Major spoilers ahead.
Stranger Things is a masterful work of sci-fi/horror storytelling. This Netflix original series is a glorious mix of so many elements that could have ended up as a huge mess—allusions and throwbacks, small town characters vs. sinister government agents vs. a child with super powers vs. a monster, a retro setting/soundtrack, a creepy alternate realm, trope-subverting high school drama, hastily strung Christmas lights, and so much more—but instead, they all fit together like puzzle pieces. The story flows and develops with precise pacing, and the stubbornly brave characters evolve in unexpected and exciting ways. The performances are powerful, the dialogue is genuine with not a single word wasted, the foreshadowing hits every mark, and the conflict keeps you on the edge of the couch while the suspense keeps you half-hidden in blanket.
Simply put, Stranger Things is as fun as it is smart. And that’s why I think it deserved a better ending.
The culmination of the story in the eighth and final episode of the season feels like all the buildup through the previous episodes just fizzles out due to some odd missteps. And that’s disappointing, because those seven episodes were so great. If I can latch on to my highly original puzzle analogy, this show was coming together beautifully . . . until the bottom right corner. It’s like the pieces in just that one part of the puzzle got soggy and didn’t fit together quite right, and so you’re left with little gaps between the slots, but there are no other pieces in the box. The rest of the puzzle is still fantastic, but damn, if only that bottom corner were a little neater, you know?
“Okay, fine. What would you have done differently, Alicia?”
I’m so glad you asked. To be fair, I’m no horror buff. But as a fan of this show and a fan of good stories (and as a person who can’t help but rewrite lackluster endings in my head), there are a few changes I’d make—just to “Chapter Eight: The Upside Down”—that I think would have helped this show go out with the bang that, quite frankly, it earned.
I get that not everything can be wrapped up in a pretty bow at the close of a story like this one. At the same time, I wanted so much more for Eleven than self-sacrifice. It does speak to newfound bravery on her part, but do we really need the Eleven vs. Monster showdown? I know the show sets it up, but by the time it happens, it feels more contrived than satisfying. The story hits that plot point and just moves on, as though both Eleven and the creature get swept under the metaphorical rug. How cool would it have been to see Eleven crush the monster by having the building gradually collapse onto it as she struggles with her powers, for example, instead of just walking up to it and . . . exploding? She would likely be in grave distress after such a feat—maybe even hospitalized?—which would still provide an uncertain future without the implication that she chose to die.
Instead, as it happens, the scene falls flat. But, alright, even if I accept the current ending for her: Since Eleven is presumed dead by most of the other characters, it would have been nice to see someone other than Mike giving half a shit. Like, even a small moment where Nancy or Joyce asked him about her. Or, perhaps a brief, wordless scene where we see Joyce taking a photo of Eleven to her mother and get a glimpse of a reaction on Terry’s face (and a bigger reaction on her sister’s face). Something small. Something more than just Hopper putting waffles in the forest, because what the fuck, even? And yeah, I’m happy about the implication that she might be alive, but . . . waffles in the forest? That’s an indie band name, not an exciting cliffhanger.
Will + The Lights
Say, how the fuck did Will manipulate the lights from the Upside Down, considering that within the Upside Down you can’t even tell where the lights are, never mind if they’re on or off? I swear, if even this one mystery had actually been resolved in episode eight, I could probably forgive the rest of these missteps. But, as it happens, Joyce and Hopper walk through her house, causing Jonathan to see the Christmas lights coming on in regular reality . . . while Joyce has absolutely no indication this is happening. This could have been such a fantastic scene for this reveal, and honestly, it’s wasted.
I get that the Upside Down itself has to remain an unsolved mystery—and, either way, it does. We still don’t know what exactly it is, how those government agents got involved, why a faceless monster apparently lives there, how long it has existed, what long-term effects it will have on the human visitors who escaped, or what the fuck is going on with that alien-plant-portal thing. There are plenty of mysteries. Hell, the weird shit with the phone can even go uninvestigated, but there should have been an explanation for the lights. Which brings me to:
The Upside Down
I’m going to write this one as a pitch. A pitch to you, dear reader. Reject it if you like, but thank you in advance for your consideration.
Picture this: Joyce and Hopper enter the alien-plant-portal thing (oh shit), right? And they start walking down the street! But instead of this “mirrored” world looking like a desolate wasteland, it’s more like a distortion of reality. A grimy reflection. In addition to all those floaty things in the air (nice touch), they can see . . . street lamps that seem to get brighter as they go near them! But the light is all hazy and unstable as though they’re underwater. Then they go inside Joyce’s house. Once inside, they realize they can hear voices, but the voices are distorted, too, as though they’re speaking with their mouths closed.* THEN, they turn the corner into the living room, and they can see where Nancy, Jonathan, and Steve are standing, only they don’t look like Nancy, Jonathan, and Steve anymore—more like shadows or blank space where they should be, where each muffled voice is coming from. Joyce and Hopper have no ability to interact with the three shadow figures—they simply pass right through them—only to notice something twinkling above. Joyce raises up her arm toward the twinkling and it multiplies. That’s when she recognizes her own Christmas lights. Drawing her hand away, the twinkling diminishes again. Then, when she’s able to faintly hear Jonathan calling “Mom?” she briefly raises her hand again to show that she heard him, and the rest of the scene proceeds as it’s written. Also, since I think it’s pretty clear the monster either can’t see or has very minimal vision (Right? It has no discernible eyes and seems to react to sounds/smells? Am I forgetting something?), these tweaks to the world of the Upside Down wouldn’t necessarily have any effects on its behavior.
*If nothing else sells you on this pitch: Is it not chilling as fuck to imagine that, all that time, Will could see where his mother was in the house and hear her distress, but was powerless to communicate with her until he managed to manipulate the phone and lights? That’s the kind of reveal I wanted from the finale: a brilliant HOLY SHIT moment that would make my stomach and jaw drop—much like it did when Hopper sliced open that fake corpse, only with double the punch.
As compelling and well-acted as Hopper’s flashbacks were, they were painfully out of place in the season finale. If there had been only one flashback, or if these particular flashbacks occurred in an earlier episode, I could probably let this slide. As a general rule, though, I feel like flashbacks in a final episode are usually a bad idea. By then, as a viewer, I should have all the background info I need to watch the conclusion unfold. I want to hit the ground running at the start of the finale and plow through the story’s last scenes at 90mph, not take U-turns for tragic backstory! Every time this episode jumped back to his memories, it killed the suspense and made me want to shout STOP, WE DON’T HAVE TIME FOR THIS at my TV. Also, by this point in the show, we already know that his young daughter died and that it, understandably, still has a significant effect on him—I can’t figure out why we needed specific flashbacks at all, honestly. (Maybe it was meant to show us that he felt guilty about selling out Eleven? But he didn’t seem to be thinking about her at all during that sequence.) For what it’s worth, I know another fan of the show who completely disagrees with me on this point, and claims that the question “How did his daughter die?” was too important not to answer. To that I say: Fine, but it still should have been answered before episode eight.
There you have it: my proposal for a few tweaks that would have made episode eight properly epic, in my view. If only these few things had been better, I firmly believe episode eight could have lived up to those that preceded it. This is a truly amazing show, and the Duffer Brothers should be applauded for creating it. I just wanted to applaud harder at the conclusion. I wanted to jump out of my chair proclaiming THIS IS THE ONLY TV SHOW. When I imagine what could have been, I can see just how close it came to getting me there. If you’re a fan of this show with an entirely different take, please sound off below!
Also, it’s worth noting that, yes, I do think a second season has the power to redeem these issues—if Netflix gives the green light. I still wish the final episode of season one had been better, but fingers crossed that this incredible story isn’t over for good and that the continuation is appropriately awesome.