Endless Night (Chapter 1)

This nine-chapter Stranger Things novel is the long-awaited prequel that takes place before five other stories, which should be read in the following order: The College Years, The New Generation, World’s End, The Witch of Yamhill County and The Black Rose of Newberg. These are all works of fan fiction based on the Stranger Things TV series, from which I do not profit. There is plenty of Stranger Things fiction to be found online (see here), but if I learn that the Duffer Brothers do not appreciate fan fiction of their work, or if they order a cease-and-desist, I will gladly pull the stories down.

This prequel serves as an alternate season 4. It assumes the events portrayed in TV seasons 1-3, except that it was Joyce Byers who died in the Battle of Starcourt, while Jim Hopper survived to continue raising Eleven. William and Jonathan Byers stayed in Hawkins, and their Aunt Ruth came to live with them and assume guardianship of Will. Also: Karen Wheeler had an affair with Billy Hargrove before his possession, and she aided and abetted him in abducting people for the Mind Flayer, though she did not become one of the flayed.

                                    Endless Night — Chapter One

                       Forgive Us Our Debts

 

Saturday, January 17, 1987

Every time they did it, it was for Mike the first time. He was the luckiest sophomore alive.

I love her. I love this girl. 

It permeated him like a possession; absolute and life-affecting. Love, at its fullest, was life itself.

He took El’s tongue as she took his, tethered in an unbreakable kiss. His fingers pressed up her shirt and over her slopes, kneading purposefully. She gasped and clutched him below. Her move inflamed him, and he spun a one-eighty, forcing her down on the bed, falling on top of her, still lip-locked. She rubbed him more, and it was too much: he needed air. He groaned into her throat and ran wetness down her neck, up her cheeks, impatient to engage below. They fumbled at each other, and their clothes were off in seconds, some of them worse for wear. No matter. She was his, he was hers; it was writ forever.

Mike Wheeler believed that on January 17 of the year he died. He was going to marry Eleven someday, and the four winds take anyone who said otherwise. They were getting a foretaste of that imagined union. Here in this house, on their honeymoon. Six days down, eight to go.

He moved inside her, doing his utmost to make it last; to put her over the edge. He was getting better at this — at making it better for her. It was the only change since Christmas Eve: the prolonged pleasure. In every other way it was the first time, rewound and replayed. They cried their ecstasy, astonished all over that it could be so good.

In truth, they made enough noise to wake the Upside Down — and possibly even his parents downstairs. Though that was a crap shoot. Ted Wheeler was oblivious to most things outside his personal space, and at 3:00 in the afternoon, Karen Wheeler was often passed out. Mike was sure of one thing: his parents had never seen the river like he and El had. He could hardly imagine his father getting an erection, let alone putting it to use. His mother, on the other hand, was all too easy to imagine in this context. People had died because of her frustrated libido, and forgiveness was in short supply. Hawkins didn’t forget.

When he spent himself, he withdrew and kissed her, lying back on his pillow. “You good?” he asked.

El nodded, snuggling against him.

“Did I hurt you?” It was becoming an insecure question, but he couldn’t help it. Whenever he took her, he was a beast.

“No. I keep telling you.” She wasn’t placating him. As always, she had responded to his aggressions with fervor.

But you’re never happy anymore. It was the unspoken rift between them, and pointless to bring up.

Since early December, El had been in a funk. Most people couldn’t tell, because her arrested development made her awkward to begin with; but Mike knew her intimately. Her life-spark had gone out, and she wouldn’t say why. Mike assumed it was the ongoing post traumatic stress. He and his friends could relate; Will especially. You lived in Hawkins, battled the Upside Down, and paid the price. El had extra baggage besides. Raised a lab rat for twelve years, she was still figuring out normal life after three. The way Mike saw it, she was entitled to a spell. Killing her virginity on Christmas Eve had restored her vitality — for a window of time. But sex wasn’t enough. Their lovemaking sessions were holding measures and little more. What El needed was the equivalent of an emotional enema. Mike laughed at the thought, wondering what such an enema would look like. A psychic purge maybe.

“What’s funny?” she asked.

“You’re funny,” he said, kissing her.

They lay for a while and watched a light snowfall through his bedroom window. It had started an hour ago and was supposed to stop before dark. Mike resented that; he wanted a storm. Winters were supposed to be full of blizzards. The winter of ’87 so far was lame.

“Want some music?” he asked.

She nodded. “Instrumental.”

Of course. “Which one?” It would be Antarctica or Underwater Sunlight. Her favorites.

Antarctica,” she said.

“Yeah, ’cause it’s snowing,” said Mike. He jumped naked out of bed, throwing on his t-shirt and shorts. Then he went over to his stereo and removed the album by The Alarm, replacing it with Vangelis. Ethereal crystalline synths filled the room as he returned to bed. El smiled. She had good taste. Vangelis was a musical genius, and somehow with Antarctica the composer had summoned a landscape of blinding desolation. You could hear the ice between the notes.

They stared at the snowfall, mesmerized by the music. He held El close and ran his fingers through her hair. Neither of them spoke until the third track. “How’s she treating you?” he finally asked.

“Mike,” she said.

“Answer me. And I want the truth. Is that bitch giving you a hard time?”

“Don’t call her that. She’s still your mother. And you see how she treats me. She’s fine.”

“I mean when I turn my back. Or when she catches you alone. And I’ll call my bitch mother the bitch that she is.”

“She’s fine,” El repeated.

You’re lying.

It was no exaggeration to say that Mike Wheeler respected his parents as he respected the excrement he flushed down the commode every morning. His mother especially. Karen Wheeler had lost her son’s respect (and the rest of the town’s) after her affair with Billy Hargrove and brutal descent into alcoholism. Ted Wheeler had never had authority to begin with, no presence; he was only dimly aware of anything beyond his dinner, his newspaper, or the TV. Little Holly — a stentorian seven-year old — deserved better. She needed her older sister. But Nancy was in college. In her absence Mike lived by his own rules, and if his parents had a problem with that, he dared either one of them to object.

“I won’t stand for her shit,” said Mike.

El kissed him. “It’s our honeymoon. Don’t start anything with her. I can handle dirty looks.”

He kissed her back and grew hard again. Oh man. “El,” he said, almost embarrassed. “Can we go again?”

She groaned mockingly, but obliged him, and Mike made it good for her, slower this time, to the musical transcendence of Vangelis.

 

Their “honeymoon” was a two-week reprieve from Eleven’s father, Jim Hopper, now vacationing in Oregon. A vacation for him was a de facto vacation for her and Mike, and they had planned shrewdly. Nominally El was staying at Max Mayfield’s until his return, but she spent most of her afternoons and overnights on Maple Street.

Mike knew he was lucky. He was the only fifteen year old in Hawkins who could get away with living with his girlfriend, let alone shag her so openly. Not that his mother hadn’t tried killing the arrangement in its crib.

“Are you out of you mind?” She had slammed the lid of her crock-pot when he announced that El was moving in for two weeks. This was after school on Monday, January 12, hours after Hopper was safely gone. His flight to Portland had left that morning.

“You have a problem with that?” asked Mike.

“Michael, if you think you’re bringing Eleven home to sleep with, you’re dreaming.”

“El is going to sleep in my room, and what we do is none of your –”

“Over my dead body!”

“Fine!” he shouted. “Die like your shitty boyfriend! El’s staying over, and you better be nice to her!”

She stared at him, stunned. She was bleary-eyed from vodka but wide awake from shock. This was open rebellion. Mike stared her down until she lowered her eyes. “So this is how you treat your mother now, I guess.”

Mike stared at her with contempt. “You’re lucky to live here. Dad should have divorced you. Billy was the worst piece of shit who ever lived. I’m not married, and Eleven is a great girl. You don’t have a fucking say in what I –”

She slapped him so hard it sounded like a shotgun blast. Mike’s cheek bloomed, but he didn’t flinch.

Then Karen Wheeler broke down sobbing. The truth shone on her and it was none pleasant: she had fallen low — way too low to reclaim her standing in the family. She dropped to the kitchen floor and cried like a lost child, and Mike almost relented. She was his mother, and he instinctively wanted to comfort her. Then he turned and walked off, leaving her to vain regrets. Some things couldn’t be forgiven.

Now they all sat at the dinner table: his mother and father, Holly, El, and himself. El was in Nancy’s seat. The snow had stopped and the setting sun bled through the window. Holly dominated everyone with endless complaints. She was in second grade now, which made her a sophomore like Mike in her mind.

“Here, El,” said Mike, passing her a huge bowl. He had served its contents to Holly, who wasn’t pleased about it.

“Thank you,” said El, taking it. It was filled with a creamy orange mess and littered with dirty parsley.

“They’re scalloped potatoes,” said Mike. The sauce is runny, he didn’t add. He was sure the potatoes were undercooked too. Once upon a time his mother prepared gourmet dinners. This was the era of passable meals, often just barely.

“Gross!” shouted Holly, who was holding up an oozing spoonful.

“Be quiet and eat, Holly,” said Mike, serving himself more of the mess than he wanted, and eying his mother across the table who ignored them all. She was in full passive-aggressive mode and looked like she wanted to hit someone. Her eyes were glassy, and she desperately needed a nap.

“You be quiet,” retorted Holly. “I want real food.”

“Here,” said El, passing her the hamburger patties. “Do you want a big one?”

Holly nodded and El served her. The meat was promptly drowned in ketchup (Holly used a fifth of the bottle) and then given the company of a handful of grapes. Holly guarded the grape platter jealously by her side. She elbowed her milk glass doing so… and the milk went everywhere.

“Damn it!” cried Holly.

“Language!” cried Ted Wheeler, as El rushed for paper towels. Mike helped her wipe up the spill. His father chewed his food, ruminating over every bite. A typical dinner at the Wheelers.

When everyone finished eating, Mike went upstairs and El helped his mother with the dishes. She did this every night, which Karen Wheeler accepted with a reluctance that resembled constipated resentment. Mike didn’t like leaving El alone with his mother — and tonight proved why. As they finished loading the dishwasher, Mike returned downstairs and looked in on them. He saw his mother grabbing El and talking fiercely. El was in tears.

Mike stormed into the kitchen. “Let her go!”

Karen Wheeler did that, frightened by her son’s wrath. “Michael, you calm down –”

He got right up in his mother’s face. He hadn’t been this angry in a long time. “What were you saying to her? What were you saying, you poisonous bitch?”

“Mike, don’t!” said Eleven desperately, wiping tears from her face. “It’s okay. It was nothing.”

“Nothing, my ass.”

Karen Wheeler moved to get around him, and he blocked her. It was all he could do to restrain himself. “I swear to God,” he said, “the next time you lay a hand on her — you say a single wrong thing to her — I’m going to beat the shit out of you.”

“Don’t you threaten me!” yelled Karen Wheeler. “I’m still your mother, whatever else you think of me!”

Mike let her go, and Karen Wheeler fled the kitchen sobbing. She ran upstairs to her bedroom and slammed the door. He turned and saw El, standing there miserable.

“What was she saying to you?” he demanded.

“You shouldn’t treat her like that, Mike.”

Mike felt a bit small for his threat. He would never hit his mother, of course, even when he felt like it. “El, tell me. Why did she grab you like that?”

“It was nothing. She doesn’t like me, that’s all. I don’t want to talk about it — it will only make you mad.”

He was madder not knowing. But he let it go for now.

 

Later that night Nancy called, furious. “Mike, what the hell is going on?”

“What do you mean?” he asked. His voice was steady but his fury began to build. His mother had obviously called her with a sob story.

“Did you grab Mom and make a fist at her?” asked Nancy.

Unbelievable. “Hold on. I’m going to the phone in your room.” Livid, he set the receiver down and walked into the living room. El was watching Holly play with her dolls, as Ted Wheeler dozed in front of the TV. Mike told El he needed her. El got up, promising Holly she’d be right back.

In the kitchen he handed her the receiver. “Hang this up when I tell you to. I’m going to take the call in Nancy’s room.”

El nodded, holding it to her ear.

“You can say hi,” said Mike. “It’s Nancy.”

El lit up. “Hi Nancy,” she said into the mouthpiece.

Mike raced upstairs. He didn’t want to give El enough time to be interrogated. He tripped at the top and swore, massaging his shins. Stumbling into Nancy’s room, he shut the door, went over to her night table, and picked up the phone.

Nancy was talking. “Make sure –”

“El,” broke in Mike. “You can hang up now.”

“Okay,” said El. “Bye Nancy.”

“Good-bye,” said Nancy. “I miss you.”

“Me too.” There was a click.

“What you were saying to her?” asked Mike. ” ‘Make sure’ what?”

“Tell me about Mom,” said Nancy, ignoring his question. “Did you threaten her?”

That was a different question than before. “I didn’t grab her or make a fist at her. She’s a liar. I didn’t get physical at all.”

“But you threatened to.” She had dropped her first line of inquiry, and so El must have told her that their mother had distorted things.

“You bet your ass I threatened her.” Accused, he was in full defensive mode. “She’s been treating El like toxic waste.”

“That’s not acceptable, Mike.”

“That’s right. It’s not.”

“What you did is unacceptable. You can’t threaten Mom like that, even if you don’t mean it. El is upset.”

Mike was enraged. “What did El say?” Could he not trust his own girlfriend for two goddamn minutes? “What did she say!”

“What do you think she said? She’s not comfortable in a hostile environment.”

“Hostile?” Mike was ready to throw things. “Mom was the one who was hostile. She was grabbing El — making her cry.” Did El consider that hostile? “She hates El and thinks she’s not good enough for me. She’s a jealous, judgmental piece of shit.”

“I’m not defending Mom,” said Nancy. “I’m saying that you can stand up to her without acting like Conan the Barbarian.”

“Don’t be dramatic.”

“Dramatic is saying that you’ll beat the shit out of Mom.”

“Which I would obviously never do. So are you going to bitch at her now, and tell her to stop grabbing El, and lying about me?”

“Mike,” said Nancy, sounding strained. “Try walking a mile in her shoes.”

Mike closed his eyes. “People died because of her, Nancy.”

“I know that. But she’s alive, and she’s our mother. We can’t hate her for the rest of our lives.”

I can’t help hating her. “I have to go.” For all he knew, his mother was downstairs tormenting El again.

“Mike –”

He hung up on her.

 

Sunday dawned with more flurries. El was taking her morning shower when the walkie talkie went off: “Mike, do you copy?” It was Lucas.

Mike grabbed it off his desk. “Yeah. Over.”

“What did you think? Over.” He was asking about the latest episode of Miami Vice. The Friday night ritual in the Wheeler and Sinclair households. El liked the show too. Lucas would have called about this yesterday, but he had been out of town with family for the whole Saturday.

“To Larry. Over.”

“To Larry,” agreed Lucas. “And what payback. Over.”

The show writers had killed off Larry Zito, and the Miami Vice team — Crockett and Tubbs and Switek — had avenged their colleague in a blistering three-way shoot out. The shoot-out happened in a mall, which Mike could have done without. He relived Starcourt in that shoot-out. The rival gangs had opened fire on each other, and the vice cops rushed into the mall, happy to assist both sides. Everyone was gunned down, including the boss who had killed Zito. Mike wasn’t breathing well by the end. Joyce Byers had died in Starcourt; Mike’s friends had almost died too, throwing Satan’s Baby fireworks at the Mind Flayer; El had been bitten by it, and lost her powers for six months. He still had nightmares of that July 4th.

“Like I’ve been saying,” said Mike, keeping his voice level. “Season 3 is the best yet. Over.”

“I still like season 2,” said Lucas. “But this was great. They need to do more two-parters. Over.”

“What was it called again?” asked Mike. “The same as last week? Over.”

“Yeah. ‘Down for the Count’,” said Lucas. “Parts 1 and 2. Over.”

“Did it remind you of us? At Starcourt? Over.”

Lucas paused. “Yeah,” he said. “I almost expected Crockett and Tubbs to get pounced on by the Mind Flayer. The sight of any mall brings back memories.”

You were having “memories”? I was having a panic attack.

“But it was epic,” continued Lucas. ” ‘Down for the Count’ is the best story this season. Or at least a tie with ‘Stone’s War’. And don’t say it. Over.”

“No way,” said Mike, provoked. He thought “Stone’s War” was overpraised. Guerilla combat in Nicaragua wasn’t Miami Vice. “And I’ll say it until you wise up. ‘Forgive Us Our Debts’ reigns supreme. Over.”

That episode had aired in the middle of December as a serious game changer. Until the last few minutes it played like a boilerplate Hollywood screed against the death penalty: a murderer named Frank Hackman didn’t commit the crime for which he was found guilty (shooting Crockett’s friend in front of his family), so it became a predictable last-minute race against the clock to produce evidence that would exonerate him. Which the righteous Sonny Crockett did, busting his tail against every impossible odd. Except it turned out that Hackman really did kill Crockett’s friend, which he smugly revealed to Crockett as he came out of prison a free man. And then drove away laughing his ass off. Fade to black.

The bad guys won often enough in Miami Vice, but this twist was outrageous by even the show’s standards. Crockett had jumped through every hoop to get an innocent man off death row, and the man was guilty of exactly what he had been convicted of. Fans wanted to shoot their TV screens. So had Mike, but he cheered just the same. Not just for the Vice nihilism, but because the twist so utterly torpedoed the episode’s politics. “Forgive Us Our Debts” was a sermon against capital punishment, but in the end a toothless one. It portrayed Crockett as a lone moral hero whose lines shouted all the dogmas of the liberal left. The villains were pro-death penalty crusaders without a shred of integrity — especially the attorney general, who would rather let a possibly innocent man be executed than do anything to ruin his chances in the next election. The moral grid was clear: capital punishment was wrong. It’s what the liberal show writers wanted you to believe. But the twist shattered that grid. Every viewer cried foul for Hackman’s blood, furious that he escaped the electric chair. On the spot, “Forgive Us Our Debts” had turned Mike Wheeler into a pro-death penalty advocate. When you crossed liberalism with nihilism, you were left with self-mockery.

Mike had obsessed the Hackman Twist (as he called it) since it aired, and found that it spoke to him on a number of levels. He saw debt all around him, and little forgiveness to show for it. He wanted to forgive his mother but couldn’t. And feared a Hackman Twist if he did. That she would spit right back in Hawkins’ eye and repeat her sins.

“You’re crazy,” said Lucas. “That was a shit episode. Anyway, what are you and El doing today? Over.”

“We’re going to walk around Danford Creek. You and Max should join us. Over.”

“Can’t,” said Lucas. “Got chores. Over.”

“Loser,” said Mike. “Over.”

“Lesbian,” said Lucas, cutting him off: “Over and out.”

 

Danford Creek was an all-afternoon event. The temps got a degree above freezing, and the hike was good exercise. Mike had forgotten how serene the landscape was, and El looked almost happy again. As for dinner that night, it was a subdued affair. His mother ate in the living room, and Mike wouldn’t let El near the dishes. Karen Wheeler felt triumphant: the kitchen was hers again. Exhausted from the hike and his mother’s melodrama, they turned in early. Mike had school the next day.

They showered before bed, and Mike took Eleven under scalding hot water. It was sex at its steamiest and most convenient: the mess washed away with no effort. They loved it and planned on another shower bang in the morning. After drying off, they put on shorts and t-shirts, and Mike fell into bed completely exhausted. El didn’t join him right away. Across the room she sat in his chair and blindfolded herself with her bandana.

He sat up against his pillow. “Whoa, who are you spying on?”

“Shut up,” she said. She flipped the switch of his radio box and turned to dial to white noise.

Mike hadn’t seen her use the Void for a long time. He watched as the radio hissed and her nose started to bleed. Five minutes later, she pulled off the bandana and silenced the radio. She came to bed in his arms.

“Who were you spying on?” he asked again. “I won’t shut up until you tell me.”

She snuggled against him. “You never shut up anyway.”

“You shouldn’t invade people’s privacy, El.”

“It was my dad,” she said.

“Oh. Well, you can spy on Hopper all you want. He deserves it.”

She smacked his chest.

“Did you catch him taking a raunchy shit?”

“Mike, stop. I just checked to be sure he’s okay.”

Mike knew she missed him. El hadn’t been apart from Hopper for this amount of time since she started living in his cabin three years ago. For the last two years, since her adoption, he and Mike had carried on a cold war against each other for the sake of El’s affections. He hates me, Mike realized, as much mom hates El.

“El?” he asked.

“Yes?”

“Why do you think parents are such jealous assholes?”

He never found out what she was about to say. A blast of thunder and lightning shook the sky and earth, and Mike and El jumped a foot in the air off the bed.

“What the fuck?” said Mike, getting up and looking out his window.

“Is it a thunderstorm?” asked El, sitting up.

“It’s below freezing. Way too cold for a thunderstorm.” Never in his life had he heard thunder in the month of January. He wondered if someone was exploding fireworks, but dismissed the idea. The blast they had heard was far more loud and reverberative. It had filled the whole sky. And lighting was unmistakable; the window had lit up like a solar flare.

“Mike.”

He turned from the window. “Yeah?”

She held out her arms. “Come to bed.”

“Yeah.” His body reminded him he was exhausted. He came to her, turned off his table lamp, and they fell fast asleep in each others arms.

 

Later he came alive in dreams. Dreams of Starcourt and Miami Vice. Of Will and Dustin, gunned down by drug lords. Of those same drug lords dissolving into pools of flesh that became the Mind Flayer and swallowed Max and Lucas whole. It pounced on Mike, roaring and dripping foulness. He cried out for El, but she was gone — if she had ever been present in this phantasmagoria. The creature closed in, jaws slavering. Mike saw the head of Joyce Byers in the back of the double-jawed throat; she was screaming for Will, trying desperately to crawl out of the beast’s stomach. The Mind Flayer snapped shut its jaws and swallowed. Mike saw the elongated lump that was Joyce Byers going back down its throat.

Mrs. Byers, come back. Will needs you. Hopper needs you. So do I. Mrs. Byers!

The Mind Flayer leaped, tearing into Mike and feasting as the demo-dogs had once feasted out of Bob Newby. Mike screamed as he was eaten alive. He screamed for Mrs. Byers, and for Will, and for Nancy —

— and for El, as he shot straight up in bed. He was pouring sweat and hyperventilating. He waited many minutes, but was unable to shake off the dream. It had seemed too real. He looked over at El, sleeping peacefully on her side. I couldn’t have really called her. She’d be awake. He tucked extra blanket over her, then got up to clear his head. He didn’t want that dream picking up where it left off.

Down in the kitchen he poured himself a glass of water, raised it to his lips, and then threw it down the sink. He needed something real. He opened his parents’ liquor cabinet and grabbed the first bottle he saw: Bacardi 151. Supposedly strong stuff. He removed the cap, and took two giant swallows. Lava raced down his throat and Mike almost dropped the bottle. He hacked and coughed, and kept coughing; he was burning inside out. How did his mother drink this liquid flame?

He stumbled to the sink and drank from the faucet, inhaling cold water until the fire went out. Already he was unwinding; feeling his mind numbing from the booze. And yet…

Something wasn’t right. He sensed a presence nearby — as if something from his dream had followed him back into reality. Like those Nightmare on Elm Street movies. There was supposed to be a third one released next month. At that moment Mike had no intention of seeing a Freddy Krueger film ever again. He couldn’t stop seeing Mrs. Byers. Jesus, Will. You had the best mother. She was better than all of us. He began crying, and started to head back upstairs.

At the staircase he stopped, feeling pulled in the direction of the front door. He looked at the door and shivered. The source of his dream was outside. That made no sense but he felt the truth of it. He had to see what it was.

Emboldened by insanely high-proof rum, he told his shakes to go to hell. He threw open the front door, stepping outside barefoot. The hanging thermometer read 24 degrees. He cursed the cold weather too. Daring anything to attack him, he surveyed the front yard. Clouds hid the stars and moon. Thin illumination came from Maple Street’s lamp posts. As far as Mike could see — and it wasn’t far — there was nothing out of the ordinary. But the awful sensation was worse. He wasn’t alone out here.

And then something hissed, and Mike’s bladder nearly broke. Only a huge vicious animal could make a sound like that. It came from across the street, on his neighbors’ front lawn. The Drapers. Mike could barely see anything over there.

He had to see. Ignoring his terror and frozen toes, he crossed the street. The clouded night draped everything in murky obscurity. He edged close to the Drapers’ lawn.

There was a deep rumble… and the entire front lawn began to rise.

Mike staggered backwards. What the –? 

As the lawn rose higher, its form revealed itself: it wasn’t the lawn, but a viscid beast that covered it for almost forty feet. A worm, with billowing worm-like tentacles. Mike knew without thinking that this thing was from the Upside Down. Chunks of earth fell from its razor-ringed mouth. The thing had been eating the Drapers’ front lawn as if it were cereal.

“This isn’t happening,” Mike whispered. “I’m still in bed.” Bullshit. You don’t always know when you’re dreaming, but you damn well know when you’re awake. And Mike Wheeler was definitely awake.

The worm saw him and reared like a cobra. It exhaled: another hiss. There was a smell of gangrene; a miasma of sickness and rot. Gagging at the stench, Mike dropped to his knees. Putrefaction clogged his throat, and he could hardly move or think. The worm’s face filled his vision. He groaned and threw up violently. He couldn’t believe how bad the smell was. He wanted to die, and vomited again. He thought of Will throwing up slugs, and knew this was something worse.

The worm hissed again, blanketing Mike in repulsion. He tried holding his breath, but his lungs cried for air. What they got instead his organs couldn’t take. He blacked out.

 

Mike… Mike!

He opened his eyes slowly. No one could be calling him. He was in Hell or Sheol or wherever the damned made their nest. Except that couldn’t be right either. He was moving — no, gliding. And the stench was still in his nose, though not as concentrated. With appalling certainty, Mike realized he was on the worm’s back. On its back.

Jesus, what’s happening to me?

He panicked and flailed, trying to jump off the creature, which would have surely killed him. A wormy tentacle held him fast. He was high in the air, he realized, at least a hundred feet above a ground obscured by swirling motes. He looked around, seeing motes everywhere. He was in the Upside Down, riding the worm. A shadow worm.

And it was flying fast.

Way too fast — way over a hundred miles an hour, maybe a hundred twenty. Could eagles fly this fast?

His useless throat tried to protest and hacked up silence. He was hardly breathing. The worm’s face, mercifully, was facing ahead as it flew, but its breath-stench still reached him by diffusion. The worm shot through a night that was endless as the universe itself.

Mike panicked and began screaming. The worm accelerated even more, letting out an ear-splitting shriek. The freezing air of the Upside Down slashed against Mike’s bare skin, threatening hypothermia. The worm shrieked again, and burned faster… faster…

 

“Mike!”

A door banged far behind him. He lifted his head and saw El across the street. He shoved himself up on his hands and knees. The ground swam beneath him, and he threw up. Sweat froze on his skin. Help me.

He was still on the Drapers’ front lawn. There was no trace of the multi-tentacled worm. Of course not. He had imagined the whole thing. Then he saw the torn chunks of earth and shredded lawn. He hadn’t imagined it — or at least not all of it. Maybe just the part about flying in the Upside Down. But he wasn’t sure. That horrible ride had seemed just as real. How had the creature traveled between worlds? You needed a Gate for that, and there was no Gate anymore. El had closed the first one in ’84, and Mrs. Byers had closed the second one opened by the Russians in ’85, right before she was shot to death. There couldn’t be a third Gate. No way.

El reached him and knelt down. “Mike, are you okay?”

He nodded, clutching her to steady himself. He was shaking; freezing cold.

“It’s freezing out here, and you’re in bed clothes.”

“I feel awful,” he said.

“You look green,” she said, helping him up. “Should I call an ambulance?”

“Just help me inside,” he said, leaning on her as they walked across the street.

“What happened?”

When they got back to his bedroom, he told her.

 

Next Chapter: MLK

Stranger Things Timeline (1983-2038)

Soon I will be posting the chapters of Endless Night, my final Stranger Things novel. It tells the full tragedy of Michael Wheeler: how he came the state we find him in The College Years, and what happened between him and Eleven in those terrible January days of 1987. To prepare for the story, here’s a timeline of events, everything laid out across fifty-five years, to keep the chronology of my novels straight.

Timeline

1983 TV Season 1.

1984 TV Season 2.

1985 TV Season 3, with the following differences: Karen Wheeler has an affair With Billy Hargrove. She does not become one of the flayed, but she aids and abets Billy in abducting people for the Mind Flayer. Death of Joyce Byers at Starcourt. Jim Hopper lives and continues raising Jane. Joyce’s sister Ruth Garrett comes to live with Will and Jonathan in the Byers’ house.

1986 Jane, having lost her powers to the Mind Flayer’s bite on July 4 ’85, slowly reacquires them through the months of January-July. By July she’s at full capacity.

1987 Endless Night (Story #6). Death of Mike Wheeler in January. He is resurrected and enslaved for three and a half years in the Upside Down. Hopper and Jane move to Newberg, Oregon in April. Hopper assumes his new position as Sheriff of Yamhill County.

1990 The College Years (Story #1). Mike returns from the Upside Down in August, unable to speak and able to only harm his friends. Jane flies back to Hawkins and kills the Illithid, after it tears out Mike’s eyes and cripples his leg. Mike moves out to Oregon with Jane. Jane moves out of Hopper’s home in Newberg, and Hopper sets up her and Mike in an apartment in downtown Portland.

1991 By March, Jane has rehabilitated Mike so that he is functionally blind, and can walk with a limp. He starts playing guitar, and in the fall joins a band, playing at strip clubs.

1992 The Witch of Yamhill County (Story #4). Children are abducted in the towns of Amity and Bellevue. Hopper enters Baba Yaga’s Hut with three teenagers to look for the children.

1993 Mike Wheeler kills himself shortly after Lucas, Dustin, and Will graduate from college. Jane moves back into her father’s home in Newberg. Three months later, in November, Jane, Lucas, Dustin, and Will gather in Newberg to celebrate Mike’s memory. At the end of November, Will assumes his Peace Corps position in Botswana.

1994 Birth of Mike Hopper in the spring.

1995 In December, Will returns from his Peace Corps service in Botswana.

1996 Jane and Mike Junior move out of Hopper’s home. Hopper buys a house for them on Tibbetts Street in Southeast Portland. Jane will live here for thirty years, until 2026. In Hawkins, Will suffers severe depression readjusting to American culture.

1997 The Black Rose of Newberg (Story #5). Lucas and Raquel Sinclair move out to Portland in July. They move into the downtown apartment complex Jane and Mike Wheeler had occupied between 1990-1993. In September, Lucas assumes his new position as an Endangered Species Biologist. The Black Rose Killer terrorizes Newberg. Hopper asks Jane to help him catch the killer.

2000 Dustin becomes senior software engineer at MIT.

2001 In second grade, Mike Hopper discovers his power of tempus fugit, which makes people experience time flying when it’s really not.

2003 Will becomes Deputy Director of the Fishers Public Library in Indiana.

2006 In seventh grade, Mike Hopper meets Tobias Powell. They become best friends.

2007 Death of Jim Hopper at 66, from lung cancer.

2009 The New Generation (Story #2). Mike Hopper and Tobias are high school sophomores. Through the internet, the Llaza latches on to Mike’s time powers. It devours and absorbs Mike to grow millions of years old and become an advanced shadow creature that takes over all of Tibbetts Street, killing most of the residents. Jane kills the Llaza and rescues Mike, but in doing so triggers a change in his time powers which causes him to age backwards.

2012 Mike is twelve, aging backwards. Tobias is now eighteen and ends their friendship.

2016 Donald Trump elected president. Mike is eight, aging backwards.

2020 Donald Trump elected president for a second term. Mike is four, aging backwards.

2021 The Hawkins “kids” (Jane, Lucas, Dustin, and Will) turn 50 years old. Trump’s second term takes an ugly turn: Roe v. Wade overturned by The Supreme Court. The 22nd Amendment
overturned by the Supreme Court. All non-whites are banned from immigrating to America.

2023 In the fall, Jane has a nervous breakdown. Mike is twenty months old, aging backwards. Lucas and Raquel assume guardianship of Mike, at Jane’s request. Jane is homebound and under medical care.

2024 Donald Trump elected president for a third term. Mike is less than one year old, aging backwards.

2025 Mike Hopper turns “zero” years old on May 22. He does not die, but starts aging forward again, and Jane’s sanity returns.

2026 Fearing rumors of seaboard attacks, Jane and Mike and the Sinclairs leave Oregon and return to their hometown of Hawkins. Dustin leaves the east coast and comes to Hawkins. Mike is one year old, for his third time. Death of Joyce Byers, 86, on Christmas Eve.

2027 Trump unleashes Armageddon on July 4. He is 81, in failing health, and not counting on a fourth term. Russia demolishes America’s east and west coasts. Citizens are told that Iran bombed the east coast and North Korea bombed the west. Death of Trump, who kills himself in a suicidal self-destruct of Washington D.C. Mike is two, for his third time.

2030 The radiation has cleared on the seaboards, but those areas remain a no-man’s land like the Wild West. A new Gate appears under the old Hawkins Lab. Mike is five, for his third time.

2031 On September 11, the new Gate under the Hawkins Lab starts generating Pockets, which appear in Hawkins, and begin radiating outwards, turning America into a shadow wasteland. Creatures from the Upside Down pour out of the Pockets, and kill people who are unable to protect themselves. The people of the Midwest begin construction of the walled Colonies. Jane starts to lose her sanity again. Mike is six, for his third time.

2032 Birth of the Hawkins Colony. Jane deteriorates further. Mike is seven, for his third time.

2033 The Hawkins Lab is reopened by scientists led by Dr. Reardon, in a last-ditch effort to save America and find a solution to the Pockets. Jane is brought from the Colony to the Lab, where she is cared for and monitored. Reardon hopes for her return to sanity, that she might close the Gate. Mike is eight, for his third time.

2035 Death of Lucas Sinclair. He is devoured by a demogorgon as he defends the walls of the Colony. Shortly after Lucas’s death, Mike Hopper discovers that he can time travel. Mike is ten, for his third time.

2037 World’s End (Story #3). The Pockets have taken over a circumference encompassing nineteen states in the Midwest and South. Mike is twelve, for his third time. Will, Tobias, and Dr. Reardon hatch a plan to save the world, by sending Mike back in time with Dustin and Steve. They will travel to the year 2031 and kill Morgred, the man responsible for creating the Pockets. Mike alters the plan drastically and leaves Dustin and Steve in the present, traveling back in time alone, and making two major detours. First he goes to 1983, and picks up the twelve-year old versions of his parents and uncles. Then he brings them to 2021, where he bonds closely with them and becomes their friend. Then they travel to 2031, where Morgred shoots Mike. Eleven kills Morgred. Mike kills a demogorgon coming through the Gate and saves Lucas, but by hurling his time powers at the Gate, it is Mike Hopper who creates the Pockets, not Morgred. In Mike’s dying state, he is able to reach his mother across time and heal her sanity. Mike returns his young parents and uncles to 1983, and then dies. In the present, Jane destroys the Gate, and all Pockets disappear from the Midwest, though many creatures from the Upside Down are left behind, plaguing America.

2038 Death of Will Byers, at 67, from multiple organ failure.

Eleven’s Outfits Ranked

I couldn’t resist. Screenrant ranked Eleven’s best outfits, but omitted some of them, and so I include them all and rank a bit differently.

 

1. Punk Eleven. (Season 2) This outfit alone justifies the much maligned “Lost Sister” episode. It’s El at her most badass, and her most self-exploring, as she comes to terms with her identity and homicidal impulses.

 

2. Nancy’s Dress. (Season 1) The most iconic outfit, and most would put it at #1, though I prefer Punk El.

 

3. The Snowball Dress. (Season 2) Truly beautiful. “Every Breath You Take”.

 

4. The Yellow-Jacket Shirt. (Season 3) I love this one because I associate it with the so many visceral things that happen to El when she’s wearing it. She becomes trapped in Billy’s mind and can’t escape; she’s bitten by the Mind Flayer, and has to perform a hideous self-surgery on herself. Then she loses her powers — the ultimate tragedy.

 

5. The Splatter Shirt and Blue Suspenders. (Season 3) Pure ’80s, and forever associated with the sauna scene, in which she gets strangled by Billy, and then throws him through a brick wall.

 

6. Lab Rat. (Season 1) Adorable; heartbreaking.

 

7. The Runaway Outfit. (Season 2) Overalls, big guy’s coat… Hopper’s clothes, of course, borrowed for her runaway adventure. It’s a mismatch that cries for the punk makeover (#1), but admittedly very cute.

 

8. Eleanor. (Season 1) This is Nancy’s Dress (#2), but with the wig, which sets it wholly apart. It’s how the boys made her over. This is what the ideal girl looks like through the eyes of 12-year old boys.

 

9. Benny’s Burgers shirt. (Season 1) Makes a good night shirt. It’s the shirt she almost pulled off and got naked in front of the boys, and made them freak out.

 

10. Moving Clothes. (Season 3) Simple and mundane, but preferable to what she replaced it with when she got to the mall…

 

11. The Mall Romper. (Season 3) A bit of an eyesore, but a fun splurge for a girl suddenly liberated and thinking for herself.

 

12. Grey Shirt and Jeans. (Season 2) This is El as Hopper likes her and wants her to stay: a cutesy who won’t draw hormonal boys. Daddy’s girl forever.

Stranger Things: The 25 Episodes Ranked

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

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

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2. Season 2, Episode 9: The Gate. 5 stars. The season 2 finale starts on Mike’s strongest moments, finishes on his earned reward, each involving the re-entry of Eleven into his miserably shattered life. It’s everything I hoped for in his story arc for this season, and the right place to reconnect El with the main cast. Any earlier than the finale would have cheapened her sacrifice in season 1. Mike has been a shell, and to see him come alive again is sublime. In a particularly heart-rending scene, he goes ape-shit on Hopper, physically attacking him for keeping El hidden all this time. The reunion is short lived, as Eleven must leave right away with Hopper to close the gate. Will, for his part, needs an exorcism: having just been strapped to a chair and worked over in episode 8, he is now tied to a bed, and Joyce proceeds to burn the Mind Flayer out of him by shoving three electric heaters close to him on full blast it’s a wonder his skin doesn’t fry. As both Will and his possessor roar in agony, Jonathan begs Joyce to stop, and Nancy seems equally appalled by this humiliating cruelty, until she outdoes Joyce by grabbing a hot poker and jabbing it into Will’s gut (a scene that still astounds on repeat viewings). As if things couldn’t get worse, Steve and the kids are attacked by Billy, who is clearly a psychopath by this point, as he takes his beatings with maniacal laughter. El’s closing the gate is the moment of glory, but the Snow Ball epilogue is the series’ best scene, as we see all the boys ending up paired with the “right girl”, dancing to the creepy ’80s stalker song, “Every Breath You Take”. It’s so moving, so right, and more than I dared pray for in the sequel season.


3. Season 1, Episode 8: The Upside Down. 5 stars. The season 1 finale may rank third, but it’s still one of the best TV finales I’ve ever seen, tense and emotional, and with the right payoffs and surprises on all sides of the story. At the Byers’ house, Jonathan and Nancy bait the shadow beast, and when it appears (on top of a visit from Steve), hell breaks loose — gunshots from Nancy, morningstar beatings from Steve, a firebomb from Jonathan, all around a strobe effect of blinking lights. Steve is used brilliantly here; I was sure he was going to be killed as a convenient throw-away villain, but he turned out to be the surprise hero in a way that really worked. We’re still reaping the benefits of Steve’s turnaround; he’s been a fan favorite in seasons 2 and 3, and will probably be so in season 4. Meanwhile at the lab, Hopper and Joyce enter the shadow realm and find Barbara’s corpse and Will barely preserved alive, facehugger-style out of Alien. Hopper’s flashback to his daughter flatlining is a powerful juxtaposition over Will’s resuscitation; all along saving Will has been about him coming to terms with the daughter he could never let go. Finally at the school, El’s sacrifice is heartbreaking, and devastates poor Mike, who had just promised to take El in as a member of his family. It’s one of the rare cases that a fake death works, because season 2 kept all the main characters (except Hopper) thinking she was still dead, until the very end.

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4. Season 2, Episode 4: Will the Wise. 5 stars. After the first three episodes of season 2 comes a shift in tone and blistering performances from Noah Schnapp and Millie Bobby Brown. Will, having taken Bob’s well-meaning but stupid advice, is no longer just infected by the Upside Down. He’s possessed by the Mind Flayer. Possession is a scary concept to put on screen, but it’s also the riskiest because it’s hard to do right. Noah nails it in every frame, with subtleties even Linda Blair didn’t pull off in The Exorcist. There are no jump scares here, just the slow creep of dread as Will alternates between being shaken and terrified, to making resolute demands (that his mother run him a freezing bath, because his possessor “likes it cold”), to stalking about the house confused. Millie also gets in her best scene of the season, as she and Hopper have a shouting match when she returns from stalking Mike in episode 3. They’re both trapped: Hopper keeps her confined under strict rules for fear of losing another “daughter”, while Eleven accuses him of being no better than “papa” — she feels just as caged in the cabin as she was in the lab — resulting in her telekinetic tantrum of hurling things at him and shattering windows. Finally, the episode ends on the first death of the season: Dustin’s cat, devoured by his pet pollywog that’s molted into its next stage, a baby demogorgon. Will the Wise is a vastly underrated episode, probably because there’s not much action. Frankly I think it’s almost as good as the finales for the dramatic performances.

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5. Season 1, Episode 3: Holly, Jolly. 5 stars. A widely-praised episode for good reason. The final act is sublime. Hopper and the kids see Will’s body dragged from the river, and they have no reason to think it’s a fake. Mike’s furious reaction as he accuses El and runs home enraged, to the scoring of Peter Gabriel’s cover for David Bowie’s “Heroes”, is a rare piece of cinematic art. The whole episode builds to this climax in one strong scene after another: the opening sequence of Barbara killed in the shadow realm; the scene in which El relives her killing two guards at Hawkins Lab, when she was dragged back to her cell for refusing to kill a cat; Joyce’s breakthrough with Will, as she communicates with her son through the use of Christmas-tree lights, and he tells her to get out of the house as the demogorgon bursts out of the living room wall. It was this episode that fully hooked me into Stranger Things. I binged the rest of the episodes from this point, and have never looked back since.

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6. Season 3, Episode 4: The Sauna Test. 5 stars. Plans are put into motion here. Dustin, Steve and Robin recruit Lucas’ sister Erica to crawl though vent shafts; her reward is getting stuck with them inside an elevator that drops into a Russian hell. Hopper beats information out of the mayor (and makes effective threats with a cigar cutter), and learns that the mall owners have been buying up property in Hawkins for some reason. But it’s the kids who confront the menace heads on, in a dramatic face-off with Billy, one of the series’ most intense scenes. Mike’s plan is to trap Billy in the sauna room when the pool is closed. (Before springing this misguided trap, he tries to patch things up with El, but is not successful; she admits to spying on him and Lucas and hearing their sexist theories about the “female species”, to Mike’s outrage.) When they do trap Billy, he doesn’t stay trapped for long. El hurls a barbell loaded with weights at him; he throws it off, seizes her, lifts her up and chokes her; Mike clubs him from behind; Billy prepares to kill Mike, when Eleven — screaming so that hell itself can hear her — levitates him and then throws him literally through a brick wall. This confrontation well exceeded my expectations.

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7. Season 1, Episode 6: The Monster. 5 stars. There are so many defining moments in this episode: Mike jumping off a cliff, El’s telekinetic rescue, Jonathan beating the shit out of Steve, and our first look at El’s mother, Terry Ives. The title “The Monster” is a clever choice and works on multiple levels. The demogorgon is a monster, of course, but it’s just a creature that just feeds according to its nature. El thinks of herself as the real monster, because she brought the creature into the world to begin with. But that award should go to Doctor Brenner, someone who recruits college kids for his nasty experiments which result in catatonic lives (like Terry Ives) and child abductions that turn kids into numbers for grand-scheme lab experiments. Steve could be a monster too; his jealousy triggers life-threatening fist-fights. Or kids like Troy; his bullying is carried to the extreme of holding Dustin at knife point and almost making Mike kill himself. Mike’s fall made my heart skip when I first saw it, and I wasn’t predicting El’s telekinetic rescue. It’s damn good storytelling. The reconciliation between Mike and El, with Dustin overshadowing, has become one of the series’ most iconic moments showing the power of friendship.

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8. Season 2, Episode 6: The Spy. 5 stars. There’s a heavy Exorcist vibe running through this season, but it becomes most blatant in the medical scenes of The Spy. The opening scene (above pic) is clearly inspired by Regan McNeill’s hideous PEG procedure, and Will Byers is having it even worse, convulsing under the doctors who ask him where it hurts, to which he can only scream “everywhere”. Winoda Ryder, for her part, plays the hysterical mother as convincingly as Ellen Burstyn did, and Joyce even shouts down a table of doctors for their incompetence as Chris McNeil did when professionals tried explaining Regan’s possession as mental illness. Later it seems that Will is working against his possessor: he tells Mike he knows how to stop the creature: that there is a location in the tunnels which his possessor “doesn’t want him to see”, and so a team is sent to investigate, but that turns out to be a nasty trap; Will was lying, almost completely possessed now, and an ugly slaughter ensues. The episode is a ripper in other parts too, notably Steve and Dustin’s, who are now joined by Lucas and Max in a rather foolish attempt to bait Dustin’s demogorgon into the open and kill it. As if that weren’t enough, the bonding between Steve and Dustin has become the fan favorite pairing of season two, and for good reason. Their moments together in this episode are among the best in the season.

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9. Season 3, Episode 6: E Pluribus Unum. 5 stars. This episode is sandwiched between two mighty El moments. The first is the ass-pounding she gives to the Mind Flayer, as she barely saves Nancy from joining the flayed. The far grander spectacle is at the end, when she locates the source of the Mind Flayer by communing in the Void with Billy. It’s of series’ most compelling sequences. Communing is something El has done only once before, when she tapped into her mother’s memories in season 2. When she mines Billy’s head, she finds herself on a beach bombarded by his chaotic memories, which allows Billy to latch on to her telepathically. It’s a brutal moment when she pulls herself out the Void and removes her bandana to find Hopper’s cabin empty and all her friends gone. She’s still in the Void after all, in some replica version of the cabin; and Billy emerges from around a corner, advancing on her, delivering a very evil speech on behalf of the Mind Flayer. There’s good stuff elsewhere in this episode, especially with Team Dustin, as Steve and Robin are interrogated and tortured. Steve’s face becomes a repeat of Jonathan’s ass-kicking in season 1 and Billy’s in season 2; it seems that Steve is obliged to undergo this sort of treatment every year.

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10. Season 1, Episode 1: The Vanishing of Will Byers. 4 ½ stars. The opening D&D scene is precious and goes a long way to planting this episode in my top ten. The boy’s 10-hour campaign is a perfect summation of my nerdy childhood and shows why the game was so fun in the early ’80s. It establishes their acting skills through great personas — Mike the group leader (and so of course the dungeon master) and the soul of Stranger Things; Lucas the pragmatic skeptic; the hilarious Dustin ruled by his appetites; and Will the sensitive kid who won’t be getting much screen time. The chemistry between these kids is incredible, and I fell in love with them right away. Eleven’s encounter with Benny Hammond is a perfect introduction of her character. In the short space of his screen time I really loved the guy and was pissed at the goons who shot him. The Vanishing of Will Byers introduces all the other characters too (Joyce, Hopper, Nancy, Jonathan, Steve) with great economy. It has to be in the top ten, even if just barely.

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

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12. Season 3, Episode 7: The Bite. 4 ½ stars. In which El is bitten by the Mind Flayer and put on borrowed time. She’s just emerged from a harrowing trip in the Void where Billy latched on to her mind and located her in Hopper’s cabin. The flayed beast descends on the cabin and punches more than a few holes through it. El dishes out her usual ass-poundings, but she’s finally met her match: it seizes her leg and almost pulls her through the ceiling. The scene is intense, as her friends hold her back in a tug of war, and Nancy puts her rifle to good use, but El’s leg is infected. Inside the mall there’s a clever reversal of roles, when Dustin and Erica assume command of Steve and Robin who are still recovering from being drugged and tortured. They duck into a showing of Back to the Future and there’s some entertaining fallout when Steve and Robin need to puke in the bathroom. Meanwhile, Hopper and Joyce and Murray Bauman get mired at the the town fireworks party, where amusement park rides and fun houses become a hunting ground for the Russian Terminator; he kills Alexei and almost takes out Hopper too. The Fun Fair is pure eye candy, and this episode has good rewatch value for the holiday theme.

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

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14. Season 1, Episode 4: The Body. 4 ½ stars. This chapter is a major turning point in season 1, of slow-burns and stinging revelations, in which Hopper and Jonathan, along different paths, come to realize that Joyce isn’t crazy and that Will may still be alive. Hopper finds the fake body at the morgue, and Jonathan hooks up with Nancy, who has also seen the creature without a face in searching for Barbara. The kids also realize Will is alive (despite their tragic certainty at the end of episode 3), when El channels his voice over the radio. Three particular scenes stand out: (1) the boys dressing up El, basically making her over into the “ideal girl” as imagined by twelve-year old boys, with rather ghastly results; (2) the gymnasium incident where El freezes Troy and makes him piss his pants; (3) Joyce ripping down her wallpaper and seeing her terrified son shouting to her in a flesh-encased portion of the wall. That last gave me a nightmare and goes a long way in counting for my high esteem of this episode.

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15. Season 2, Episode 8: The Mind Flayer. 4 ½ stars. I hate putting this so low (in the bottom half of the list) because it’s such a ripper, but that only shows how strong I consider the above episodes. The first half is the season 2’s crowning action sequence, resulting in the death of Bob, and the sight of him being torn apart by a pack of demo-dogs is almost enough to turn Joyce into a gibbering lunatic. The only weakness is that Bob’s death is telegraphed a little too obviously (at three particular points I said to myself, “He’s not going to make it”), but other than that, the lab siege is superbly executed. In the second half, all the main characters come together at the Byers house, and Mike gets the idea that Will may know how to kill the thing, thus beginning an emotional ordeal by which Will is strapped to a chair and worked over in turns by Joyce, Jonathan, and Mike. They share intimate memories with Will, and in particular Mike’s recollection of becoming friends with Will on the first day of school is a tearjerker. The tension in the final standoff (above pic) is impressive for not a single shot being fired. I nearly had a heart attack when the demo-dog came smashing through the window.

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


17. Season 1, Episode 7: The Bathtub. 4 ½ stars. The prologue to this episode could stand its own as a short film: it begins on a tender moment, with Mike almost making a move on El, only to leave home immediately as fugitives; the road chase is intense, and El delivers her most spectacular feat of the series when she flips the van; it ends on a perfect reconciliation between Lucas and El/Mike in the junkyard. The rest of the episode centers around the plot of getting El in the bathtub to locate Barbara (dead) and Will (alive). This is the only episode in season 1 in which the three groups of characters — Hopper and Joyce, Jonathan and Nancy, the four kids — finally come together, which makes The Bathtub a pause after the fury of The Monster and a calm before the storm of The Upside Down. But it’s no short-change; El’s use of the bathtub to locate Will in the shadow version of Castle Byers is creepy as hell.

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18. Season 3, Episode 3: The Case of the Missing Lifeguard. 4 ½ stars. If “Mad Max” is the underrated gem of season 2, this is the one for season 3. It opens on crass teenage humor, when El spies on Mike in the Void, and sees him furious at the way she dumped him in episode 2; he and Lucas are belching, farting, and denigrating the female “species” (a word El doesn’t know) as illogical and emotional; it’s a very entertaining use of the Void, which El usually uses for serious purposes. She also spies on Billy, but that turns out to be not so fun, and ends on an incendiary moment when Billy meets El for the first time. As Mind Flayer he has a flashback to her closing the Gate on him in season 2, and registers her as the supreme threat. Meanwhile Hopper has been dragged to the abandoned lab kicking and screaming by Joyce. Having ridiculed her concerns so nastily, he perhaps gets his just deserts when he is jumped from behind by the Russian Terminator. But this is ultimately Will’s episode, who realizes the Mind Flayer is back in Hawkins. This is after a long and personally hard day in which (a) Mike and Lucas mock the D&D campaign he is running for them, and to which (b) he responds by storming off in the rain, prompting (c) Mike to blast him for “not liking girls”. The tree fort scene is heartbreaking, as Will breaks down and cries, tearing up the photos of him and his friends, and smashing his sacred hideout with a baseball bat.

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19. Season 1, Episode 2: The Weirdo on Maple Street. 4 stars. The best scenes are at the Wheeler house with El and her new friends. By far the most iconic is the boys’ prepubescent horror at this girl they just met who almost gets naked in front of them. Mike handles himself with the decorum fitting his leadership role, but the reactions of Lucas and Dustin are downright hilarious. (Lucas: “Do you think she slept naked?” Dustin: indignantly mimics her taking off her dress.) Another great scene is El’s flipping the game board as she tries to convey the concept of the Upside Down. The other thread to this episode is the party at Steve’s house, in which Nancy loses her virginity. I wasn’t a fan of Nancy at this stage, and obviously not Steve either; their characters are annoying in the way of entitled teens. But it’s for this reason that their story arcs pay off so well in the later episodes.


20. Season 3, Episode 1: Suzie, Do You Copy? 4 stars. Some of the premiere’s best scenes were teased in trailers: Dustin’s return home from summer camp, and the heat between Billy and Karen Wheeler at the pool. Dustin has created the mother of all ham radios, and Billy wants to shag Mrs. Wheeler to kingdom come. Outrageously, that subplot goes nowhere, and it offends me that the Duffers teased a Billy-Karen affair (in the season-two finale and this premiere) only to drop it flat. As for our hero the young Wheeler, it’s nice to see him and El kissing in her bedroom, to Hopper’s constant outrage. Given that Hopper is about to put this relationship on ice, it’s important to see the passion that has defined Mike and El since the Christmas Snow Ball six months ago. It’s a nice catch-up on the old characters while introducing new ones, especially Robin at Scoops Ahoy. There are some tonal misfires, especially in Hopper’s scenes with Mike and El, that are played for laughs when they should be more serious.

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

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22. Season 1, Episode 5: The Flea and the Acrobat. 3 ½ stars. In which the kids learn about the shadow realm, and others get a direct taste of it — Hopper at the Hawkins institute, and Nancy in “Mirkwood” forest. Now that everyone is on to the fact that Will is probably alive, they decide to take action, but things end badly for all involved. El sabotages the shadow gate’s magnetic field, ruining Dustin’s plan with the compasses, prompting a jealous fight between Mike and Lucas. She then smashes Lucas unconscious, driving a final wedge between him and Mike before running off. But the pivotal scene is at the end, with Jonathan and Nancy out in the woods, and Nancy enters the gate and gets her (and our) first full view of the shadow beast. There’s good exposition in this episode, as the science teacher answers the kids’ questions about parallel universes, and the kids do their own research on the shadow realm in a D&D manual.

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23. Season 2, Episode 5: Dig Dug. 3 ½ stars. The middle episode of season two is good but brought down by the obnoxious character of Murray Beauman. Frankly he almost ruined Nancy and Jonathan’s story for me. He’s a crackpot conspiracy theorist, and when Nancy and Jonathan enlighten him with the truth, he hatches a plan to sell their story to the media, but only if they leave out the wild parts (about the Upside Down) no one will believe. By watering down the truth — suggesting that Hawkins Lab is guilty of poisoning people — they stand a better chance of convincing the public. Which is all fine and well; it’s his zany and obnoxious behavior that grates, and I didn’t care for the way he engineered Nancy and Jonathan’s first fuck. Meanwhile Hopper has become trapped in the underground tunnels spreading into the town, which allows the character of Bob to show his use, as he realizes that Will’s drawings of “vines” are actually those very tunnels under Hawkins connecting to lakes and quarries. It’s Eleven who gets the best part of the episode, as she flees Hopper’s cabin in search of Terry Ives. When she finds her mother, she obtains more misery, as if that were possible; Terry has been living a waking nightmare ever since being electroshocked into a blank state.

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24. Season 3, Episode 5: The Flayed. 3 ½ stars. In which the elevator keeps dropping, and Team Dustin (himself, Steve, Robin, and Erica) land in a vast underground bunker, finding the Russians working to reopen the Gate to the Upside Down. Meanwhile, Hopper and Joyce come to Alexei’s house, where they are attacked yet again by the Russian Terminator, and then proceed the next day to Illinois to recruit the thoroughly irritating-but-necessary Murray Bauman. Nancy and Jonathan join the Mike & El team, since Nancy has seen a hospital patient (during the awful Mind Flayer activation at the end of episode 4) turn black like Will did during his season-two exorcism. Their collective sleuthing leads them to the home of the newspaper editor, littered with blood and toxic chemicals, and then back to the hospital, where hell breaks loose and ends on our first solid look at the new Mind Flayer: a gross composition of mutilated human beings. (A cliffhanger: their actual battle with the beast comes in episode 6). On whole The Flayed is episode of information gathering for all the teams. There is a touching moment at the hospital where Mike shares his candy with El, asking her if her “species” likes M&Ms; his awkward way of apologizing. El seems to get it, thankfully. Mike deserves a few graces, given how Hopper’s manipulations have put him through the ringer.

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25. Season 3, Episode 2: The Mall Rats. 3 stars. It could be alternately titled “The War of the Sexes”. The rats who matter here are less the critters being absorbed into the Mind Flayer, and more the kids, who take a field trip to the Starcourt Mall as they declare war on the opposite gender. El is treated to sights she’s normally not allowed to see, and the shopping spree is Max’s attempt to convince El there is more to life than boys — and that El should “dump Mike’s ass” unless he comes back to her crawling on all fours. The boys (minus Dustin), for their part, are on a mission of amends. This is Lucas’ attempt to convince Mike that buying El a gift will make everything right between them. (Will is perhaps the only sane one: he just wants to go home and play D&D.) The boys and girls finally run into each other, sling some nastiness back and forth, and El dumps Mike indeed. Meanwhile, Hopper revels in his victory over Mike — tripping to the song “You Don’t Mess Around with Jim” — and it’s only fitting that he gets shafted by Joyce, who stands him up for dinner while he keeps boozing it up and cursing his waiter. The gender battle was a pretty good idea, though perhaps played too much for laughs.

Parallels between My Stories and Stranger Things 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Seasons of Stranger Things Ranked

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

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

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

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

Season 2 also contains some of the best child acting ever seen on TV: Will’s possession scenes, Eleven’s psychic tantrum in Hopper’s cabin, Mike’s rage against Hopper for keeping El hidden, and more. Of course, these kids act superbly in all three seasons, but in Stranger Things 2 they hit a record high. Will’s possession scenes in particular run the gamut, as he throws convulsive fits one moment, trembles in terror the next, and then stares down people with the menace of a demon.

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

Season 1. The Quest for Will. The starter season that brought back the magic of my youth is pretty much beyond criticism. As a twelve-year old I enjoyed the same kind of autonomy as Mike, Lucas, and Dustin. Today’s era of helicopter parenting and social media has all but wiped out the best in children, and Stranger Things 1 could be the wake-up call if only enough parents would listen.

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

The season is so meticulously crafted that not a single scene feels wasted. Even the quietest character moments advance the story. In this sense it’s the most polished season, though I don’t think the “extraneous” moments in seasons 2 and 3 are as bad as some have been them out to be.

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

The finale, like the season-2 finale, is one of the best TV finales of all time, tense and emotional, and with the right payoffs and surprises on all sides of the story. Steve makes an amazing atonement for his assholeries. Hopper’s flashback to his daughter flatlining is a powerful juxtaposition over Will’s resuscitation; all along saving Will has been about him coming to terms with the daughter he could never let go. And El’s sacrifice is heartbreaking, devastating poor Mike who had just promised to take her in as a member of his family.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s where the season did stumble:

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

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

And if season 3 on whole doesn’t quite measure up to seasons 1 and 2, the finale reigns supreme. The Duffers always turn out finales with staggering payoffs, but this one is best of all, and capped off by the deaths of two major characters. The first being Jim Hopper (though that could be a false flag), and the second Billy, whose death is the bigger tear-jerker for the way El “defeats” him. The epilogue is even more traumatic. With El now adopted by Joyce and moving out of Hawkins with Will and Jonathan, it genuinely hurts to think of her and Mike on another stretch of separation from each other. It also hurts to think of her without her powers, even if we can be confident she’ll get them back in season 4. The Duffers have a mighty challenge ahead of them, if they want to outdo themselves in the season 4 finale.

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

Four Democratic Candidates You Shouldn’t Vote For, and Three Good Options

There is a helpful write-up circulating about The Four Democratic Candidates You Shouldn’t Vote For: Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Kamala Harris, and Beta O’Rourke. I was certainly never going to vote for Biden, Harris, or O’Rourke, and was kind of so-so on Buttigieg, but this is a good summary of why all four candidates are bad options. Or at least for the most part. There are some criticisms in these bullet points that are unfair, petty, and in some cases blatantly stupid. Such as:

The attack on Joe Biden’s “long history of creepily groping/sniffing/kissing women and young girls” is absurd. Making him the equivalent of a Harvey Weinstein or other villains in the Me-Too movement is yellow journalism. The criticism that Biden opposed LGBTQ rights until “very recently” is churlish. It was actually seven whole years ago (2012) that he began vocally supporting gay marriage, and that was earlier than Obama, the ineffective president he served under.

Certain points against Pete Buttigieg I simply disagree with. For example, that he agreed with Trump’s relocation of the Israeli embassy to Jerusalem — I supported that decision too. (Even a disaster like Trump is right once in a while.) And it’s petty in the extreme to censure Buttigieg for being a pledge delegate to Hillary Clinton, much as I can’t stand her.

The biggest hoot is the charge against Kamala Harris for lying about listening to Snoop and Tupac while smoking weed. Impossible to take seriously.

Despite these lame points and a few others, the list is helpful on whole. Biden, Buttigieg, Harris, and O’Rourke, are indeed bad candidates. Biden is easily the worst in the entire 24-candidate lineup (aside from know-nothing Marianne Williamson), and Harris is cut from the same cloth, despite the chasm she is now trying to manufacture between herself and Biden in the debates. If you want to know who to vote for, make it one of the following three. For me, it’s Tulsi Gabbard.