of priests insisting that they should have the right to molest their altar boys. You can’t claim a show is anti-Semitic or insensitive from watching short clips of Cartman impersonating Hitler and being anti-Semitic. You can’t say Parker and Stone are racist for depicting the character of Tuong Lu Kim as a slant-eyed Chinese man; Parker and Stone over-emphasize stereotypes associated with Chinese people, just as they do with other peoples (like flapping-head Canadians) to show how absurd the stereotypes are. Fans of South Park understand that the show is ultimately not offensive, but rather the opposite.

This analysis makes perfect sense to me. I suspect that all three factors account for South Park‘s cancel-exempt status. The show has survived because it built a reputation for itself before taking the gloves off completely, and has offended everyone impartially in a way that the overall presentation is never truly offensive. Each is not enough in itself to account for South Park‘s survival. The second factor in particular (equal-opportunity offense) is often parroted by many people as “the” answer, but there are plenty of equal-opportunity offenders who come under cancel fire (or even physical assault), like Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock. South Park lives on for a combination of reasons, and it stands to reason it will keep going until Parker and Stone decide to retire because they’ve run out of ideas and are boring people instead of offending them.

All in the Family at its Peak: The Year 1973 (50th Anniversary)

Drum roll, please… 2023 is the 50th anniversary of one of the best years in American history. (It’s also the 40th anniversary for one of the worst years in American history, but that’s a story for another day.) It was certainly the best year for All in the Family, the social-satire sitcom which ran for nine full seasons (1971-79) and did more to change American attitudes than most legislature. The high point of that run was the stretch of episodes in the second half of season 3 (Jan-Mar 1973) and the first half of season 4 (Sept-Dec 1973). They were loud — really loud — and riled viewers with crude language and socio-political clashes that pulled no punches. In 1973 it was the most popular TV show for embracing every controversy, framing debates through dialogue that was equal parts argumentation and ad hominem. The same controversies rage on today.

This post also honors the 100th birthday of show producer Norman Lear (which was last July, and yes, he’s still alive). Robert Lloyd summarized perfectly what Lear intended with All in the Family and why a show like this would never air in today’s age of woke purity and polarized politics:

“Lear’s method was to put characters with clashing worldviews in close quarters. What distinguishes their arguments from our current flavor of polarization, in which debate is impossible because everybody knows everything, is that they lead to (at least temporary) understanding. (And you are laughing at home, hopefully.) All in the Family began with a printed disclaimer, noting that it ‘seeks to throw a humorous spotlight on our frailties, prejudices and concerns. By making them a source of laughter, we hope to show — in a mature fashion — just how absurd they are.’… The satire is spread around, more or less equally distributed. Maude and Mike the Meathead can be doctrinaire, pompous, in their liberality; everyone is an idiot sometimes. But most characters can be as admirable as they are aggravating; they have heart, even if buried or deformed by circumstance. As noisy as they could be, the sound and fury signified not so much dysfunction as health. Disagreement, the very possibility of unshackled argument, is in Norman Lear’s world a form of patriotism.”

One quibble: I don’t think “more or less equally distributed” is accurate. The show’s liberal bias is like a sledgehammer; Archie is used in every other frame as a mirror for toxic conservative attitudes. But yes, it does also take wonderful opportunities with Mike — to underscore liberal hypocrisies (see my #2 pick below) in ways that catch the viewer off guard. If I were writing an “All in the Family” series in the 2020s instead of the 1970s, I would reverse the proportion somewhat, and satirize the left more heavily than the right. The left has lost its way since the ’70s.

These are my ten favorite episodes from the twenty-five that aired in the year 1973. Watch them and celebrate them in the upcoming year.

1. The Battle of the Month (S03, E24; March 24, 1973). Surely the loudest episode of the nine-year run (which is saying a lot), the season-three finale is a non-stop argument that escalates and escalates until you think the Bunkers and Stivics are literally going to kill each other. (Well, maybe not Edith.) It starts with Gloria having her period, and Archie letting it rip on the divinely-ordained nature of a woman’s woes. His retelling of Adam and Eve is his most hilarious bible-butchery and makes Gloria apoplectic with rage, prompting her to shit on everyone in the family, not just her father, but Mike, and even (no: especially) her poor mother whom she calls a “nothing” for letting Archie walk all over her. In the bedrooms that night, Mike and Gloria continue tearing each other apart, Archie listens through the wall and starts screaming at them, and then everyone meets back down in the living room for Pajama World War 3. This is the best All in the Family episode because it’s the purest, doing what the show does best on zero plot and ceaseless yelling. It’s brilliantly scripted, though I imagine a lot of the dialogue came spontaneously from the actors. It’s hard to imagine rehearsing an episode like this, where the argumentative momentum never flags. It must have been fun as hell for the actors to perform. [Watch the episode here.]

2. The Games Bunkers Play (S04, E08; November 3, 1973). Almost tied with Battle of the Month. The Bunkers (minus Archie) get together with Lionel and the Lorenzos for a board game called “Group Therapy”; they take turns drawing cards and sharing their feelings and opinions about each other. If the other players think the card-reader is being honest, they vote “with it”; it not, they vote “cop out”. The game is Mike’s idea, but he sorely regrets suggesting it, as he gets voted down by the group every time it’s his turn. I always admired the way All in the Family occasionally skewered the hypocrisies and prejudices of the left, and here Mike is skewered sixty ways to Sunday: for patronizing Lionel (Mike basically sees Lionel as a “black person” to stick up for and make himself feel good about), for being an anal-retentive jerk to Gloria when she uses her card to ask Edith a question instead of himself, and for throwing obnoxious temper tantrums when everyone else calls him on his bullshit. As in Battle of the Month, the yelling and screaming is carried on a momentum that makes it impossible to look away, until Mike finally goes nuclear: “I thought we could have a nice game without Archie, but as it turns out I’m playing this game with five Archies, and every single one of you is worse than the real one!” Rob Reiner deserved an Emmy for this performance. I consider The Games Bunkers Play to be the most revealing episode of the nine-year run, because we see how seriously flawed Mike is, and flawed in a way that (as Lionel says) makes him worse than Archie, because Mike at least knows better and is equipped to be a better person. [Watch the episode here.]

3. Archie Goes Too Far (S03, E17; January 17, 1973). When Archie denies Mike and Gloria the privacy of their bedroom, and Edith the privacy of her diary, they get so fed up with him that they leave the house, refusing to live under his roof. They don’t depart as a unity though; they exit one by one. Mike and Gloria are as pissed at each other as they are at Archie, which of course is Archie’s fault, for exposing a love poem that Mike had written to a former girlfriend. So after 53 episodes, this is what it finally takes for Archie’s family to walk out on him. It ends the way it only can, with Mike, Gloria, and Edith each having the grace to admit fault in some way, and Archie refusing to admit that he was wrong in any way. And so they come back for six and half more seasons of abuse. The first half of the episode is the great part and very loud; the second half sees everyone making their way to the home of Gloria’s friend who’s hosting a pizza party. Archie finds the place last, and his outrage at everyone having a good time without him is priceless: Edith (wearing a kimono) runs to him and gives him a kiss, and Archie, indignant, tells her to “Take off that Chinky bathrobe.” Today you couldn’t get away with writing dialogue like that for a TV series, unless your name is Trey Parker or Matt Stone. [Watch the episode here.]

4. We’re Having a Heat Wave (S04, E01; September 15, 1973). The season-four premiere is the second loudest episode of the series (after Battle of the Month, the season-three finale), and definitely the nastiest. The racial slurs are off the scale, as Archie dumps on the coloreds, the Japs, the Chinks, the Krauts, the Micks, the Wops, and the Puerto Ricans (the one group he doesn’t have a slur for). Tempers are high to begin with in the Bunker household (with a heat wave and no air conditioning), but when Archie learns that the next-door house on his block is being sold to a non-white couple, he goes through the roof and helps circulate a petition to keep the newcomers out. Henry Jefferson learns of the petition and wages war on Archie — until it comes to light that the non-whites moving in are Puerto Ricans, not blacks, at which point Henry joins forces with Archie and his friends to keep the Hispanics away. Mike and Gloria are furious at them both, and the screaming doesn’t let up. There are so many classic lines from this episode, including Mike and Archie’s argument about Watergate, Edith and Archie’s argument about swearing, and Archie trying to persuade Irene and Frank Lorenzo to buy the house that the Puerto Ricans put a deposit on. Irene thinks it wouldn’t be the Christian thing to do. Archie: “It would be the most Christian thing you ever did. All we’re trying to do on this street is separate the white from the chaff.” [Watch the episode here.]

5. Everybody Tells the Truth (S03, E21; March 3, 1973). This is a popular fan favorite, in which Mike and Archie tell contradictory versions of a black refrigerator repairman. Mike paints Archie as a hyper-racist screaming at the guy over the slightest provocation, and with a repertoire of racial slurs, while Archie counters with his version, in which he appears calm and reasonable, and was yelled at and scolded by everyone in the family for no reason at all. Archie claims that the man pulled a knife on him; Mike says there was no knife. Then Edith clears things up with her version of the story, showing how Mike and Archie equally distorted things. I’m a sucker for Rashomon-style stories (like Ridley Scott’s Last Duel) and All in the Family is perfect for it. The guest actor (Ron Glass) is brilliant portraying three different versions of the repairman — an Uncle Tom (as Mike tells it), a rude thug (as Archie tells it), and an everyday normal guy (as Edith tells it). [The episode can be watched free on amazon prime with ads here.]

6. Archie and the Kiss (S04, E04; October 6, 1973). One thing about Archie is that he comes by his prudishness honestly. He’s not the sort who frowns on lewd jokes and obscene images while stashing Playboys under his bed. He’s genuinely unsettled by nudity, and so when Gloria brings home a sculpture of Rodin’s “The Kiss”, Archie loses his mind and tells her that it’s pornography and has to go. She refuses, and Archie tells Frank Lorenzo to take it back (it was a gift to Gloria from Frank’s wife Irene, but Frank doesn’t know that, and Archie lies to Frank, saying that Irene only loaned the statue to Gloria). Frank takes the statue back, and Gloria goes ballistic on Archie, refusing to speak to him ever again. The rest of the episode shows Archie cluelessly trying to make amends with his daughter — buying her a ridiculous gift, his prudishness manifesting in hilarious ways. Great lines in this episode, like Archie’s declaration that the Rodin sculpture belongs in the men’s room as a fountain, if anywhere at all. There is also the hilarious bit at the beginning where Archie keeps slamming the front door to spite Mike and show his anger. [The episode can be watched free on amazon prime with ads here.]

7. Black is the Color of My True Love’s Wig (S04, E11; November 24, 1973). In which Mike demands that Gloria wear her new wig when they fuck, and Gloria goes ape-shit: “I’m not going to be the other woman in my own marriage!” All in the Family left not a stone uncovered, and this was a great issue to tackle, though I suspect it would be handled differently today. As presented in the episode, the question is: Is it possible for someone to be unfaithful to a marriage partner when having sex with that marriage partner? Today the issue would probably turn on the objectification of women (treating one’s spouse as an object or thing), but in the 70s, objectification theory wasn’t the rage yet (it gained traction in the PC-age of the 90s), and indeed the writers of this episode seem to have no problem with a certain level of objectification that is natural to a healthy sex life. Pornography, fashion modeling, attractive clothes, wigs, etc. all simply highlight a particular aspect of beautiful people. The issue isn’t one of objectification but rather fidelity. Is Mike in love with a dark-haired fantasy figure? Mike assures Gloria at the end that’s not the case, that it’s only Gloria in the wig that fires his libido. The problem is less that Gloria is being “reduced to a sex object” and more that she’s being supplanted in Mike’s imagination. It’s a brilliantly scripted episode, and one of Rob Reiner and Sally Struthers’ best performances ever. Archie is in the second half, and he’s just as hilarious, offended by Mike’s fetish for conservative puritanical reasons. [The episode can be watched free on amazon prime with ads here.]

8. Archie Learns His Lesson (S03, E22; March 10, 1973). You feel for Archie in this one. He’s taking night classes so that he can get a high-school diploma, which will qualify him for a work promotion. In the end he gets the diploma but not the job (which goes to the boss’s nephew), but the plot isn’t what the episode is about. It’s about Archie’s revision of American history as he hates what his textbooks tell him, especially about manifest destiny, the Spanish-American War, the Mexican War, and the Native Americans. He insists that the Indians don’t vote, and when Mike says the Indians were granted citizenship in 1924, Archie says he knows that, “but the Indians don’t use their right to vote: they sell all their horses for booze and then they can’t ride into town”. The argument goes downhill from there until Mike is ready to kill himself over Archie’s stupidities. Then Gloria has a conniption over Archie’s crib notes and his plans to cheat on his test. He rationalizes cheating as being honest with himself (that he wouldn’t be able to pass otherwise), though Edith foils his plans in this regard, and he ends up passing anyway. [The episode can be watched free on amazon prime with ads here.]

9. Henry’s Farewell (S04, E06; October 20, 1973). A momentous episode which sees the departure of Henry Jefferson and the introduction of George. Prior to this season-4 episode, George Jefferson was mentioned by name only. The reason given in the show is that he refused to set foot in a white man’s home — especially a white man like Archie’s — and so remained off-screen for three whole seasons. The real reason is that the actor Sherman Hemsley had been cast to play George from the start in ’71, but had another acting commitment until late ’73. Norman Lear didn’t want to replace Hemsley (thank the gods; no one could have played George like Hemsley) and so he hired Mel Stewart to play George’s younger brother Henry, who would serve as the “black foil” for three seasons until Hemsley became available. This all worked out well for the show. Henry was no George but was one hell of an entertaining prelude. He ended up getting the best seasons of All in the Family (1-4), while George only got the tail end of the glory era. These two men were as racist as Archie (believing that people should stick to their own kind) and also just as sexist (holding that women belong in the home), and a lot of that mutual bigotry is on hilarious display throughout Henry’s Farewell. [Watch the episode here.]

10. Hot Watch (S03, E19; February 17, 1973). The most underrated episode of the nine-year run has a rather forgettable plot: Archie comes home with an expensive watch that he paid pennies for (not at a store, but from a guy he barely knows), and almost right away the watch breaks and everyone fears that it’s stolen merchandise. Archie then schemes to find a jeweler who will fix the watch with no questions asked. There are plenty of episodes in which Archie tries to cheat to come out ahead; in season 3 alone are the following: Archie’s Fraud (he fails to report income on his tax return for driving a taxi cab), The Locket (he tries to collect insurance for Edith’s missing jewel so he can buy a TV set), Edith’s Winning Ticket (he tries to cash in on “Edith’s” winning ticket, even though it’s really Louise Jefferson’s ticket, and not Edith’s). They’re good episodes but not exceptional… except for Hot Watch where the family bickering goes into overdrive and the dynamic between the actors yields top-notch performances. And Archie is utterly shameless. At one point he uses the watch to time Edith setting plates on the dinner table, and she’s literally running around the table losing her breath. [The episode can be watched free on amazon prime with ads here.]

What to watch during Christmas season

Even to a curmudgeon like myself who looks less forward to Christmas than I did as a child, the mystery surrounding the holiday still pulls at me. Behind the crass commercialism is something powerful, ineffable, gleaned through imagery, decor, festivity, and song. My picks are unconventional, and you probably won’t find them on most Christmas-film lists; but they do have ardent defenders whom I have cited where relevant.

1. Fanny and Alexander. Ingmar Bergman, Swedish, 1982. If there’s one film only I could recommend for the Christmas season, it would have to be the Great Swede’s magnum opus. The first hour of Fanny and Alexander presents the most ecstatically joyous version of Christmas I’ve seen in a film. Not in a particularly “Christian” way, but in a family way, and the extended Ekdahl family is huge. The home is resplendent with shimmering decorations, ornaments, greenery, candles, crimson rugs, and sumptuous platters heaped with food. Everyone runs through the house singing a carol; there’s flirting and groping; and an old dude farts to entertain the kids. These scenes of warmth make it all the more tragic when the kids’ father dies, their mother remarries to an austere bishop, trading a lavish and warm lifestyle for the barren and cold interior of a repressive domestic hell. She and the kids are allowed to take nothing with them from their past, not even clothes, and the kids are over-punished and beaten for infractions. The film is a Dickens-like wonder — for my money, better than anything Dickens ever wrote — populated by ghosts and magical surrealism, the stuff of rare epic, weaved around a boy’s imagination that helps him cope with an abusive stepfather and the loss of joy. The Christmas party of the first act encapsulates joy in its purest form, and I enjoyed watching the film again last night (for my third time) in celebration of its 40th anniversary. (It was released in Sweden on December 17, 1982.) It’s being screened in UK cinemas this month, and you can watch the special trailer here.

2. Eyes Wide Shut. Stanley Kubrick, American, 1999. Why on earth did Kubrick set his film about sexual infidelity during the Christmas season, and fill so many shots with colorful lights and trees? According to Aquarium Drunkard: “Kubrick is using our notion of Christmas as a comfortable and familiar time of year – perhaps the most wonderful time of year – as a tool to disrupt us. The contrast between Christmas as a universally joyous occasion and the foreboding events that the Harfords find themselves in creates an uneasy juxtaposition. While the film deals with the complications of marriage and family, it does so by presenting us with backroom drug overdoses, child prostitution, and secret Illuminati orgies. We see Christmas trees and lights everywhere. But most of these seasonal decorations are within the confines of dark places: an after-hours jazz club, a prostitute’s dingy apartment, a seedy costume shop where a father sells his teenage daughter’s body. These are not places we associate with the joyous spirit of Christmas.” The critic also suggests that Bill Hartford journey is similar to archetypes like George Bailey and Ebenezer Scrooge. Just as Scrooge was shown alternate versions of what could’ve been and what will be based on his actions in a single night, Bill Hartford spends an evening in a sexually charged reality that seems like a dream, as he tries to find a way back to his wife Alice to reclaim the love that has been lost.

3. A Christmas Carol. Steven Moffat, British, 2010. Most of the Doctor Who Christmas specials are terrible, but there are two exceptions which place on my list. This one is a masterpiece of modern TV. It retells the Dickens classic better than most adaptations. The sets and lighting with purplish-black hues set a perfect tone, haunting yet mystical, and Michael Gambon as Kazran (the tormented Scrooge character) is one of the best guest performances of the series. As for the Doctor, he’s a wonderful bit of asshole as he tries to save Kazran’s soul by rewriting the man’s life. There’s no reason he couldn’t have simply gone back in time to prevent the Starliner ship from taking off in the first place, instead of jumping through hoops to alter a man’s life on the slim hope that he’ll change his mind and indeed his ways. But the Doctor will do things the hard way to bring out a little more kindness. And while he can’t stop Abigail’s foreordained tragedy — she must die — she at least gets in a final sky-ride with Kazran after preventing the devastating ship crash by singing.

4. Carol. Todd Haynes, American, 2015. If you won’t accept either Fanny and Alexander or Eyes Wide Shut as the best Christmas film of all time, then you should go with Carol, for reasons offered by the AV Club: “For anyone who likes to be horny and sad at the same time, Carol is like having a bit of a cold while laying in a room that’s a bit too warm and looking at a vintage snow globe, all while being a little bit gay. In other words, it feels like Christmas. Its first half takes place during the pre-Christmas bustle, dreary or dreamy depending on your mindset. What the movie understands, much better than time-honored classics like Planes, Trains And Automobiles or Home Alone, is the joy and the sadness of carving out a little moment of holiday cheer separate from the non-holiday drudgery of normal daily life. Carol tracks two lovers [lesbians in the 50s, no less] across the season, into the post-Christmas week where Carol and Therese’s relationship has gone past their first sexual encounter and into the real problems of life. Their love truly lives within the unbearable sadness of the day the Christmas tree comes down. Make no mistake about it, Christmas wants to hurt you.” Watching Carol is like being pulled through a looking glass and tasting forbidden love in an austere time at just the right time of year.

5. Inside. Julien Maury & Alexandre Bustillo, French, 2007. Here’s the horror film of my list, and I give the floor entirely to Ghouls Magazine: “No horror film better epitomizes the spirit of Christmas than Inside (À l’intérieur), a movie about a widowed pregnant woman who is stalked by a mysterious intruder hellbent on removing and kidnapping her baby on Christmas Eve. It starts with death and ends with birth. Sarah is a young pregnant woman who has lost her husband in a gruesome car accident. On Christmas Eve, she tells her loved ones, ‘I don’t give a shit about Christmas. I’d rather be alone.’ Unfortunately, she doesn’t get her Christmas wish. The unnamed home invader breaks into Sarah’s home, and the two women battle for Sarah’s unborn baby. There are pregnancy films, there are horror films, there are even many pregnancy horror films, but Inside combines the mysteries of pregnancy and the female body, an unorthodox and complex villain, and the visceral shocks of The New French Extremity movement to create an unforgettable blood-spattered Christmas movie.”  If you want Christmas horror, forget all the American crap like Bad Santa, and instead come Inside to be truly terrorized.

6. Last Christmas. Steven Moffat, British, 2014. The other exceptional holiday special for Doctor Who, and a story that’s both terrifying and heartbreaking. You don’t expect it from the first ten minutes, which seem childishly absurd as Clara confronts Santa Claus on top of her roof. But this is indeed the “real” Santa Claus (not a robot or alien), and he works perfectly: as a manifestation created by the subconscious to wake people up from their dream prisons. This allows Moffat to stay true to the stereotype of Santa Claus while also poking fun at it through the thoughts of the dreaming victims. And those victims, including the Doctor and Clara, need every ounce of sympathy and outside help. Even though 98% of what we see in this episode is a dream (Clara’s dream, to be precise), it’s a dream that kills unless the dreamer succeeds in waking up and throwing off the face-hugging crab. The dream crabs are, to me, the scariest aliens seen in Doctor Who since the weeping angels. Visually, they are the facehuggers of Alien, “Inceptionized” to weaponize dreams against people as they feed on the host’s brain — until Santa appears and encourages them to wake up. The juxtaposition of a fairy-tale figure with lethal horrors tumbles into a work of sheer emotional artistry. At heart the story is about Clara: the death of her boyfriend who she can’t let go of, and her attachment to the Doctor who she still needs.

7. Batman Returns. Tim Burton, American, 1992. The Batman films of the 80s and 90s haven’t aged well in the post-Nolan era, with the exception of this one. Burton’s sequel is so weird and hyper-demented, and the fact that it’s set in the Christmas season accentuates the perversity. We get a Penguin who lives in the sewer and schemes to dump kids into toxic waste. We also get the treat of Michelle Pfeiffer, the best Catwoman of all time, who reeks of perversity with every hiss and sultry breath. Some have called the film an outright assault on kids, but it’s really about broken adults searching for peace and acceptance. Burton painted a canvas of such hurt and pain — going well beyond what he did in his ’89 film with Jack Nicholson’s Joker (who definitely hasn’t aged well) — that it’s still too much for some people, but I think it speaks in the way a Batman film should.

TV Watch List (2022)

Consider this a service if you’ve been missing out on TV and need something to watch. This year has been a good one.

1. Stranger Things (Season 4). 4 ½ stars. We haven’t had a good season of Stranger Things since the second in 2017, and so a lot was riding on this. The Duffers certainly redeemed themselves. There’s a return to season-1 Stockholm drama, with Eleven and her abusive Papa; the Silo Lab arc from episodes 5-8 is actually my favorite part of the whole series. As in season 2, friends are down and distant. Max is guilt-ridden and suicidal; El is miserable, bullied by peers in the present and past; Lucas is into sports and less into Mike and Dustin’s ideas of fun. The emotionally vulnerable die as they daydream. Vecna’s killings, sadistic as they are, are but a means to an end: to create enough gates to start the apocalypse. There is admittedly some annoying season-3ish comedy that creeps in on occasion, and some contrived plotting with the Russian prison drama, but for the most part Stranger Things 4 is a smashing, successful return to form. It doesn’t reattain the perfect heights of seasons 1 and 2, but what it does get it right, it gets so right, that there are long stretches (especially during episodes 4, 5, 7, and 8) when you think it really is the best season. (Netflix)

2. Cabinet of Curiosities. 4 ½ stars. Best avoided by anyone with a heart condition, this artistic horror anthology pulls no punches, and there’s not a single dud among the eight episodes. That being said, some are more excellent than others, and two in particular — “Autopsy” and “Pickman’s Model” — are good enough to be judged instant classics. “Pickman’s Model” is all the more surprising for being a Lovecraft story; adaptations of his work tend to fail, but this one has the perfect mood and atmosphere and is genuinely terrifying. Guillermo del Toro introduces each episode like Hitchcock did in Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and he wrote two of the stories. What can I say, I was astonished by how good these vicious tales are. I’ve seen 16 rankings of the episodes, and the rankings I most agree with are the ones at Slate and Murphy’s Multiverse (which are nearly identical). (Netflix)

Cobra Kai: The 50 Episodes Ranked | The Busybody
3. Cobra Kai (Season 5). 4 ½ stars. The karate season that finally gives Daniel LaRusso his much deserved story arc. He is brought down so low in this season, and it’s great to see him pulled up by (and teaming up with) his old bullies Johnny and Chozen in order to bring down Terry Silver. This isn’t to say the kids don’t get good story arcs; Robby and Miguel finally make amends, as do Tory and Sam. But the tone has shifted significantly, and more blood is spilled in this season than the previous four combined. One critic has even said that the season finale felt more like Game of Thrones than Cobra Kai; the fighting is that vicious. I never thought I’d see the day when the baddies of Karate Kid (Johnny), Karate Kid 2 (Chozen) and Karate Kid 3 (Mike Barnes) all come together for the first time and fight alongside Daniel for a good cause. (Netflix)

What time is Severance episode 7 on Apple TV+ tonight?
4. Severance (Season 1). 4 ½ stars. This is a bleak slow-burner that mightily rewards patience. The premise involves people who choose to live two lives, a work self (the “Innie”) and the self that exists apart from work (the “Outie”), neither having any clue about the other except that it exists. This allows people to literally forget everything about work when they leave the office; all they know about their lives is how they spend their free time in the early mornings, evenings, and week-ends. That’s fine and grand for the Outie self. The problem is that once they go to work, all they remember is how they spend their work lives — utter hell for the Innie self, who knows and experiences nothing more than the most boring routines of corporate drudgery. The finale is so well executed that it had me holding my breath at intervals for 15 minutes straight. (Apple TV+)

House Of The Dragon's Awkward Family Dinner Is Everything That Makes The Show So Good
5. House of the Dragon (Season 1). 4 ½ stars. Compared to Rings of Power (on which see way down below), this fantasy series is a masterpiece, and the last four episodes in particular are as good as the best episodes from Game of Thrones. “Driftmark” (the seventh) sets a new bar for twisting in the knife, with the royal kids maiming each other for power, and Alicent going so far as to attack Rhaenyra openly. “The Tides of War” (the eighth) has some of the best cinematic drama I’ve seen in ages — from Viserys’s surprise entry and painfully dragging himself to the Iron Throne, to his last supper with his family members before he dies. I went into this series expecting a barely above average spin-off, and was very pleasantly surprised. (HBO Max)

For All Mankind Season 3 Episode 8: Release date & time?
6. For all Mankind (Season 3). 4 stars. This season revolves around the mission to Mars and the first woman president who is also lesbian; in the alternate timeline of For All Mankind, she beats Bill Clinton in the 1992 election. The show writers are doing an excellent job imagining the space race going way beyond 1975, and there is every sign of it continuing into the 21st century with more seasons. I hope they’ll reach Jupiter and the moons of Saturn. This season wasn’t the same without Gordo and Tracy, and didn’t attain the dramatic heights of the previous two seasons, but the quality in storytelling continues to be top notch, and I admire the way it never seems like science fiction. The mission to Mars looks as realistic as the missions to the moon in the previous seasons. (Apple TV+)

Better Call Saul 6x03 Ending Scene "Nacho's death" Season 6 Episode 3 HD "Rock and Hard Place" - YouTube
7. Better Call Saul (Season 6). 4 stars. I’ve had a love-hate relationship with this series, and most of the hate goes to the first three seasons which were dominated by the presence of Chuck. He was an utterly insufferable character to watch on screen. Had the show writers not (finally!) killed him off, I would not have proceeded to season 4. But they did and the show got better… and better… and best of all with the sixth and last season. Now everything comes together: Nacho is killed, poor Howard is killed, Mike is in top form, Gus outwits the Salamancas, and Jimmy (Saul), in the end, atones for his crimes, as Kim does penance as well. I’ll miss the Breaking Bad universe, though I’m glad that Vince Gilligan is moving on to something different. (AMC)

Star Wars' comes to Scotland in 'Andor' episode 4
8. Andor (Season 1). 4 stars. I’ve become convinced that Star Wars is much better suited to the TV series format than the movie. Aside from Empire Strikes Back and Rogue One, none of the Star Wars movies are that impressive, and most are downright cheesy. But series like The Mandalorian and Andor (though not Obi-Wan Kenobi) are making Star Wars into a surprisingly worthy franchise. In the case of Andor, it’s the prequel to Rogue One, and like that top-notch installment does a good job of making you really fear the Empire. The films were caught up in mythological villains and heroes rather than showing how ordinary people become part of a revolution against torture and tyranny. Andor is as gritty and realistic as Rogue One, and, speaking as a Star Wars hater, I recommend it. (Note: As I write this, nine of the twelve episodes have been released. So my final ranking is subject to change.) (Disney+)

The Dropout (TV Mini Series 2022) - IMDb
9. The Dropout. 4 stars. This true-crime drama of a blood-testing device reminded me of the Jesus-Wife fragment. I couldn’t look away, couldn’t believe what I was watching, that so many people were fooled by Elizabeth Holmes for so long, even experts turning a blind eye to the obvious flags. This scam artist was finally indicted in 2018 for defrauding investors, doctors, and patients; found guilty in January of 2022; and this month (in November) she will be sentenced, perhaps up to 20 years in prison. To think that her shenanigans started way back in 2004… it boggles the mind. If this series depicts her accurately, as many reviewers claim, then she deserves to rot. (Hulu)

Here's What Julia Garner Expects From Ruth In Ozark Season 4
10. Ozark (Season 4). 3 ½ stars. Ozark had a good run but this was the season to stop. It had great moments, lackluster moments, and a finale that was honest but could have been more creative. In the end, I believe it goes down as a slightly above average drama of ordinary people caught up in the chaos of crime. Nothing like Breaking Bad. Walter White’s fall was epic. Marty and Wendy Byrde’s fall is compelling, though the tragedy is less cutting, perhaps because the entire family ends up drinking the kool-aid. They have each others’ backs to the end, unlike Walter White, who was reviled and cursed and everyone, family and friends alike. (Netflix)

The English (TV Series 2022– ) - IMDb
(?) The English. This western starts next week (Nov 11), and it looks impressive. If it turns out as good as it looks, I’ll rank it on this list before the end of the year. The synopsis: “It takes the core themes of identity and revenge to tell a uniquely compelling parable on race, power, and love. An aristocratic Englishwoman, Lady Cornelia Locke, and a Pawnee ex-cavalry scout, Eli Whipp, come together in 1890 middle America to cross a violent landscape built on dreams and blood. Both of them have a clear sense of their destiny, but neither is aware that it is rooted in a shared past. They must face increasingly terrifying obstacles that will test them to their limits, physically and psychologically.” (Amazon Prime)

How The Rings of Power Evolved Galadriel & Elrond's Friendship from Tolkien – United States KNews.MEDIA
x. Rings of Power (Season 1). 1 star. An utter sleep-inducing waste. And I did doze through a lot of it, and cursed the screen when I was awake. The most succinct review is this one, and I don’t need to add anything beyond it: “This is badly made TV with a nonsensical story built on wild coincidences, contrived plotlines and a blatant disregard for the various building blocks that make any story complete: logical character choices, a sense of time and place, and narrative tension—not to mention an overly large cast of mostly forgettable and uncharismatic characters, some wholly made up for the show and others changed entirely as to be almost unrecognizable. In every way that truly matters, The Rings Of Power fails from the writing to the acting to the presentation. It fails as an adaptation, neither enriching Tolkien’s work nor remaining true to it. It fails as a good fantasy, giving us generic tropes and melodrama rather than blazing new ground. And it fails as a compelling story, filled with cheap mystery boxes and unsurprising ‘twists.’ So how bad has this show dropped the proverbial palantir?” (Amazon Prime)

Cobra Kai: The 50 Episodes Ranked

Here they are, the 50 episodes of Cobra Kai — or 49, since I count the final two episodes of season 4 as a single double-length finale — all ranked most properly.

1. Miyagi-Do. Season 3, Episode 5. The crown jewel of the series is Daniel’s reckoning with Chozen. Not only do they have a ripper of a sparring session, their moment of reconciliation couldn’t feel more earned. Let’s face it, Karate Kid Part II was always better than its classic predecessor, and Miyagi-Do pays it off with perfect closure. The episode delivers in the American threads too, with some of the best fights of the season. Robby starts a brawl in juvenile detention, which is brilliantly choreographed. Sam arrives at the arcade to start her own brawl against Cobra Kais, but with the arrival of Tory is suddenly crippled by PTSD flashbacks, unable to do anything as Eli, shockingly, breaks Demetri’s arm. The Okinawan drama shows how melodramatic the American one is by comparison. For all their ugly history, Kumiko and Chozen have moved on and are at peace with each other; Chozen is also at peace with Daniel, and Daniel finds forgiveness within easy reach. If Daniel and Chozen can be this way after trying to kill each other, why can’t Daniel and Johnny put petty rivalries behind? There are two levels of surrealism here, the exotic Asian, and the absurdist American, and the former hangs as a commentary on the latter.

2. No Mercy. Season 2, Episode 10. By rights this should be #1. The school brawl is one of the most impressive choreographed martial arts sequences ever filmed. It runs for a full twelve minutes and is pure insane chaos, starting in a hall of lockers, then sprawling out everywhere in the building. Tory starts it, intent on smashing Sam to pieces for moving in on Miguel. Pretty soon every karate student is throwing fists and kicks, turning the first day of school into an all-out war between Cobra Kai and Miyagi-Do. The Cobra Kais were the tournament victors in season 1, but in the high-school halls their glory is not repeated. The Miyagi-Dos thrash them at every turn: Nathaniel beats Bert; Chris pounds Mitch; Sam crushes Tory (though barely, and not without bleeding for her efforts); even Demetri, miraculously, gets the better of Hawk. These victories are effectively nullified, however, when Robby betrays the Miyagi creed and kicks Miguel off the railing of the second floor landing. One wonders if it’s possible in the Cobra Kai universe to win without being merciless? Or is it simply that losers who show mercy are the real winners? That’s not how it worked in the Karate Kid trilogy, where Miyagi-driven karate guaranteed victory. Maybe Daniel is just an ineffectual sensei in the end: when Robby fights as instructed (season 1) he loses, and when he ignores Daniel’s benevolent teachings (season 2) he gets satisfaction.

3. Head of the Snake. Season 5, Episode 10. One critic has said this finale feels more like Game of Thrones than Cobra Kai, and I have to admit, I was fooled into thinking that Chozen and Kreese were killed off. And though they both live on, there’s no denying that more blood is spilled in this episode than in the previous four seasons combined. We haven’t had a high-stakes finale like this since season 2. Johnny gets the absolute shit kicked out of him by Silver’s men, while Chozen gets into a sword fight with Silver and sliced up good for his efforts. As for the Miyagi-Fang kids, they have just as much balls, breaking into Silver’s dojo to expose him for corruption, and getting attacked by hordes of Cobra Kais. It all builds to a dramatic showdown between Daniel and Silver, and Daniel annihilates the piece of shit by using Silver’s three rules against him — and tops it off with a crane kick we haven’t seen from him since the ’80s. This is a finale that fires your bloodlust and has you shouting and cheering at the screen. It’s a game changer in the Cobra Kai universe and leaves the sixth and final season a tough act to follow.

4. The Fall & The Rise. Season 4, Episodes 9 & 10. The double-bill finale is an adrenaline rush that ends up crowning two unexpected champions. I was banking on Sam taking the girls’ trophy against Tory, and Robby taking it for the guys against Miguel. Turns out Miguel doesn’t even make it to the finals, and Eli (most unexpectedly) smacks down Robby, while Tory defeats Sam. Tory’s victory is a cheat on the part of the referee, bribed by Terry Silver, but I was sort of happy she won anyway. In this season my sympathies were evenly split between Sam and Tory; during their fight I rooted for each simultaneously. In any case, I have to hand it to the show writers for writing a finale on this level of grandiosity, with some of the best choreographed fights scenes in the series, including the kata competitions with lethal weapons. Not to mention the unpredictable twists at the end, with Kreese getting hauled off to jail, Silver’s takeover of Cobra Kai (soon to become a franchise), and Daniel’s recruitment of Chozen. Season 5 is sure to be a snapper, with Daniel honor-bound to shutdown Miyagi-Do while Cobra Kai dojos begin multiplying across the Valley. Season 4 may be the weakest on whole, but it’s ending is absolutely triumphant. Given that the triumph is Terry Silver’s (talk about the worst of bad guys winning), that’s really saying something.

5. Mercy. Season 1, Episode 10. Everything in the first season builds to the tournament finale and a solid payoff. It’s better than the classic Karate Kid competition for a number of reasons, mostly because of the inversions which have made viewers unsure of their allegiances. The Cobra Kais fight dirty, but they are still sympathetic, and frankly they were the ones I was rooting for, even over Robby. When Daniel and Johnny faced off in the ’80s, it was cookie-cutter good vs. evil. With Miguel and Robby in the final round, there’s no such duality this time. Each is an asshole; each is likeable. And big kudos to the writers for having Miguel take the trophy, which I didn’t expect at all. By now, after four seasons, we’re used to reversals and twists, but in the first season I was expecting Daniel’s protege to win. But no: Miguel kicks the shit out of him, and in a very Cobra Kai fashion — by taking full advantage of Robby’s shoulder injury, hitting him in his wounds repeatedly with “no mercy”. A sleazy move, and yet somehow Miguel (unlike the ’80s Johnny) doesn’t come across as despicable for it. That’s damn good storytelling.

6. The Right Path. Season 3, Episode 4. In which Daniel flies to Okinawa, reunites with Kumiko, and Mr. Miyagi speaks from the grave: Daniel was like a son to him, reads Kumiko, in a very moving scene. It’s a surreal episode that sets the stage for Chozen in episode 5, and the stuff that happens on the western front is just as good. Johnny finally gets his shit together and starts instructing Miguel again — who falls on his face trying to move from his hospital bed. Sam shows her teeth at school, initiating an awful chain of events over the next two episodes. It begins in the cafeteria with Eli demolishing Demetri’s science project (that took the poor kid three weeks to build), and then Demetri and Sam, incredibly, the ones who are chastised for it. Eli, all innocence, protests to the school counselor about being triggered in his safe space, and warns Sam against any further micro and macro aggressions. (I adore Cobra Kai for not showing mercy in mocking political correctness.) When the counselor swallows Eli’s deferential bullshit, the Miyagi-Do “good guys” decide to take revenge in gym class, and the surrealism goes into overdrive when the punches, headbutts, and windmill kicks start flying — and the referee just stands on the sidelines exasperating and wringing her hands. A brilliant episode all around.

7. Pulpo. Season 2, Episode 9. Similar to “Different But Same” (see right below), and it’s hard to choose between them, but I give this one the slight edge. The party at Moon’s home isn’t as good as the beach party in season one (I mean, you can’t beat Miguel punching Sam in the face), but it does have its moments — especially Demetri’s public humiliation of Eli for his history of bed-wetting. It’s the double-date bonding between Daniel and Johnny that one-ups the previous season’s scene in the bar. All four actors play their parts to perfection as they dine on Mexican food and fancy drinks (except for Johnny who sticks to his Coors). The transition from petty slights and insults to goodwill is genuinely affecting, and it culminates on the dance floor with Carmen teaching Johnny a few moves. Naturally the spell is broken, the very next day, when Daniel wakes up to find Sam missing (she never came home) and then finds her wasted and hungover at Johnny’s — which undoes all the good will in a stroke, and causes Daniel to lose his shit — but while the precious moments last in this episode, they really count.

8. Different but Same. Season 1, Episode 9. The first-season penultimate alternates between the beach party, where Miguel does his damnedest to piss off Sam, and the test drive, in which Daniel and Johnny begin bonding. The latter is handled so splendidly, as Daniel learns for the first time about Johnny’s upbringing; his parents may have been rich, but his stepdad was an asshole. The bar scene is of the best moments in the series, as they ruminate over Ali Mills and Daniel shows Johnny how Facebook works. The good will doesn’t last long once they return to the LaRusso home and Johnny sees Robby there — Daniel has been training his own fucking son — and Daniel, just as horrified to learn that Robby is Johhny’s son, tells the kid to get out of his life. It’s hard to say which story arc is the better — the kids on the beach or the men in the bar — and while it surely must be the Daniel-Johnny stuff, I do love Miguel’s misfire, when he throws a punch at Robby and socks the be-Jesus out of Sam instead. That and the wedgie Aisha gives to Yasmin. I mean, priceless, on both counts.

9. Counterbalance. Season 1, Episode 5. The episode that turned me and made me a fan of the rebooted franchise. So much happens at this midpoint. Aisha joins Cobra Kai, and becomes one of the season’s best characters. Johnny at first refuses her, on the politically incorrect wisdom that “no girls are allowed at Cobra Kai”, until the girl proves her potential by slamming Miguel on his ass and almost breaking his ribs (mostly on the strength of her fat-ass weight for which she has been relentlessly teased). Daniel gets in his most supremely asshole move of the series, by manipulating a business associate into doubling the rent in the strip mall where Cobra Kai has opened — which shafts not only Johnny but all the other mall renters. (Amanda rightly slams him for it.) The best part is Miguel finally paying back Kyler for all his abuse, by unloading a karate ass-pounding on him in the school cafeteria. This wins Sam’s affection and plants the seeds of their relationship. And then an unexpected scene in the cemetery: Daniel by Mr. Miyagi’s grave, really missing the guy. I wish I could rank Counterbalance higher; it’s a flawless episode.

10. Extreme Measures. Season 5, Episode 5. This episode does two things. First it brings about a reconciliation between Miguel and Robby after a therapeutic fight — Johnny’s last-ditch idea after failing to bridge the two kids by more peaceful means. It’s the best fight between kids in season 5 (which focuses mostly on the adults) and the crippling specter of the season-2 finale hangs in the background. The second thread is more grim: Terry Silver’s declaration of war as he brutally kicks the shit out of Daniel in Stingray’s home. Never has Daniel been so low as in this episode — abandoned by Amanda, full of rage and self-pity, drinking in the morning, pissed that no one (except Chozen) sees the threat that Silver poses. Amanda and Johnny think all is well with Kreese behind bars and that Daniel is crazy. It’s quite amusing when it’s Johnny scolding Daniel for a change — “You show up out of the blue, raving like a lunatic, reeking of booze, and now you want to fight me because I don’t want to get pulled back into this rivalry?” In the end, Johnny and Amanda do finally wake up (after Silver leaves Daniel bruised and battered) and Johnny is officially on board to work with Daniel and Chozen. This is a great episode for how far it pulls Daniel down, while letting Miguel and Robby exhaust their hatred for each other — all around solid karate brawls.

11. Match Point. Season 4, Episode 5. After four redundant and poorly paced episodes, the fourth season finally gets going and delivers the smack down we’ve long waited for: Daniel vs. Johnny. They engage in a tournament-style match to determine who will take over exclusive training of the Miyagi-Do’s and Eagle Fangs. Daniel is convinced that Terry Silver is a dangerous psychopath who can be countered only by Miyagi-style karate, and Johnny has simply had enough of Daniel’s overly defensive philosophy. Sam supports Johnny and tells her father off in a wonderful kitchen scene. This episode is also a dramatic turning point for Eli: the Cobra Kais ambush him and shave his head, completely demolishing his sense of self-worth. (He’s been “The Hawk” for three whole seasons, since episode 6 of season 1.) Johnny of course wants revenge on the Cobra Kais, while Daniel counsels the usual pacifism, and here it becomes clear that Sam is getting fed up with her father’s intolerance for any style of karate that isn’t pure as the driven Miyagi. With this episode, season 4 starts to play for keeps.

12. All In. Season 2, Episode 5. The mall brawl pays off the wheel technique — Sam and Robby’s training on the circle-raft that capsized them into the pond on so many occasions in episode 2. This comes when Eli and other Cobra Kais gang up on Demetri and chase him through the mall (to the delightful tune of “Shelter”), because he wrote a nasty review on social media about the Cobra Kai dojo. Moon commendably ditches Eli for bullying his best friend, while Daniel slowly begins to reach Demetri who seemed so goddamn hopeless as a karate student. On the romantic front Miguel begins his affair with Tory, while Robby and Sam start to feel drawn to each other. But it’s here that Kreese begins acting behind Johnny’s back and undermining him, by telling Eli to vandalize Miyagi-Do in retaliation for the mall brawl. Eli puts a team together and trashes Miyagi-Do outrageously, and the next morning Daniel storms into Cobra Kai to confront Johnny (who literally has no idea what the hell Daniel is talking about) in front of his own students. Some of those students are so disgusted with the mall brawl and the vandals that they leave Cobra Kai and defect to Miyagi-Do on the spot. A solid-A episode.

13. December 19. Season 3, Episode 10. No, it shouldn’t be higher. While season three is the best season on whole, it has the weakest finale. By that I mean it has problems you can’t ignore (unlike Mercy, No Mercy, The Fall & The Rise, and Head of the Snake, where the flaws are trivial). Misfire #1: the flashbacks to Kreese’s youth in Vietnam (where he and his squad are forced to fight each other to death over a pit of slithering snakes). Delving into Kreese’s backstory was a mistake throughout the season; it produced a clash in tone and did nothing to advance our understanding of Kreese in any meaningful way. Misfire #2: the country club party. While I enjoyed the return of Ali Mills, her drama becomes intrusive in the finale, which cuts back and forth between the club party and the karate war in the LaRusso home. In seasons 1, 2, 4, and 5 the finale battles were uninterrupted as they deserve to be. The season 3 finale divides our interest and puts our bloodlust on pause. Misfire #3: Eli’s repentant turnaround. It was a nice idea but poorly executed. I didn’t buy his sudden defect to the Miyagi-Do/Eagle Fang team right in the middle of the house war. It didn’t feel earned. Aside from those problems, December 19 is an admittedly socking finale, with Kreese’s assholeries finally pushing Daniel and Johnny together for common cause.

14. Survivors. Season 5, Episode 9. Seeing Daniel, Johnny, and Chozen drunk out of their minds and bellowing out Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” is alone worth the price of admission. It doesn’t have the quite the same payoff as the season 1 and 2 penultimates, where Daniel and Johnny letting their guards down and enjoying each others’ company trails a season of hostility between the two. In season 5 these three are all on the same team anyway. But there’s a juicy twist: as they roar drunken camaraderie in the back of the limo, they are actually being kidnapped by Mike Barnes, who is out for blood after having his business burned down back in episode 3. Violence is presaged on other fronts, most notably with Tory, who is forced by her sensei to smash a stone statue with her bare hand, leaving the hand a bloody pulp. It’s a shocking scene and difficult to watch, showing how sadistic Silver and Kim are. Finally, for RPG fans like myself, there is a D&D game being dungeon-mastered by Stingray, who is grilled by the Miyagi-Fang kids, but terrified of revealing the truth about how Kreese was framed by Silver. Going into the season-5 finale, you know the show writers are playing for keeps.

15. Obstáculos. Season 3, Episode 7. An underrated episode and turning point on many fronts. Miguel, having tossed his crutches and wheelchair, returns to school and breaks all contact with Cobra Kai when he finds out about the Golf N’ Stuff battle, where Eli broke Demetri’s arm. Johnny, for his part, creates a new dojo called “Eagle Fang”, and unable to afford the shittiest office space for it, decides to teach his students in a public park. Kreese gives Johnny one last chance to come back to the fold and Johnny tells him to go to hell. There’s some amusing attraction between Yasmin and Demetri (which oddly works), but the best part is Sam’s arc. She has sworn off karate, continually plagued by nightmares of Tory, and suffering panic attacks by the hour. So Daniel plays hooky with her and takes her out fishing, and their moments at the lake are their best scenes in the series. Mary Mouser does really well in season three, and in Obstáculos in particular. In the end, she and Daniel are back in the dojo, sparring with bo staffs; her return to karate feels earned.

16. Ouroboros. Season 5, Episode 6. As Daniel vows to put karate behind him (after his thrashing at the hands of Silver in episode 5), Johnny and Chozen march down to Silver’s dojo to take action. Who would have ever dreamed of seeing Daniel’s bullies from the past (from the Karate Kid films 1 and 2 respectively) bonding together and one-upping each other with instances of how they mistreated Daniel? This is one of my favorite scenes of the whole series — especially when Chozen says how much of a “pain in the ass” Daniel-San used to be. And it gets better: at the Cobra Kai dojo Johnny and Chozen learn that Silver has brought in new senseis under leadership of a South Korean, Kim Da-Eun — the granddaughter of a sensei promoting a particularly vicious style of karate. Where Chozen easily smacked down six senseis in episode 2, he and Johnny can barely take on one of these new senseis. The climax comes in Miyagi’s old dojo, which Daniel can hardly bring himself to enter, and it’s genuinely moving as Amanda encourages him to see that Terry Silver is a fight that he can’t walk away from. Only two episodes ago, Daniel was ready to fight tooth and nail, and it was Amanda ripping his face over karate. Now the roles are reversed, but in a very credible way: Daniel and Amanda have flipped in reaction to each other and trying to broaden their tunnel visions.

17. All Valley. Season 1, Episode 7. Loads of nostalgia in this episode. Daniel trains Robby as Mr. Miyagi once trained him, by giving him pointless tasks for muscle memory. He even gives the kid bonsai trees to trim. Miguel takes Sam to Golf N’ Stuff, as Daniel did for Ali back in ’84. Johnny sees the need to toughen up his students with a face-punching session (led by Miguel and Aisha) and then later shows heart when he pleads for Cobra Kai’s reinstatement in the All-Valley Karate Tournament. His speech before the committee — that Cobra Kai has changed and that his students deserve a chance to compete — is genuinely moving, and Daniel’s maneuvers are his usual petty and sanctimonious affairs in this season. Johnny and Miguel’s celebration (“Who’s the man?!”) after the former’s successful appeal and the latter’s first date cements these two characters as the soul of Cobra Kai.

18. Lull. Season 2, Episode 7. A showcase episode for opposite training styles. Against Johnny’s better judgment, he follows Kreese’s advice to take his students into the woods for a severe exercise. The Cobra Kais split into two teams and play a ruthless game of “capture the headband”. Johnny is alarmed at how merciless his students behave toward each other, and at the end of the day expels Kreese from Cobra Kai. Meanwhile, the Miyagi-Dos go through their own severe training, first in the 100-degree sun, and then inside Daniel’s walk-in freezer — and we finally see there may be hope for Demetri as a karate student. It’s in this episode that a rift begins to develop between Miguel and Eli, as the former realizes that the latter led the trashing of Miyagi-Do. Miguel seizes the medal of honor from Eli and returns it at the LaRusso house, where Robby and Sam are now romantically involved. He asks Robby to give it to Daniel and tell Sam that he apologizes, but Robby says nothing about Miguel to either Sam or Daniel, fearing that this would score points in Miguel’s favor. It was by this episode I was loving Daniel as much as I had hated him throughout the first season. Turns out he’s a damn good teacher; his students have brought out the best in him.

19. Party Time. Season 4, Episode 8. Here we get the critical return of Stingray (last seen in season 2), who seems like pure annoyance until the finale pays him off. The two threads that dominate the episode are the ass-kicking Johnny gets at the hands of Terry Silver, and of course the junior prom. I’m very fond of Robby and Tory’s dance and their sexual chemistry (which pisses off Sam to no end), and it was a given that the kicks would start flying back at the home party. There’s the very amusing scene in which Daniel and Amanda are lectured by their cousin Vanessa, a professional child psychologist, who tells them they are largely to blame for the way that Anthony has been bullying Kenny. Even more amusing is that when Daniel loses his shit with Anthony (yelling at him Johnny Lawrence-style, and smashing the kid’s tablet in two), it seems to have the appropriate effect that none of his Miyagi discipline ever did. The scene with Miguel and Johnny is genuinely upsetting; Miguel clearly loves Johnny as a father figure and hates seeing him torn up about Robby. And the final scene is a major shocker, as Silver beats the living shit out of Stingray for apparently no reason at all other than drunken rage, but is actually a shrewd move that will pay off in the finale.

20. The Good, the Bad, and the Badass. Season 3, Episode 8. From right to left in this photo: the “good” being LaRusso’s Miyagi-Do, the “bad” Kreese’s Cobra Kai, and the “badass” Lawrence’s Eagle Fang — his new karate school, a splinter from Cobra Kai, in which he intends to take the best of his parent training while rejecting the assholeries. All three senseis are befuddled by the announcement that the city has decided to cancel the All-Valley Tournament, and they each argue their case but in vain. It’s Sam and Miguel who give an impassioned joint-speech that finally convinces the panel to allow the tournament to proceed. This is also the episode where Robby is released from juvie, and tells both Johnny and Daniel to get lost and stay out of his life. (Johnny gets chewed out by Miguel too, for mollycoddling him and not wanting him to compete in a tournament, which segues into a moving scene between Johnny and Carmen.) Later Robby visits Sam and finds Miguel with her — the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Robby goes to the dark side, and Kreese welcomes him with open arms.

21. Taikai. Season 5, Episode 8. This episode feels like a finale prelude, as once again the Miyagi-Dos and Eagle Fangs get on the mat with the Cobra Kais. This time they’re fighting to make the Sekai Taikai, the hugest tournament in the world — and an event that could make the kids famous. Eli is beaten by Kenny (who has become a vicious little runt this season), and Sam beats Devon, which translates into both dojos qualifying for the Sekai Taikai. I have no idea if this will be the plot of season 6, with Terry Silver out of the game by the end of this season. It may that Kreese will capitalize on this opportunity in reclaiming Cobra Kai, though I can’t really see how, given that he’s a fugitive from justice.

22. Take a Right. Season 2, Episode 6. It begins with Johnny making his students exercise repeatedly until they reveal who trashed Miyagi-Do, until he has to suddenly leave, traveling to San Bernardino to see his dying friend Tommy. He leaves Kreese in charge — obviously a bad move, since it was Kreese who basically ordered the trashing of Miyagi-Do. Daniel, for his part, must diffuse hostilities between his students and the new defectors from Cobra Kai, and uses an amusing Game of Thrones analogy for the renegades: they are Wildlings being let behind the Wall (who did after all help Jon Snow win the Battle of the Bastards). Daniel also confesses to his students that he was once a Cobra Kai member himself — the first acknowledgement in the series of that atrocious Karate Kid III plot, which actually makes lemonade out of lemons. The heart of this episode is the death of Tommy, which is very well handled.

23. King Cobra. Season 3, Episode 6. In which Kreese takes asshole to the next level, inviting school bullies into Cobra Kai, and orders his students to keep hitting their opponents well after they tap the mat. He then kicks Mitch out of the dojo for losing to an inexperienced fighter, and relishes Eli beating the living shit out of Brucks, reducing the kid’s face to a pulp. This level of gratuitous violence is shocking even for Cobra Kai and marks the point of no return for the dojo, now thoroughly under Kreese’s sway. By collecting the strongest students at the school — jocks mostly — he ensures that Cobra Kai will lead by a pure “survival of the fittest” philosophy. His restraining order against Amanda LaRusso is absurd and galling, though just the sort of thing he’d do. On a lighter note, Miguel instructs Johnny in the ways of Facebook, helping him build a page and facilitate conversation with his Ali his ex. It’s nice bonding between these two, in a way we haven’t seen since season 1.

24. Nature vs. Nurture. Season 3, Episode 2. For an early episode in the season, this one is really good and has high rewatch value. Daniel and Johnny barely suspend their hatred for each other to team up and search for Robby, and the dynamic between them in the car is priceless. They drive around playing “Tango and Cash”, visiting Robby’s low-life friends — Johnny’s face looking like utter shit — until they finally end up in a garage full of stolen cars and mean thugs who move in on them. They unleash an ass-pounding on the thugs in a very gratifying sequence… and then immediately start kicking the shit out of each other when Daniel overreacts to Johnny’s excessive use of force. It’s absurdist in the way that only Cobra Kai can pull off, but it works so well — and far more compellingly than, for example, the alliance between Johnny and Daniel in the first four episodes of season 4.

25. Fire and Ice. Season 2, Episode 3. This tends to be an underrated episode. When Johnny sees Daniel promoting Miyagi-Do on the internet and dissing Cobra Kai in the process, he returns fire by launching his own internet commercial. (This episode also contains my favorite woke slam of the series: people on the internet accuse Daniel of “cultural appropriation”, calling him “Daniel LaRacist”, for co-opting Asian culture for his own gain, including cliched background music and bonsai trees.) This is when Miguel and Hawk learn that Robby is Johnny’s son, and they feel somewhat betrayed that Johnny made no mention of that during the season-1 tournament. Johnny ends up having a heart to heart with Miguel, explaining how he was a lousy father, and it’s a moving scene. The ending is a fantastic performance: When Aisha and Miguel learn that Miyagi-Do (which at this early point consists of Daniel, Sam, and Robby) is going to put on a kata performance at Valley Fest, Johnny uses the Cobra Kai students to rudely crash the party, and they outshine Miyagi-Do with ease, with ass-kicking exercises to the tune of Airbourne’s “Back in the Game”. Hell yeah.

26. Molting. Season 1, Episode 8. It begins with one of the best openers: the junkyard training in which Johnny sets vicious dogs on his poor students, to the tune of Twister Sisters’ “Were Not Going to Take It”. This is counterpointed later by Daniel’s training of Robby in gorgeous scenic areas. But the best part of the episode is Johnny’s revisionist history of The Karate Kid, as he explains to Miguel why Daniel was the real villain back in the day. The show writers were obviously inspired by this famous video which remains a classic example of how every villain is a hero in his own eyes. In this case however there’s actually plenty of truth in Johnny’s revisionism. (Daniel certainly did his share of “striking first” when he first met Johnny.) Johnny having dinner with Miguel’s mom and yaya is a particularly favorite scene of mine.

27. Back in Black. Season 2, Episode 2. Another very good early episode that places higher for me than most would probably rank it. It starts with a great montage of Johnny and Miguel waking up and starting their days out, while Johnny’s car gets a Cobra Kai makeover, to the tune of AC/DC’s “Back in Black”. The day becomes a dangerous one as Johnny forces his students into the mixer of a cement truck, which Kreese approves wholeheartedly. Meanwhile Robby moves in with the LaRussos, and the Miyagi-Do dojo kicks off. Daniel trains Robby and Sam (his only students at this point) on the wheel technique, and the contrast between this balancing act on the pond and the Cobra Kai kids’ struggle inside the cement mixer is quite effective.

28. Bad Eggs. Season 5, Episode 7. This episode could be titled “Back in Black” Part 2 (see above), as we flip back and forth between the training at Miyagi-Do (which is back in business after Daniel’s “re-awakening” at the end of episode 6) and at Cobra Kai. There is new leadership in each dojo, with Chozen punishing the Miyagi-Dos with hard exercises, and Silver’s new senseis setting students against each other to make them ruthless. Meanwhile, Daniel and Johnny visit Kreese in prison to ask him what Silver’s master plan is, and Daniel promises him a good attorney in return for telling them. I was worried that Daniel was feeling genuine compassionate towards Kreese, and I’m glad I was wrong: the moment Kreese opens the paper to read the lawyer’s phone number, and instead sees Daniel’s writing in all caps — “NO MERCY, MOTHERFUCKER!” — is priceless.

29. Quiver. Season 1, Episode 6. Johnny finds himself flooded with business, thanks to Miguel wiping the cafeteria floor with Kyler and his bullies. This is the pivotal episode in which Johnny degrades and humiliates Eli for his malformed lip, which destroys the poor kid until he decides to flip the script and come back reborn as “The Hawk”. Meanwhile, Sam is being slut-shamed on social media and she starts to bond with Miguel, and Robby is made to look like a fool by Daniel’s cousin Louie at LaRusso Autos. Daniel, having resumed his own Miyagi-style karate training (feeling bad about his supreme asshole maneuvers against Johnny in episode 5), invites Robby to do some kata exercises with him — another pivotal development that will spell consequences throughout the series, as Robby latches onto Daniel as a father-figure in seasons 1 and 2, and then Kreese in seasons 3 and 4, anyone but Johnny who was never there for him.

30. Playing With Fire. Season 5, Episode 3. This one is way underrated. Here we get a fine reintroduction of Mike Barnes, who turns out to be not the supreme asshole from Karate Kid Part 3. He’s moved on and matured and done well for himself (unlike Johnny on all fronts). But Daniel severely misjudges him and Chozen does even worse, resulting in a round of ass-kicking that has everyone feeling bashful afterwards. Barnes tries helping Daniel against Silver, which turns out a big mistake: Silver gets wind of it and burns down Barnes’ business, ruining him in a stroke. My favorite parts of this episode are actually Sam’s. There’s a very heartbreaking moment when she breaks up with Miguel, and Miguel walks away in tears, dropping the octopus necklace he just bought for her. Coming right off the heartbreak from his asshole father in Mexico (in episode 2), Miguel is a broken kid this season. The best scene of all is Sam’s nightmare in the “self-actualization pod” — AKA a sensory deprivation tank — which is a fun nod to Stranger Things. Her confrontation in the “Void” with the dark version of herself is freaky as hell.

31. Aftermath. Season 3, Episode 1. The best of the season premieres is as its title implies — a bleak aftermath showing the consequences of the school brawl. Miguel is in a coma, Sam is having panic attacks, Robby is on the run from the law, and everyone else involved has been suspended for two weeks. The All Valley Community Board overreacts by putting in place draconian rules that forbid students from even touching each other. The scenes of Miguel coma-dreaming of himself fighting desperately in a tournament are very effective, and set the tone for what will be a very dark season 3, and the best of the series so far. They foreshadow a tightening of the sensei-student bond between Johnny and Miguel that made season 1 so special.

32. Ace Degenerate. Season 1, Episode 1. A close second to Aftermath, the series premiere is Johnny Lawrence all the way, and the guaranteed hook that ensured viewers would continue watching Cobra Kai. By making Johnny the inverted underdog, and a surprisingly likeable one, the series brought the Karate Kid franchise into a post Game of Thrones era. And by making Daniel LaRusso the bigger asshole — a Miyagi wannabe undermined by hypocrisy and self-righteousness — they took the original hero in a most unexpected direction. Part of it is the social class reversal. Daniel grew up dirt poor but has done well for himself as a wealthy car dealer who can treat his family to country club outings. Johnny, for his part, has fallen out with his rich stepfather and lives hand to mouth in the shitty neighborhood of Reseda where Daniel used to live. This reversal alone pays dividends, and even if the episode itself isn’t one of the best, it establishes enough to keep viewers interested.

33. Feel the Night. Season 3, Episode 9. Ali’s return is handled well enough, but I’m not quite on board with all the fan enthusiasm. After Kumiko in episodes 4 and 5 of this season, Ali only does so much for me. But don’t get me wrong: her reunion with Johnny is touching and a very fun throwback to memories of the first film. My favorite part of the episode is actually the rekindling between Sam and Miguel, and even better the bonding between Daniel and Miguel, who starts to see that Bad-Dad Larusso is pretty cool after all. Then there is Robby, who ingratiates himself with Cobra Kai after he abducts a snake to give to their sensei.

34. Kicks Get Chicks. Season 4, Episode 6. When the All Valley committee announces its revolutionary changes — a kata skills competition, and a girls’ division separate from the boys’ trophy — it starts to look bad for both Johnny and Daniel (who have gone their separate ways again after throwing down in the previous episode), as the former has no promising female student and the latter no promising male student. Johnny does some desperate girl-recruiting which turns hilarious when he tries speaking in woke terms, and Daniel makes his own desperate move in trying to bring Robby back to Miyagi-Do. Sam gets in some good scenes as she visits Aisha (a pleasant surprise after her season-three absence) who reinforces a positive image of Johnny, and then also as she unloads rage on her parents when her mother invites Tory inside the house and sympathetically agrees to sign off on allowing the girl back into school. Meanwhile, Eli leaves Eagle Fang — forsaking karate after getting beaten and shaved in episode 5 — but then joins Miyagi-Do at Demetri’s urging.

35. Esqueleto. Season 1, Episode 3. Even if Daniel will be proven right about Kyler, he’s an absolute jerk about it and has no real evidence that Kyler is a sleaze. He’s a father ruled by his insecurities, going so far as to sneak into his daughter’s room and read her instant messages — seeing that Kyler has “something BIG” to show her at the Halloween school dance. He then volunteers to chaperone the dance in order to keep an eye on Sam, and acts in a way that utterly humiliates her. It’s good LaRusso drama. On the Miguel side of the story, he attends the dance dressed in a skeleton (“esqueleto”) costume identical to those worn by Johnny and his Cobra Kai friends in 1984. (Chaperone Daniel isn’t amused.) In the bathroom he runs afoul Kyler who unloads an ass-pounding on him, and makes us crave for Miguel to get better at the karate Johnny is teaching him.

36. Moment of Truth. Season 2, Episode 4. This is Tory’s debut as she joins Cobra Kai and wastes not time taking down Johnny’s prize student Miguel. This is also Demetri’s exit (from Cobra Kai) as he gets thrashed by Kreese in an even more ruthless fashion. It’s a moment for Aisha, when she decides that she is fed up with Sam, when Sam wrongly accuses Tory of theft. The greatest moment however is Daniel’s thrashing of Robby’s old friends on the beach. It’s the first time in the Cobra Kai series that Daniel fights (he didn’t fight at all in season 1), and we won’t get to see him fight again until seasons 3 (three times) and 4 (twice). It’s also a rather odd moment for Kreese, when he and Johnny have a heart to heart and we see how broken Kreese is. But it’s hard to know how much sympathy he really deserves.

37. Minefields. Season 4, Episode 7. It was nice to see Anthony LaRusso developed more in the fourth season, and Minefields sees him bullshitting his father until Daniel realizes that it’s Anthony who has been bullying a (lightweight) Cobra Kai student, not the other way around. Kenny has good scenes in this episode, including one in which he manages to win against Robby when Kreese and Silver have them fight in the dojo. This is also the episode where Johnny and Carmen tell Miguel they’re shagging each other, which in itself doesn’t bother Miguel, though he is put off by the way Johnny starts to act differently around him, and handle him with kid gloves in front of the other Eagle Fang students.

38. Long, Long Way From Home. Season 5, Episode 1. Season five announces a focus on the adults of the series — Daniel, Johnny, Chozen, and Terry — as Daniel shuts down Miyagi-Do in order to keep the kids out of harm’s way. Amanda believes that with Kreese in jail, things are brightening up, but Daniel (rightfully) fears far worse with Terry Silver in control, so much that he has recruited from Okinawa the guy who once tried to kill him. Chozen is at once ready to kill Terry Silver, brandishing sai blades in the LaRusso home (to Daniel’s horror) — this is after skinny dipping in the LaRusso’s pool (to Amanda’s horror) — and he is easily my favorite character of season five. In this episode we also get the field trip to Mexico, which allows Johnny and Robby some bonding time, and Miguel to search for his real father, as he feels conflicted over his relationship with Johnny.

39. Mole. Season 5, Episode 2. The mole being Chozen, of course, who infiltrates Cobra Kai on the pretense of wanting to become Terry Silver’s right hand man. He gives himself away by toasting “karii” (Okinawan) instead of “kanpai” (Japanese, which Chozen is pretending to be), and the episode ends greatly on Chozen taking on six of Silver’s prospective senseis and clobbering the shit out of them. There are other strong scenes here, notably Tory’s confronting Silver about him paying off the referee to let her win the tournament. Silver is the master manipulator, using an analogy about a starving guy stealing food (“did he cheat?”), which Tory understands having lived in poverty. This episode is also the sequel to Long, Long Way From Home (right above), as Miguel finds his father, and what an asshole he is. A very heartbreaking scene.

40. Mercy, Part 2. Season 2, Episode 1. As the title implies, we get answers to questions set up by the season-1 finale Mercy. Will Miguel and Sam reunite? Will Kreese (“back from the dead”) join forces with Johnny? Will Miguel become a Kreese-like bully? How will Johnny reconcile his “No Mercy” rule with his turning point in the tournament? The answer to that last is that Johnny revises the Cobra Kai teaching into something like, “We still have to be badass, but sometimes we show mercy after all, and fighting dirty is a pussy move”. And while Daniel initially opens Miyagi-Do to get even with Cobra Kai, by the end of the episode he has given up on revenge, explaining to Robby that he’s providing Miyagi-Do karate not in order to fight Cobra Kai, but as an enlightened alternative.

41. Downward Spiral. Season 5, Episode 4. There are three threads here showing everyone’s downward spiral. First is the charity auction, at which Daniel gets pushed over the edge by Silver’s manipulations of Amanda, ending in Amanda leaving for Ohio (and taking Sam and Anthony with her). Daniel is (rightfully) undaunted, and this is one of the many episodes that lets me hate on Amanda with a clean conscience. Second is the Johnny-reforms-himself-for-fatherhood thread, in which he cleans up his apartment, makes vows he’ll doubtfully keep, and gets a food delivery/taxi job, pissing off his customers, and drinking while driving on the job. Finally there is the swimming pool incident, where the Tory and Eli have a slide match, and the kids have a general pissing match all around.

42. Cobra Kai Never Dies. Season 1, Episode 4. Though it does almost die in its crib. Johnny returns a horribly beaten Miguel to his distressed mother, who demands that Johnny stay away from her son. Johnny takes refuge in booze and self pity and wandering streets at night, and when he sees a LaRusso billboard, he gets spray-paint ideas. The next morning as Daniel drives to work, he is furious to see that his face on the billboard has a giant dick in its mouth. He discusses the matter with his wife who tries to calm him down, but they ultimately agree to paint over it. It doesn’t help that business rival Tom Cole rubs salt in his wounds by sending LaRusso Auto 100 sausages as a joke. Daniel of course believes that Cole is behind the obscene vandalism, and so confronts him at his dealership by spin-kicking a boba tea out of Cole’s hand. It’s all very juvenile on the part of everyone involved (Johnny, Daniel, Tom Cole), but quite often in Cobra Kai the characters are at their most entertaining when they act like they’re on the playground.

43. Strike First. Season 1, Episode 2. The best moments here are between Miguel and Johnny, as the potential for a strong sensei-student relationship starts to show. The lamer parts involve melodrama at the LaRusso home, with Daniel throwing Sam’s friends out of the swimming pool. The confrontation between Daniel and Johnny at the end (an iconic scene foreshadowed in trailers) is an intense one — not least because it’s been decades since we’ve seen them facing each other on the mat — with Daniel (wrongly) accusing Johnny of beating up kids for no good reason, to which Johnny (correctly) retorts that Daniel doesn’t know much about his own kids (as Sam was involved in the hit and run on Johnny’s car). A decent enough episode promising greater conflict ahead.

44. Now You’re Gonna Pay. Season 3, Episode 3. As Miguel’s hospital bills climb, Johnny seeks every avenue for help — his rich stepfather (who refuses him), and his pastor friend Bobby (who being a pastor has hardly enough pennies of his own). Meanwhile Daniel learns that Tom Cole is planning a hostile takeover of LaRusso Autos and stands a damn good chance of succeeding; Cole has persuaded his company’s Japanese ally to break off their relationship because of the school karate fight. Robby however is paying worst of all: he lands in juvie and spends most of his time getting beaten up by other kids, despite his karate training. It’s not a bad episode by any means, but it’s the weakest in the overall excellent season 3.

45. Let’s Begin. Season 4, Episode 1. Now we come to the weak episodes: the first four of season 4. They revolve around Daniel and Johnny’s clashing of styles, which at this point in the series is getting quite old. The most interesting part of the premiere is the reintroduction of Terry Silver, whom we haven’t seen since his cartoonish performance in The Karate Kid 3. The show writers are wise in embracing this head-on: Silver himself doesn’t like who he was. As he says to Kreese: “I was so hopped up on cocaine, revenge. I spent months terrorizing a teenager over a high school karate tournament. It sounds insane just talking about it.” Silver is still filthy rich, and Kreese manages to lure him out of his new age lifestyle, to get the cash assistance he needs to make Cobra Kai thrive, and to take Silver on as his co-sensei — adding a whole other layer of nastiness to the teachings that will come out of Cobra Kai. Silver’s performance is quite good in Cobra Kai, not over the top like in the ’80s.

46. First Learn Stand. Season 4, Episode 2. Here we get Daniel and Johnny suffering through each other’s training methods. Johnny waxes on and off while Daniel pushes and pulls himself up and walks barefoot over hot coals. Later they both chill out at a hockey game, where Daniel is triggered into letting out his aggression at a bunch of the players when they badmouth his wife. (Naturally this is precipitated by Johnny who antagonizes the players first.) It’s refreshing to watch Daniel give in to his baser ass-kicking nature, though the scene feels a bit forced. The episode also introduces Kenny, the young kid who is tormented by Anthony LaRusso and will end up joining Cobra to defend himself against bullies.

47. Then Learn Fly. Season 4, Episode 3. The premise driving this episode is fair enough. Daniel takes Johnny’s students while Johnny takes his, making each team well-rounded and having more techniques to draw on. Daniel instructs the Eagle Fang kids to catch fish from his pond with their bare hands, while Johnny takes the Miyagi kids up to a rooftop where he teaches them how to “fly” by jumping between rooftops. I would have loved the idea, except that it’s preposterous by even Cobra Kai standards: the gap between the buildings is far too wide, and the few mattresses placed on the ground aren’t enough to break the kids’ fall. But it’s nice to see Sam rebel against her father whose self-righteousness has gone into a bit of overdrive, to a degree that we haven’t seen since season 1.

48. Bicephaly. Season 4, Episode 4. By now the first four episodes of season 4 have become redundant and too drawn out. The alliance between Daniel and Johnny should have ended two episodes ago. In Bicephaly I really dislike the contrivance of Sam and Amanda just happening on Tory at her new place of work (as an entertainer for kids), and Sam (really out of line) antagonizing Tory while she’s trying to work. The whole sequence rings false somehow. Nor am I wild about the stand-off at the dive-through cinema. Instead of fighting the Cobra Kais, the Miyagi-Dos and Eagle Fangs tell the bullies to meet them at a baseball diamond, where they use sprinklers to douse the Cobra Kais with water.

49. Glory of Love. Season 2, Episode 8. This is the only Cobra Kai episode that I actively dislike. Even by the series’ standards, the comedy moments are so absurdist to be offensive (in particular Johnny shopping for dates on social media which are played ludicrously). But the worst part, ironically, is Daniel apologizing to Amanda for ignoring her and his job. In the real world it would be the right thing for him to do; he has indeed behaved irresponsibly. But in the alternate world of Cobra Kai — where karate is the most important fucking thing in life, like the Force in Star Wars — I wholeheartedly endorse all the time Daniel has invested in reopening Miyagi-Do and working so well with his students. And I just didn’t like Amanda in this season anyway. As for the love triangle on the skating rink between Robby/Sam and Miguel/Tory, it didn’t play right. Oddly enough, when the same sort of thing was repeated two seasons later (in Party Time) at the prom, the Robby/Tory and Miguel/Sam conflicts were used to great effect.

Cobra Kai: The Five Seasons Ranked

I’m starting to sound like a broken record after every season of Cobra Kai. How can a karate soap opera be this good and infectious? There hasn’t been a single bad season — though they’re not equally good, and I’m about to rank them — and what’s really embarrassing is how Rings of Power has been rendered trivial by Cobra Kai season 5. By rights I should obsessing Middle-Earth right now, not the San Fernando Valley. But Rings of Power is as bad as Cobra Kai is good, and the latter didn’t cost a billion dollars of wasted effort. Here, for me, is how the seasons rank.

#1. Season Three. By the third season the San Fernando Valley is a crazy alternate reality where karate is everything — the meaning of life, the rule of law, and the key to everyone’s salvation. I consider it the best season for many reasons: (1) It’s the darkest — darker than even season 5. (2) It’s the most surreal. The Okinawan scenes in episodes 4 and 5 are sublime throwbacks to Karate Kid Part 2, my favorite entry in the original series. Kumiko reads Daniel the love letters that Mr. Miyagi had sent Yukie, and Chozen exudes a lethal menace we’re not used to seeing in Cobra Kai — since America is the land of tournaments, not honor killings. (3) Mary Mouser. Samantha has evolved into a very impressive character and, like Sansa Stark in Game of Thrones, the character with the best story arc over the series. She displays a vulnerability in her rage against Cobra Kai, and suffers debilitating panic attacks in the aftermath of Tory slicing her arm at the end of season 2. And the heart-to-heart between her and Daniel on the boat in episode 7 is probably their best daughter-father scene of the series. (4) Johnny and Miguel. They reprise their unbeatable chemistry from season 1, but even better this time. For all these reasons and more (yes, Ali too) season 3 is the best.

#2. Season Five. Another dark season, and the one that finally gives Daniel LaRusso his much deserved story arc. The kids (Miguel, Sam, Robby, Tory, etc.) are overshadowed by the adults this season, as the psychopathic threat represented by Terry Silver demands a seriously aggressive response, prompting Daniel to team up with his old bullies Johnny and Chozen. Daniel has come a long way in Cobra Kai. He didn’t do any fighting at all in season 1 and had only a brief altercation on the beach in season 2, and he was an annoying sanctimonious puritan in those early seasons. Since season 3 he’s been on fire, and in this season it’s an absolute treat to see him work with his former nemesis Chozen (who is constantly itching to use his sai blades) and Johnny (who for once has to pull Daniel up from rock bottom after Silver gives Daniel an ass-pounding). This isn’t to say the kids don’t get good story arcs; Robby and Miguel finally make amends, as do Tory and Sam. But the focus has rightly shifted, and more blood is spilled in this season than the previous four combined. I never thought I’d see the day when the baddies of Karate Kid (Johnny), Karate Kid 2 (Chozen) and Karate Kid 3 (Mike Barnes) all come together for the first time and fight alongside Daniel for a good cause.

#3. Season One. The season of Johnny and Miguel, who are the heart of the series. By making Johnny the inverted underdog, and a surprisingly likeable asshole, the writers of Cobra Kai brought the franchise into a post Game of Thrones era. And by making Daniel LaRusso a bigger asshole — a Miyagi wannabe undermined by hypocrisy and self-righteousness — they took the original hero in a very unexpected direction. The fact that the LaRusso clan is so annoying isn’t a criticism; it sets the stage for story arcs that both Daniel and Sam will have, as they become more likeable in season 2 and then positively lovable in season 3. That’s a story. But for this season, it’s the Cobra Kai losers who rule. Yes, they learn the merciless version of karate that teaches beating the shit out of people — even fighting dirty when necessary — but that is tempered by their empathy as victims who have taken their own heaps of nasty abuse. Aisha is particularly well scripted, driven to take karate after being cruelly bullied by classmates over her weight. But Miguel and Johnny are obviously the best. Johnny has a vulnerable side, so he’s not just an asshole, and the fact that he’s politically incorrect and a stone-age Luddite is part of his charm.

#4. Season Two. If season 1 was about the blurring of underdogs and assholes, then season 2 is about the elusive nature of mercy, no matter which of the two you happen to be. At Cobra Kai mercy is anathema, and yet Johnny wants to make allowance for it after seeing his son foully injured by his best student. At Miyagi-Do mercy is a virtue, but in the end out of reach to Daniel’s best student. The season flits back and forth between the two dojos: the punishing arena of Cobra Kai vs. the Elysian paradise of Miyagi-Do. Johnny puts his students in a cement truck mixer and makes them spin it by hand, while Daniel puts his students on a circular raft that capsizes; and so forth. The disciplines are opposite and exacting, and each produces a backlash. Miguel, like Johnny, increasingly questions the “no mercy” tenet (unlike Hawk and other students who worship Kreese), while Robby, frustrated by months of dance exercises and hyper-pacifism, finally lashes out and goes ruthless on Miguel when extended a merciful hand. The finale delivers the best and most visceral fight of the entire series (until you get to season 5). By the end of it, Sam is hospitalized and Miguel is in a coma. That finale is one of the best episodes in TV history, even if on whole the season ranks at #4.

#5. Season Four. This season is the weakest, but not because of Terry Silver. Silver is actually the one who makes it so good. I was nervous about his comeback, since Karate Kid Part 3 is the kiss of death — one of the worst films ever made. Most show writers would have taken the safe path and stuck with just the first two Karate Kid films as the backdrop to Cobra Kai. These writers had the balls to make lemonade out of lemons, and the result is a Terry Silver who steals the show. Season four’s weakness comes in the redundant friction between Daniel and Johnny. Their arc of rivalry played out in the first three seasons, and then ended in a team-up against Kreese. But no sooner do they team up than degenerate into their old patterns, and it seems that they should be over most of this stuff by now. The first four episodes in particular are the weakest of the series. Things kick into high gear by mid-season, and the tournament double-finale is superb. But certain characters get relatively weak stories — Miguel and Sam most notably, though these would be remedied in season 5.

Have the Duffers become victims of their own intentions?

I remember my disappointment with Stranger Things 3, and saying to a friend: “It’s curious that as the kids are growing more mature, the show is becoming less mature.” A lot of that had to do with the farcical comedy of season 3, but it may also have owed to the paradox of kids less able to transcend themselves when age robs them of the gift. And that, believe it or not, has a lot to do with why the Duffers made Stranger Things to begin with.

What made Stranger Things 1 and 2 so special was that kids were the focus in an adult series — and that’s why studios kept rejecting it:

“The biggest complaint from studios was that Stranger Things is a horror show that focuses on a group of children as the main characters. Executives said that the Duffers should either (a) change the tone of the show to make it more kid-friendly, or else (b) shift the focus to the teen or adult characters. The Duffers said doing that would ‘lose everything interesting about the show.'”

I’m sure those execs are kicking themselves for their incompetence. But to use the Duffers’ own words against them: if focusing on teens and adults would rob Stranger Things of “everything interesting about the show”, then Stranger Things 3 and beyond were all but doomed. And I think this is where Stranger Things 4, despite its overall excellence, fails to measure up. I realize that’s not the fairest criticism — kids do have to grow — but fair or not, the fact is that there’s a certain magic to the show that was lost once the kids graduated from middle school. Teen horror has been around for decades.

That being said, I think the fourth season (unlike the third) was amazing and actually gave us some better content than anything seen in the first two. But it also had its problems (on which see below), and because the kids are no longer kids, it seems that the show needs to become even more adult — characterwise, more deep and mature. That’s the approach I took in writing my fanfiction novels, when I imagined the kids in their later years.

Anyway, here’s my ranking of the seasons to date, with a hopeful prediction for season 5.

#1. Season Two. The sophomore season gives us the most to care about. All the main characters are alienated, whether from others or themselves. Eleven is isolated in a cabin, torn between her new father Hopper and a mother she wants to find; Mike is a shell, believing his girlfriend dead but not letting go; Will is possessed and becomes a proxy murderer for the Mind Flayer; Nancy suffers guilt over Barb; Dustin can only find acceptance in a dangerous shadow-pet (Dart). It took nerve for the Duffers to treat their characters this honestly, and especially to emasculate its lead character Mike while keeping El out of reach until the final episode. The chemistry between El and Hopper is sublime. This is what sequels should be like, and for me it’s the height of the series, not only in terms of the tone and atmosphere (it’s much darker than season 1), but the emotional ride. It all comes together in a dramatic payoff: Mike and El’s tearful reunion, El closing the Gate, and the best scene of the series, the Snow Ball. Season 2 is best because it’s so immersive and doesn’t flinch from the cost of what went on before. Rating: 10/10.

#2. Season One. The premiere 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. As with season 2, there’s a lonely feel to it that makes Stranger Things more than just a science fiction show about other-dimensional aliens. We invest in the characters for their real-world problems. There’s abuse (Eleven’s at the hands of Dr. Brenner), grief (Hopper’s for Sara, the kids thinking Will is dead), bullying (from Troy), torture (of Eleven in the lab, and of the animals she is required to torture in turn), and parental dysfunction (Ted and Karen Wheeler). This is “Stand by Me” squared, showing kids at an age when they’re old enough to know real danger, but still young enough to believe that friendship has infinite power. A season without fault or blemish; I rank it at #2 not because it’s deficient in any way, only because season 2 takes things even higher and deeper. Rating: 10/10.

#3. Season Four. What it gets right, it gets so right that on first viewing I thought it was actually my favorite. There’s a return to season-1 Stockholm drama, with Eleven and her abusive Papa; the Silo Lab arc from episodes 5-8 is my favorite arc in the whole series. As in season 2, friends are down and distant. Max is guilt-ridden and suicidal; El is miserable, bullied by peers in the present and past; Lucas is into sports and less into Mike and Dustin’s ideas of fun. The emotionally vulnerable die in their nightmares. Vecna’s killings, sadistic as they are, are but a means to an end — to create enough gates to start the apocalypse. El and Max deliver fabulous performances. There is, however, some annoying season-3ish comedy that creates a tone problem (especially with Murray and Joyce, though also Argyle and Robin), and contrived plotting that makes the Russia story line up too conveniently with the events in Hawkins. If not for the overall excellence — and for some of the best content ever seen in the series — those elements would reduce the rating to an 8, but it’s no less than 9. Rating: 9/10.

#4. Season Five (?). I hope the Duffers will go out like Breaking Bad — with a fifth season so epic that it sets a new bar — but I expect that it will be about as good as season 4, give or take. We know that it will focus on the characters from season 1 and that Will has a critical role to play, which sounds promising. While it was nice in season 4 to see the core group — Mike, Will, Lucas, Dustin, El, Hopper, Joyce, Nancy, Steve, Jonathan — split up across the world and painted into corners, for the final showdown we need them back and tight where it all began, with less spotlight on latecomers (and lamecomers) like Robin, Erica, and Murray. I’m expecting that Will’s return will be very bad for him; that he may become Vecna’s instrument in destroying the world; and that Max, if she wakes at all, will be greatly diminished. Here’s praying for a full eradication of the since-season 3 comedy and more depth of character. Predicted rating: 8-9/10.

#5. Season Three. The steaming misfire. The Duffers wanted a “summer blockbuster” with the campy tone of Jurassic Park, and they went off the cliff with comedy. Compared to the trials of Will (seasons 1 and 2) and the nightmares of Vecna (seasons 4 and 5), the horror is more silly than menacing. The best part is getting to see Eleven kick ass like never before (against Billy in the sauna, and the Flayed creature at Hopper’s cabin) before she loses her powers. And the final episode is admittedly a staggering piece of cinema. Aside from that, it’s hard to believe how bad this season is. The characters are cartoon versions of themselves, especially Hopper. The plotting is so lazy and contrived you’d think it was scripted by a teenager, and adding to the lazy feel is the fact that the overall plot is just a repeat of season 2 (the Mind Flayer is using a human host, and a gate needs closing to defeat it). Some scenes are downright painful to watch; they seem intended to mock the series and piss off fans, and they completely succeeded. Rating: 4/10.

For the dirty details on my rankings, see here.

The Stranger Things Characters Ranked (For Each Season)

I’ve seen many rankings of the best Stranger Things characters, but they’re kind of superficial because characters change from season to season. So here are the definitive rankings for each season. I’m only doing the top 5 for each, followed by some honorable mentions. And for season 3 there are no “best characters” — for that one I list the five worst!

Season 1

The first season is all the kids. And Hopper who is boss.

1. Mike. He’s the soul of season 1, a killer dungeon-master and natural leader for the nerd crowd. He loves El from the start but with all the anxious denials of a 12-year old.

2. El. What she conveys in her silences and curious stares is sublime. If anyone other than Millie BB had been cast for Eleven, the series wouldn’t be the cultural phenomenon it is.

3. Hopper. Haunted by the death of his daughter, he does everything to save Will Byers. He has so many dimensions, rage and tenderness, and is played flawlessly — one of the best characters in any TV series.

4. Lucas. There were a lot of Lucas haters for season 1, but I loved him for all the reasons he was criticized. His jealousy over Mike and Eleven, and how it drives his character, is precisely what makes him so real and endearing.

5. Dustin. Everyone adores him for obvious reason. He’s genuinely funny without trying, and his dialogue is so natural it seems ad-libbed by Matarazzo.

Honorable mentions for season 1: Nancy (great character arc), Steve (another fabulous arc), and Joyce (plays the hysterical mother very convincingly).

Season 2

The sophomore season is all the lonely hurt. And Hopper again, who is even more boss.

1. Mike. This season he’s Emo-Mike, mad at the world, shitting on his friends (except Will), acting out in school, still hurt by the loss of Eleven. His mother even makes him throw his toys away. I love him even more this season ’cause I feel his pain.

2. El. She gets even better this season as she comes to terms with her anger and homicidal impulses. Her relationship with Hopper is handled perfectly and her reunion with Mike a major high point of the series.

3. Hopper. He too gets better and better. We see deeper flashes of rage but also unexpected tenderness. He’s territorial of El and wants to keep her secret and on a tight leash.

4. Will. This is Will’s season, and Noah showed us what he can do when being torn inside out. Seriously.

5. Max. With season 4 in our rear-view, it’s hard to remember the days of Max-haters. Not me. I loved her from the start, how she was a loner preferring the company of boys. Everyone (Mike, Dustin, even El) shits on the poor girl this season except for Lucas, yet Max takes it all in stride.

Honorable mentions for season 2: Sam Owens (love that guy), Steve & Dustin (their bromance was born here), Lucas, and Joyce.

Season 3 (The Worst)

Ranking the best characters of season 3 would be meaningless. Aside from Eleven no character stands out. They’re all given lousy material to work with. So here I’m doing the five worst characters, who are easy to single out.

1. Hopper. I can’t think of a character from any TV series who undergoes a perverted caricature like the Jim Hopper of Stranger Things 3. He’s light-years away from Hopper of seasons 1 and 2 — over the top in every frame and acting like a buffoon. His rage could have been compelling if taken seriously, but he’s played entirely for laughs.

2. Erica. Young sassy brats work in small doses. Erica’s brief moments in season 2 were amusing. As a main character in season 3 she is 100% annoying.

3. Robin. Her motor-mouthing isn’t endearing. She’s almost as annoying as Erica.

4. Joyce. Joyce isn’t terrible this season, but she does play into Hopper’s silliness. It’s a major downturn from her compelling performances in seasons 1 and 2.

5. Mike. Like Joyce he’s not exactly bad this season, but he’s just kind of there, and played too much for comic relief. Quite a fall from the Mike who was the best character of seasons 1 and 2.

Season 4

This is the season of hell — ladies put through hell (El and Max), a guy accused of summoning demons from hell (Eddie), a poor kid going through hell (Will), and a man living in hell (Hopper in prison). They are the best characters of season 4 hands down:

1. El. She’s put through the ringer 700 ways to Sunday — bullied in high school, arrested for lashing out at her bully, taken to the Silo Lab where she relives her worst traumas (involving more bullying), on top of being manipulated by Papa, and then shot at by government assassins. For all her pain she fails to defeat Vecna — who not only gets away but initiates the end of the world. But you’ve never been more proud of El than in season 4. What a performance.

2. Max. Like El she has nothing to smile about this season, and by the end she’s braindead, blind, and broken. Max has come a long way since season 2, and has easily catapulted up to the #2 character.

3. Eddie. The only seasonal guest who makes a top five, Eddie is easily the best character after the ladies. He’s overtaken Mike as the dungeon-master god, is scapegoated for murder and demon-worship, and damn, he can jam some metal.

4. Will. The most heartbreaking scenes are between Mike and Will. The genius is that Will’s sexual orientation is never mentioned by anyone; it doesn’t need to be, and while Mike remains oblivious, Jonathan seems to be catching on. Wonderful work from Noah.

5. Hopper. Not quite the boss he was in seasons 1 and 2, but still a great comeback for Hopper, and almost enough to atone for his atrocious outing in season 3.

Honorable mentions for season 4: Sam Owens (as solid as his season-2 performance), Mike (still not back in the top 5, but almost), Nancy (the perfect army commando), Steve & Dustin (their bromance continues), and Lucas (good arc as he bonds with the jocks). I should also point out that Erica, who was 100% annoying in season 3, has been dialed way back in season 4 to become fairly tolerable.

“This is Hawkins, Not Westeros”

Maybe so, but this is a feeble reply.

The reply comes from Matt Duffer in response to Millie Bobby Brown, who opined in an interview that the Duffers need to start taking things more seriously and kill off some of the major characters in Stranger Things.

Millie Bobby Brown: “They need to kill off some people. The cast is way too big. Last night we couldn’t even take one group picture, there were like 50 of us… Matt and Ross Duffer are two Sensitive Sallies that don’t want to kill anyone off. We need to have the mindset of Game of Thrones.”

Matt Duffer: “Believe us, we’ve explored all options in the writing room, but we aren’t Game of Thrones. This is Hawkins, not Westeros.”

Matt continued, saying that Stranger Things wouldn’t be Stranger Things anymore if there were deaths for death’s sake, and without ‘realistic’ ramifications. But that’s not the idea. I don’t think Millie was intending the Game of Thrones analogy that literally. All she was saying is that the Duffers need have the balls — and indeed the “realism” they disingenuously appeal to — to kill off at least one or two major characters, for Christ’s sake, and for good. They can’t just keep knocking off the Barbs and the Bobs and the Eddies, and faking it with the Hoppers and the Maxes. Not only has that formula become painfully predictable by this point, it is NOT realistic to keep your major characters shielded like this. Audiences have come to expect more in the post-Game of Thrones era — not so that body counts need to be as high as in the Westeros world, but so that show writers at least take a cue from that world, and have the artistic integrity to let a precious character die once in a while. We’re in season 4 with one to go, and that hasn’t happened yet.

I should make clear that I love Stranger Things 4 — it way exceeded my expectations after a turgid season 3 — but Millie’s point here is well taken.

The Best Scenes in Stranger Things

Fifty of them. Most are from seasons 1, 2, and 4. Only six are from season 3.

(See also my rankings of all the episodes and the four seasons.)

1. The Snow Ball (Season 2, Episode 9). Happy endings aren’t my usually thing, but there are great exceptions. After a season of misery and estrangement, the kids find happiness on the dance floor, as each of the four boys ends up with the “right girl” — Mike with El, Lucas with Max, Dustin with Nancy-to-the rescue, Will and a nameless “Zombie Boy” fan. To the stalker smash “Every Breath You Take”, as only appropriate, since El has been stalking Mike in the Void for a whole year. I’m hard pressed to think of an epilogue in TV history that pays off the entire season like the Snow Ball does in Stranger Things 2. Of course it’s my favorite scene of the series.

Stranger Things Finale: 6 Questions After Season 3, Episode 8
2. Leaving Hawkins (Season 3, Episode 8). No, you’re not misreading this. For all my trashing of season 3, the finale is excellent and its epilogue almost as good as season-2’s (see #1 above). The Duffers managed to produce a Stranger Things equivalent of the Grey Havens. Mike, Lucas, and Dustin are Sam, Merry, and Pippin tearfully watching the departure of “Ring-bearers” Eleven and Will, who have taken the most punishment in the series and are sailing west to start over. The reprisal of “Heroes” (the Peter Gabriel cover) is perfect for this montage after Hopper’s voice-over.

3. Max and Vecna (Season 4, Episode 4). The final sixteen minutes of Dear Billy could be rewatched a million times and never get old. The sequence starts with Max reading her letter by Billy’s grave, and ends with her falling from the sky into Lucas’s arms, while in between she is pulled into a waking nightmare that I keep thinking will kill her even though I know she escapes it. The power of music is portrayed in a way never seen before. I’m not sure what my song would be to save me from Vecna (any of these might work), but the Kate Bush song works cinematically, and the montage that plays as she resists Vecna is brilliant. Those flashbacks are virtually the only times we see Max and Eleven happy this season, underscoring how grim the fourth season is for each of them.

4. Mike and El’s Reunion / Mike Attacks Hopper (Season 2, Episodes 8 & 9). From the end of season 2, where everyone is huddled inside Hopper’s cabin bracing for a demo-dog attack, to El’s surprise rescue, to her reunion with Mike, to Mike’s furious assault on Hopper. All of this enormously pays off El’s season-long absence, and for me it’s the highest emotional point of the series. You feel Mike’s rage at Hopper for keeping her hidden so long. You feel El’s jealousy over Max when she snubs the poor girl (Max has been shat on by everyone except Lucas throughout this season). You want Mike and El to hold each other forever; Finn Wolfhard plays it wonderfully, asking heartbroken why El never called back to him in the Void.

5. The Massacre at Hawkins Lab (Season 4, Episode 7). The final eighteen minutes of this episode involve the most despicable acts of violence in the series, with twists and reveals brilliantly executed. Eleven leaves the closet to find One and finds mangled corpses down every hall. She bursts into the Rainbow Room and sees One killing the last child (Two), and then listens to his sickening views of humanity and the world. She attacks him in rage and almost gets torn apart for it, before blasting him into the shadow realm where he turns into Vecna. This is the culmination of three episodes in which El is put through the Nina ringer, reliving traumas far worse than high school bullying.

https://rossonl.files.wordpress.com/2022/06/goofbye-hello.png6. Good-bye Mike, Hello Will (Season 1, Episode 8). Even if El doesn’t really die, her sacrifice hits hard; she certainly thinks she’s about to die as she blasts the demogorgon and follows its disintegration into the Upside Down. It’s the ending the season deserves, with Mike left crushed, not fully understanding how he came to love this girl in the space of six days. Meanwhile, as his girlfriend vanishes, his lost friend is resuscitated in the Upside Down by Hopper and Joyce, with extremely emotional flashbacks of Sara Hopper dying in the hospital. The double climax pays off everyone’s arc perfectly.

7. Max’s Death / The Apocalypse Begins (Season 4, Episode 9). By far the most upsetting scene of the series, and the most catastrophic. Max’s death initiates the apocalypse (the earthquake does take at least one satisfying victim, ripping Jason in half), and Lucas and El unleash enough tears and anguish to indict the gods. And though Max is resurrected, it isn’t a cheat, since she is broken and blind and returns in a coma. I’d rather be dead than come back like that. As a post-script, the book Lucas reads to Max in the hospital is probably the most brilliant homage of the series to date: The Talisman, by Stephen King and Peter Straub. The novel is about a dark parallel world — a medieval version of the United States — and the passage Lucas reads involves the blind character Speedy. A not so subtle hint about what may be in store for Max if she ever wakes from her coma.

8. “Home” (Season 2, Episodes 3, 5, & 7). In each of these scenes El seizes onto the idea that she has found her true home. The first comes in the flashback with Hopper (episode 3), when he brings her to his cabin. The second comes at her Aunt Becky’s house (episode 5), where she is invited to live. The third comes in Chicago, at the abandoned warehouse of Kali and her crew (episode 7). That last one especially is poignant, but the “home” theme works powerfully as an arc over all the episodes. At each place — cabin, house, and warehouse — El repeats the word “home”, with an increased desperation to know her place in the world outside Hawkins Lab.

7 Details You Might Have Missed In 'Stranger Things 3'
9. “Heroes” (Season 1, Episode 3). The scene that made me an obsessive fan. A corpse is dragged from the quarry and everyone thinks it’s Will’s. 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. It’s in this scene that two things come sharply into focus: the kids’ acting talents, and the Duffers’ writing-directing skills. From here I binged the rest of the episodes and never looked back.

10. Snow Ball Nightmare (Season 4, Episode 9). In this dark homage to the season-2 Snow Ball dance, Max hides from Vecna inside her happiest memory. There are the blue and white balloons, the glitzy decoratives, and “Every Breath You Take” is playing. But it all quickly unravels as Vecna breaks down her mental barriers. The Police song segues into the eerie-sounding “Dream a Little Dream of Me” (the favorite tune of Vecna’s father), the balloons explode into blood, and everything turns gray and Upside-Downish. Vecna arrives to finish Max off, but then Eleven intervenes — having piggybacked onto Max’s mind — and a battle on the dance floor paves the way to more pain. The Snow Ball nightmare is cut into six scenes adding up to about ten minutes, and it’s brilliantly constructed.

11. Closing the Gate (Season 2, Episode 9). Pulling this off requires more than an expenditure of power. El must look within and face herself, lest she be paralyzed by her inadequacies. The flashbacks of her lab traumas, trials with Kali, and the ghost of Papa are brilliantly used to show the conflict raging inside her: “You have a wound, Eleven, a terrible wound. And it’s festering. It’s rotting. And it will grow. Spread. And eventually, it will kill you.” Kali urged that the wound comes from Dr. Brenner and his abuse, making vigilante justice the path to healing; El sees that the wound comes less from Papa and more from herself, even if by accident. Giving in to homicidal urges is self-destructive — and it’s this epiphany that liberates her from self-paralysis, allowing her to blast the Mind Flayer and close the real wound.

12. El and Hopper’s Heart-to-Heart (Season 2, Episode 9). I use those words deliberately. In episode 1 of season 3, we were supposed to believe that Hopper found the idea of a “heart to heart” wholly alien; that discussing serious issues with his daughter was out of his comfort zone and beyond his comprehension (such that he needed Joyce to coach him every step of the way). This despite the fact that in the last episode we saw him in — this one, episode 9 of season 2 — he was having the purest heart to heart you could imagine. Hopper and El have a lot of great scenes together in season 2, but this one is their best, as they each admit to each other how wrong they’ve been.

13. Will Inside the Wall (Season 1, Episode 4). This scene has given me a few nightmares, at least three or four that I recall, maybe more. Joyce rips down her wallpaper and sees her terrified son shouting to her in a flesh-encased portion of the wall. Her hysterics are convincing; this is the way a mother would act. Stranger Things is at its scariest when it does weird shit like this, and although seasons 2 and 4 are darker and scarier on whole, season 1 managed to land what I consider to be the most frightening scene. It makes us feel as helpless as Joyce. Will is up close but out of reach, alone in Hell, being terrorized out of his mind.

14. Helicopter Sniper/Papa’s Death (Season 4, Episode 8). Eleven’s farewell to Papa doesn’t miss a beat, nailing all the right cords of love and loathing. She loves Brenner yet despises him for his monstrous manipulations, for trying to convince her that she’s a monster, for abusing her mother, and for robbing her of choice in the name of liberation. When he begs for understanding as he dies, she feels a genuine pull toward forgiveness, but is strong enough to refuse absolving him. A heartfelt “good-bye” is all she has to give; it suffices. The prelude to this is the explosive spectacle of her bringing down the helicopter containing the sniper — the most spectacular use of her powers since flipping the van in season 1.

Stranger Things Season 3|Billy saves Eleven from The Mind Flayer - YouTube
15. “The Wave Was Seven Feet” (Season 3, Episode 8). Oh, season 3, how shitty thou art. Your plot is a carbon copy of season 2’s: the Mind Flayer has taken over a human host (Billy this time instead of Will); there is a Gate that makes this possible (at the Mall instead of the Lab); the Gate thus needs to be closed, to sever the connection to the Upside Down. El can’t close the Gate this time though, because she has lost her powers. And yet the Duffers were able to make lemonade out of these lemons in the way El defeats the Mind Flayer: by empowering its victim. She describes a memory she had shared while inside Billy’s mind, and manages to reach Billy, who sacrifices himself. It’s an extremely moving scene.

16. D&D Campaign: The Demogorgon (Season 1, Episode 1). The next two are really a tie, but I’m giving pride of place to the season-1 game. It’s the first scene of the series and does more with less. The boys’ campaign is a perfect summation of my nerdy childhood and shows why the game was so fun in the early ’80s. Mike is established as the group leader (and so of course the dungeon master), Lucas the pragmatic skeptic, Dustin the hilarious, and Will the sensitive kid. It also establishes the series trope of using D&D creature names for the real shadow threats about to devastate Hawkins. It’s almost as though these D&D games are summoning evil from the Upside Down.

17. D&D Campaign: The Cult of Vecna (Season 4, Episode 1). Be assured that the season-3 game is nowhere on this list. Will’s dungeon-master costume was ridiculous, his DM skills were atrocious, and Mike and Lucas were a pair of jerks. The season-4 game makes D&D shine again. Eddie is the supreme DM, his Hellfire pals rock, and Mike and Dustin are in top form. The power of this scene is magnified by the basketball intercut. Lucas’s final shot and Erica’s last die roll have me holding my breath every time I watch it. “That’s why we play,” says Eddie, when only two player characters are left standing, and how bloody right he is.

18. Telekinetic Tantrum (Season 2, Episode 4). El and Hopper are so pissed at each other you can feel the fire. She returns from stalking Mike at the school — having flouted Hopper’s rules that keep her confined in his cabin — and he goes through the roof, screaming in her face and taking away her Eggo and TV privileges. She retaliates by throwing a mega-tantrum, hurling books and shattering windows. She’ll have to clean up her mess the next day, but it’s pretty sweet to see a frustrated kid let loose like this. Some of the rawest acting talent is on display between Millie and David Harbour in the tantrum scene, and I’m not surprised it’s a favorite of Ross Duffer.

19. Possession Trauma (Season 2, Episode 4). Possession is the king of horror tropes, but also the riskiest because it’s hard to do right. Noah nailed it with subtleties that even Linda Blair didn’t pull off in The Exorcist — alternating 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 — and it’s the first of those that he delivers at the start of Will the Wise. Season 2 then becomes an assault-on-all-fronts, as the Mind Flayer plans to wreak devastation through this kid, and slowly eats away his mind.

20. Tracking-Shot: Home Invasion (Season 4, Episode 4). The Dear Billy episode is known for Max and Vecna (see #3 on this list), but this scene did just as much to make me a nervous wreck. It’s prefaced by a touching moment between Mike and Will, as Mike admits he’s been a jerk and Will so obviously wants to fuck him on the bed right there, to Mike’s utter obliviousness. Then the government goons crash the house and start shooting. A shootout like this is surprising enough in Stranger Things, but it’s done in a single tracking shot that looks viscerally real. The last time I was this impressed by a tracking shot in a TV series was True Detective‘s “Who Goes There?”

https://rossonl.files.wordpress.com/2022/06/save-them.png21. “I Can Save Them” (Season 2, Episode 7). Contrary to popular opinion, The Lost Sister is one of the best episodes of season 2 (my third favorite, after The Gate and Will the Wise). The fact that Kali isn’t the strongest character is irrelevant; she’s all that she needs to be. The episode isn’t about her (despite the title), it’s about Eleven, and how she comes to terms with herself — her murderous impulses, the question of where she belongs — to which Kali serves as a mentor to follow or reject. Without Kali, Eleven wouldn’t have had an arc to speak of in season 2. Her decision to return to Hawkins and her real friends is one of her best moments.

22. El’s Reunion With Hopper (Season 4, Episode 9). This was bound to be a tear-jerker, but with Millie driving the scene, it’s an ultra tear-jerker. I love how they comment on each others loss of hair.

23. Flipping the Van (Season 1, Episode 7). The pre-credits sequence of The Bathtub episode could stand on its own as a short film. As Mike and El almost share a first kiss in the bathroom, Dustin barges in, and all hell breaks loose. The government goons descend, and the kids take to their bikes, flying down roads and around corners, side paths that cut between homes, rendez-vousing with Lucas, until they’re sandwiched between oncoming vans. The van-flip is spectacular, as are the reconciliation scenes — between Lucas and El, and Lucas and Mike — in the junkyard. Did all that really happen in a pre-credits sequence? Yep.

24. Emo Mike & Nancy (Season 2, Episode 1). These two scenes play wonderfully back to back: Mike getting scolded at the dinner table for acting out in school, and Nancy having dinner with Barb’s parents, who tragically believe their daughter is still alive. Mike retreats to his basement where he still keeps El’s fort; Nancy retreats to the bathroom where she breaks down over Barb. Through the Wheeler siblings we feel the cost of the season-1 losses, and I was glad the Duffers had the nerve to take those losses seriously throughout season 2. In the hands of other show writers, Nancy would have moved on already, and El would have reunited with Mike early in the season instead of at the end.

25. Hopper in the Demo-Pit (Season 4, Episode 7). The best demogorgon outing is the season-1 classroom scene (see # 6) — with the boys shouting over each other and Lucas vainly firing his slingshot until El steps in — but the Russian Demo-Pit shows how fast these beasts are. Truth told, the boys in season 1 were confronted by a very slow one; Lucas wouldn’t have gotten off two rocks, let alone four, against the one in the demo-pit. Hopper has quite a time of it, as the creature tears his fellow inmates apart.

Stranger Things: 10 Things You Didn't Know About the Byers House | Flipboard
26. Joyce’s Ouija Wall (Season 1, Episode 3). If there’s a scene in Stranger Things that shouts classic, this is probably it. Joyce’s Ouija Wall has become such an iconic image that restaurants and fun houses have replicated it. The scene, in conjunction with “Heroes” (#10 above) — both from the Holly Jolly episode — is what turned me into a hard-core fan. It represents Joyce’s breakthrough with Will, as she communicates with him through the Christmas-tree lights, and he tells her to run from the house as the demogorgon bursts through.

27. Stalking Mike (Season 2, Episode 2). Much of the drama in season 2 is carried on El’s presumed death, with Mike in denial. He has no idea how right he is, that El hears him calling her all the time and wants to let him know she’s okay. The scene that shows her stalking him in the Void is especially well shot, flicking back and forth between Mike alone and El only inches away from him in the black background. Their mutual pain is felt acutely in this scene.

28. Inside Billy’s Mind (Season 3, Episode 6). One of the few scenes that justifies season 3’s existence. It runs eleven minutes, from the point of El washing up on the California beach, to being assaulted by chaotic images of Billy’s past, to finally returning to herself in Hopper’s cabin — only to find out that it’s a nightmare cabin, with her friends gone and Billy waiting there to torment her. It’s one of the freakiest scenes in the series that makes you feel the terror of being mentally trapped and unable to wake up.

29. Reunion with Papa (Season 4, Episode 5). Not a happy one for El, but shocking and powerful. I was expecting Brenner to return in season 4 for flashbacks, but wasn’t thinking he was still alive. It was a strong move to bring him back and mentor El once again. Their dysfunctional relationship, and El’s Stockholm dependency, was so well presented in season 1 that it demanded a follow-up, and season 4 takes it to the next level. That Owens is working with Brenner (with mixed feelings) is a big bonus.

Visiting Stranger Things Filming Locations in Atlanta » Whisky + Sunshine
30. A Bromance is Born (Season 2, Episode 6). Almost any scene between Steve and Dustin is list-worthy, and I could name several. But the train-track scene is where the bromance was born and it has attained a near mythological status. It’s hard to believe Dustin once had a crush on Max. Maybe he still would if not for Steve.

31. The Diner Scene (“The Return of the Superhero”) (Season 4, Episode 3). Paul Reiser is a great actor, Sam Owens a great character, and the diner scene a great homage to Reiser’s role in the 1982 film. His speech marks a turning point in season 4, as Eleven is offered a window of opportunity: to trade in the misery of school bullying for the monstrous torments of getting her powers back. The scene is shot as an epic montage with soaring music. We see (or hear) Vecna closing in on Max, as Owens explains to El the last resort he’s had in place in case a threat like Vecna emerged — and assures her that she’s probably not the bad person she thinks she is.

32. “She Tried to Get Naked!” (Season 1, Episode 2). Unlike the slapstick comedy of season 3, the humor in the early seasons is natural and organic and genuinely funny. This scene being an excellent case in point. It’s exactly the way 12-year old boys would react to a girl about to take her clothes off. Mike is sweet as he takes care of this strange girl and gives her fresh clothes and a towel and teaches her about the need for privacy.

33. Steve and the Demo-Bats (Season 4, Episode 7). The next three are Steve’s demo-fights from seasons 1, 2, and 4. This one gets priority for taking place in the Upside Down. The demo-bats are terrifying against the red and purple hues of the landscape. Steve doesn’t get to use the spiked bat this time — instead he pulls an Ozzy move and tears apart a bat with his teeth.

34. Steve and the Demo-Dogs (Season 2, Episode 6). A brutally intense scene in which Steve gets flanked by a second demo-dog as he faces the one ahead, and barely manages to bat them away. He beats a hasty retreat into the bus with Dustin, Lucas, and Max — who begin screaming their heads off when one of the beasts appears above them, looking down the ladder hole. I almost shit my pants when I first watched this.

35. Steve and the Demogorgon (Season 1, Episode 8). Steve’s turning point, when he decides that his assholeries require atonement. He has had a genuine change of heart (finding that he doesn’t like being an asshole), making his character arc one of the series’ best. He goes back into the Byers’ house to help Nancy and Jonathan, and the strobe light works to great effect against the backdrop of the Christmas-tree lights, making his fight with the demogorgon mega-intense.

36. Sauna Battle (Season 3, Episode 4). The next two are Eleven’s battles with the Mind Flayer in season 3, the first against Billy and the second against the Flayed. It was nice that El got to kick some ass before losing her powers in the finale, and equally nice that we never lose sight of her vulnerability. Billy nearly strangles her before she manages to throw him through a brick wall. Interesting post-script to this scene: when El collapses into Mike’s arms crying, that wasn’t acting on Millie’s part; shooting this scene put her through the ringer.

Stranger Things Season 3 ⁄ Hawkins Crew vs Mind Flayer Scene - YouTube | Stranger things, Robert englund, Netflix
37. Cabin Battle (Season 3, Episode 7). The last ass-kicking that El dishes out on the Mind Flayer before losing her powers, and brilliantly choreographed. Hopper’s cabin is devastated as the Flayed Beast punches holes through it to seize her. It’s a miracle she’s not torn in half by the tug-of-war between her friends and the Flayed, and also miraculous that no one in the cabin is killed by Nancy’s shotgun blasts. Mike ripping the flayed piece off El’s leg is excruciating to watch, and her splitting the monster apart gratifying.

38. Mike Jumps (Season 1, Episode 6). Bullying is major theme in Stranger Things (except in season 3), and Mike’s bullies are the worst, making him jump off a cliff for humiliating them in front of the entire school. El’s surprise rescue is sublime, and the flashback of her opening the Gate is heart rending, as she sincerely believes that she’s the monster, despite Mike’s assurances.

39. El Smashes Angela’s Face (Season 4, Episode 2). When it comes to her own bullies El is less effective. Without her powers and sense of self-worth she’s defenseless, and in this sense I felt far more sorry for her than for Mike in season 1 (who for the most part took Troy in stride). It was hugely satisfying to see her smash Angela in the face with a roller-skate — even more than seeing her break Troy’s arm with telekinetic powers. (I place Mike’s cliff rescue above the roller-skate incident because of the iconic moment when El, Mike, and Dustin share a group hug.) Once again her flashbacks reinforce her view of herself as a monster, only this time Mike isn’t the best shoulder to cry on.

40. El Rips Mike a New One (Season 4, Episode 3). You can hardly blame her. Mike isn’t the most supportive or discerning boyfriend even when the pain is plain. He can’t say (or write) that he loves her, and digs himself in deeper by protesting that he thinks she’s the most incredible person in the world and a superhero — which she obviously isn’t anymore, but it’s the wrong thing to say in any case. This is how their season-3 fight/breakup should have been handled; with the seriousness it deserved.

41. Eddie’s Death (Season 4, Episode 9). Eddie is the secret hero of season 4. Not just because he finally steps up and faces down the Upside-Down with metal jams, but for his cafeteria wisdom in his very first scene — his unabashed pronouncements like “forced conformity is what’s really killing kids” (see #47 below). Dustin’s reaction to Eddie’s death is the culmination of a bromance over season 4 which for my money is just as compelling as his bromance with Steve over seasons 2 through 4.

We Gotta Talk About Bob In "Stranger Things 2"
42. Bob’s Death (Season 2, Episode 8). On my first watch of season 2, the death of Bob Newbie took me completely off guard. Yes, the Duffers had killed off Barb in season 1, but that was as early as episode 3. Bob made it to the penultimate episode, was a lovable character and partner to Joyce, and I couldn’t see him getting the axe. When he outran the demo-dogs, I breathed again, knowing I was foolish for worrying… and then the doors crashed down. It’s a wonder Joyce didn’t go to Pennhurst after watching Bob torn apart and eaten.

The Full Significance of Barb's Death on STRANGER THINGS - Nerdist
43. Barb’s Death (Season 1, Episode 3). This is the scene I return to when I think of the “horrors” of season 3 that weren’t at all scary. Season 3 was body-horror (gross-out horror), and as far as that goes it’s okay. I like David Cronenberg films as much as the Duffers. But body horror isn’t menacing like the deeper and more feral horrors of seasons 1, 2, and 4. Barb’s death remains one of the most terrifying scenes in the series, relying on what you can hear and sense but not see (the demogorgon), and an utterly terrified Barb who fights vainly for her life.

44. Conversational Affection (Season 4, Episode 9). As the bathtub is prepared for El, she and Mike enjoy some lighter moments, including an argument over pineapple pizza, which Mike rightly calls blasphemous. Will and Jonathan have a more serious talk, and as usual in season 4, Will is heartbreaking to watch as he can’t discuss what’s tearing him up inside. Though Jonathan seems to get it now.

pinterest || кαℓєyнσggℓє | Stranger things, Stranger, Historical figures
45. “Crazy Together” (Season 2, Episode 2). This moment shows Mike and Will 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. It’s why he finds Lucas and Dustin so goddamn insufferable (as they persist in having a good time, and with a girl from California to boot), and ditches Halloween night to take Will back home with him. So they can be crazy together alone.

46. Eddie’s Cafeteria Rant (Season 4, Episode 1). The moment Eddie walks that cafeteria table is the moment season 4 makes clear that Stranger Things is back in top form. You know you’re going to love this guy, you know you’ll love the Hellfire Club, and you know those damn basketball jocks will eventually join the Satanic Panic that Eddie is making fun of. The way he rips into Mike and Dustin when they tell him Lucas has gone to the dark side (i.e. joined the basketball team) is hilarious.

47. Burning Inside Out (Season 2, Episode 6). As an Exorcist fan I got considerable mileage out of season 2, and the opening scene The Spy is inspired by Regan McNeill’s hideous PEG procedure. Will Byers is having it even worse than Regan, convulsing under the doctors who ask him where it hurts, to which he can only scream “everywhere”. Noah’s acting is so convincing that the actors thought he was really in agony during the shoot.

48. Eleven’s Self-Surgery (Season 3, Episode 8). The season 3 finale is bookmarked by three mighty El moments. The last occurs in the epilogue when she reads Hopper’s letter (see #2), the middle is her transcendent moment with Billy (see #9), and the other is the very first scene, in which she rips the flayed piece out of her leg. It’s possibly the most visceral scene in the series. Millie screams so fucking loud I can imagine those mall windows really broke on set from sonic devastation.

https://rossonl.files.wordpress.com/2022/07/el-will-needs-mike.png49. Can’t Say the Words (Season 4, Episode 8). This has to be the most heartbreaking scene of the series. Will assures Mike that El needs him, loves him, and can’t live without him, but of course he’s talking about himself, not El. The look on Jonathan’s face in the driver’s seat, as it begins to dawn on him what’s really up with his brother, is some fine subtle acting. The genius of Will’s arc is that his sexual orientation is never spelled out. It doesn’t need to be, and the drama is stronger for it.

Mike And Eleven (Mileven): Adorable Or Disastrous? • The Daily Fandom
50. Mike Makes His Move (Season 1, Episode 8). Can’t forget this one. Mike and El’s first kiss. He got the best girlfriend on the planet.