When Stranger Things first premiered back in July of 2016 (oh my god it was only a year ago what time vortex am I currently occupying I swear to god what the hell), it did it with relative silence. Though the series had a cool trailer or two, there really wasn’t a lot of buzz for Stranger Things, nor did it boost a bunch of known talent behind the camera. Sure, it was nice to see Winona Ryder working again, and David Harbour was a great character actor just itching for a prime leading man role, but everybody else? From the creators to the main kids, they were all pretty big unknowns. But, of course, that has all changed in the months since.
A massive fandom has now formed around Stranger Things, with the show and its characters now serving as some of Netflix’s most beloved. It’s rare for ANYTHING even remotely new to gain such a strong following in a small amount of time but, if you ask me, Stranger Things really deserves it. Though not without its problems, the first season was an incredibly engrossing, always entertaining little genre pastiche. It could have easily just been an 80’s nostalgia circle jerk, but with some whip smart writing and an especially strong ensemble, Stranger Thing went from zero to cultural phenomenon.
Which made the anticipation for Stranger Things 2 far different than its predecessor. While the first season had the opportunity to really surprise us with the story it was telling, Stranger Things 2 does not. We know what this show is now, and generally, what it is setting out to do. But does that make the sequel any less exciting? For many, many properties, the answer is a clear yes. But, for the most part, Stranger Things 2 managed to avoid a lot of the pitfalls of sequelitis, delivering a second season that lives up to the quality of the first in many regards. It was far from perfect (as I’ll get to with a latter article), but it was still jam packed with great moments and excellent story developments. So with my 8 episode binge all wrapped up (twice, in fact!) let’s dive right in, shall we? Here are the five best moments of Stranger Things 2.
THIS IS YOUR WARNING: FULL SPOILERS FOR STRANGER THINGS 2 FOLLOW. DO NOT READ IF YOU HAVE YET TO WATCH THE ENTIRE SEASON YET. BUT, IF YOU ARE ONE OF THE COOL KIDS THAT HAS…PROCEED!
Second, less important disclaimer: this list is arranged in chronological order, so I really have no “preference” on these moments. That being said…four is clearly the best, right?
1. Family Spat (Chapter 4: “Will the Wise”)
There’s certainly something to be said about the fact that the first “best” moment of Stranger Things 2 doesn’t arrive until about half way in. Don’t get me wrong: the first trio of episodes are good, and do the much needed legwork for setting up the season’s main storylines, but the series is certainly bottom heavy when it comes to its storytelling. Which makes a certain level of sense: the Duffer Brothers have not been shy about their approach to creating the show, always wanting to create an experience that resembled a long form movie more than anything else. And how many movies really have their best moments at the top of the first act? That’s where you establish the action, with the second and third act serving as the payoff.
But putting aside the fundamentals of cinematic storytelling, the first truly fantastic moment of Stranger Things 2 is the heated, volatile argument between Hopper and Eleven at the start of “Will the Wise.” Pairing these two together was one of the best decisions the writers made following the first season, and this scene is where it gets its first real payoff. Both David Harbour and Bobby Millie Brown are just so damn good (both together and apart), and are able to infuse their characters with so much passion through every single line. When they fight in “Will the Wise,” they REALLY fight, and you can’t help but feel bad for both of them.
Props especially have to be given out to Millie Brown, who performs Eleven with the perfect balance of emotionally scarred prisoner and petulant, pissed off pre-teen. The joy of arguments like this is that it’s hard to root for either party: you like both characters, and can understand entirely where both are coming from. That’s a sign of the strong writing at the center of the scene and, paired with the excellent writing, creates a father/daughter argument that actually FEELS real, and relatable. The fact that it also contains the “daughter” hurling out telekinetic attacks and exploding the things around her in rage just makes the moment all that more special.
2. Terry Ives’ Tale (Chapter 5: “Dig Dug”)
It takes a lot of skill for a series to be able to make a minor character’s story feel as compelling as the rest of the cast. But Stranger Things 2 was able to do that surprisingly well in “Dig Dug,” as Eleven delved deeper into her past and, for the first time, met her mother.
The audience of course had already done so back in season one and, from first impressions, it was clear that something tragic and terrible happened to Terry Ives. But seeing first hand the experience of having her baby ripped away from her, the subsequent attempt to get it back, and the horrifying procedure that followed it, hit far harder than it had any right to. But strong editing and an emotional score helped propel this sequence into something really powerful, and one of the most memorable moments of Season 2.
…And yeah, maybe the discovery made in said flashback sequence led to one of the worst things about the season but, hey, this article is about the positives, right? I’m sure we’ll all have time to bitch about Chicago Punk Eleven later. For now, lets move on to something far cooler…
3. The Demo-Dog Bus Attack (Chapter 6: “The Spy”)
Stranger Things 2 doesn’t have a ton of big action movie moments…at least not until “The Spy,” that is. Once Dustin’s new best friend/demogorgon pet friend grows into a full size menace, an actual monster threat is awakened and, like the demogorgon threat from last season, our resourceful kids spring into action to take the creature down. But the motley crew tasked with the hunt (Dustin, Lucas, new kid Max, and most delightfully Steve Harrington) are in for quite a shock when the single, medium sized “demo-dog” brings some friends along for the ride.
What follows is one of the best sequences in Stranger Things so far, a bus attack sequence that takes clear inspiration from some of the best sci-fi monster movies out there. Think of the velociraptor scenes in Jurassic Park, or even the ceiling sequence from Aliens. Or, hell, a similar bus scene in J.J. Abrams underappreciated Super 8, one which also put a bunch of 80’s inspired pre-teens in a chilling amount of danger.
But even with the influences pretty clear, this scene still manages to work fantastically on its own, with a wonderful atmosphere and actually surprising setup (the other demo dogs popping up from the fog actually got a jump from me.) It’s always hard for a TV series to make the main characters feel like they are actually in danger, what with the whole ongoing nature of the series and all, but the terror of this moment is felt from pretty much everyone involved. And even if it doesn’t show as much crazy visuals as some other big set-pieces later in the season, the Demo Dog bus attack still managed to feel more cinematic than any other moment in Stranger Things 2.
Having an accomplished blockbuster director in Andrew Stanton behind the camera for this episode certainly helped, I imagine. Sure, John Carter wasn’t good per say, but it was certainly cinematic! And with Stanton’s talents actually applied to a something worthwhile, he managed to deliver one hell of a moment here. Let’s hope its enough to get the man out of the live action dog house in the future. Not sure I really want “Finding Crush” or “Wall-E 2: Planting Crops n’ Shit.” Andrew Stanton is a good director, Hollywood! Let him do it!
Anyways, with that Stanton aside out of the way, let’s move onto the thing about this season that only really matters, and one of the driving factors that led Stranger Things 2 second half to be so damn satisfying.
4. Adventures in Babysitting with Steve Harrington (Chapter 9: “The Gate”)
If you asked me at the end of Stranger Things season one who my favorite character of the next season would be, I would never have uttered the name “Steve Harrington.” Don’t get me wrong–I liked the character a lot in the first season, and found his whole “crappy boyfriend in teen 80’s movie, thrown into a monster movie he wasn’t prepared for” to be quite entertaining. But at the end of the day, the character still seemed like he was just an obstacle standing between the Jonathan/Nancy pairing. A well performed, fun obstacle, but an obstacle nonetheless.
But with the show’s decision to break up Nancy and Steve so early into this season, the latter character was able to thrive in a mode I never expected him to be in: reluctant companion and protector of the main group of kids. It was a plot development made entirely on the basis of convenience (the ONLY reason Dustin even teamed up with the guy is that literally every other character was off doing their own subplots), but man did it end up being one of the best developments Stranger Things 2 could have possibly made.
Just seeing cocky Steve Harrington deal with a bunch of pre-teens is funny on the face of it, but THESE pre-teens in particular? Absolutely glorious. But as much as I’d like to just say “every moment with Steve” and call it a day here, I think I have to go with a more specific moment. And on that end, I’ll say the best “Steve as babysitter” scene is in the season finale, where Steve awakens from his post-fight stupor, in an unfamiliar car, surrounded by these brats who have made his past 24 hours a living hell. His subsequent freakout and vain attempts to convince these cocksure kids to stop trying to get involved in this Stephen King bullshit is absolutely glorious, and Joe Keery does an amazing job playing off the kids in this sequence. The fact that it’s only followed by him giving in and leading the charge into the tunnels (nail bat in toe) is only icing on the cake.
How the character can be reluctant comic relief, sympathetic role model, AND the epitome of a cool badass teen, is truly something. Steve Harrington is hands down the MVP of Stranger Things 2, and every moment he spends being baffled at how he got involved in this entire mess, but rolling along with it anyways, is television gold.
5. The Snow Ball (Chapter 9: “The Gate”)
Stranger Things, from the very beginning, was always a show serving a bunch of masters. At times, it was a fun throwback to 80’s Spielberg adventure stories. At other points, it was a John Carpenter tinged teen slasher film. Meanwhile, there was a whole Stephen King supernatural nightmare scape happening in the background. Hell, the show even had enough room to throw a little bit of X-Men action into the mix with the Eleven storyline! With so much at play, it’s a miracle the show never felt overwhelming, or the elements never felt at odds with each other. And the reason why is quite clear to me: like pretty much every other great TV show out there, at the end of the day, it was all about the characters.
In the midst of big supernatural threats and crazy horror action, it might be easy to forget that. But it says something that my favorite sequence of Stranger Things 2 isn’t the big action moments or the crazy sci-fi conspiracies — its seeing our main characters going to a dance. It was seeing them interact, and be awkward, and fail to ask their classmates on dances, and to just BE KIDS. At its very best, Stranger Things is Freaks and Geeks with monsters, which can make for a magnificent combination. And just like Freaks and Geeks, it uses its period trappings to not only invoke nostalgia in the viewer (even if you DIDN’T grow up in the time period), but also to perfectly create the mood of a scene–I mean, can you ever go wrong featuring Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time?” The answer is a clear no.
The Snow Ball segment of “The Gate” felt real in a way that most shows fail at, and the fact that Stranger Things can be both this sci-fi/horror hybrid AND an effective tribute to growing up speaks to the stellar work The Duffer Brothers, the other writers, and the great actors do in making us love these characters. Which is the key, really. Even when the story falters (and, on occasion in Stranger Things 2, it does), your sympathy for the characters never does. You want to see Mike and Dustin and Will and Lucas and Eleven and Joyce and Hopper and Max and Nancy and Jonathan and (especially) Steve be happy, and after a season of chaos and danger, scenes like the Snow Ball are the perfect pallet cleanser to end things on. Never forget, future TV writers: you can get very, very far on strong characters. And they rarely come stronger than they do in Stranger Things.
That does it for the main list but, real quick, let me squeak out a few honorable mentions:
Will Absorbs The Monster (Chapter 3: “The Pollywog”)– What a horrifying image, huh?
Dustin vs. the Demo-Dog (Chapter 5: “Dig Dug”)– Dustin is the best.
Steve and Dustin Talk Girls (Chapter 6: “The Spy”) — Addendum: Dustin AND STEVE are the best.
Bob Dies, Which Suuuuucks (Chapter 7: “The Mind Flayer”) — R.I.P. Bob. He made for a great new character, even if his red shirt status was pretty clear from the beginning. Still though…BETTER THAN BARB, RIGHT? #JusticeForBob
Eleven’s New Do — I’ll talk more about Eleven’s storyline in a latter article but…well, she got a sweet new look out of it, at least. I dug her Sigourney Weaver haircut too, though.
The Exorcism of Will Byers — This is just to say that, if it wasn’t for Steve, Noah Schnapp’s Will would take the cake as Stranger Thing 2’s best character. What a great performance from him this year. After seeing so little of the character in the first season, it’s good to know that Schnapp was a great little actor too.
That’s all for my best moments of Stranger Things 2 list, but check back soon for my take on the worst aspects of the season. That article will probably be less fun, but I need to write SOMETHING to put Billy in his place.
Seriously. Fuck. That. Guy.
Also published on Medium.