Millie Bobby Brown (Screenshot: Stranger Things)

In the first-season finale of Stranger Things, promises were made to be broken—or at least long delayed. As season two closes, those promises are finally kept. Some of those promises were huge and hard to comprehend, much less keep: a gate into another dimension that had to be closed, a beast that had to be defeated, a researcher whose hubris had to be answered for. Some were clear but impossible to deliver: a boy rescued from a nightmare world and returned not only to his family, but to his old self. Some were simple, but no less important: a real bed, a real home, a real family for a lost girl. And a night spent at the Hawkins Middle School’s annual Snow Ball.

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“Chapter Nine: The Gate” does more than deliver on those promises. When Hopper took in El, he gave her a hideaway, but not a home. Now he’s grown and learned from his mistakes. He knows El needs more than to be protected from the outside world; that’s one of the terrible things her “Papa” at Hawkins Lab claimed he was doing for her. Hopper’s remembered how to be less like “Papa” and more like a father.

(Screenshot: Stranger Things)

As they drive into danger, Hopper and El connect like family, not like guard and ward. He shoulders the blame for the rift that grew between them. He talks about his own grief and guilt, his feeling that he’s “some kind of black hole,” a feeling El must recognize. He realizes with shock that he’s never told El about Sara, the daughter who died so young. “Black hole, it got her,” he says. “I’ve just been scared that it would take you, too.” And, in the most dad-like of half-compliments, he says of her “MTV punk” look, “I don’t hate it.”

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As they enter Hawkins Lab, Hopper proves with more than words that he’s not like Dr. Brenner. Time after time, Dr. Brenner sent El into danger alone and let her blame herself for what she found there. Not Hopper, not ever. “You let me do the heavy lifting up front, all right? Save your strength ’til we’re below.”

In the corridors of the lab and in the pit below, Hopper shields El every step of the way, and not only because she is the best hope for this world. Because however surprisingly grown up she looks, she’s his little girl. Once they’re in the chasm where El has to take the lead, Hopper still has her back.

Millie Bobby Brown, David Harbour (Screenshot: Stranger Things)

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It’s a wise choice to show whatever looms behind its filigree of “weeds” only as vague, vast shapes, because the horrors that populate our minds are worse than whatever CGI monster the series might show us. It helps create a sense of vast scale not just in the rift, but beyond it, making El’s battle to close it with just the ferocious power of her mind most staggering.

There’s more than fictional danger in this scene. Spending long silent minutes with her hand outstretched and her eyes intent, Millie Bobby Brown treads territory that’s wearily familiar from too many tales of psychic powers. She manages to make it feel almost fresh, if not electrifying, by underplaying El’s intensity until the final push, when she bellows with a rage and power that lifts her right off her feet.

Millie Bobby Brown (Screenshot: Stranger Things)

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Joyce, as grimly determined as in “Chapter Eight: The Mind Flayer,” spearheads the plan to burn the shadow monster out of Will. Even when Jonathan fears they’re killing Will-killing “the host” of the nightmare virus that threatens them all—Joyce is resolute.When the monster does burst out of Will, it’s in the form of a sooty, smoky mini-twister, underlining Stranger Things’ recent allusions to The Wizard Of Oz.

Steve’s adventures in babysitting keep getting weirder and more perilous.
“I promised I’d keep you shitheads safe and that’s exactly what I’m going to do!” he tells the kids. Immediately, he’s beaten to a pulp, loaded semi-conscious into Billy’s car, driven to the contaminated pumpkin patch by a girl too short to reach the gas pedal, and tumbles into the confluence of tunnels that Hopper called “the graveyard,” where they firebomb the outcropping of tentacles the hive-mind monster has there.

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The Snow Ball is more than a quick epilogue. The lingering, glittering scene at the Snow Ball is the promise that’s kept, and then some. It’s more than a return to normal life; it’s a new chapter. For the kids, it’s an adolescent milestone. For their parents, it’s a bittersweet reminder that their children are growing up.

Despite the delight of seeing Mike and El finally have their long-promised dance, and the smaller pleasure of seeing Lucas and Max share their first kiss, it’s Dustin’s Snow Ball experience that rings most true. Even with Steve’s tireless encouragement, a sharp new look and a newfound air of confidence can’t change his social life overnight. But a dance—and then another, and another—with Nancy Wheeler just might, and Nancy’s advice (and her morale-boosting hint of flirting) can’t hurt. As Erik Adams points out, “Time After Time” is more than a period-appropriate choice for this momentous dance. It’s an anthem to the trust these characters have in each other, in good times and in mortal peril.

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“Every Breath You Take” is every bit as period-specific and just as loaded in meaning. The heroes of Hawkins have triumphed. But they’ll always be on guard—against the shadowy government agency that might not have pulled surveillance when it pulled up stakes, against monstrous interlopers from another plane. They don’t know what we know: that the last image of Stranger Things second season is a promise of ever-bigger threats looming just under the surface. But they must know there’s no promise that their victory is final.

Stray observations

  • Finally, there is #JusticeForBarb.
  • We knew Billy was a bully and a bigot, but “The Gate” shows Billy unhinged, switching from bogus lambent-eyed charm to berserker rage in minutes.
  • To use Steve’s metaphor, I can’t believe Stranger Things has kept a player like Cara Buono on the bench for two seasons now. I hope her scene with Billy, featuring their dueling décolletages, promises something—anything—for Mrs. Wheeler next season.
  • Judging by the specials board just inside the door, the bar where Hopper and Owens meet is (appropriately) called The Hideaway.
  • I haven’t told a middle-school girl to fuck off since I was a middle-school girl, but I’m not sorry for what I blurted out, Stacy.
  • The song cuing up as Steve spots Nancy at the dance is Olivia Newton-John’s “Twist Of Fate” from Two Of A Kind. “Love is what we’ve found/The second time around.”
  • Nancy dancing with Dustin reminds me of another period-piece school dance.
  • Now that Hopper has her doctored birth certificate in hand, complete with El’s birth name, maybe it’s time to start calling this hero by her name instead of by the number assigned her by the researchers at Hawkins Lab.

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