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'Stranger Things' Season 2 finale recap: Closing the gate

For The Baltimore Sun

“Stranger Things’” Season 2 finale, “The Gate,” is packed with action, character development and lots of nostalgia. In other words, it’s what every show should strive to accomplish with its finale.

The gang splits up into three groups: El and Hopper go to Hawkins Lab to close the gate; Joyce, Jonathan and Nancy head to Hopper’s cabin to exorcise the Mind Flayer from Will’s body; and the rest to stay put at the Byers’ and do nothing. The latter only lasts for so long, but more on that later.

Healing old wounds

On the ride to the lab, Hopper puts aside his tough bravado and opens up to El. “This isn’t on you, kid. I shouldn’t have lied to you,” he says. In a moment of revelation and growth, he reveals that lost his daughter Sarah to cancer, and was terrified of losing El too.

But try as he might to protect El, hiding the truth only spurred her to run away and find out what really happened to her mother. They both admit they were stupid, and she holds his hand as he drives his truck to the lab.

We see this paternal affection return when Hopper and El hold hands as they’re lowered to the gate. Concentrating on the glowing chasm of red vines that beam across her face, she furrows her brow and summons the strength to close the gate and, ultimately, heal her wounds.

As she stretches out her arm, Kali’s advice replays in her mind: “Find something from your life that angers you — now channel it.” She digs deep to find a painful memory and begins to levitate. Then an image of Dr. Brenner flashes before her. “You have a wound, and it’s festering,” he says. So that “Lost Sister” episode wasn’t completely pointless after all.

She collapses when the gate finally closes, and dozens of demogorgons drop like flies into the pit. It’s over. For now, of course.

Seeing El mend her emotional scars and save the town from destruction was a satisfying ending to a phenomenal second season. And, of course, “Stranger Things” ends on a sappy note for her — and I’m not complaining. El and Mike are at the Snow Ball dancing to Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” when they give each other their first kiss. Aw, young love.

Burning out the Mind Flayer

Tired of giving into Mind Flayer’s demands, Joyce resolves to treat it like the virus it is. “We need to burn it out of him,” she says. Joyce, Jonathan and Nancy head to Hopper’s cabin to crank up the space heaters and fireplace to sweat the cursed being out of Will.

The heat becomes so unbearable for the monster that Will breaks one of the restraints and chokes his mother. In a last ditch effort, Nancy picks up a red-hot poker from the fireplace and presses it against Will’s leg. Brutal, but it works. A dense, black plume swirls out of Will’s mouth and into the night sky. He’s free.

Babysitting the gang

In another moment of growth, Steve volunteers himself to babysit Dustin, Mike, Lucas and Max and stop them from getting into danger. That is, until they hatch a plan to go into the tunnels to start a fire to divert the demogorgon’s attention from El. Not on Steve’s watch. “I promised I’d keep you [expletives] safe, and that’s what I plan to do,” he protests.

That is, until Billy comes and beats the crap out of him for protecting Max, who is a badass and needs no protecting. She sticks her brutish stepbrother in the neck with a tranquilizer. Then, after he falls to the ground, semi-conscious, she takes Steve’s nailbat and strikes it into the ground, right between his legs and near his crotch. Whoa. “Leave me and my friends alone!” she screams. Duly noted.

After Max drives them to the hole (again, total badass), Steve gets suckered into joining them to cause a diversion. In fact, he leads the way to the tunnel’s hub that they light on fire. Next thing to do is run.

Right when they’re about to exit, the gang encounters a demogorgon. It’s Dart, and he surprisingly recognizes Dustin. To placate him, Dustin gives him a few Three Musketeers bars while the gang sneaks to the entrance. At least someone (something?) likes the least palatable Halloween candy bar.

Setting up Season 3

Ending the season with the Mind Flayer lurking by the middle school in the Upside Down wasn’t suspenseful, at first glance. We’re going to need more than the return of a monster that has already been vanquished to keep us on the edge of the seats.

But digging deeper, it’s a terrifying predicament for the gang and the citizens of Hawkins now that the gate is closed. The Mind Flayer still wants to conquer their dimension and eradicate the “inferior race,” but he will have to find another way in.

And now that the lab is no longer functioning to keep him and the other interdimensional monsters away from the public eye, it will only be a matter of time before the secret is out and they wreck havoc in the real dimension in the next season.

Until then, we’ll be counting down the days when it hits Netflix.

More Highlights from “The Gate

First kiss, worst kiss?: There was a lot of backlash for the unscripted kiss between Max (Sadie Sink) and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin). In an interview with Netflix’s Beyond Stranger Things, Sadie said that she “freaked out” about the prospect of the on-screen kiss, and that the Duffer brothers taunted and possibly pressured her into it. She has since clarified her comments in an interview with The Wrap, saying, “I mean, of course I was nervous because it’s a first kiss, right? But I never objected to [it] or felt pushed into anything.” That’s a relief, even if it feels like a PR about-face.

Most awkward greeting: “Teeth,” El says as she shoves her fingers into Dustin’s mouth.“What?” he replies, confused.“You have teeth,” she says. Yeah, and you have blood coming out of your nose, but you don’t see Dustin shoving his finger up your nostril. First lesson in being normal: Respecting personal space. Learn it fast, kid.

Coldest greeting: Max extends her hand to introduce herself to El, who walks past her to give Joyce a hug. Ouch.

Best Erica one-liner: “Yes, I love it, but not as much as I love you, Lukey,” Erica says, mocking Lucas, who’s practicing how to ask Max to dance.

Adoption papers: Dr. Owens makes good on his promise to give El a normal life by handing Hopper a birth certificate with her new name: Jane Hopper. Aww, but do we have to call her Jane? Jane is so… plain.

Justice for Barb: Murphy’s crazy plan worked. The news stations swooped in and broke the “watered down” story that Hawkins Lab had a chemical leak that caused Barb’s death. He celebrates by sitting outside of the lab and toasting the soldiers who drive by after they lock up the lab. They reply with a one-finger salute.

Middle school sucks: Dustin strikes out twice at the Snow Ball dance (three times if you include Max picking Lucas over him), and goes to the benches to shed a few tears. Poor guy. But his Jheri curl mullet is so… ’80s! (That’s a compliment, right?) Nancy asks him to dance to cheer him up. “Girls this age are dumb,” she assures him. “Give them a few years and they’ll wise up. You’re gonna drive them nuts.” This is why he should be taking girl advice from an actual girl and not Steve.

Unanswered questions: Why did Billy hate Lucas so much? How was Dr. Owens not arrested for admitting the lab’s culpability for Barb’s death? And what happened to the demogorgon’s corpse that Dustin and Steve shoved into the Byers’ freezer?

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