Spoilers for Stranger Things 2, up through Episode 9, "The Gate," below
If there's one main thing to love about Stranger Things' Season 2 finale, "The Gate," it's how unabashedly happy it is. The original season's ending was famously bittersweet, Will's rescue and Brenner's defeat contrasting with Barb's death and Eleven's disappearance. The good guys won, but at a cost.
The same can be said of Stranger Things 2 overall, but this episode specifically ended on a sustained note so brimming with joy that it was almost jarring. At the very least, it was a pleasant surprise; I won't say no to some positivity, and the kids' well-deserved happy ending was one long shot of sweet, sweet nostalgia.
"The Gate" even took the time to tie a bow on pretty much every smaller relationship and character-based subplot, including the end of Nancy and Steve's relationship, Barb's funeral and closure for her parents (justice for Barb!), Hopper and Eleven's touching and funny reconciliation, Mike and Eleven's budding romance--not to mention Lucas and Max's, and maybe Joyce and Hopper's--and even Dustin's heartfelt search for love.
Of course it wasn't all rainbows and wrap-ups. This finale's showdown between Steve and Billy--a former villain and a current one--rivaled any duel in Netflix's Marvel shows for sheer brutality. On top of that, it was far more fitting for Max to ultimately defeat her awful brother than for Steve to somehow best him in a fight, which would have been implausible at best. For Steve to even be where he is--for him to stick his neck out like that--is itself enough fulfillment for him as a character. Consider the fact that he probably got a concussion for his trouble as his final atonement for the years he spent as a douche.
In finally standing up to her brother, Max got her own arc too, and finally showed another dimension as a character.
If I've failed to mention Stranger Things' phenomenal score in any of these reviews, it's only because it's been so consistently great all season that it's an inextricable part of the show's fabric, beyond criticism or praise. But, uh, I'm praising it now. The music is so good, and has been all season.
Stranger Things Season 2 really has been a great nine episodes of television, despite some flaws in its pacing, a couple of poorly drawn new characters, and a cheesy detour in Episode 7. This finale perfectly encapsulated every one of the show's many strengths, from the fantastic cast of characters played by top tier acting talent to the complex but believable plots that weave them all together.
There were even more surprises. Against all odds, Dr. Owens the government spook turned out to really not be a conniving sociopath, something I found hard to grasp right up until the end. Maybe that's on me, or maybe that's the way the show wanted it.
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It felt like everyone had something to do in this episode, between Steve and co.'s impromptu plan to torch the tunnels, Eleven and Hopper's trip to close the Gate, and even Will's exorcism. That last one verged on campy, but the basic premise--that they could force the Mind Flayer out with sheer heat--is so obvious and well-set-up throughout the season that it works.
Eleven's ultimate victory over the Gate was an appropriately epic set piece, given how many episodes it took for her to re-enter the main story. Seeing her rise into the air gave me goosebumps, and made me truly excited for Stranger Things' future--as long as it stays firmly planted in this aesthetic rather than the bad X-Men knock-off we glimpsed in "The Lost Sister."
And, of course, it wouldn't be a Stranger Things finale without a tease for future episodes. Stranger Things Season 2 felt like a middle movie in a lot of ways, especially compared with the relatively self-contained story of Season 1. Yes, the main threads--Will's connection with the Upside Down and Eleven's fugitive life--reached satisfying conclusions. But just think about how many didn't:
Kali surely has a larger part to play in this story.
It feels like there's more to learn about Hopper's backstory.
We only just finally started to see more dimensions to Max as a character, and there's some legit tension between her and Eleven.
The Gate is closed, but the Mind Flayer is still out there, and we still don't know what exactly it is, what it wants, or what it will do next.
Stranger Things 2 managed a difficult feat: maintaining fairly consistent quality across a sophomore outing that had to follow a near-universally lauded first season. We can't know right now whether it will be able to keep that up through as many as three more seasons, but like Mike checking in with Eleven every night for a year, we can always hope.
Best reference or easter egg:
This episode’s three separate plotlines--Steve and the kids underground in the tunnels, Eleven and Hopper in the lab, and the Byers in the cabin--seemed inspired by The Goonies, The Terminator, and The Exorcist, respectively.