After all of Season Two deals with the fallout from Season One, the finale, “The Gate,” gives Stranger Things the opportunity to embrace the growth that’s been fermenting under the surface. Much of this growth needs to come from the one character whose overtures to progress have been hit-and-miss so far: Hopper (David Harbour).
Hopper, for all his good intentions, is almost as big a threat this season as the actual demons. He isolates Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) for her own good (questionable at best), bogs down the correct diagnosis of Will (Noah Schnapp), and endangers himself and others. As The Verge’s Tasha Robinson rightly points out, he’s a key element in Bob’s death, the gung-ho dunce exploring secret alien tunnels alone. His outbursts and failures as a foster parent cause us, in a roundabout way, to suffer through Eleven’s mini-vacation. As the season winds down and the rest of the characters come together in the warm 1980s fashion that we’ve been trained to expect from the show, Hopper’s in dire need of some development from his failures and immaturities.
He’s the grumpy breakout hero we’re supposed to root for (to win the day and to get with Winona Ryder’s Joyce, as many intimate moments push towards), but he’s best as a supporter. Allowing Hopper to fail is one thing, but allowing him to be secondary is entirely different. That takes the self-awareness that led to his sad-sack confessions to Eleven and actualizes them. A character who blames himself for the death of his daughter shouldn’t be emotionally stunted and the action hero. He should find solace in doing what he couldn’t before, which is helping others reclaim their lives. And that’s what happens in “The Gate”.
This first manifests in Mike (Finn Wolfhard) punching the absolute hell out of Hopper for hiding Eleven and playing God with everyone’s emotions. Enduring the stereotypical confrontation is made far easier by Wolfhard and Harbour’s rapport, and by the episode’s continual dismantling of hyper-masculine posturing. Everyone splits up, without ego, to tackle the remaining problems (demo-dogs, the nasty gate between worlds, possessed Will). The party’s final missions are upon them as the campaign draws to a close, and Eleven’s greaser-Aragorn look is as badass as any to lead the most important arm of the group.
Splitting the party is ill-advised in any Dungeons and Dragons campaign, but assigning different tasks to the small army of characters is satisfying in this narrative. Steve (Joe Keery) becomes even more of a babysitter than before, while Hopper and Eleven drive to the gate and Will’s family (plus Nancy, for God knows what reason) head to Hopper’s cabin to bake a demon out of a kid. The main thing to remember here is—oh wait, sorry, remember Billy? Played by Dacre Montgomery? Has no reason to be here? Well, it’s high time he served some purpose, even if it’s to serve some The Boy Next Door vibes to Nancy and Mike’s mom, Karen (Cara Buono).
This ridiculous, hilarious scene is honestly one of the best parts of the season because it is so odd. Karen is an empty outline that made it through costuming, so seeing her get a horned-up side story is just bizarre and brazen enough to delight for the few minutes it happens. Billy may be on the hunt for Max (Sadie Sink), but his role as an anthropomorphic romance novel cover is far more fun (and it gives a mom some always-admirable sexual agency).
Time to abandon that—sorry, Cara, you’re a great actress—so Steve and Billy can have their mullet-off. Steve, who’s been losing control in a hilariously written and edited scene, tries to prevent the kids from going to burn down the tunnels as a distraction to make Eleven’s life easier. Their grand pyrotechnic schemes are briefly interrupted by the fistfight every high school dick-measuring contest should eventually become: one with well-shot physical details (Steve sliding across the drawing-laden floor), hazy, excited camerawork, and a cacophony of kids screaming. It’s madness and clarity rolled into one, because after the fight is won (thanks to Max), we’re allowed to linger on consequences—objectively, the loser is Steve’s Hamburger Helper face—that visualize the violent banality of the combatants’ rivalry.
Violence stops becoming the easy answer, even when Steve’s nail-bat comes in handy once or twice. His chastising and emasculating by the middle schoolers is hilarious and warm, more a damnation of his inflated man-boy ego than his failure to punch well. Some of this sweetness carries over when season MVP Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo, who I’ll come back to) has his finale with Dart—even demonic dogs deserve nougat, trust, and love. As the kids burn up the tunnels and stir up trouble, Will suffers a similarly heated torture at the hands of his mom. The details of the mind-poison in Will juxtaposed with the burning tunnel hub is as cool an effect as Ryder’s unrelenting dedication to pulling maternalism out of whatever harebrained activity her character is doing.
We finally get the promised full-blown exorcism, but the Mind Flayer’s evacuation seems abrupt, just like that of the demo-dogs who ran past the little rascals that set their home on fire. Ah, but of course these demons have no time for non-psychic kids when a very psychic kid is heading towards the Upside Down’s doorway.
The trip to the gate and the confrontation of the gate is some of the best work the show’s ever done. Hopper accepts Eleven’s bitchin’ new look as a punk, but also accepts that he simply doesn’t need to know everything that she’s up to. He develops trust through discussion (about his daughter, about his shortcomings), which is indicative of the show’s stance towards growth and how one needs to deal with trauma, past or present. It’s an individual journey that can benefit from a support system but needs motivation from within. The scene is shot dark, with only faces visible, putting the focus on a very sweet and open power reversal before that reversal is enacted via superpower.
The climactic action scene, the one with maximum levels of nosebleed, comes at the bottom of a badass platform lift. It has all the mechanical aesthetics and sense of environmental depth as Alien and the supernatural, chains-and-fire otherworldliness of Hellraiser, all of which bolster Eleven’s new look as Terminator 2: Judgment Day-style greaser/savior who’s here to whip ass and close the gate to hell. Aside from the overall hair metal glam-horror of it all, there’s also the payoff of the Chicago adventure. Eleven, juggling two coping strategies (exploiting pain for strength and utilizing a support system), shoves all the show’s thematic weight into her final push to do good, closing the portal.
Which means all we have left is a small epilogue, focusing on Dustin. A few stylistic and dialogue callbacks to the Halloween getting-ready montage are cute, but nowhere near as cute as Steve and Dustin’s new friendship. They share hair tips and now, they share hair. They’re like army buddies now—strangers brought together by circumstance, violence, and a belief in what’s right.
There is a healing process from all this, but part of that process is the necessary inclusion of cheat days and allowances, even if they’re dangerous or even a little regressive. So let Eleven come to the dance and kiss Mike. Let Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) dance with that racist Billy’s sister. They’re using this dance to go back to what they had at the beginning of the season (which was itself a restructured, compromise-laden version of “normal” after the events of the first season), finding comfort in the familiar evolution of normalcy. Stranger Things, which once promised a return to a past way of storytelling, now exists solely to move forward.
Its idea that people can recover from and adapt to anything, find new normals after beating back evil and pain, runs through its characters, who have nothing but love and protective instincts for each other—especially meaningful when the foundation of their relationships comes from shared horrors. It’s nice to see a show accept that the world’s always going to be crazy, even if yours isn’t built on Lovecraftian catacombs or ruled by a demonic squid-king in its alternate reality, and adapt its nostalgia into a more complex stance towards pleasant memories. Using our pasts to move forward is the only way to survive, for us and for Stranger Things.
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages, and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.