Ranking Every Season of Stranger Things So Far
It’s tough to really rank the different seasons of Stranger Things so far because doing so would be like comparing lemons to apples and oranges. The show has done a lot to make each season feel different and stand out, from changes in tone and mood to new additions (however short-lived) to the cast. But in an effort to entice us all to rewatch this show on Netflix from the very beginning, and support the artists behind this great show, let’s rank the lemons, apples, and oranges anyway, mere days post-Stranger Things 4: Volume 2.
Vague criteria will be as follows, in descending order of importance (Note: Stranger Things 4: Vol. 1 and 2 will be counted as a single entry):
The characters, and,
The memorable episodes.
IV. Stranger Things 1
We begin with where all this madness started, at least for us. The original installment was a mystery with horror elements, a far cry from its brighter, more comedic tone in seasons thereafter. Being more of a mystery (in its opening chapters), it had the feeling that anything could happen, with regard to Eleven’s powers and the “rules” of the Upside Down, among others. The show could also take us anywhere, being more plot-driven as we try to navigate the situation of El escaping “bad men” who are trying to contain her inside their sketchy lab.
Character-wise, it centers around Eleven and how she shakes up the dynamic of the core group of Mike Wheeler, Dustin Henderson, Lucas Sinclair, and Will Byers. Steve Harrington is cast as an antagonist (which never gets not weird to think about) and is in a relationship with Nancy Wheeler. Story-wise, it centers around the disappearance of Will, and our heroes’ journey, led by Chief Jim Hopper and Joyce Byers, to discover the role of Hawkins National Laboratory in this case and in the recent odd deaths in this small town.
Episode 5’s “The Flea and the Acrobat” gave us plenty of insight into the Upside Down, including Nancy herself entering the Upside Down through an inconspicuous tree in the forest; as well as the great horror scene of Hopper cutting into Will’s supposed body at the morgue, only to find it stuffed with cotton. Episode 8’s “The Upside Down” set the stage for grand finales with big moving parts, and gave us the heartbreaking flashbacks of Hopper’s memories with his daughter and his ex-wife, as well as the giant exhale of him and Joyce finally finding and reviving Will in the Upside Down.
Apart from the show not yet finding what I consider to be its comfortable voice for its tone and dialogue, Stranger Things 1 finds itself at the bottom because this show only knows how to get better from here.
III. Stranger Things 2
Stranger Things 2 would have more of a fantasy/sci-fi adventure feel, while still maintaining its horror elements. Comedy and levity would be more incorporated into the dialogue, and the characters themselves seem to have loosened up (having now found Will). The second season also seems to be more character-driven than the original, as we get deeper into the backstories of Eleven, her mother, and her long-lost sister.
On the subject of characters, many new additions find their way onto the show, including newest Max Mayfield member, her stepbrother Billy Hargrove; as well as an assortment of smaller roles in Bob Newby, Murray Bauman, Terry Ives, Erica Sinclair, and Kali (otherwise known as 008) and her Dead End Justice crew. This season would also see the debut of the Steve and Dustin pairing, which set in motion Steve’s slow-burn shift to his lovable babysitter self.
Along with the show’s expansion, there was a feeling of the second season being sort of a detour; in that, there was a whole episode dedicated to characters we have yet to see again (Seriously, where is 008? Please bring her back), Eleven was kept away from most of the cast until the penultimate episode, and the whole season ends with a school dance. Still, it produced more than its fair share of great episodes; including their best season opener to date in “MADMAX”; Episode 5’s “Dig Dug,” centered around El and her Mama, and ending with that seizure scene from Will; and the dedicated (and surprisingly divisive) reunion between sisters El and Kali in Episode 7’s “The Lost Sister.”
Stranger Things 2 feels like an expanded, remastered version of its precursor, however, it does not possess intensity like our next entry.
II. Stranger Things 4
With their fourth and longest installment yet, the Stranger Things world would be developed enough to create just a big adventure series taking elements from various genres. This season would also feature the most horrific and graphic killings to date, keeping the show true to its unnerving mystery roots. There are numerous other callbacks to the first season, such as Steve and Nancy being rekindled, Barb’s death being remembered, and the latter episodes especially foregoing much of the lighter moods to spotlight the dread and immediate threat of Vecna. Compared to prior seasons, this installment would feel like the most straightforward version of Stranger Things, being that it gave us a lot of answers in the form of Vecna (a.k.a. Henry Creel/001; who Eleven banished to the Upside Down, controls the Mind Flayer, etc).
Characters seem to have settled in (as opposed to simply loosening up), due to them spending significant time away in their own clusters. El has grown without her powers and tried to attend school; Will hasn’t had to touch the back of his neck in some time; Jonathan and Nancy seem to be drifting apart, etc. We also have our strongest set of new characters yet in California’s unlikeliest hero Argyle, and Russia’s favorite traitor Enzo, the adorable duo of Eddie Munson and Chrissy Cunningham, Robin’s crush Vickie, and Grade A villains Angela and Jason.
Season 4 gave us the phenomenal Episode 4, “Dear Billy,” certainly in contention for being the most heart-destroying episode of the entire series. The 150-minute finale, Episode 9’s “The Piggyback,” provided some of the series’ most cathartic shots (from Hopper taking a Demogorgon down with a sword, to Eddie’s iconic “Master of Puppets” performance in the Upside Down, to that final shot of Hawkins), none of which, of course, could offset the sheer pain that accompanies the wounds in this episode.
As powerful as Stranger Things 4’s big bombs are, and as strong and memorable as the cast newbies are, many episodes especially earlier in the season suffer from a rather slow (at times, too slow?) pacing. (This is bit of a nitpick, I acknowledge. But we can only have one season at number 1, so I will pin it on pacing.)
I. Stranger Things 3
Stranger Things would maintain its sci-fi adventure feel in its third installment, but with more action elements than horror, and comedy now heavily incorporated into the show. As a whole, the show took on a more vibrant, colorful aesthetic, a deviation from the previously darker aesthetic. There is also a bigger focus on the core group’s love lives and the whole boys versus girls dynamic. To match the shifts in presentation, the season also made everything feel bigger and more spectacular, doing away with the small-town feel through multiple big settings like the Fourth of July carnival; and the Starcourt Mall, the site of the final boss fight, and the home of the Scoops Ahoy crew. The main villain has also grown from being an army of Demogorgons, Demodogs, and “the Shadow Monster,” and into a mass combination of bodies captured by the evil plague known as the Mind Flayer.
Season’s 3 debuts are no slouch, as well; from the OG Russian ally and Woody Woodpecker fan Alexei (paired with a returning Murray as translator), and the grand reveal of Dustin’s very real genius girlfriend Suzie. However, the MVPs of the show come in the form of Steve, Dustin, lovable puzzle-solver Robin Buckley, and a returning Erica (now in a more prominent role), and their adventures getting entangled in secret Russian operations within Starcourt Mall.
The Scoops Ahoy crew take care of so many episodes and elevate the great ones to an elite level. Episode 6’s “E Pluribus Unum” sees Steve and Robin being tortured and drugged in the Russian base, while simultaneously providing some touching and comic relief moments. This spills over to Episode 7’s “The Bite,” where we find the iconic scene at the bathroom stall where Robin comes out to Steve, as the rest of the kids work to fend off the Mind Flayer at Hopper’s cabin, and Alexei gets one final victory. Episode 8’s “The Battle of Starcourt” features one of the most satisfying finales, where we see virtually all of our cast work together, for the first time with a power-less Eleven, to take down a final villain (of course, not without some casualties). The early season leading to these fireworks doesn’t suffer from a snail’s pace, as well. Billy’s involvement with the Mind Flayer is quickly set up, there is some resistance against it early on, and the pieces of each subgroup of characters seem to fit more seamlessly by the end than in other seasons.
Stranger Things 3 is a great, comforting blend of mystery, action, comedy, hurt, and recovery, and can be pointed at as one of the series’ most well-paced seasons. It is a point in the story where we know enough, but the burden of ultimate victory is not so urgent that we can’t strap ourselves in for a steady ride. This season provides us with both the thrill and the safety, equally, of a day at the carnival, with a mall nearby.