Once upon a time, in the summer of 2016, Netflix debuted a sci-fi/horror ’80s homage from Shawn Levy and the Duffer brothers. Little was known about “Stranger Things” ahead of its premiere, and then the eight-episode season gripped the nation and world.
Beyond the endearing nostalgia, the series boasted an intriguing, layered mystery and a dynamite cast comprised mainly of breakthrough child actors. Millie Bobby Brown, Finn Wolfhard, Gaten Matarazzo, Noah Schnapp, and Caleb McLaughlin became household names and forces of talent; Winona Ryder wowed audiences with her performance as Joyce Byers, and David Harbour became one of TV’s preeminent dads. Waffles and nosebleeds and D&D were changed forever. When the series concludes it will have run for almost 10 years and five seasons, the last of which have some of Netflix’s longest runtimes and largest production budgets.
As of the gap between Seasons 4 and 5, “Stranger Things” clocks in at 34 episodes, from the unforgettable pilot to the relentless Season 4 finale. Like its villain, the show mutates, moving from classic sci-fi to spy thriller to full-on bloody horror in later seasons. Picking the best episodes means comparing toothless Gaten Matarazzo to his teen counterpart, a single demogorgon (or demo-dog) to the might of Vecna. But it also meant revisiting one of the biggest television events of the decade and the major highlights on that journey.
Here are the 15 best episodes of “Stranger Things” (so far).
15. “The Mall Rats” (Season 3, Episode 2)
Hopper, whose irrational rage makes him the secondary monster of the season, forbids Mike from dating Eleven and takes huge offense when Joyce stands him up for a date because she was busy learning about electromagnetics from Mr. Clarke. (In Hopper’s defense, it does sound fake.) The young teens struggle with breakups and gender dynamics, while Nancy and Jonathan investigate a lead about rabid rats. Steve and Dustin reunite, prompting Robin (Maya Hawke) to quip: “How many children are you friends with?” as well as her seamless addition to the team. Billy is struggling but still some version of his old self, popping in and out of the Upside Down uncontrollably and eventually kidnapping a young woman to take her to “him.” Billy offers her body up to the fleshy blob made from exploded rats’ bodies.
14. “The Piggyback” (Season 4, Episode 9)
The plan to defeat Vecna unfolds in four phases, with Eleven hundreds of miles from Hawkins and Joyce and Hopper still stuck in Russia. The episode packs in its emotional beats, from sweetness between Max and Lucas to Steve’s heart-to-heart with Nancy, Eddie’s sacrifice, and the final reunion of everyone in Hawkins. Vecna is subdued, but not gone, and the finale teases that the show’s biggest battles lie ahead.
13. “The Monster” (Season 1, Episode 6)
Joyce and Hopper are investigating the mysterious child who was at Hawkins Lab, their search leading them to Eleven’s biological mother Terry. Nancy and Jonathan prepare to fight the Demogorgon, but he beats up Steve and then strikes a police officer, leading to an arrest. While Lucas stakes out the lab, Mike and Dustin hunt for Eleven in the woods, finding her only when she saves Mike and takes down their bullies. In a flashback, Eleven confronts the Demogorgon, causing destruction at the lab and opening the gate.
Eleven calling an adult grocery store employee “mouth breather” and eating waffles in the woods add clever levity throughout the episode, and the sequence by the water remains one of the most memorable and stunning displays of her power (along with Dustin’s “She’s our friend and she’s crazy!”).
12. “The Sauna Test” (Season 3, Episode 4)
The boys send out a Code Red so that Will can tell everyone his suspicions about the Mind Flayer. Their investigation leads to Billy (who recently offered a whole family to the monster), who they attempt to trap in the sauna, taking advantage of the Mind Flayer’s dislike of heat. Billy attacks them in a visceral fight sequence that leaves Eleven sobbing on the floor with her signature nosebleed. Joyce and Hopper follow a lead about the Russians to the corrupt Mayor Kline (Cary Elwes), while Steve, Robin, Dustin, and Erica (an iconic team) follow a lead about the Russians into the bowels of Starcourt Mall. Back at the Mind Flayer’s home base, Billy explains that he has been compromised, but the scene itself reveals that he is one of many, many Flayed.
11. “The Gate” (Season 2, Episode 9)
Hopper and El patch things up after a tumultuous season and set out to close the gate once and for all (ha). Steve lays down the law with the other young teens while everything else goes on. Billy arrives at the house looking for Max and the two older boys fight, but Max puts her brother in his place. Jonathan, Nancy, and Joyce essentially try to torture the Mind Flayer out of Will’s body with light and heat. “Stranger Things 2” starts exploring different permutations and combinations of the core cast, with Steve and the younger kids proving to be an outstanding combination. The episode drives home Hopper and El’s bond as one of the show’s strongest and cements Max as a mainstay of the party.
10. “Will the Wise” (Season 2, Episode 4)
El arrives home to a furious Hopper, leading to their worst fight yet. (She lobs a dictionary at him with her mind!) After being attacked by the Mind Flayer in the Upside Down, Will is different — his body temperature is alarmingly low and he starts speaking for another entity, a mysterious “he” who “likes it cold.” The quest for answers about Barb leads Nancy and Jonathan back to Hawkins Lab, while Hopper and Joyce piece together Will’s creepy drawings. Dustin makes a horrifying discovery about his pollywog (and his missing cat), and Hopper’s investigation of the pumpkin patch leads him to the shadowy tunnels of the Upside Down. The episode highlights powerhouse performances from Brown and Schnapp in particular, the latter of whom was mostly absent from Season 1 and makes up for it in spades with a chilling turn as Will’s compromised alter ego.
9. “The Battle of Starcourt” (Season 3, Episode 8)
Courtesy of Netflix
Joyce, Hopper, and Murray Bauman (Brett Gelman) seek out the gate at the Russians’ hub while the Scoops Troop tries to send a radio signal and the others remain at the mall — where the Mind Flayer attacks. Previous episodes’ “Back to the Future” references pay off with a parking lot car chase, and Dustin’s elusive girlfriend makes an appearance (and joins in a truly incredible duet). Hopper’s disappearance and letter to El might be the show’s most poignant plot twist to date. Even though he returns in Season 4, his sacrifice and apparent death loom heavy over the others, none more so than El and Joyce.
8. “Holly Jolly” (Season 1, Episode 3)
This episode introduces viewers to a lot of what becomes integral to “Stranger Things.” It’s the last time we see a living Barbara Holland (Shannon Purser), being dragged to her death in the Upside Down while Nancy and Steve have sex (horrifying!). That scene is viewers’ first look at the dark, dead, freezing world that exists just out of reach of our own — visually haunting and amplified by Barb’s dying screams. Back in Hawkins, Joyce buys and sets up the infamous Christmas lights to communicate with Will, who she’s convinced is alive and talking to her through the house’s electricity. Hopper and his officers visit Hawkins Lab, where they find no leads on Will’s disappearance but know for sure that something is being covered up, while flashbacks drive this home with tidbits of Eleven’s past with Dr. Brenner (Matthew Modine). At the end of the episode, a body is found down by the water, and even though it’s hard to believe, everyone who knew Will is devastated.
7. “The Spy” (Season 2, Episode 6)
Will is more subdued than ever, unable to remember anyone from before he was first abducted and clearly sharing a psychic connection with the tentacles of the Upside Down. Nancy and Jonathan visit Murray and end up sleeping together, and Max and Lucas grow closer. But the best duo of the episode is undoubtedly Dustin and Steve, whose unlikely friendship becomes one of the show’s strongest comedic and emotional threads moving forward. Steve, Dustin, Lucas, and Max team up to catch and kill Dart — only to find that the baby demogorgon has a squad of its own.
6. “The Massacre at Hawkins Lab” (Season 4, Episode 7)
Courtesy of Netflix
The “Stranger Things 4” midseason finale is one of the show’s densest episodes: Hopper battles a Demogorgon in Russia and then reunites tenderly with Joyce; the teens are split up, with half of them trapped in the Upside Down and trying to defend themselves from Vecna (and his bats), while the others try to instruct from Hawkins and figure out how, where, and why Vecna is opening gates. Eleven confronts her past with the help of Owens (Paul Reiser) and Brenner, and she and Nancy simultaneously learn the truth: Vecna is Victor Creel’s son and Brenner’s first patient.
5. “The Bathtub” (Season 1, Episode 7)
This episode could be on the list solely for Eleven’s epic truck-flipping fight skills, but there’s lots to love. It’s the first late-season episode in which the disparate threads of “Stranger Things” start to weave together; Nancy and Jonathan share what they know with Joyce and Hopper, and after fleeing the “bad men” at Mike’s house, the boys meet with the teens and adults and explain the gate. The entire group breaks into the school to create a sensory deprivation tank and Eleven finds both Barb (R.I.P.) and Will in the Upside Down. It’s the first time the cast gets to truly work together as an ensemble, the various kids playing off each other and Ryder and Harbour taking on the parent roles beyond their own children. Joyce’s maternal moments with Eleven are some of the best emotional beats on the show to date.
4. “Dear Billy” (Season 4, Episode 5)
As “Stranger Things 4” leans fully into horror, Vecna’s next victim becomes clear: Max. She experiences the same isolation and haunting visions as previous victims, but the gang just might be equipped to save her this time. Nevertheless, they are all terrified, putting on a brave front while facing the very real possibility of losing one of their own. Max writes a letter to her brother, acknowledging their complex relationship and his own demons. The final sequence is one for the ages, with Max running through the Upside Down and running up that hill toward her friends.
3. “The Mind Flayer” (Season 2, Episode 8)
Demogorgons breach the lab in a full-on massacre, and the Hawkins gang has to keep Will asleep to stop him from spying on behalf of the monster. Bob (Sean Astin) uses his coding skills to bring on the lights and help everyone escape, getting killed in the process. The Hawkins gang unites at Hopper’s cabin and strategizes how to destroy the monster, trying to take advantage of Will’s connection to it. As the real Will seems to disappear before them, they appeal to him with music and memories, and he uses Morse code to tell them “CLOSE GATE.” A demogorgon attacks, but something far more important shows up at the cabin door in the final scene: Eleven.
2. “The Upside Down” (Season 1, Episode 8)
Nancy and Jonathan prepare for war — intent to kill the Demogorgon once and for all — and, surprisingly, they’re joined by Steve in a magnificent redemption arc. Joyce and Hopper venture into the Upside Down to find Will, while flashbacks reveal more about Hopper’s late daughter and why it’s so important for him to bring Will home. The kids kill time at the school until Brenner and his people arrive, and the ensuing battle and bloodshed attracts the demogorgon. When it prevails against the adults and their weapons (plus Lucas’s slingshot), El faces down the monster but disappears as she destroys it. The season ends with satisfying answers and just enough open questions, teased masterfully with Hopper leaving waffles in the forest, Will coughing up a slug, and the inevitable love triangle between Steve, Nancy, and Jonathan. Til next time, nerds!
1. “The Vanishing of Will Byers” (Season 1, Episode 1)
After a normal night of D&D with his best friends Mike, Dustin, and Lucas, sweet, shy Will Byers goes missing in the uneventful town of Hawkins, Indiana. Unbeknownst to anyone else, Will made it home, where he faced something terrifying in the family’s woodshed right before vanishing, ostensibly, into thin air. Will’s disappearance rattles the town, but no one more than his mother Joyce, who takes the case immediately to police chief Hopper. Elsewhere, a quiet girl with a shorn haircut calling herself Eleven appears at a nearby restaurant, with a price on her head that gets the owner killed before she runs into Will’s friends. Even upon rewatch, the pilot episode is full of magnetic mystery, instantly transporting the viewer to how they felt watching it for the first time and wondering where Will went, what he saw, what could possibly have happened to this little girl, and what horror escaped Hawkins lab. It’ll be some time before all those questions are answered or threads connected, but all you can do is buckle up for the ride.
“Stranger Things” is now streaming on Netflix.