Stranger Things ends the way it began: as the most comprehensive pastiche of ’80s sci-fi imaginable.
In an earlier recap, I noted how the creature sounds like the hunters in Predator, and we've seen how the sticky goo lining the gates to its netherworld recalls the xenomorphs in Alien. This season finale, "The Upside Down," combines the two so shamelessly that the only response, at this point, is a knowing chuckle. So the creature's face opens up into four flaps like the hatching egg in the Alien movies? And it cocoons its victims and impregnates them so they seem totally normal until … ? No matter. Stranger Things has been such a full immersion in ’80s culture that it's like being dipped into Elle's sensory-deprivation tank. In the absence of original stimuli, we're floating in the mirror world of our own pop-addled memories.
The most telling moment in this surprisingly emotional finale comes when Mike, Lucas, and Dustin rush into the hospital room to visit Will, who's recovering from his ordeal in monster-land. Keep in mind, Elle has just sacrificed herself to defeat the faceless creature, draining her remaining supply of psychic power to blast it (and herself) to smithereens. (Chekhov's slingshot was helpful, but not fatal, alas.) And before that happens, Mike opens up to Elle. He promises her that she'll be a part of their family — that she'll get a new bed, that Karen is a great mom who will cook her proper meals, that Nancy will be her sister. He tells her that he wouldn't be her brother, though, or even her friend, because he like-likes her and wants to take her to the Snow Ball. They even share their first kiss.
And now, as the boys visit their lost friend, they pause a breathless account of all their adventures to talk about Elle. "She saved us," Mike says, with a melancholy lilt. Then the guys search for ways to describe her: "She's basically a wizard" and "She has superpowers!" and "More like Yoda." They enthuse about her flipping over a van and all the bad guys with blood pouring out of their eyes. Their grief has been processed into pop-culture analogies and fanboy enthusiasm. It would be nice to say that Stranger Things is commenting on how we use pop culture to help make sense of the world, but the show doesn't have that kind of depth. The Duffers are inspired by the movies and music of the time — and their excitement is hugely infectious — but they're no more sophisticated in processing it than their trio of adolescent boys. They've made us a mixtape.
Those caveats aside, Stranger Things is a really good mixtape, sequenced with consummate skill and a genuine emotional arc. "The Upside Down" aims for maximum intensity and achieves it by separating the parties, then staging tense conflicts across multiple planes of action. Having been caught by government agents, Hopper and Joyce negotiate entry into the creature's realm and poke around its vale of shadows in hazmat suits, defenseless against an attack. Nancy and Jonathan revive their plan to kill the monster by arming themselves, setting a trap in the Byers' house, and using their own blood as a lure. (Eager to redeem himself after slut-shaming Nancy on the movie-theater marquee, Steve gets roped into action, too.) That leaves Mike, Elle, and the boys in the middle school, where they're trapped by Dr. Brenner and his goons until the creature shows up for a final confrontation.
The Duffers orchestrate the action elegantly, and in a fairly democratic way. Each hero claims some role in getting the job done: Hopper and Joyce rescue Will, Nancy and Jonathan get a few good licks in against the creature, then Elle and the boys finish it off. Cutting in flashbacks of Hopper's daughter dying as he searches for Will lays it on quite thick, but it also heightens the emotional stakes in a finale that's intent to leave everything on the table. Whatever feeling viewers might have for these characters, "The Upside Down" will squeeze it out of them. After seven episodes of buildup, might as well go for the gusto, right?
Except the door has been cracked for a sequel. What might have been a satisfying, complete story instead opens up the possibility of more seasons to come, which cheats on the sacrifices and triumphs we just witnessed. The big government conspiracy hasn't been exposed, but will continue to function. Elle isn't dead, but perhaps retrieving her beloved Eggos from the secret enclosure where Hopper leaves them in the woods. The creature may be dead, but at least one of its offspring slithers from Will's mouth to the drain below. (A suggested tagline for season two: "Game over, man. Game over.") In the season's "One Month Later" coda, the Etch-a-Sketch board has been effectively shaken: Everyone is more or less back to their starting positions — wise to the secret goings-on in Hawkins, perhaps, but back to square one. Closing with another ten-hour D&D session doesn't feel entirely like a victory. It feels like déjà vu.
- The one tantalizing aspect of a second season: The ’80s references will have to get more arcane. I look forward to how The Last Dragon, Ice Pirates, and Falco might be incorporated.
- It was disappointing that Matthew Modine's Dr. Brenner never rose above the level of cardboard villain. There's some rationale to Brenner's experimentation — he wants to stop the Russians, he wants to contain a dangerous situation — but it's lost in oily supervillainy.
- Elle's capacity for extreme violence comes to the fore again when she wipes out her government adversaries with enough force to make their eyes bleed. Given the circumstances, the show doesn't have time to consider her actions, but the extent to which she controls her powers is never fully explored.
- Steve redeems himself enough to get back in Nancy's good graces, but that Christmas sweater should give her second thoughts.