Nearly three years separated Season 3 and 4 of “Stranger Things,” yet the public demand for the show never waned. “Stranger Things” broke the internet when Season 4 Vol. II dropped on July 1. What the Duffer brothers have managed to do is impressive, especially in the era of streaming and a flooded marketplace. It speaks to the show’s continued commitment to character, action, and delivering stunning, film-level visual storytelling.
Unlike previous seasons, Season 4 was split in two. “We didn’t think nine episodes were going to be ready in time,” executive producer Shawn Levy recently explained. The business decision ultimately served as a well-earned “breaking point” in the show as well as an opportunity for the show to dominate online conversations for half the summer. You couldn’t ask for a better opportunity to stay on everyone’s minds.
Now that we are in recovery mode from the Season 4 finale, we revisited the entire show’s run to determine the 14 best episodes (so far). From the character-rich episodes to those with full-throttle action, our list showcases the entire scope of what has made “Stranger Things” such an enduring, undeniable success. Take a seat, and have a look below.
The Lost Sister (Season 2, Episode 7)
“The Lost Sister” is the show’s most misunderstood and under-appreciated episode. After tracking down her mother and aunt, El (Millie Bobby Brown) begins having visions of another young girl named Kali, who underwent similar experiments. Research and further visions lead El to hop on a bus bound for Chicago and an abandoned warehouse. There, she gets quite the introduction from Kali and her scrappy group of misfits.
Kali is not like El. El is still learning how to harness her power and does not believe in senseless killing. Kali admits that she was once the same. Her powers are also different. She has the ability to influence others’ perceptions of reality (like making people see things that are not there). Her hunger for retribution for those in the Hawkins Lab thrusts her into a dangerous moral game. She’s been tracking down those involved in the heinous experiments and enlists El to find the last remaining scientist, a man named Ray Carroll (Pruitt Taylor Vince).
The group locates his apartment and breaks inside, threatening to end his life. But El doesn’t want to go through with the plan. She decides that killing Ray will not undo the past and will only cause more hurt. This choice irreparably severs her connection with Kali. “The Lost Sister” is about trauma, recovery, holding onto one’s humanity, and realizing that hurt people hurt people. Causing more pain never heals your heart. These themes lie at the very heart of what “Stranger Things” is all about.
The Flea And The Acrobat (Season 1, Episode 5)
Things come to blows between Mike (Finn Wolfhard) and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) in “The Flea and the Acrobat.” The standout Season 1 episode follows El, Mike, and Lucas in their mission to relocate a gate linking the two dimensions. After a conversation with their science teacher about alternate worlds, the trio venture out into the woods with their compass.
El fears that she could run into another Demogorgon and makes the compass go haywire. Lucas believes she is purposely leading them astray and gets into a scuffle with Mike, leading El to fling Lucas and knock him unconscious. While Mike tends to him, El dashes away into the surrounding woods. She also recalls a memory in which she was placed inside a sensory deprivation tank and stumbled across a Demogorgon in the pitch black.
Hopper (David Harbour) discovers his cabin has been bugged, which confirms Joyce’s (Winona Ryder) paranoia. Nancy (Natalie Dyer) and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) scour the woods as well, searching for the Demogorgon that killed Barb but come across a severely wounded deer instead. Nancy follows it through the trees and crosses into the Upside Down. It’s the first of many excursions and draws the viewer further into the show’s much bigger mystery.
The Mall Rats (Season 3, Episode 2)
Billy’s (Dacre Montgomery) fate is left open in the Season 3 premiere, and in “The Mall Rats,” we learn he has been possessed by the Mind Flayer and must do his bidding. He is then forced to lure a fellow lifeguard into the monster’s lair, which positions what eventually becomes a much bigger scheme than we could have imagined (a giant-sized creature).
While Joyce investigates why all her magnets have lost their magnetism, Nancy ventures further down the rabbit hole of an elderly woman named Mrs. Driscoll (Peggy Miley) and her exploding rats. At Starcourt Mall, Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) reunites with Steve (Joe Keery) and meets Scoops Ahoy co-worker Robin (Maya Hawke). El breaks things off with Mike, who has been avoiding her ever since Hopper threatened him. All good TV romances need a few obstacles, and they certainly go through it in the show.
“The Mall Rats” is worthy of this list predominantly for its character moments. From the exploding rats to El’s growing self-reliance, the episode is far less about high-octane action and more about putting the chess pieces in place for the season’s big baddie.
The Monster (Season 1, Episode 6)
In “The Monster,” El questions whether she is a good guy or a bad guy. When a bully tries to kill Lucas, El turns up her powers and breaks the bully’s arm. She collapses from exhaustion and confesses that she firmly believes she’s solely responsible for the creatures making their way from the other dimension. Of course, that’s only part of the story. There’s also the revelation that Dr. Brenner (Matthew Modine) had her searching the darkness and she stumbled across the Demogorgon, thus creating the gate. Later, El enters a grocery store to get some Eggos and delivers the iconic “mouth-breather” line when an older gentleman tries to stop her. That’s the stuff of legends.
Joyce and Hopper track down El’s mother, Terry Ives (Aimee Mullins), and find her in a catatonic state. Her caregiver and sister, Becky (Aimee Seimetz), reveals that Terry participated in an underground medical program called Project MKUltra and believes that Terry’s daughter, Jane, was kidnapped.
“The Monster” is a slower episode, but it gives further insight into El’s backstory and who she is as a character, presenting her inner turmoil and moral dilemma.
The Gate (Season 2, Episode 9)
The Season 2 finale, “The Gate,” features a last-ditch effort to save Will (Noah Schnapp) from the Mind Flayer’s grip. Taking refuge inside Hopper’s, Joyce, Nancy, and Jonathan hook up several space heaters as a way to burn the monster out of Will’s veins. It’s next-level “Exorcist” chaos, and their efforts initially have no effect until Nancy strikes Will’s side with a scorching hot fire poker, releasing the creature in a swirling cloud of smoke. For everything he’s been through in the show, Will is finally free.
Borrowing a lesson she learned from long-lost sister Kali, El musters up a deeper power she had not previously known and successfully closes the gate located deep within the lab. Side-by-side, Hopper and El make an epic father-daughter team as Hopper is all-hands-on-deck to destroy the Demodogs still squeezing through the gate’s cracks. It’s a weirdly sweet moment.
“The Gate” concludes with Justice for Barb finally becoming a reality. Nancy’s journals about the government’s top-secret plans and Murray’s (Brett Gelman) vigilante journalism expose the truth. However, everything is too good to be true. At the winter dance, where Lucas and Max (Sadie Sink) share a furtive kiss, the Mind Flayer is revealed to still be alive and thriving in the Upside Down. As with the first season finale, there’s enough emotional closure for the character, with a tease for the follow-up season.
The Flayed (Season 3, Episode 5)
Nancy’s life hangs precariously in the balance in “The Flayed,” which focuses largely on an unexpected skirmish at the hospital. When Nancy and Jonathan reunite with the rest of the group, they postulate that Mrs. Driscoll (Peggy Miley) is possessed and possibly the key to defeating the monster. They find much more than a missing Mrs. Driscoll at the hospital. Tom and Bruce (Michael Park and Jake Busey), misogynistic higher ups from the newspaper, arrive possessed and hunt Nancy down, leading into a tense battle for survival.
Hopper and Joyce have a near-death run-in of their own. While discovering a hidden laboratory, Russian soldier Grigori (Andrey Ivchenko) is hot on their heels and shoots up the lab. Hopper and Joyce narrowly escape, but they take a goofy scientist named Alexei (Alec Utgoff) hostage. He doesn’t speak a word of English, and Hopper decides to head to the only person he knows who can translate: Murray. The character had been introduced in the previous season but was given far more screen time in the third as a crucial player in figuring out the Russians’ plans. Both Alexei and Murray were welcome additions to a growing cast and supplied refreshing levity to the mayhem.
The Sauna Test (Season 3, Episode 4)
You can always expect emotional beats to be peppered throughout sequences of chaos and action in “Stranger Things.” With “The Sauna Test,” Max and the group devise a plan to lure Billy, who they suspect is possessed by the Mind Flayer, into the pool’s sauna room. It stands to reason the extreme heat and steam will force the creature to reveal itself and confirm their suspicions. Their plan largely works, but the Mind Flayer uses Billy to emotionally taunt Max before breaking down the door and lunging at the group. Fortunately, El subdues Billy and gives them an out to escape.
Meanwhile, Nancy and Jonathan are fired from the newspaper and visit Mrs. Driscoll at the hospital, and Erica (Priah Ferguson), Dustin, Steve, and Robin discover an elevator leading from the loading dock down into unknown levels of Starcourt Mall. “The Sauna Test” is a lighter episode yet an important building block to further the plot for the last half of the season. It’s worth repeat viewings simply for Dacre Montgomery’s sinister performance.
E Pluribus Unum (Season 3, Episode 6)
The show takes creature design to a whole new level in “E Pluribus Unum.” With the Mind Flayer slowly collecting bodies, it inhabits local residents and melts their bones into a giant, quivering mass. It’s unlike anything “Stranger Things” had ever attempted before, and the slow build to the final look (in the season finale) is a marvel.
While Hopper and Joyce take scientist Alexei hostage, forcing him to reveal the Russian plans beneath Starcourt Mall, El dives into Billy’s mind to sniff out the Mind Flayer and its next plans. In the process, she learns of Billy’s troubled upbringing and how his mother was forced to flee an abusive husband to save her own life. It all brings emotional context to Billy and his proclivity for verbal and physical violence. It doesn’t excuse any of it, but it does make him a far more complex, interesting character.
Still trapped beneath the mall, Robin and Steve are then captured and tortured for information by Russian soldiers. Naturally, they don’t know much, so it’s a fruitless (and bloody) endeavor. “E Pluribus Unum” packs in the rich character moments. It’s why a show so drenched in ’80s nostalgia works on every level. The characters have lives of their own outside of stereotypes and tropes. They become living, breathing human beings.
The Mind Flayer (Season 2, Episode 8)
Bob (Sean Astin) deserved better. When you think he could actually survive the season, the Duffers pull the proverbial rug from under your feet. The lab comes under siege from a horde of Demodogs and surrounds the group. To make matters worse, the power goes out. Bob volunteers to locate the circuit breakers and reset them.
The moment Bob and Joyce share an emotional goodbye should have been a tipoff. With Dr. Owens’ (Paul Reiser) help, he signals to Bob about the proximity of the beasts so he can safely navigate through the darkened hallways, and Bob succeeds in the mission. He makes it out to the main entrance, but at the last possible second, a Demodog attacks and tears him limb from limb 一 with Joyce watching.
The episode also contains the anticipated reunion between El and the rest of the group. After the fall of the lab, everyone converges on Will’s house and establishes a connection with the real Will inside the Upside Down. He tells them they must “close the gate” or else the world will fall further into darkness. A lifeless Demodog comes flying through a window and lands on the floor, and El nonchalantly comes sauntering into the room. What a badass move. “The Mind Flayer” is emotionally pulverizing but serves as an apt set-up for the grand finale.
The Piggyback (Season 4, Episode 9)
Four seasons led to “The Piggyback,” an emotional anvil that crushes your soul. It’s not an overstatement to say how perfectly crafted the Season 4 finale is. It was inevitable the group would lose and lose big, but nothing can prepare the viewer for what amounts to a cinematic treasure. From the direction to the visuals and editing, the towering 142-minute episode is a masterclass in television excellence.
At the direction of Nancy, the group devises a four-phase plan to defeat Vecna (Jamie Campbell Bower), reckoning that his physical form would be defenseless when he’s attacking a new victim. Max offers herself up as bait, saying she still feels “marked.” With everyone broken up into groups, the strategy is this: Max will distract Vecna, Dustin and Eddie (Joseph Quinn) will lure away the Demobats, and Nancy, Robin, and Steve will torch Vecna’s lifeless shell. Back in Russia, Joyce and Hopper realize the hive mind stretches across the globe and organize a game plan to trap all the Demogorgons inside the now-deserted concrete arena and light them on fire. Simple, right? Wrong. Everything goes sideways fast, and each scenario sets up a myriad of potential deaths.
“The Piggyback” is a roller coaster. When you think the show can’t possibly get any better, it swings bigger and bolder — and hits a home run. Across the board, the actors’ performances are top-notch as well from Sadie Sink to Caleb McLaughlin and Gaten Matarazzo. If this season doesn’t result in numerous industry awards, there’s something seriously wrong.
The Bite (Season 3, Episode 7)
Robin is the queer icon of the show. After being drugged and interrogated by Russian soldiers in the previous episode, Robin and Steve puke their guts out and have a long-overdue heart-to-heart in a Starcourt Mall bathroom. Steve expresses feelings for his ice-cream shop buddy, but Robin reveals that she has a crush on a girl, who they joke has a singing voice like a muppet. As far as quiet character moments go, it’s among the show’s finest.
Hopper, Joyce, Murray, and Alexei arrive at the Hawkins fair to locate the kids, but things quickly go sideways when mayor Kline (Cary Elwes) spots them in the crowd and alerts the Russians to their whereabouts. With Joyce and Hopper splitting off to search the attractions and food stands, Alexei enjoys a carnival game and wins a stuffed Woody Woodpecker. As he makes his way to Murray, hitman Grigori (Andrey Ivchenko) stealthily fires a single shot into Alexei’s side, fatally wounding him. If we’ve learned anything about this show, it’s never to get attached to new characters no matter how wonderfully charming they are.
Russian soldiers track down the kids to Starcourt Mall and fire off round after round. El arrives in the knick of time to save them, hurling a display car and mowing down a group of soldiers. In the commotion, El collapses from her Mind Flayer wound. A fragment of the beast is now embedded in her leg and temporarily drains her of most of her powers, setting up yet another complication in the finale.
The Massacre At Hawkins Lab (Season 4, Episode 7)
The best villains are those with complex backstories. “Stranger Things” delivers its most multi-layered antagonist with Vecna, whose complete history we learn through this Season 4 episode. “The Massacre at Hawkins Lab” balances the present-day storylines and flashbacks with acrobatic ease, moving effortlessly between the mayhem in Russia and Robin, Eddie, Nancy, and Steve’s escape from the Upside Down.
El’s work in the sensory deprivation tank finally uncovers the remaining missing pieces of her memory. She learns Henry’s true identity as One and how he was responsible for the massacre of all the other children. Jamie Campbell Bower offers up a defining performance, revealing that he is Victor Creel’s (Robert Englund) son and always possessed psychic abilities. El and Henry go head-to-head, with El barely able to defeat him and sending him careening into the Upside Down, thus creating the very first gate. Meanwhile, Nancy has been taken by Vecna in the present, and he guides her through the Creel home to witness the truth for herself.
The Hopper storyline escalates when he’s corralled inside a gladiator stadium with a horde of Demogorgons, alongside Dmitri (Tom Wlaschiha). He must fight for his life, and he naturally comes prepared with a makeshift torch. A heart-pounding battle ensues. Demodogs tear guards’ bodies in half, limbs fly, and Hopper and Dmitri manage to escape with Joyce and Murray’s help. The reunion we’ve all been waiting for all season is well worth it.
The Battle Of Starcourt (Season 3, Episode 8)
Harboring deep emotional wounds that he in turn inflicted upon Max and her friends, Billy was never a good guy. In the Season 3 finale, he makes the ultimate sacrifice. It doesn’t redeem him of the pain he caused, but it does make for great TV. In “The Battle of Starcourt,” the group is trapped inside the local mall and confronts the Mind Flayer with a barrage of fireworks.
El manages to extract a small shard of the Mind Flayer from her leg, regain her powers, and force the creature from Billy’s mind. The Mind Flayer continues growing into an even bigger black widow mass and almost annihilates the group. The monster closes in, and Billy steps directly into the line of fire to fend off its grasping tentacles. “Billy!” Max screams. It’s enough to tear your heart out. It’s a death that brings a myriad of conflicting emotions ranging from relief to sorrow.
Hopper, Joyce, and Murray eventually reunite with the kids and venture down into the bowels of the mall where lies a machine keeping a gate open. Together, they turn the keys on the console to ignite a deadly explosion, and it tosses Hopper into a cloud of fire, smoke, and sparks. The room erupts into a fireball, seemingly consuming and killing Hopper. The Duffers certainly love to play on our emotions, even with such devastating misdirects, and Hopper’s faux death remains one of the most emotional moments of the show.
Dear Billy (Season 4, Episode 4)
“Dear Billy” is the perfect summation of everything great about this show. It’s emotional, gripping, and relentlessly tense. In the aftermath of Chrissy’s (Grace Van Dien) and Fred’s (Logan Riley Bruner) deaths, Max suspects that she is Vecna’s next target, as she experiences the same symptoms: headaches, nose bleeds, and hallucinations. “Looks like I’m going to die tomorrow,” she sighs.
Resigned to her fate, Max pens letters as a failsafe to everyone in her life, including her late brother. Vecna circles closer and closer and eventually traps her when she’s reading a letter at Billy’s grave. Within her mental prison, she runs for her life and manages to enter the inner sanctum of Vecna’s mind — the ground zero of the Victor Creel home. Doused in red, it’s an in-between state and where the Upside Down monster nests his victims.
Nancy and Robin mount a plot of their own. Believing Victor to be the key to Vecna, they scheme their way into Pennhurst Hospital where he’s kept and grill him for information. Soon, they learn the backstory of Vecna’s early days. Warden Hatch (Ed Amatrudo), head of the psychiatry wing, clues them into the importance of music to reach the deepest recesses of the brain. That proves vital to saving Max. Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” (her favorite song) pierces through Vecna’s lair and equips Max with the ability to cling to her most precious memories. Her race back to reality is one of the greatest moments in TV history. Sadie Sink deserves all the awards.
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