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The 5 best and 5 worst episodes of Stranger Things (so far)

In 2016, Netflix unveiled Stranger Things, an original series that's often been described as a tonal and thematic merging of the sensibilities of Steven Spielberg and Stephen King. Steeped in 1980s pop culture, the series follows a group of children (and ultimately, some of their parents) in Hawkins, Indiana, as they deal with the fallout of a top-secret government research facility's attempts to make contact with another dimension. The series became a pop culture phenomenon, and remains one of Netflix's most successful original releases.

This summer, after nearly two years of waiting, Stranger Things 3 will arrive on July 4th to finally reveal what our favorite Hawkins kids have been up to lately, how they're spending their summers, and what new threats they're about to face. Before that happens, though, a lot of fans are bound to head back and rewatch the first two seasons of the series. With that in mind, it's time to talk about the show's highlights and lowlights. Here are the five best and worst episodes of Stranger Things so far.

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Best: "The Vanishing of Will Byers" (Season 1, Episode 1)

Stranger Things is a show that fans prize for its tone, which both evokes a high level of nostalgia and, at its best, manages to feel like a fresh interpretation of something that's comfortably familiar. Other shows might have taken a little while to strike this balance, but Stranger Things does it in the very first episode.

"The Vanishing of Will Byers" follows exactly what it says on the tin: the disappearance of Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) while riding home from a Dungeons & Dragons game with his friends, and the ensuing chaos and searching that follows. In documenting that chaos, the show quickly and efficiently introduces us to nearly all of its major players — including the four boy leads through a charming D&D session — and manages to put the pieces in place for what will become the season's central conflict. By the end of this episode we know who to care about, why to care about them, and what to be afraid of… and we've also been relentlessly entertained for an hour. It's a brilliant debut.

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Worst: "The Flea and the Acrobat" (Season 1, Episode 5)

"The Flea and the Acrobat" is named for a metaphor laid out by the boys' science teacher and AV Club mentor, Mr. Clarke, who is trying to explain to them how parallel dimensions might work. The scene in which he lays that out is fine, but it goes on a little too long and pushes the show a little too far into characters simply saying things out loud to make sure the audience is on the same page as the episode is.

Things like that make up a good portion of this episode's runtime, and it's the closest the show's first season comes to wheel spinning. The boys are convinced Will is in another dimension, and they spend the whole episode searching for confirmation of that. Meanwhile, Hopper makes a discovery in the lab, only to be sent back home so he can be spied on, and Joyce's ex tells her she's crazy for believing Will is still alive. It's not a bad episode, but it is a somewhat stagnant one.

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Best: "The Monster" (Season 1, Episode Six)

"The Monster" is the episode that propels all of the pieces into place to begin the first season's endgame, which means there's a lot going on here in the span of an hour, and the show wastes none of that runtime. You've got Nancy and Jonathan solidifying their relationship, Hopper and Joyce learning where Eleven apparently got her powers, the revelation of how exactly Eleven and the Demogorgon are connected, and more.

The key moment, though — and the one that makes this episode stand out as one of the best — comes near the end, when Eleven stops a pair of bullies from making Mike jump off a cliff and into the lake. Dustin's defiant cry of "She's our friend, and she's crazy!" remains one of the best moments the series has ever produced, and it cements a bond between Eleven and the boys that makes up the spine of much of the second season. Stranger Things is great at producing standout turning points, sometimes surrounded by otherwise predictable storytelling. This episode features a great moment surrounded by fast-paced, compelling storytelling that shoves you right into the next hour.

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Worst: "The Bathtub" (Season 1, Episode 7)

"The Bathtub" isn't a bad episode of Stranger Things either, but it suffers when compared to the episodes that bookend it: the fast-paced and satisfying "The Monster" and the season finale "The Upside Down." The episode is named for the sensory deprivation tank the gang builds for Eleven so she can access the other dimension and locate Will Byers, and the moments in which this plan works are indeed thrilling and compelling. It's also pretty great to watch Eleven flip a truck as the bad guys pursue her new friends.

The rest of the episode, though, is basically just setting up the final confrontations of "The Upside Down." Eleven finds Will, but the audience already knew where he was. Joyce and Hopper head back to the lab, but we already knew they had to go there. Jonathan and Nancy get their monster hunting gear back, even though they had just lost it. It's all about moving pieces into place, and that's just not as thrilling as what comes next.

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Best: "The Upside Down" (Season 1, Episode 8)

The first season of Stranger Things is a largely lean, tight, thrilling experience that doesn't waste a lot of time and doesn't leave any of its most important plot threads behind in the build-up to its finale. That's a big part of what makes "The Upside Down" so thrilling to watch. The key mission is, of course, to rescue Will from the dark dimension he's been trapped in all season, but in accomplishing that mission, the show manages to do so much more.

We get the epic final struggle against the Demogorgon, Mike's ongoing bond with Eleven reaching its season 1 apex and setting up further development in season 2, Hopper's struggle to come to terms with his daughter's death fulfilled through saving Will, Joyce's reunion with her son, and so much more. And it's all capped off with the moment revealing that Hopper and Eleven are still in some way connected.

It's both an extremely satisfying end to the story we've been immersed in for several hours and a beautiful expansion of the world that sets up things to come. The second season finale, while great in its own right, couldn't top this.

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Worst: "Will the Wise" (Season 2, Episode 4)

Season 2 of Stranger Things pays off on that dark teaser at the end of season 1 by confirming that Will Byers did indeed bring a dark connection to the Upside Down back with him after he escaped that dimension. This takes the form of a psychic link of sorts with a massive shadow monster which, among other things, gives him visions of the other side. While this connection is very emotionally rewarding for the characters of Will and Joyce in particular, it doesn't necessarily translate to the most riveting episodes of the show.

"Will the Wise" is a good example of this, as Will's connection to the Upside Down leads him to draw dozens of scribbles on sheets of paper which, when assembled together, illustrate a vast network of tunnels beneath Hawkins. This map is then pasted all over the Byers house in an attempt to replicate the fan-favorite effect of Joyce's Christmas lights from season 1. It doesn't quite work.

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Best: "Trick or Treat, Freak" (Season 2, Episode 2)

The trailers for Stranger Things' second season leaned heavily on the autumnal setting for the new batch of episodes, and the second episode of season 2 is where that all comes to glorious fruition. As the title suggests, this is the show's first Halloween episode, and it features everything from pumpkins infected by extradimensional spores to the kids going trick or treating to some truly terrifying moments for Will Byers.

The atmosphere here, from the leaves falling around the kids as they hang out in their Ghostbusters costumes to Joyce's boyfriend Bob (Sean Astin) playing around with his camcorder, is absolutely perfect, and immediately conjures up trick-or-treating memories for a good portion of the audience. Then the episode goes beyond its atmosphere to really flesh out the expanded world of Season 2, bringing new character Max (Sadie Sink) along for the ride, amplifying Will's trauma, and even introducing a new creature by the end of the episode. It's an even better table-setter for the rest of the season than the premiere episode.

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Worst: "Dig Dug" (Season 2, Episode 5)

After Will lays out his network of crayon-scribbled tunnels, Hopper thinks he understands what at least one spot on the map is referring to. He goes there, descends, and promptly passes out. How exactly he makes it through unscatched is a mystery, but much of "Dig Dug" is spent simply figuring out where Hopper is, while the rest is devoted to the ongoing troubles of Dustin's new pet "Dart" and Jonathan and Nancy's efforts to prove a vast government conspiracy is responsible for all of Hawkins' troubles, including Barb's death in the first season. It's not boring, but "Dig Dug" is clearly part of a transitional piece of storytelling, and it shows in the way it unfolds. The best part of this episode is the ending, in which Will breaks down convulsing when the tunnels are set on fire, confirming that his link to the Upside Down goes deeper than anyone realized.

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Best: "The Gate" (Season 2, Episode 9)

The biggest problem with "The Gate," if you can call it a problem, is that it doesn't get even more time to do all of the things it needs to do to close out the show's second season. The episode is absolutely packed with plot, to the point that it almost feels like it could have been two episodes at one point in the writing process, but that actually works in its favor.

The first half of the episode is devoted to defeating the Mind Flayer and closing the "gate" between our world and the Upside Down. This leads to some wonderful, emotional moments for Joyce and Will, as well as some separate emotional beats for Hopper and Eleven. It also creates peak "Dad Steve" as he helps the rest of the kids move through the tunnels and distract the Demodogs. After this epic (and successful) confrontation is complete, the gang all gathers for the winter dance at Hawkins High School, and while it can feel a bit like fanservice, this closing sequence is absolutely heartwarming at every turn. Everyone gets a little emotional moment, and it all builds to the final shot teasing season 3.

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Worst: "The Lost Sister" (Season 2, Episode 7)

It's very easy to understand the purpose of "The Lost Sister," and it's a noble and worthy pursuit. Eleven wants to understand more about where she came from and who she is, and her journey leads her to Chicago. There, she meets Kali (Linnea Berthelsen), a girl who was also experimented on in the Hawkins Lab and also got a set of strange abilities. Through Kali, Eleven is presented with a choice, and ultimately chooses to go back to her found family in Hawkins.

While Eleven's emotional journey within the episode makes sense, and her growth as an independent girl does pay off in the remainder of the season, the episode can't help but feel like wheel-spinning. It grinds the rest of the Hawkins story to a halt, leaves other major characters on the sidelines, and ultimately seems to achieve very little. Maybe time will be kind to "The Lost Sister" as we see more from Eleven in coming seasons, but right now it's easily one of the show's weak spots.