No one keeps these kids on the bench
Credit: Netflix
Stranger Things 2

Our long, small-town Halloween nightmare is over. And after that deadly penultimate hour, the finale of Stranger Things 2 feels almost quiet — even accounting for the smoke monster exorcism. Where the last episode gave us frantic, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants heroics, “The Gate” straps on its goggles and makes a plan. Then, like Hopper, it pulls us back into another room and gives us the space to process our feelings.

Of all those feelings, it’s young love that bookends this finale. Eleven and Mike finally embrace as Mike channels Ryan Gosling in The Notebook (“I never gave up on you. I called you every night”), but his relief turns to fury when Hopper admits to being the reason El never responded. Hopper takes the boy into another room to let him vent in private. He asks Mike not to blame Eleven; Mike really doesn’t. “I blame you!” he yells, punching the chief in the stomach and calling him a liar until he winds up crying in his arms.

When they rejoin the group, Eleven has already shunned Max (you don’t have to view other girls as threats, El!) and studied Will’s message: “CLOSE GATE.” She’s sure she can close the same gate she opened before, which should kill the Mind Flayer’s army — but as Mike points out, that army controls Will, meaning he’d die too. How are they just now figuring this out? Joyce comes up with a solution: heat up her son’s body until the Mind Flayer can’t stand it anymore. Good thing Hopper has just the right obscure cabin in the woods for an amateur exorcism.

Nancy, with Steve’s blessing, goes with the Byers family to Hopper’s cabin while Hop and Eleven set out for the lab, where they’ll wait to close the gate until Jonathan radios that Will is monster-free. On the drive, El admits to visiting her mother — she leaves out the whole thing where she went to the big city and almost killed someone — and Hopper apologizes to his punked-out runaway for being so hard on her. He was just afraid of losing her like he lost Sara.

Hopper seems surprised when Eleven asks who Sara is; he’s either startled that he mentioned his daughter or just surprised he hasn’t mentioned her before. And given that he calls himself a black hole (“It sucks everything towards it and destroys it”) before saying the black hole is what “got her,” it’s clear he’s working through some guilt tied to his daughter’s death. But Eleven grabs his hand; she’s back, “bitchin’” new look and all.

While they rebuild, another family causes trouble. Billy, after flirting with Mrs. Wheeler, has found his way to the Byers home, where he shoves Lucas against the wall and punches Steve to a pulp. Max thinks on her feet, grabs a syringe full of whatever they’ve been using to knock out Will, and stabs her stepbrother in the neck.

Max has been a mixed bag as a new character; she’s played well into this season’s exploration of the need for connection, but she hasn’t done much for the plot. Billy, though, is worse — an empty aggressor for aggression’s sake, which is especially noticeable on a show that validates young people’s anger, as Hopper did with Mike. His father’s violence helps explain Billy’s rage, but it doesn’t excuse how he expresses it. Which is why it’s so satisfying when Max grabs Steve’s nail bat and brings it down inches from her stepbrother’s crotch, demanding that he leave her and her new friends alone.

As Billy sinks into unconsciousness, Max grabs his keys. She and the boys aren’t content to sit on the bench, so they’ve hatched a plan to help El by setting fire to the hub of the shadow monster’s tunnels, drawing the demodogs away from the lab. Responsible Babysitter Steve objects to this plan, but Responsible Babysitter Steve is now out cold, leaving Max (who has driven in a parking lot, which Lucas says still counts) to chauffeur the group. In the hour’s funniest scene, Steve wakes up in the back seat of a speeding car, surrounded by middle schoolers who baby him. “Hey, buddy, shhh,” Dustin coos. “It’s okay! You put up a good fight!”

After Max somehow manages to steer everyone to the hole Hopper dug into the tunnels, Steve accepts that there’s nothing he can do to stop the kids from helping Eleven, so he changes tactics and takes the lead. When they get to the hub, he flicks his lighter. The tunnel goes up in flames.

The chain reaction is immediate. The demodogs blocking Hopper and Eleven’s route to the gate all flock to the tunnels. In Hopper’s cabin, Will — whose veins have gone black as space heaters and a fireplace burn him from every side — screams out a trail of smoke. He wakes up as Will again, freed from the last of the Mind Flayer (WE HOPE), and the Byers family enjoys a well-earned group hug.

Steve and the kids book it out of the tunnel, slipping past Dart after Dustin plies him with nougat. At least something good came out of his connection with the monster. Just as Steve is about to give Dustin a boost out of the tunnel, they’re swarmed by demodogs on all sides, but the creatures aren’t interested in them. Eleven is at the gate.

It’s time to end this. Hopper and Eleven descend into a pit and face down the gaping, glowing tear into the Upside Down. While Hopper picks off incoming demodogs with a rifle, Eleven focuses all of her powers and all of her pain, per Kali’s advice, on the gate. At the memory of being torn from her mother for a lifetime of testing, she screams so righteously that she levitates a few inches above the ground. The gate knits itself back together.

It’s a satisfying affirmation of this young girl’s right to be royally outraged, a full-circle moment for a season that’s seen Eleven and Will switch places in the narrative. While Will actively pushed the plot forward, Eleven became the show’s absent emotional heart, facing her demons and searching for her “home.” And if the story sometimes felt like it was wasting its best weapon by keeping her on the sidelines, it also honored her trauma, which becomes her weapon as she returns to save the day. Hopper wraps her in his arms: “You did good, kid.” (Recap continues on page 2)

One month later, the lab is locked down. A half-truth about Barb’s fate (she died of exposure to an “experimental chemical asphyxiate”) gives her parents closure, and another half-truth gives Hopper a fresh start: Owens forged a birth certificate for Eleven. Terry is still listed as her birth mother, but based on El’s official name — Jane Hopper — it looks like the chief is on record as her dad. Owens suggests they let things cool down for another year before El comes out of hiding, which is either well-intentioned caution or another attempt at controlling her. It’s still hard to trust the good doctor; how did he escape the demodogs with just a flesh wound, anyway?

In any case, Hopper negotiates one night of leniency so El can go to the middle school Snow Ball (also an apt term for how everything happens in Hawkins: It snowballs). Compared to most middle school dances, this one is surprisingly lively; all the kids are pairing off and putting their arms around each other. Lucas stammers out a request to Max (“Hey, um, it’s nice, right?”), and she leads him onto the floor while Dustin looks on.

Dustin is our lone reminder of how apocalyptic rejection feels at that age. It’s not for lack of trying — he’s even done up his hair with Steve’s favorite Farrah Fawcett hairspray — but Steve’s words of encouragement can’t make the girls say yes to a dance with Dustin, and the boy wanders the gym in a sequence that goes on so long, it starts to feel cruel. Luckily, Nancy saves the day by asking him to dance, telling the flustered boy that he’s her favorite out of Mike’s friends and promising that girls will see his virtues soon enough.

Stranger Things is still driven by that kind of act of friendship, but it’s also a show about kids who are starting to think they might want more. The season ends by pairing everyone off like, well, a middle school slow dance. Nancy and Jonathan exchange smiles. Lucas and Max kiss. In the parking lot, Hopper and Joyce share a cigarette and bond in their grief. And Eleven and Mike finally get their West Side Story moment, locking eyes across the gym. He asks her to dance; she says she doesn’t know how. “I don’t either,” Mike says. “Do you want to figure it out?” It is ADORABLE. He guides her arms to his shoulders, and this time, no one interrupts their kiss.

The season could have ended there, given that the last few seconds are implied by everything about this show, but we get those last few seconds anyway: Outside, the camera tilts until we’re in the Upside Down, where the shadow monster looms over the gym. It’s ominous, sure, but we’ll face that another time. For now, how cute are Mike and Eleven?!

Most ’80s moment: From “Love Is a Battlefield” to “Time After Time” to “Every Breath You Take,” that DJ at the dance definitely knows what decade it is.

Best quotes:

“I may be a pretty s—ty boyfriend, but turns out I’m actually a pretty damn good babysitter” —Steve

“I’m just curious why all of a sudden you look like some kind of MTV punk” —Hopper, to Eleven

“This is a groundbreaking scientific discovery. We can’t just bury it like some common mammal, okay?” —Dustin, who had better buy Joyce a new fridge

STEVE: “Yeah, and then we all die.”
DUSTIN: “Well, that’s one point of view.”
STEVE: “No, that’s not a point of view man. That’s a fact.”

“Eleven, Doc Owens. Doc Owens, Eleven. She’s been staying with me for about a year, and she is about to save our asses. Maybe when this is all said and done, maybe you could help her out too, you know? Maybe you could help her lead a normal life, one where she’s not poked and prodded and treated like some kind of lab rat. I don’t know. It’s just a thought.” —Hopper, to Owens

Episode Recaps

Stranger Things 2
Stranger Things

Netflix’s hit sci-fi series follows a group of kids in the '80s battling supernatural forces in Hawkins, Ind.

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