Stranger Things 2 "Chapters 7-9" - Review: It's A Thriller, Alright!
Chapter 7: The Lost Sister – El heads to Pittsburgh and tracks down her fellow Hawkins Labs experiment subject, Kari and her band of outcasts. Kari encourages El to embrace her anger and help take out the former Lab staff that got away.
Unfortunately, this episode is the first (and hopefully only) black mark on the season. Firstly, this is a standalone episode, meaning that after the last episode’s monster invasion teaser, we receive no advancement on any story taking place in Hawkins, which is a little frustrating. That doesn’t mean this episode has no chance, it means it needs to be something special to make stretching out those cliff-hangers worthwhile. It’s something that Game of Thrones has long done well with special episodes devoted to a singular story/location but Stranger Things can’t recreate that magic. Now, there is still a lot to like here though. The overall story continues the running theme of El’s adolescence and search for her own identity as she gets a punk outcast makeover from the group. In fact, this is something that would work really well as a story betweeen seasons for her character, allowing for a full on transformation when the story picks up again a year later, with occasional flashbacks to her time away.
The episode struggles because although we got a glimpse of Kari and gang in chapter one, they’re still completely unknown characters and little about that changes over the episode. Despite having the time, things focus so closely on Kari and El that the rest of the bunch stay one note at best; the big-muscled one, the crazy one etc. I also found the way Kari so quickly accepts and embraces El is rather unsatisfying. Yes, it was clear she had more motives than friendship by wanting to include El in their criminal activities but this was screaming out for some more conflict. I would have much rather seen El having to earn her place among the group rather gain such quick acceptance. Instead, the conflict we did get was more of a Sith Master and Apprentice relationship. Kari quite literally unlocks the potential of El’s powers by making her embrace the anger and pain in her feelings only for El’s moral compass to spin a big fat no towards some their darker activities. It had merit and does have clear purpose showing El coming to understand she needs people like Mike and The Chief around her and sets up nicely to the cavalry against all the mayhem that’s going down in Hawkins.
Kari’s powers were enjoyably represented though as she used her illusions for both good and bad means. The best moments by far came during the police raid like the tense stand as she makes the group invisible while the cops walk tantalizingly close or impossibly big wall she conjures for the getaway. In some ways, I hope this isn’t the last we’ve seen of her but at the same time her powers, leave the door wide open for a Twlight style, “it was all just a vision” cop out endings and nobody wants that.
This episode was the show trying something different. We respect for trying it but would kindly ask them to think twice before trying it again. We’ve had the cool-down episode. Now let’s have all out mayhem for the last 2 episodes!
Chapter 8: The Mind Flayer – With the monsters overrunning a locked-down Hawkins Lab, the trapped survivors need a way out, fast. The group decides the only way to stop them is to destroyer the big shadow monster acting as a hive brain: The Mind Flayer.
This is an episode of two halves; two bloody great halves but notably distinct from each other. The first is aftermath at Hawkins Labs, which is full-on action horror as the, “Demi-Dogs” rip apart any fleeing staff member they can find. In fact, this being their second monster outbreak in as many years, you have to wonder how gave it a Hitchhikers worthy, “oh no, not again”. This yields more Aliens riffling as the monsters tear down corridors or smash their way through doors (especially cool with Dr. Owens being none other than Carter Burke). There also feels like a strong Jurassic Park influence too courtesy of Bob’s solo mission; sometimes you just need a tech guy. There’s so much good tension as he goes there and back again (sorry, couldn’t resist) and Astin really gets across Bob being terrified and way out of his depth, which makes his successes all the more rewarding. As people start sneaking around corridors, avoiding prowling creatures. there are even shades of Resident Evil. It all serves to escalate the peril to putting the whole town (and probably beyond) in danger which is a good step up from the more personnel stakes of last season.
Then for the second half, it’s a typical fixed location retreat and consolidation play to setup the plans for the final episode. In a less gifted show, this would feel nothing more than laying groundwork but Stranger Things cashes in on its earlier character developments to make sure there’s plenty here still going on. While it doesn’t exactly level up the triangle, it’s still good to see Nancy acknowledging Steve for his actions in helping the boys. It shows that she still sees him as the better man he became but Steve’s casual dismissal affirms that he wasn’t doing it just to impress her. The Dustin and Lucas scenes are also enjoyable as Dustin goes through the motions accepting he lost the girl to Lucas (despite all that awesome advice Steve gave him). Yet the real fire, the real critical hit of this entire episode, is the interrogation of Will. When Will first started showing signs of possession I was really glad they didn’t instantly make an Exorcist-style character transformation. That’s because now, at this later stage, when we see Will exhibiting more violent and charged behavior like he’s losing all control, it carries far more impact. The show has delivered his gradual decline perfectly and these scenes of his friends and family trying to bring him back using key memories feels incredibly emotional as a result. It’s some of the most powerful moments all season as Joyce, Jonathan and Will share their special moments of Will while Noah Schnapp makes Will’s face unnervingly strained like he’s fighting with everything he has to come back.
To top it all off, with one simple scene, Billy’s character and purpose in the story finally made sense as we see that no matter how wrong his actions are towards Max, he’s passing on a softer blow. That’s he’s both the bully and the bullied. This lines him up nicely for some redemption in the final episode. After the dip of chapter 7 this 8th offering comes back guns and wrist rockets blazing and leaves the full party assembled and ready for battle..... it’s on!
Chapter 9: The Gate – The only way to stop the monsters is for El to close the dimensional gate beneath Hawkins Labs... but they can’t do that while the Mind Flayer is still possessing Will. The rest of the party tries to buy them a distraction by lighting up the tunnels.
Yep.... they nailed it. This final episode was an ideal culmination of all preceding events while raising the spectacle for a big blow out. There is nothing here to fault or disappoint. What I really like about the writing and structure of the episode was the way it devolved into 3 very different simultaneous stories and how cutting between them kept the drama and tension from letting up. In a way, each story embodied a different aspect of the show in science fiction, horror and fantasy adventure. The Chief and El gave us the sci-fi contingent as they ventured into the Labs for the big showdown. From the moment they enter that lift shaft. the visuals are gorgeous, and the action was breathtaking as Chief desperately tries to defend El while she’s working her mojo. Then for horror, the attempts to get rid of Will’s possession turn into a full blown Exorcism sauna! The tone of these scenes was note-perfect. treading the line of hurting and helping Will with the conflict expressed between Joyce, Nancy and Jonathan. It’s full on disturbing and, like in earlier episodes, we must give a lot of credit to young Noah Schnapp for making Will’s convulsions look so unnatural. Then finally, we gave the adventures of Steve, the Babysitter for a fantasy adventure balancing out the other two serious stories with more comedy. I absolutely loved the full-on Goonies vibe here as Steve becomes older brother Brand reluctantly following the other younger kids down the hole to try and keep them safe. The many laughs help keep the episode engaging while affirming Steve’s growth as a character. Earlier in the episode. he lets Nancy go to Jonathan so for everything after he has no motive to impress or win her back. All his actions come from knowing they’re the right thing to do and wanting to protect the kids. The plan even makes sense considering the boys are Lord of the Rings fans and they’re making the same distraction play that let Frodo and Sam slip into Mount Doom.
All be it with a slightly longer run time, the episode has a lot of good character moments too. The reconciliation between El and The Chief is touching as they both admit to their mistakes. It forms a nice message about learning they need each other from being apart. In many ways, I’m surprised it’s only in this finale that they discuss The Chief’s dead daughter, Sarah, or make any implications that is filling that void for him. Mike and El’s reunion is as meaningful as it should be with subsequent scenes driving home just how much she means to him. Although far from perfect, I was happy enough with the payoff from Billy’s story. To be honest, after the scene with Mike’s mom, the rest could have been garbage and it wouldn’t have mattered. Yet Billy delivers as an antagonist for the group in building upon his prior tensions with Max and Steve. In some ways, it would have been nice to see him get a little bit of redemption after seeing his father’s handiwork but that would probably feel too much like repeating last season. This way, they can save it for the future. We even get Mad Max behind the wheel.
As for the aftermath finale, it may be cheesy and corny but screw it! I loved every second of it. You may recall that before she disappeared in the season one finale, Mike asked El to the Snow Ball dance. So here, getting to see the cast attend the 84 event feels like a nice point of closure across these first two seasons, like some of the bigger earlier events. Sure, some bits are predictable (of course, a certain someone was going to show) but seeing all the core party members get their special moments all wrappe- up in 80s power ballads. you’d need a black hole heart not to feel the joy. As with several points this season, Dustin steals the show with his application of Steve’s advice and the moment of kindness I know a lot fellow geeks will appreciate.
While the final moments make clear that this is not the end of the end of the world, unlike this point last year. there’s no immediate direction for Season 3 (which they’ve already confirmed plans for). They’ll be big nasty returns for sure but this really feels like the end of an act for a show which is growing up just like its young leads. Age wise, could we see the party starting high school next season? Our next trip to Hawkins may be very different but if it’s even half as good as this year, it’ll be bitchin’. Chapter 7 is all forgiven for the quality of 8 & 9. The best show on Netflix proves it wasn’t just a one season-wonder. The trailers were right.... this really was a thriller!