We’ve all had this weekend to binge-watch the follow-up to one of the biggest pop-culture phenomena of the last decade. If you asked pretty much anyone on Friday what they were doing this weekend, the answer was “Watching Stranger Things.” I love that. I love that stories exist that we all buy into, that nearly everyone is on board with and experiencing at the same time.
Going into Friday night, I was equally excited and fearful. Stranger Things was such a breakout success and perfectly synthesized eighties nostalgia while simultaneously telling a great original story. Could the Duffer brothers do it again? Could they follow up that success with an equally compelling season 2?
Let’s talk about that. Spoilers follow.
Stranger Things season 2 picks up almost a year after the events of the first season, with the characters all dealing with their particular aspect of the aftermath. Joyce, Jonathan, and Will Byers are trying to get back to life as a normal family. Mike, Dustin, and Lucas are excited to have their friend back and their party complete. Jim Hopper is trying to protect his town and the people he cares about by keeping things quiet and sweeping things under the rug. Nancy and Steve are settling into their budding relationship. And Eleven is still trying to cope with the powers within herself and a world she doesn’t quite understand. But just as something immense and sinister is literally growing underneath the town of Hawkins, Indiana, so there is a mounting tension and unease growing beneath each one of these characters and their relationships with each other.
Across the board, the returning cast is fantastic. Winona Ryder (Joyce) continues to give the best performance of her career as the loving and frantically-worried mother. David Harbour (Hopper) is a major talent, and one to keep track of. Millie Bobby Brown (Eleven) keeps proving she’s the discovery of the decade. The chemistry of our main kids is still spot-on, especially Gaten Matarazzo (Dustin) and Caleb McLaughlin (Lucas). But the real star this season is absolutely Noah Schnapp as Will Byers. His turn in season 1 was necessarily small, because for most of it he was the missing kid lost in the Upside-Down. But in season 2 he really gets to show us what he’s got, and man, does he have it. That kid steals every scene he’s in. He’s incredible.
It felt like Finn Wolfhard (Mike) got put on the backburner for much of the season, but seeing as how he played such a central role in season 1, I’m ok with him taking a backseat and giving some of the others a chance to breathe.
Because the returning cast is so good, it’s easy to see why the highlights of season 2 are the developing relationships between them. We got a lot of pairings that we didn’t necessarily get in season 1, and that really paid-off.
Dustin and Lucas vying to impress the new girl was so much fun to watch, and their friendship is altogether believable, complete with mockery, rivalry, and genuine companionship. Hopper and Eleven playing the father/daughter was in turns touching, funny, and heartbreaking. We even got Dustin and Steve for an unlikely team-up that proves that when you have great characters, all you have to do is put them in a room together and it will be entertaining.
I wish I could say the same for most of the new characters introduced in season 2. One of the main problems is that most of the new faces seemed to be placeholders for roles that were filled by different characters in season 1. Max played like a second-rate stand-in for Eleven, the token girl in the group. And don’t get me started on her older brother Billy, who was obviously a stand-in for “the bully,” a role played to much better effect by Steve in season 1 (and who continues to be the best guy-I-used-to-hate). That brother/sister combo just felt like they were there to fill space, and while Max had something of a reason to be involved in the story I guess (someone for Dustin and Lucas to fight over, someone for Eleven to be jealous of), that does not a good character make, and her brother was altogether purposeless in the story.
While Eight is an intriguing character, her subplot with Eleven felt subpar to me. Because of the name Eleven, we always knew there were others out there, but I think that aspect could have been executed in a much more interesting way. Eight’s gang is absolutely insufferable, and I couldn’t wait until those walking, talking clichés weren’t on the screen anymore, and the entire “Lost Sister” episode feels like wasted screen real-estate. Throw in a random, boring, and dead-end subplot involving a conspiracy theory nut, and many of the new characters were simply lackluster.
I also think Eleven’s journey could have been much more impactful had we been given more time to wonder where she is and what she’s doing. While I love the relationship between she and Hopper, her absence from the group needed to be built up more until her triumphant and powerful return at the end.
However, the Duffer brothers did well in including two familiar faces to those well-acquainted with eighties pop-culture: Paul Reiser (known in part for his memorable turn as a Weyland Corp. exec in Aliens) as Sam Owens, a head white-coat at Hawkins Lab, and the ever-lovable Sean Astin (Goonies, of course) as Bob. Paul Reiser, does a good job at making us believe that maybe some of these mysterious corporate men do actually have a conscience. But the real standout is Sean Astin’s Bob. He plays the dorky surrogate dad to perfection, complete with dad-jokes-bad-jokes, heartfelt advice, and a genuine care for the family he hopes to be a part of. Unfortunately, he is also this season’s Barb, and as such provides one of the biggest emotional impacts of season 2.
May we always remember Barb and Bob.
Season 2 dials up its game by bringing back not one but many Demigorgons, and introducing us to a massive new threat in the shadowy tentacle-monster, the Mind Flayer. This is a pattern Stranger Things borrowed from the Alien franchise (in its continuing homage to the eighties) which featured a singular xenomorph in Alien, and many xenomorphs and their queen in the follow-up, Aliens. This escalation is one of the best things about season 2, and sets up what may be the central conflict going forward.
While the Mind Flayer is certainly an intriguing monster, something possibly “so old it doesn’t remember where it came from,” I was disappointed that we didn’t see much of it beyond the amorphous smoke-shape we saw in the trailers. Its hold on Will through much of the season (homage to The Exorcist) filled me with dread as to how things would turn out, but ultimately its presence felt like the prelude to something much bigger and darker on the horizon. But many of our questions are still left unanswered: Just what IS the Upside-Down? How did it start? Where is it from? How did we access it in the first place? Season 2 didn’t make much forward progress in that area of the story.
Which leads me to perhaps my main concern with this season. Season 2 had the unenviable task of following a pop-culture smash hit. The sophomore slump is a real thing, as we’ve seen time and time again, but it manages to avoid that slump. Season 2 also needed to set up, in part, what the series would be going forward. It does both of those things, but in so doing, I think season 2 somewhat loses an identity of its own. Season 2 largely serves as the aftermath to season 1 and a prequel of sorts to season 3, and I’m not sure it ever finds its own footing as a story in its own right. Almost none of the plot threads set up in season 2 are tied up, and the main conflict with the Mind Flayer isn’t resolved, it’s only postponed. If the Mind Flayer is the big-bad of the series, that’s fine, and I loved the showdown between the Mind Flayer and Eleven closing the gate. But it just felt like there should have been a more tangible victory and resolution. And going forward, you can’t just keep calling in Eleven to deus-ex-machina the monsters. I hope they find a new way to approach both her character and the inevitable confrontations at the climax.
All of that being said, Stranger Things remains better than almost anything on TV right now. It’s charming, nostalgic, funny, scary, and has some of the best characters I’ve seen in quite some time. It makes my eighties-kid heart happy, and I’m in love with the story that’s unfolding. Season 2 gives us some of the best stuff in the series, including a truly special sequence at the Snow Ball dance in the final episode. We got to see Lucas and Max become a thing, Joyce and Hopper shared a moment that hints at what might be, Nancy reached out to Dustin in a gesture of kindness and friendship, and Mike and Eleven were finally reunited. And that’s where the real resolution comes from: in the culmination of the relationships between these characters. Ultimately, though I wish we had more right now, that’s a great thing.
Now begins the long, excruciating wait for season 3. Until then, I won’t be able to look at a rotting pumpkin the same way, and I will be very wary of any holes in the ground…
Thanks for reading.