Stranger Things 2: Season Finale Review

She has returned. Not without its dramatic “is she going to make it” moment, Eleven showed up in the nick of time on Stranger Things to send a demodog careening and crashing through a glass window, dead as a door nail. She slowly entered the Byers house, nose bleeding, and Mike Wheeler nearly lost his mind.

STRANGER THINGS 2: CHAPTER NINE: THE GATE

The season finale of Stranger Things 2 brought with it an epic display of Eleven’s powers, showed Steve Harrington’s resolve to try and stand up against our least favorite bully, and then took us to the Hawkins Middle School Winter Dance, with a few detours along the way.

As usual with finales of this style, it does build to one confrontation, in this case Jane vs. the evil gate and what it represented, which also affected Will and his Shadow Monster puppeteer. But, generally, the question isn’t how the final battle plays out, but how well the writing provides relief after the fight is won. In this case, the battle went to the good guys, but the true war lies dormant for the future.

Just as with the first season, we see just enough in the episode’s final seconds to know Stranger Things 3 will bring more dread to Hawkins, and almost assuredly will bring a much grander challenge. Hopefully Hopper realizes now how foolish it was to hide El away, particularly after it was obvious that bad, supernatural things were happening. Also, he doesn’t want to take any more of “Rocky” Wheeler’s fisticuffs. Mike tried to assault him, and in that moment we saw upper body strength that could only come from hours of Dungeons & Dragons and playing with Millennium Falcon toys.

I know it well. It was me as a kid.

I was going to poke a little bit of fun at how emotional Jonathan Byers became as he watched his brother overheated to try and push the Mind Flayer out of his body, but then I remembered something important.

This teenager, a boy who has already been through a tremendous ordeal, not to mention the divorce of his parents, is watching his best friend, his little brother, be nearly burned to death to exorcise a demon spirit from deep within him.

I cry in Pixar movies. I’m not going to begrudge Jonathan for losing emotional control during this process. I imagine I’d have been nearly catatonic in his shoes, and if you think you wouldn’t, you’re either a Mind Flayer yourself, or you’re a liar.

If there was one thing I completely DID NOT expect in the finale, it had to be the return of the actual Dart, and Dustin’s ability to talk to his one-time pet, one-time feline murderer, and distract it with food long enough for his friends to slip further into the tunnels and try and attract the pack anywhere other than Hawkins Lab. This was unbelievable levels of 1984 cinema, but it also represented the inherent innocence of these people, particularly these children. Mistakes were made, and Dustin of course made the biggest one of all, but he then risked his life and trusted his instincts to subdue Dart.

And it worked. Because this is Season 2. Because Bob Newby was the season’s big death. And because they’re not killing these kids, even if in actuality one should probably die in Season 3 to build suspense and terror in the story’s antagonists.

As Eleven and Hopper see Owens is alive, but barely, they tell him not to move (hilarious) and head to save the town. It’s not particularly impressive visually to watch El in action as she goes to work on the gate, because it’s basically Millie Bobby Brown holding up one hand, making a mean face, and a few pieces of artistic flare to showcase an opening gradually being sealed shut.

But, it was more effective here because it was juxtaposed with cuts to everyone else in the series and their part of the plan. After Steve and Billy had their ridiculous fight, which Harrington lost, until he got help from MAX, things got back on track. Matt and Ross Duffer, I beg you not to bring Billy back for next season. I think we can have a lot of fun with the Max character, even though I expected more from her than we received this year. But let’s send Dacre Montgomery’s character packing. It was AWWWWWWFUL.

The gate does close and peace is restored, albeit temporarily. But, as the season ends, peace is restored. Dustin ends up dancing with Nancy, who sees him post-rejection at the dance and helps build his confidence. Hey, she even said he’s her favorite of Mike’s friends. Lucas fails in trying to ask Max to dance, but she figures it out anyway, gets him through it, and the two end up together. Eleven arrives to the dance, and then ends up in the arms of Mike Wheeler, her dream guy.

This finish was immensely 80s, but it had to be, and this was the fan service to pay off the audience for sticking through all the suspense and tension of the previous eight hours of content. Plus, they owed us after Chapter Seven, which was hideous.

As part of that reward, we see Barb get a proper burial, and we get closure for her death. Dr. Owens delivers Hopper a genuine birth certificate for Eleven, who we now also know as Jane. Multiple kisses from the couples, and then comes that camera trick I absolutely loved when the Chief found himself in the Upside Down. The lens slowly rotates 180 degrees to reveal the Upside Down. And in that shot, we see the Shadow Monster standing tall above Hawkins Middle School, revealing that the gate is closed, but the Mind Flayer is still alive and kicking. Excellent.

Taken as a whole, Stranger Things 2 was more entertaining than the original. Its highs were higher and without a doubt, the lows were also lower. But the middle episodes in particular were more interesting to me than the first season, and the level of drama rose significantly. Characters grew in logical ways, although Dustin became much more of a jack wagon than I expected. Steve Harrington may well have been the star character of the season, as he went half Elizabeth Shue in Adventures in Babysitting and was GENERALLY heroic.

Chapter Seven was the worst episode of the 17 we’ve gotten thus far, and hopefully we won’t see anything else like that going forward. It wasn’t placed well, but in truth, there was nowhere you could have put that episode where it wouldn’t have stunk. It felt more appropriate as a web series that we could have avoided if we chose. It was unnecessary and felt completely out of place. The one thing we got from it was Eleven learning to channel her powers, which made it possible for her to close the gate in the finale, but that could have been accomplished in a much more fruitful way.

Billy, Lucas’ sister, and…well Billy and Lucas’ sister have got to go. We don’t need to know Lucas’ siblings, UNLESS they’re going to become key factors in the main story. If so, I’m all for it, in the same way I am with Nancy and Jonathan’s involvement from beginning to end. But just as a nuisance? We don’t need that. The show is good enough without it, and I’d rather cut a few minutes off the episode lengths and eliminate her scenes if that’s her only purpose.

Stranger Things 2 told a predictable, but fun and engaging story that brought with it messages of redemption, trust, loyalty, and of allowing people to find their inner strength and inner goodness. Steve Harrington of Season 1, who we expected to always play one role, is a completely different character now. Bob Newby, who could easily have been a one-note annoyance, was instead a protagonist with a heart of gold and balls that clank. Owens, who we were sure was Brenner’s evil twin, ended up a legitimate figure that wanted to help both Will Byers and Eleven.

Everyone had moments to shine, and almost all of those we met for the first time performed admirably, particularly Brett Gelman, whose Murray Bauman was an absolute delight. I don’t think we’ve seen the best of Sadie Sink (Max) yet, because her story didn’t have as much screen time to develop. Now that the Zoomer has been introduced and accepted (maybe not by El, but it will come), she can experience the growth we saw from the main characters in the jump from the first year to the second.

I had a great time with Stranger Things 2, and enjoyed writing nearly 10,000 words about it over the past two weeks for all of you. I will talk extensively about the season on today’s Outkick the Culture podcast (ahem…subscribe via iTunes, because I’m wonderful, and my voice is even better, as is my humility) and then put it aside until the year end awards.

When the season ended, I was ready for 2018. That’s always the goal, and the Duffer Brothers have achieved it twice. This time, I was much more excited for the future than the first time around, because I’m much more invested in the lives of these people. That’s a credit to the writing, the nostalgia, and the underlying themes behind the series. Imperfect, but no show can claim any other description.

Stranger Things is great entertainment, and even though it can be frightening for younger viewers, the fact that the heart of the series is so wholesome makes it a pure joy to experience.

I’m @JMartOutkick. I’ve never attended a Winter Dance.

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