Like a good chunk of America, I binged the new season of Stranger Things the day it dropped. I’m a huge lover of the first season, even if I am firmly not in the demographic its nostalgia is supposed to tickle. Strong characters, good scares, and a compelling story; all combined to form a surprise hit for Netflix and a bonafide cultural phenomenon. This season comes out hot on the heels of It, a film ironically taking as much from the show as the show took from It’s source material.
While the new season retains much of the horror and character that made the first season great, its weaknesses are starting to outweigh those strengths. Muddled side-plots, tired cliche, and an obsession with love-triangles make a fun, and compelling main story feel like a chore to get through.
If you haven’t finished the second season, turn back now, for here be spoilers.
A Great Main Story
As I mentioned, the core of the story, the main plot? It is as fantastic as the first one. Beginning around Halloween, nearly a year after the first season’s events, the show does an effective job showing everyone’s status. Most of the boys and the town have moved on, even the evil facility has turned good(ish) and kept the Upside Down under control. But the scars are there. Mike Wheeler still hoped Eleven would return, Joyce Byers watches her son like a hawk, and Nancy Wheeler is wracked with guilt over Barb Holland’s death. Will Byers bears the deepest scars, having what can only be described as PTSD about his time in the Upside Down. Famous as a “Zombie Boy” and ridiculed by most of his peers, Will puts on a brave face for everyone from his friends to his mom. The story of this season is, in a sense, Will’s story. The Upside Down is not as under control as we think, and Will is not as healthy as he seems. As both slowly unravel and the wounds fester, soon the darkness begins to affect more of the town. That same darkness also inhabits Will. It takes attacks from all sides to take down the powerful “mind flayer” who has taken over Will.
The season begins strong and ends strong. The premiere shows you what you want to see and sets up the season, and the finale brings the disparate characters into a solid and exciting finish.
Still Bringing the Spook
Perfectly released to coincide with this weekend’s Halloween parties, the scares in Stranger Things 2 meet and exceed those in the first. The monsters are less in the shadows, a more direct threat. The huge, shadowy Demogorgon is replaced by packs of wild “demo-dogs.” Like the raptors in Jurassic Park or the Xenomorphs in Aliens, the “demo-dogs” are a threat that can be handled but strike in greater number. They are shown as more vicious, animalistic, and violent than the Demogorgon ever was. By contrast, the looming, insidious tentacles of the Mind Flayer evoke the best elements of Lovecraft. Operating a hive mind and using poor Will as a spy and conduit, the Mind Flayer is nearly untouchable. Even after the many victories of our heroes and all the damage done to the creature, the Mind Flayer is still looming over the town, waiting just across the veil to unleash hell.
An Amazing Core Cast
All of the actors in this show put in excellent performances. The show went out of its way to give many of the more out of focus characters screen time this season. Noah Schnapp (Will Byers) especially is getting well-deserved props for his performance. The most intense scenes in this season are all given to him. He has to portray arguably three different characters: Pre-Possession Will, Possessed Will, and Mind Flayer Will. He captures perfectly the terror and tragedy that Will is experiencing this season. David Harbour’s Jim Hopper continues to shine, as does Winona Ryder’s Joyce Byers. Even the new cast-members put in good work. Linnea Berthelsen (Kali) is able to maximize the little screen time she gets, equal parts big sister and revolutionary hero. The other new standout is OG 80’s movie kid Sean Astin playing red herring, awkward aspiring stepdad, and superhero equally well as Joyce’s new beau: Bob. Speaking of Bob…
“Bob Newby, Superhero” may be one of 2017’s great tear-jerker lines. Bob Newby is a warm, friendly, intelligent guy who is everything that Joyce deserved after her hellacious last year. In addition to his love and support for Joyce, he also bonds well with Jonathan through his gift of a video camera. Will, thanks to his deep trauma, is the most resistant to Bob. But the man has the patience of a saint and never gives up. The show endears him further with subtle references to Astin’s past life as a Goonie and as a Hobbit.
It would have been easy to make Bob the perfect “gift” to the Byers, but by this point, we can’t trust anything. Why does he get so close to the Byers family so quickly? Why is he so unfazed by the Upside Down? Is he a government agent or just a red herring? We want so badly to fall in love with Bob, and it’s obvious some bad thing will happen. Either he will be a shady agent out to subvert, or a good man killed for pathos. We are afraid to trust, and Sean Astin is able to play Bob as the confusing figure he is, right until his untimely demise.
Metastatic Romantic Plot Tumors
One of the weakest parts of Stranger Things Season 1 was the Steve/Nancy/Jonathan love triangle. With both men written inconsistently and Nancy herself indecisive as all hell, the drama of their relationship hurt three otherwise interesting characters. Rather than perhaps limit this or write the relationships better, the show not only doubles down on Steve/Nancy/Jonathan but adds a major new triangle to the mix as well as hinting at two more.
Ever since the first season ended, the Stranger Things fandom has been divided on who Nancy Wheeler should end up with. Jonathan Byers, quiet and thoughtful, is also a tad creepy and likes taking voyeuristic pictures. Steve Harrington, possible Jean-Ralphio father and the school bully, has a good arc in S1 but still has a history of antagonism and difficulty with communication. Nancy chooses Steve at the end of Season 1, but by the beginning of this season and despite Steve’s growth, cracks are beginning to form. Still emotional over Barb as Steve tries to maintain an air of normalcy, Nancy finds herself back with Jonathan as the two try to find #JusticForBarb. Steve, meanwhile, continues to develop as a character independent of Nancy. Yet the show always has to tie him back to Nancy, back to a plot line the show refuses to resolve even at the end of the season.
The Hopper/Joyce will they won’t they is downplayed, with their status as adults allowing for a realistic understanding of priorities. But the season begins and ends with hints towards this pairing. Not necessarily distracting, these moments sadly don’t do much for either character.
Now for the kids. As the actors age, so do the characters. It’s natural for the show to introduce more relationships into the middle schooler’s dynamic. But they didn’t need to go full Half-Blood Prince on us. New character max is an apple of Discord among the group, her red hair and tomboyish nature turning all four boy’s heads. But Lucas and Dustin are the most smitten, with both awkwardly (and, honestly, adorably) trying to impress her in a true-to-life example of middle school boy flirting. But while the triangle is cute in a vacuum, it creates a lot of unnecessary drama. Will is too involved in his own issues to get involved; and while Mike does object to Max’s rapid acceptance into their group, he is too distracted by El and Will to really be involved. This creates two plot lines for the boys, but one obviously carry much more weight than the other.
Kali And The Punks In: A Pointless Sublot feat. Jane Ives
It’s clear that the show wanted to give breakout star Millie Bobby Brown spotlight in the show, a chance to be less a part of the ensemble. And while she does admirably, the show’s execution is severely lacking. After escaping Hopper’s safe house, Eleven is driven to find her birth mother thanks to, what else? Female jealousy. Even the socially stunted ladies catfight over men, am I right, fellas? Angered by seeing Mike talking to Max, she runs away. Reuniting with her near-comatose mother, Elle uses her abilities to delve into the woman’s mind to discover why she is stuck the way she is. In the process, she discovers she has a “sister” of sorts in Eight, a South Asian girl who was in the facility with her. Hoping to make a family she feels she doesn’t have, Eleven sets out for Chicago to find her “sister.” Which introduces the…interesting characters in Eight’s gang.
We got our first glimpse of Eight, now going by Kali, in the first episode. After a robbery, she and her multi-ethnic, punk rock gang get into a chase with the police. Exhibiting mind powers and the same psychic nosebleed as El, it’s clear there’s more to this woman than meets the eye. And the show limits her to one episode.
Initially portrayed as a possible new family for El, Kali and her gang are polite, quirky, and possessing of unique looks and tragic backstories. They are fun, loud, and efficient. But when the show introduces their motive, it starts to go downhill. The gang, thanks to Kali, is driven to find, rob, and kill the men who worked at the Hawkins facility, the men who tortured El and Kali. But of course, rather than go for actual complexity, the show just wants to make them out to be murderous zealots to scawwy for little El, who decides to run back to Hawkins for her “real” family. The only truly multi-ethnic group in the show, led by a Desi woman, are used only to benefit the white protagonist develop while their own motive is portrayed as “too far.” Even though the show has gone out of its way to show how much pain and suffering the facility put its subjects through.
Perhaps there is something planned for Kali’s gang, and hopefully, it will be good. But as of now, they slow the plot down, raise a hell of a lot of questions, and do nothing but rob Hawkins of their big guns so the show can artificially ramp up the drama.
The 80’s Are So Hot Right Now
The first season of Stranger Things made a great deal of fame thanks to its unashamed homages to Spielberg, Stephen King, and the 80’s as a whole. There were some plot references, but most of the “80’s-ness” was window dressing. In Season 2, the homages cross the line and enter the world of cliche.
The greatest example of this is Dustin’s storyline with baby Demogorgon Dartagnan a.k.a Dart. Taking all of its beats from films like Gremlins, The Goonies, and ET, the boy and his monster bond over candy. As the monster grows, his friends want to kill it as he defends it. When it commits a more violent act, Dustin has to tearfully lay a trap for it from which it escapes. But, in the climax, right when all hope seems lost and the heroes are trapped by a vicious demo-dog, who does that demo-dog turn out to be? Why it’s our friend Dart! Easily pacified by candy, the heroes are able to save the day thanks to Dustin’s bond with the monster. How many damn movies have that exact premise? The strings are at their most visible here, where the theft is most obvious.
Unlike Season 1, the show does not attempt to subvert or play with these and other tropes. While the uniqueness of the main plot is retained, many things like Dustin & Dart, Max’s tomboy character, the dance at the end, and Kali’s gang, are all played as straight and obvious as possible. Only Bob Newby’s storyline makes any attempt to play with our expectations.
Man, screw Billy. In a cast made up of dynamic characters and complex plots, Billy Hargrove stands out as a cardboard cutout of a bad guy. Homophobic, racist, and constantly hurling abuse at everyone, he serves almost no purpose. Is he a foil to Steve? Kind of, but Steve is unable to beat him in the end. Is he an accurate portrayal of the cycle of abuse? Yes, but it comes far too late to matter. A pissant with a rapey mustache, the only redeemable things about him are his taste in music and cars. The show seems to think that we want to know more about him, but all he does is make us want him gone.
Stranger Things is still a good show. Considering how few shows exist in its genre these days, it fills a valuable niche on TV. The cast remains strong, and it continues to engage with a fascinating subject in sci-fi and horror. But it has decidedly hit a sophomore slump this year, with a mess of subplots and an obsession with love triangles. I hope the show is, as our main characters, only going through some awkward growing pains. The only question is if they’ll improve in Stranger Things 3, or will it never recapture the magic of Season 1?
Don’t miss Meg’s recaps of each episode this season for a more detailed look at Stranger Things 2!