Okay, that finale will take some time to process. First and worst things first: Hopper’s dead. Except maybe he’s not, since there’s an unseen American being imprisoned by Russians in the tag that ends the episode. But, as far as our Hawkins heroes know, Hopper will nevermore serve as police chief. No more coffee and contemplation. No more grumpy barking of orders. No more contentious courting of Joyce. No more watching Miami Vice with El. Hopper’s gone. His death has also led to a splintering of our central characters. The Byers clan, now filled out by El, leaves with some vague promises to visit, breaking up the old gang (and putting a strain on some romantic relationships as well). Hawkins will never be the same.
But first, how did we get there? Short answer: destruction. So much gets destroyed in this season finale: the Russians’ Upside Down–opening laser, the teeny subdural Mind Flayer, the giant Mind Flayer, all the Hawkins residents absorbed by the Mind Flayer, Satan’s Baby, Billy’s car, the Toddfather’s car, Dustin’s dignity, El’s powers, Erica’s ability to maintain she’s not a nerd, Mayor Kline’s career and, of course, all those broken hearts.
“Chapter Eight: The Battle of Starcourt” stays true to its title, starting with an opening that finds the kids taking desperate measures to rid El of the Mind Flayer parasite that’s crawled inside her, a creature only finally killed when it meets the business end of Hopper’s boot. And with that stomping, the gang’s in one place for the first time this season, though the reunion won’t last for long. After constructing a battle plan, they break off into subgroups with names like The Scoops Troop (great name), The Griswold Family (they could have done better), and Bald Eagle (a handle Murray resents). Retreating to the hill overlooking Hawkins, Dustin and Erica plan to guide Murray, Hopper, and Joyce through the bunker. Meanwhile, everyone else prepares to retreat to the safety of Murray’s hideout. After some tender moments, they spring into action. Great plan. What could go wrong?
A lot! The X-factor here turns out to be Flayed Billy, who’s disabled Nancy’s car, forcing Nancy, Jonathan, Will, El, Max, and Mike back into the food court. That leaves them with two problems that turn out to be related: They can salvage the part they need from the car El trashed in the previous episode, but El’s powers seem to be failing her. She can’t even crush a New Coke can, much less sling a car around. Then a third problem presents itself: the Mind Flayer, now the size of a mall. (And somehow Stranger Things has found a way to make it even scarier than in previous appearances.)
Meanwhile, Hopper, Murray, and Joyce infiltrate the Russian base with extreme prejudice, thanks to Hopper taking out a bunch of soldiers with a machine gun. (It’s played for laughs, and last episode’s Russian deaths were treated pretty casually as well. In Stranger Things, life is precious, unless it belongs to a stinkin’ commie invader.) Undaunted by the killing, Joyce suggests they go to Enzo’s for a date, at last, and Hopper agrees. Looks like this relationship is finally going somewhere!
Or it might go somewhere if Hopper can use Planck’s constant to unlock the safe housing the keys needed to shut down the drill to the Upside Down. Murray doesn’t know it. Erica and Dustin don’t either. But Dustin knows someone who knows, a virtually perfect creature a few states over in Utah: Suzie, who (1) exists, (2) is thrilled to hear from Dustin in spite of being curled up with a great Ursula K. Le Guin novel, and (3) will happily share Planck’s constant with her Dusty bun in return for a song. Specifically, she needs him to sing Limahl’s theme to the 1984 fantasy film The Neverending Story with her, which he does, much to his embarrassment (even though Gaten Matarazzo has a lovely singing voice). The day is saved, thanks to the former lead singer of Kajagoogoo’s ability to write a catchy movie theme.
Well, the day is sort of saved. Back at the mall, Steve and Robin ram into Flayed Billy’s car, but that doesn’t prevent him from making his way into the mall and brutally taking down El in order to feed her to the Mind Flayer. And he’d get away with it, too, if it weren’t for those meddling kids and their arsenal of fireworks, which proves to be an effective delaying tactic until El, drawing on Billy’s memories, sets the muscle car–loving tough guy against the Mind Flayer. Rather than let the Mind Flayer take El and wipe out his stepsister and her friends, Billy sacrifices himself, which keeps the Flayer at bay while Joyce, Murray, and Hopper close the gate to the Upside Down.
About that: We kind of covered it above, but Hopper’s sacrifice — after a long fight with the Russian super-soldier that ends in the Russian’s death — gets played for maximum emotion. That little nod he gives Joyce telling her to turn the keys is devastating. And even if in the moment you can’t believe Hopper won’t be coming back, it’s still impossible not to get swept up in everyone’s sadness. It’s hard to watch Joyce and El take in the news, especially on the heels of Max’s own confused wailing at Billy’s death. They’ve saved the Earth with a little last-second help from Paul Reiser, but they’ve also paid a price.
The elegiac “Three Months Later” postscript sustains the mournful mood, despite some comic business in which Robin and Steve get jobs at a video store run by Keith, last seen in the previous season running the arcade. Everyone’s either moving out or moving on. As the Byers hit the road, Will leaves his D&D material behind for Erica, who seems a little more comfortable inching out of the nerd closet. Jonathan and Nancy go their separate ways. So do El and Mike, after Mike assures her that her powers will return and they share one last kiss — one not interrupted by a Corey Hart impression. Then there’s the note Hopper has accidentally left behind, the heart-to-heart talk he meant to have with El and Mike but couldn’t bring himself to deliver. And it’s not a “keep your hands off my daughter” diatribe, but a heartfelt wish for them to take chances and have a wonderful life and how much El has meant to him and, sure, it’s a scripted contrivance, but it makes the room pretty dusty, doesn’t it?
So, with everyone facing an unsure future and some hints that we’re not yet done with the Russians (or Hopper), another season draws to a close. And it was a pretty great season. Early on, it felt a bit like Stranger Things had started to repeat itself, and while that remained true to a point, it also kept upping the ante with bigger threats, bigger emotions, and a storyline that acknowledged these kids were growing up and changing. Robin proved a worthy addition to the cast and Starcourt Mall brought the spookiness to the most sterile (and most ’80s) of settings while providing just a dash of cultural commentary. The question of Stranger Things’ shelf life has hung over it from the start. One season seemed like enough, but the second turned into a winning follow-up. A third might have been pushing it but, hey, it worked too, and it ended in such a way that it would be a bummer if Stranger Things didn’t return. If nothing else, we have to see Steve’s employee picks at the video store.
• One thing that became apparent over the course of the season: It’s hard to do right by every character with a cast this big. Jonathan and Nancy felt extraneous for much of the season while Will’s big emotional meltdown seemed added in part to give him something to do. Lucas, as ever, remained underserved, but Erica emerged as a star player. Breaking Dustin off from the others and teaming him up with Steve turned out to be a winning decision, and it seems likely that the Byers family’s move could help out with some of the logistics next season if only by breaking the characters off into discrete units.
• The show took a big swing by bringing in the Russians, but it worked, allowing the Duffers and others to tap into a rich vein of late–Cold War depictions of evil Russkies.
• Stranger Things did, however, lay off trying to do a departure episode like last season’s Chicago adventure, perhaps burned by fan response. Smart move or a failure of nerve?
• Pedantic note: No one called the first Star Wars film A New Hope in 1985.
• Will the next season be set in 1986? If so, we’re pushing a bit past the golden age of Stranger Things’ influences. That year saw the release of horror and science-fiction classics like The Fly, Aliens, and Star Trek IV, but on the whole, public taste started to tilt away from the sort of movies that inform the show. The three highest-grossing films of the year were Top Gun, Crocodile Dundee, and Platoon, and it’s hard to picture posters of any of those hanging up in Mike’s basement.