Overview: One year after the events of the first season, the residents of Hawkins struggle with lingering trauma and new terrors from the Upside Down. Netflix; TV-MA; 9 episodes.
The Three Pillars: I never expected to like Stranger Things as much as I did. I’m generally allergic to ‘80s nostalgia, with its desperate worship of disposable aesthetic values and misunderstanding of what makes the decade’s best art so good. But the first season of the Netflix original put me on my heels. Rather than simply imitating the imagery of its creators’ pop culture childhoods, it remixed and reconstructed them. Each group of characters was in a separate genre: The kids were in a Spielbergian fantasy akin to E.T., the teens were in a monster/slasher film, and the adults were in a government conspiracy thriller. All three experienced the same events, and their different perspectives were realized as different modes of storytelling. It was genuinely cool, and the all-around great performances didn’t hurt.
I worried that the second season, or Stranger Things 2 as it’s been marketed, was doomed from the start. The original’s most interesting elements couldn’t really be built out any further, and what else was there to sustain a nine-hour season? The apparent answer arrived at by series creators the Duffer Brothers was to not try and top themselves. The first season was lightning in a bottle, and Stranger Things 2 doesn’t waste time flailing around trying to catch it again. This is a restrained season, for better and worse. While it does its best not to go back to the well of season one too often (avoiding the trap of self-nostalgia is its best accomplishment), it spends too much time resting on its laurels. The first season was paced like a bullet train. The second season asks for some patience, and I couldn’t help feeling like a restless theatergoer sitting in front of a closed curtain, hearing the stage crew hurriedly finish the set so that the show could finally begin.
Casting a Line: The trouble is in the show’s characters. As likable and well-acted as they are, their inner and outer conflicts can’t hold up the show on their own. Stranger Things 2 spends its first few episodes delving into the trauma they all suffered during season one, and it’s only fitfully compelling. Nancy’s agony over having to lie to Barb’s parents—still convinced their daughter is alive—works well. But most of the cast just meanders around waiting for the mystery to kick in. It takes about half the season for things to really ramp up, and we don’t spend that time learning anything new about these characters. If you’re going to make them the core of the show, you need to come up with something better than this.
They’re more interesting in large groups, where they don’t each have to be so singularly nuanced. I noted near the end of the season that the show was at its best when they were all working together on some crazy plan to defeat their monstrous opponent. Both seasons of Stranger Things begin with the characters in small groups and build towards climactic moments when the whole ensemble comes together. Stranger Things 2 spends most of its runtime pushing them even further apart than before. The core group of kids—Mike, Lucas, Dustin, and Will—are split by the arrival of the troubled new girl Max. Lucas and Dustin are awed by her skills at the arcade game Dig Dug, and want her to join the gang. Mike, still bruised from the disappearance of Eleven, rejects Max and spends more time helping Will with his traumatic visions. Eleven herself spends almost the entire season on her own, a bizarre choice given that her chemistry with the boys was one of the defining aspects of season one.
I did appreciate how Lucas and Dustin got expanded roles for this season, even if it’s at Mike’s expense. Season one had a larger focus on Mike due to his relationship with Eleven, and her absence means that he slides into the background here. There’s also more screentime for Steve, whose refusal to fulfill the “bad jock boyfriend” archetype is one of season one’s most interesting choices. If there’s one thing Stranger Things has going for it, it’s that it knows when it has something special.
Team-ups and Disappointments: Stranger Things 2 pulls the classic TV move of putting together unexpected pairs, and it always succeeds. Eleven starts the season in the care of the beleaguered police chief Hopper, each acting as respective surrogate daughter and father. It’s an unexpected move, but their dynamic is fantastic. Hopper, whose daughter died of cancer, sees Eleven as a second chance, but his continued failures to be there for her only reinforce his self-hatred. Eleven, meanwhile, finds herself a prisoner again, though this time it’s for her own protection. She resents Hopper for keeping her from her friends and lying about when she’ll be able to live out in the open. Eleven isn’t the daughter Hopper wants, but she’s the one he needs. Hopper isn’t the father Eleven wants, but he’s the one she needs. Their struggles to come to terms with each other is one of the best aspects of the season, and I wish more time had been devoted to it. Stranger Things 2 also teams up Dustin and Steve, who make a delightfully mismatched duo.
Eleven’s storyline is, unfortunately, a major weak link here. She’s so separate from everyone else that she almost feels extraneous. When she finally rejoins the rest of the ensemble, it’s staged like a big reveal, even though we already knew she was coming. Season two was supposedly drafted before season one premiered, and I can’t help but wonder if she was intended to be completely absent from most of the season. It doesn’t feel like it was initially plotted with her in mind. While her scenes with Hopper are great, things fall apart after she’s left on her own. The seventh episode of the season is devoted entirely to her, and I’m sad to say that it’s something of a disaster. She hunts down another psychic victim of Dr. Brenner’s experiments, a young woman named Kali (number 008, according to her matching wrist tattoo) who can make people see things that aren’t there. Kali runs a gang of extras from the movie Hackers who hunt down and murder people who have wronged them. Yes, seriously. It’s an incomprehensibly bad turn of events. Eleven learns from Kali to increase her power by channeling her rage, and the show treats this as a sign of growth rather than regression. The third season will hopefully rectify this, but this episode doesn’t bode well for the showrunners’ understanding of Eleven as a character.
Losing the Plot: The overall plot of the season, once it finally reveals itself, is a mixed bag. The structure more or less resembles season one, down to the separation of the three genres. This time around, the teens are in the government conspiracy thriller and the adults are in the monster/slasher movie. The kids are still in E.T., with Eleven now replaced by an otherworldly creature discovered by Dustin. Their plot threads again converge in the third act, and they again recombine into new groups for the final showdown. Adhering to this blueprint is understandable, but I hope that the third season shakes things up a bit.
The gigantic monster teased in the marketing is quite creepy, and it’s the source of the show’s most horrifying scene to date. Its towering spidery design recalls the Amygdala from the game Bloodborne, and I actually heard a few distinctive sound effects from Bloodborne used throughout the season. Someone on the Stranger Things team must be a fan. The trouble is that the monster (dubbed “the Mind Reaver” after another Dungeons and Dragons enemy) is only superficially the antagonist. The immediate threat comes in the form of more Demogorgons. This repetition is disappointing, especially considering how frightening the Mind Reaver is. Its psychic connection to Will is taken straight from E.T. as well, though its manifestation here is obviously much darker. As Will, actor Noah Schnapp is given much more to do this season, and he doesn’t disappoint. A sizable chunk of it involves thrashing and screaming in pain, but Schnapp is disturbingly convincing.
Still, there are some genuine thrills to be had. A late-act two scene set in the scrapyard where the boys hid in season one escalates in shocking fashion. The big reveal here benefits from the same lack of foreshadowing that causes it to fall apart upon further inspection. I’m willing to go along for the ride for the most part, though. Stranger Things has never boasted flawless writing, but when it hits, it hits hard. If you’re a fan of the show, you’re in it for those moments, and there are a satisfying number in Stranger Things 2.
Nancy and Jonathan are teamed up again, though this time it’s in an attempt to take revenge on Hawkins Lab for the death of Barb. This subplot is a little half-baked, even if the appearance of Brett Gelman as a washed-up investigative journalist was a nice surprise. The insistence on pushing a romance between these two is a disappointment. One of season one’s best surprises was that they didn’t end up together at the end, but that they remained friends and on good terms with Steve. As with the characterization of Steve, this was a neat subversion, and Stranger Things 2 throws it in the trash to pursue a relationship for Nancy and Jonathan. It just doesn’t work. The show has gone on and on about how Nancy is hiding the “real her” by staying with Steve, and that she’d be better with an offbeat weirdo like Jonathan. The problem is that we’re never shown the kind of person she’s supposed to “really” be. None of the characters are particularly deep, but we’re led to believe that Nancy is performing a role that’s never adequately fleshed out. She comes off as more of a fantasy girlfriend for the shy loner Jonathan.
Boys Club: Speaking of which, let’s talk about Max. She’s the most significant new addition to the cast, one of Stranger Things 2’s best characters and one of its most disappointing. She’s a skateboarding gamer girl from California with an abusive stepdad and stepbrother, and the boys immediately latch onto her. To the show’s credit, she’s not initially written as an object for them to capture. She wants to be their friend, but she’s annoyed by their secrecy over the events of season one. She isn’t interested in being half a member of the group, there to amuse the boys but shut out of their private discussions. Problems arise when she’s finally let in on the truth. In the back half of the season, she becomes more and more a love interest for Lucas and Dustin, and a reason for the two of them to fight. This is about the least interesting thing they could have done with Max, and I felt a creeping dread as it became clearer that they were committed to this direction. Stranger Things is at its worst when it becomes a playground for the fantasies of bullied ‘80s nerds, diminishing its female characters for the sake of rewarding its male ones. With Hopper and Jonathan and Dustin, the show becomes about wounded men who can’t possess the women they want. Time and time again, the show bends in the direction of fulfilling their desires.
This is part of the problem with Stranger Things 2’s brand of ‘80s nostalgia. To have nostalgia for something implies a lack of memory for the things that were bad about it. The show is a sanitized vision of the decade, with barely a hint of the various social inequities that defined it. Sure, occasionally you’ll hear a character call someone a “queer” or even the slur that starts with “f,” but it’s just set dressing. This show’s version of a virulent racist is Max’s stepbrother, who tells her that Lucas is “the wrong kind of people” and forbids her from hanging out with him. I’m not saying that the show is obligated to address these sorts of things, but the way it ignores them feels naive. For a show that purports to be about social outcasts, most everyone is safely white and heterosexual. When Eleven (in the season’s most hilariously misguided episode) meets up with a gang of people who claim to be ostracized from society, their main difference appears to be their punk haircuts. This is Stranger Things’ idea of a marginalized person—basically, anyone who isn’t a jock. Here is the danger of idolizing the time period when you were a child. Your preconceptions about it are, by their nature, childish.
So, what to do with Stranger Things 2? I would say that fans of the first season are likely to enjoy it, but that really depends on why you liked the first season. If you enjoyed the supernatural mysteries and monsters, you’ll get what you came for after a fashion. If you just want to see these characters again, you’ll probably be pleased. For me, the things I found so intriguing about season one were a flash in the pan. I didn’t hate Stranger Things 2. I do like these characters, and seeing them work together to fight monsters is a joy. But the season fails every opportunity to mature.
Overall: Despite its still excellent cast, Stranger Things 2 is a disappointing follow-up to the sensational first season.