Title: Stranger Things
Release Dates: 2017
Number of Episodes: 9
When Stranger Things appeared on Netflix seemingly out of nowhere last year, it was the surprise hit of the summer. Stranger Things 2 came with huge expectations, and I’m happy to see mostly lives up to them.
The strengths of Stranger Things is that it uses the tropes of horror and suspense films to explore issues like trauma, grief, friendship, and facing mortality. The multi-episode set-up also allows it to delve into developing characters more than the films it emulates. Plus, it has a terrific cast, especially the youngest actors, who continue to impress.
The nine episodes of the second season easily split into three sections. Episodes 1-3 feel very much a continuation of the first season with the characters still dealing with the after effects of what happened a year earlier. Episodes 3-6 raise the stakes, both with the growing threat of the Shadow Monster and Eleven discovering her own past. Episodes 7-9 really take a left turn from anything we’ve come to expect from Stranger Things, most especially in the controversial episode 7 “The Lost Sister” which features only Eleven/Jane from the regular cast as she visits Chicago to meet up with a gang led by another young woman with powers from the Hawkins Lab. I’m glad the Duffer Brothers decided to experiment and push the limits of the show, although I also have some problems with the episodes that I’ll go into later.
The second season introduces several new characters. Bob Newby is Joyce’s nerdy new boyfriend played by Sean Astin, which is a direct tie to one of the 1980s movies that influenced this show, The Goonies. I never saw that movie, but I thought that Bob had a lot in common with another Astin character, Samwise Gamgee from The Lord of the Rings, in the way that both Bob and Sam loyally help out the best they can and show surprising bravery even when they don’t know what’s going on around them. Bob is a charming character and a great addition to the show. Paul Reiser, known for his duplicitous character in Aliens, plays the Dr. Sam Owens who has taken over leading the Hawkins Lab. It was an interesting decision to have Hopper, Joyce, & Will forming an uneasy détente, and Owens lends a funny, more compassionate face to the lab, but since he’s played by Reiser, you trust him anyway. Finally, there are the step siblings Max and Billy, played by Sadie Sink and Dacre Montgomery. Max is a new addition to our party of nerdy middle schoolers, and I thought Sink did a great job with developing Max in limited time. Billy is the new bully in town, and Montgomery plays him convincingly creepy, but he seems one-note especially for Stranger Things which is usually better at letting characters develop organically.
If there’s one major problem of this series is that all the new characters and multiple plot lines happening at once make the show feel crowded and it works against Stranger Things strengths. That being said, there was some great development for returning characters as well. Will was missing for most of Season 1, so it’s a revelation to see that Noah Schapp is just as good an actor as his contemporaries and really sells Will’s fear, confusion, and possession. It was also great to see Dustin and Lucas develop, really showing that they’re growing up, and getting to see into their homes and meeting their families for the first time. Steve Harrington, the first season bully, has now fully transitioned from his experiences into a “great babysitter” leading the youngest characters against the demodogs and winning the hearts of Tumblr fans everywhere.
On the downside, Finn Wolfhard’s Mike seems underused this season, although his delivery of the line “It was the best thing I’ve ever done” was the most tearjerking moment of the season. Similarly, Natalia Dyer’s Nancy and Charlie Heaton’s Jonathan have a subplot that’s okay but just doesn’t seem as interesting as what those characters could be doing. Then there are some out of character moments. It seems unlikely that a smart kid like Dustin would continue to protect D’art after he knew it was from the Upside Down. And I don’t think Eleven would be jealous of Max to the point of hurting her. It would’ve made more sense if she overheard a conversation of how Mike and his friends were still in danger from the Hawkins Lab and that helped prompt her journey of self-discovery.
Which leads us to the final three episodes. I can understand why people don’t like “The Lost Sister,” although I also understand and appreciate what The Duffer Brothers were doing. It was good to take a risk and try to expand what was happening in Hawkins into the larger world as part of Eleven’s story, but for Stranger Things, it was rather trite. Kali’s gang were a note-perfect recreation of a 1980s movie idea of a punk rock gang, but that was it, there was no effort to develop these people as real characters. And Eleven’s Yoda-style tutelage under Kali happened so quickly that I can understand why a lot of viewers felt it was unnecessary to happen at all. The final two episode have a lot happening and it seems that a lot of the dialogue is reduced to the characters providing exposition for the audience. By this point, Stranger Things has developed their characters enough to coast on plot conveniences, but I thought the way that everyone came together in the conclusion of the first season happened more naturally.
The final moments at the school dance are charming and well-earned, and are built on what this show does best. While there was some unevenness in the second season, overall I’m pleased, and I’m glad there will be another season. There’s a lot of stories that can built on in future seasons, especially if they work on Eleven/Jane integrating into everyday society for the first time. I also have many questions that may or may not be answered.
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