Note: This review contains spoilers for Stranger Things.
Remember the first season of Stranger Things and how it so expertly referenced and pulled from classic films like Jaws, Nightmare on Elm Street, and The Goonies, while still telling its own unique story with its own unique style and voice? It was pretty good, right? I thought so, too.
Well, season two — or Stranger Things 2, in yet another 80s style reference — does more of that. It references more films, more frequently, and more obviously. There’s a bit of Indiana Jones here, a sprinkle of Poltergeist there, a Gremlin’s subplot that goes nowhere, a random Blade Runner inspired episode halfway through, and even some 80s “coming-of-age” romance. In the first season, it all worked. But now, on the second time through, it’s all beginning to feel a bit lazy.
Season two also becomes self-referential, which is pretty bold considering the Duffer Brothers have put together a mere 16 hours or so of television in their two seasons. There’s a scene where Lucas is recapping season one’s events to new character Max, and after hearing the whole tale, she replies something to the effect of “I thought it was derivative at parts.” Eye-rolling, at best.
Speaking of Max, there are the checkbox amount of new characters in season two. There’s Max, the Eleven replacement — since she’s off going on her own b-story through most of the season. Max is a super rad chick that plays video games and doesn’t care what you think. In practice, she’s merely a source of conflict as the center of a love triangle between Lucas and Dustin, and someone for Mike to mope around as he misses Eleven. Then there’s Max’s older brother, Billy, who is the most cartoonish television character in recent memory. If the decision to make him laughably mean and one-dimensional was intentional, then great. It works. But considering the writers try to explain the “why” behind the way he is with some last-second pathos, I find that hard to believe. It’s more likely that they included his character as some sort of conflict builder for Max, but it doesn’t really work.
We’re just never given any reason to care about either character. In fact, after the first few episodes, I found myself so put off by both of them that I turned to my wife and said, “There has to be some bigger reason they’re on the show, right? Maybe Max is secretly another ‘number,’ like Nine or Ten, or maybe Billy is actually Papa’s son.” But no, there’s no larger mystery behind these characters. They’re stepbrother and sister, living in a house where Billy’s father abuses them. That’s it. There’s no further character development or payoff.
Max and Billy are literally pointless in this season. They could be removed and the main story would not change in any way. The writers could have at least created some moment where Max completely saves the day in some way another character couldn’t, but they didn’t even manage that. Thankfully, Billy’s scene with Mrs. Wheeler is fantastic and at least brings some fun to his character. But even that scene does nothing to advance the story.
Dustin’s character took a step backward, too. In the first season, he was the comic relief. Well, he’s still that in season two, but there’s WAY TOO MUCH of that comic relief. There was a scene near the climax of the season where everyone is working together, trying to figure out how to trick the Mind Flayer. The boys are explaining things in D&D language, and Hopper keeps interrupting because he doesn’t understand. Dustin makes almost the exact same undercutting joke three times in that one scene. It was painful.
On the other side of the character spectrum, there’s Bob aka the new Barb. He’s sweet, smart, and kind of lame. He’s a dork, basically. So, of course, he gets the torn to pieces by the demodogs in the most telegraphed fashion possible. I also thought early on that Bob had some larger story. Maybe he was working with “The Man,” or something. But no, he doesn’t really add much to the story either — other than an ability to restart a computer and save the day because apparently any dude that fixes walkmans at RadioShack has a computer programming degree.
Moving on to the actual story of Stranger Things 2, the biggest insult I can lodge at it is that things just aren’t all that surprising. At the end of season one, it seemed like Eleven sacrificed herself — or at least trapped herself in the Upside Down — in order to defeat the demogorgon. But when we see her in season two, she just kind of opens up another portal and gets out. No big deal. It really undermines the tension built in the first season. From there, things don’t get better.
The stuff with Will’s possession is occasionally interesting and often terrifying, but those moments are rarely earned. There’s one exception to this, and it’s when Will decides to face the Mind Flayer head-on and first gets possessed. There’s a flashback to his scene with Bob, where Bob tells Will about his clown nightmares. Instead of always running, he faced the fear and overcame it. It’s a very creepy scene, and is edited effectively. But, in general, the Mind Flayer is just never really developed into a threat we should care about. Will’s possession is explained away as a type of virus, so does that mean the Mind Flayer actually possessed him, or just infected him with some other sentient thing? Everything in the Upside Down seems to be alive, after all. It’s all a bit under-explained and therefore underwhelming.
The ending, too, left me thinking, “…okay?” Presumably, the Mind Flayer will be back in season three. If so, then what was all of this for?
I do want to call out some of the better stuff, though, because there were a lot of great moment and stories. Hopper and Steve absolutely got the best character development. Hopper continued to be a tragic father figure with an adorable, conflicted relationship with Eleven. Steve went from annoying douche in the first season to my new favorite character. I think the writers knew that actor Joe Keery was capable of more depth, and I’m glad they gave it to him. He’s funny, badass, and created a hilarious and endearing older brother relationship with Dustin.
As I mentioned earlier, the possession angle was often effective and scary. There’s something about Will’s big eyes that made him perfect at portraying that hidden demon. I didn’t care for Jonathan and Nancy’s painful romantic arc, with them trying to get the truth out about Barb, but I did love Brett Gelman’s oddball conspiracy theorist, Murray Bauman. Jonathan and Nancy just aren’t interesting characters, in my opinion.
There have been a great many people lamenting Eleven’s solo episode, when she hooks up with Kali, aka Eight. I actually kind of liked that episode. Sure, it didn’t really fit the tone of the season, and Eleven’s dark turn toward badassery didn’t really stick when she reunited with the boys, but it was a fun character study for Eleven and I enjoyed the chemistry between her and Kali. The rest of that episode’s characters were complete and utter cliches, though — and Eleven’s sojourn to find her mother didn’t feel all that essential either. It was more of a “we need something for her to do” type of thing. Far more interesting would have been Eleven being trapped in the Upside Down with the Mind Flayer, trying to escape/fight. She never really got to meet Will in season one, and that could have been a cool opportunity for them to interact on a non-physical plane. But that would have undermined the little Eggo teaser at the end of season one, which was kind of pointless, anyway.
There’s a lot more to discuss about Stranger Things 2, like Paul Reiser’s likeable(?) Dr. Owens, Dustin’s pet demodog, the writers’ failed efforts to add weight to Barb’s death, and how the hell those Upside Down vines actually did what they did, but I’ll leave it at this:
Stranger Things 2 is still fun. There are plenty of exciting moments, and the climax is fittingly insane. When marathoned, it’s even easy to overlook a lot of the show’s missteps under the lens of nostalgia and appreciation for what season one accomplished. But, after some time away, it’s hard to look at Stranger Things 2 as anything more than an overblown, overstretched, padded mess of a story. It’s a fun mess, to be sure. But a mess none the less.