Dustin is always right. He’s right about the demogorgon in the very first episode. He’s right about the thessalhydra in the epilogue of “Chapter Eight: The Upside Down.” He’s right that Lunch Lady Phyllis hoards chocolate pudding. He’s right about the conflict between Mike and Lucas. And he’s right about Hopper and Lando Calrissian.
When Brenner tries to strike a deal with Joyce, using the same mixture of persuasion and tacit menace he uses on the Wheelers, she shoots him down. This man faked her son’s death and let him languish in a poisonous world as a monster’s prey. “We had a funeral. We buried him. And now you want my help?”
Hopper’s more accommodating, and he’s set up to be well before this finale. “Do you know what I would give for a chance?” he asks Joyce in “Chapter Six.” To see his daughter again, he’d give up anything, including another tragic little girl, especially one he can dismiss as “your science experiment.” He’ll give up plenty to get Joyce’s son back.
“We came to an agreement,” Hopper tells Joyce as MPs escort them into the bowels of Hawkins Lab. “You want Will back, this place had nothing to do with it. That’s the deal.” But there’s more to Hopper’s deal than that. To get a chance at rescuing Will, he gave up El’s location to Brenner.
Like Lando, Hopper’s trapped, and his choices range from bad to worse. Like Lando, Hopper is accustomed to compromise. Like Lando, he thinks he’s only sacrificing one person, someone he barely knows. And like Lando, Hopper realizes after the fact that this deal is getting worse all the time. Brenner never expects them to return from the their journey, much less to retrieve Will, and he can’t be trusted to spare Mike, Lucas, and Dustin.
After a season of showing Joyce and Hopper on even footing (as even as it can get, considering the disparity in their sizes), everything in these scenes conspires to make him tower over her. Walking down the corridor flanked front and rear by guards, she barely comes to his shoulder. Hopper dominates the screen; as they walk down the hall, the camera edges Joyce out of frame. Suiting up to enter The Upside Down, their protective gear emphasizes the contrast rather than disguising it. Even in identical hazmat suits, he dwarfs her as if she were a child.
Joyce and Hopper’s exploration gives us the longest look yet at The Upside Down, and all the eerily effective touches that have bled through in previous episodes come together here. The fleshy look and wet, slithering sounds of the tendrils it extends into this world, the grotesque effect of them melding back together as the two cross over (and under) hint at Cronenberg and Poltergeist in equal parts. Between the tentacle-like growths crawling up every surface and the floating motes and tatters in the air, this other world is both alien and familiar, like an unexplored cave or the bottom of an ocean trench. That mixture of familiarity and jarring weirdness is heightened by the sight of Joyce and Hopper walking through a ghostly version of their own town.
Hopper’s trained to stay calm in crisis, but Joyce isn’t. Whether it’s the toxic atmosphere, the weight of the suit, the terror of this strange world, or anxiety over what they might find, she begins to hyperventilate. The scene cuts between Hopper talking her through it with patient instructions—“take deep breaths, in and out. Deep breath, in and out, in and out”—to Hopper holding his daughter as she struggles for breath, as she lies in a hospital bed, and finally as she dies in the clamor of a crash-cart team shouting.
Intercutting these scenes of two well-developed characters with the never-before-seen, doomed Sara Hopper (Elle Graham)—a little girl introduced just so we can watch her die—is nakedly manipulative, as cheesy as entertainment gets. A lot of Stranger Things is cheesy, built on familiar beats, characters, and directorial details. But cheese isn’t necessarily bad.
“Chapter Eight: The Upside Down” puts that idea right into the text. As El recovers from her draining encounter with Hawkins Lab’s armed company, Mike comforts her with promises of a new home, a real home, with him, his parents, and plenty of Eggos. And he asks her to the Snow Ball. “It’s this cheesy school dance where you go to the gym and dance to music and stuff.” It’s cheesy, he says, but the implication is clear. With El, it might be fun. With El, it might be more than fun. It might be meaningful. It might be special.
I grew up on a steady diet of ’80s-and-earlier horror, sci-fi, and weird fiction, and Stranger Things feels pretty special to me. Its fluency with dated tropes and genre conventions lets it create expectations, then overturn them. Look at Nancy. Nancy, who started out as a goody-two-shoes whose head swims at a whiff of popularity, and who ends the season deliberately facing off with a monster. Nancy, who matter-of-factly smashes a lock standing between her and her goal, who flicks shut a loaded gun barrel with the assurance of Snake Plissken, who conceives a trap for the creature and insists on heading back into danger to spring it.
That’s just one more thing Dustin’s right about. When Mike notices his sister’s gone, Lucas reassures him she’ll be okay with Jonathan. Dustin, who sees so much so clearly, cuts through that. Nancy will be safe because she’s Nancy. “She’s kind of a bad-ass now, so…” He walks off in search of pudding, considering the matter closed. And it is. In one season, this blossoming wallflower blooms into a burgeoning action hero. Though I wish she carried the action a little more effectively in when the trap is sprung, she’s no slouch for a kid whose gravest concern in “Chapter One” is passing her chemistry exam.
Introducing Steve into Nancy and Jonathan’s carefully constructed trap is both dramatically inevitable and a rewarding story obstacle. It gives her jerk boyfriend a chance to redeem himself, and it shows just how easily a plan can go awry. Steve’s bewilderment is a striking counterpoint to their intent recitation of the necessary steps, and as events unfold with harrowing speed, his contributions—mostly in the vein of “Whoa!” and “Oh, my God! Oh, my God!”—bring a note of levity without undermining Nancy and Jonathan’s gravity. Once again, Steve’s the outsider. This time, he utterly rejects what he’s seeing. Paradoxically, his disbelief grounds the outlandish confrontation in realism, because most of us would reject it as impossible even if we saw it with our own eyes.
Lucas is pretty bad-ass, too, poised courageously with his Wrist Rocket and a half-dozen stones against a monster that’s taken down a company of heavily armed MPs. Puny as it is, with El out of commission, his assault looks like the only chance they have. It says something about the childlike state Stranger Things’ finale roused in me that I reacted exactly as Lucas did to that last shot. For a fraction of a second, I boggled (and exulted) that he’d done it before I realized, as he and his friends do, that it was El to the rescue after all. But that doesn’t undercut the valor of a young boy standing up for his friends against terrible odds.
The predictability of El’s sacrifice doesn’t make her big showdown less affecting. Lying limp on the science-room table, she makes Mike run through all the happy promises he made before: no more bad man, a mom to take care of her, a bed of her own, all the Eggos she can eat. And a night at the Snow Ball. “Promise?” she asks him, knowing he’ll say yes.
Some promises are made to be broken. El knows that, though she just learned what promise means. She takes on the monster as only she can, screaming through the effort and pain as she and the beast vanish in a burst of light and matter. Mike can’t keep his promise, because El keeps a larger unspoken pledge, keeping this world safe from the thing she never meant to set free here.
Brenner’s gone, and Hopper’s promise to him is forfeit. In the epilogue a month later, newspaper clippings show that Hopper and Joyce breathed fresh air into the toxic secrecy around Hawkins Lab, resulting in a “massive investigation” and a rash of firings from local law enforcement. Hopper’s ride with the men in the government-issue sedan suggests a new deal with the same poisonous, silent bureaucracy. But his solo detour to stash buffet goodies and an Eggo in a cache in the woods promises there’s one more deal, one between Hopper and El, not meant to be broken.
Some critics and viewers paint Stranger Things as little more than an ’80s pastiche, a collection of vintage tropes and quirks that reproduces its source material’s cheesy flourishes without understanding it. But—at least for me, who spent her childhood and youth swimming in horror, sci-fi, and mysteries of the ’80s and earlier—Stranger Things is more than a recitation of homages. It’s a rip-roaring adventure that cares about its characters. It’s a coming-of-age story. It’s an innocent adolescent love story matched with a wryer teenaged triangle. It’s classic sci-fi paranoia. It’s a tantalizing mystery with forays into chilling horror. It’s a rumination on the saving grace of love and the brutal depths of grief. It’s a knowing collection of genre threads woven into a fabric of mystery, humor, and often excruciating tension.
Yes, the show’s embrace of old tropes, especially when you’re first immersing yourself in its dated, nostalgic world, can feel a little cheesy. But if Stranger Things is cheese, it’s the finest handcrafted, small-batch, artisanal cheese, lovingly created from the best ingredients by devotees who’ve studied the work of generations that came before. It’s made by thoughtful students of the craft who’ve learned from masters and given their all.
The objective of season one was plain: Get Will back. Now Will’s back. It’s a testament to the family dynamic sustained by Winona Ryder and Charlie Heaton, to Noah Schnapps’ winning smile, and to the burbling believability of his friends’ eagerness that a child barely portrayed onscreen can be so welcome when he’s just lying almost silently in a hospital bed.
But the implicit promise of this season—get Will back and everything will be fine—was made to be broken, too. Does Will’s trance-like stare into the bathroom mirror remind you of Danny Torrance at the beginning of The Shining, Special Agent Dale Cooper in Twin Peaks’ season two finale, both, or neither? Whatever it evokes, it’s bad news for Hawkins and great news for us… if there’s a second season.
If I had to sum up the difference between Stranger Things and its ’80s inspirations in one image, it would be the no trespassing sign on Will Byers’ bedroom door. Prominently shown throughout season one, that sign is even more eye-catching when it flies off the door during the finale’s monster trap. It’s an echo of the enter sign on Elliott’s door in E.T.: The Extraterrestrial. But where E.T.—that fuzzy, feel-good triumph of love over force—welcomes, Stranger Things offers both a greeting and a warning. Sure, Stranger Things invites us in; I’ve rarely seen a series as inviting, as warmly nostalgic, as accessible and engaging for fans of its genre predecessors. But it’s forbidding, too. There are consequences for walking this territory. The landscape is cozily familiar, but the atmosphere is deadly—and dreadfully intoxicating. I want to breathe it deep.
- Remember all those early hints at keys and doors and opening things we’re not meant to open? And the dangers of unknown worlds let loose in ours? Yeah, those paid off big time. I didn’t notice until the very end, but El’s favorite food is stamped with that meaningful grid pattern.
- “Pudding? It’s like this chocolate goo you eat with a spoon.”
- Did everyone else flinch when Hopper touched that egg husk? This is why you need a sci-fi nerd along! I bet Mr. Clarke has seen Alien, even if Hopper and Joyce haven’t. So he’d also find a way to double-check whether that thing they yank out of Will’s throat is gestating something down there.
- The minute I saw Nancy and Jonathan buy a gas can, I said, “They’re going to straight-up The Thing it!” and they sure did. You had to set the trap indoors, kids?
- Netflix hasn’t yet confirmed whether Stranger Things will return for a second season. “We want to let it breathe a little bit,” says chief content officer Ted Sarandos. Thanks for joining me for coverage of season one, and keep watching the skies!