This past Friday, the kids from 1980s Hawkins, Indiana, were back with Stranger Things 2, the second season of Netflix’s breakout show from the Duffer Brothers. It arrived with huge expectations and massive excitement so, like many of you, we binged the whole thing on its first weekend. Overall, Stranger Things 2 was a delight, and a worthy addition to the pop culture phenomenon—but it also definitely had a few issues, too
The Exciting Conclusion
The last two episodes of Stranger Things 2 were insane. From the moment the Demidogs start creeping into the lab’s basement through the hypnotic final shot, the whole story was a blast. There was the massive escape from the lab. At the same time, there was the fight at the junkyard. Eleven comes back. Will has an exorcism. Bob dies. Dustin has that great moment with Dart in the tunnel. Eleven basically becomes Jean Grey fighting the Mind Flayer. There’s the super awkward, perfect Snow Ball dance, all leading into that season three tease. The last two episodes of Stranger Things 2 are everything we wanted and more.
Now, you could easily argue stuffing all that into two episodes was too much, especially when some of the earlier other episodes are slow by comparison. We don’t necessarily disagree. But the way the story is structured, everything has to happen quickly. Once the Demidogs come out of the ground, there’s a ticking clock. Unstoppable killers have started to invade. The group has to use Will’s mind to find out the answers and stop them as soon as possible before those dogs get out and something worse follows.
With the group split up for most of this, the multiple parallel storylines add to it feeling a bit overstuffed. But it’s all important. Without Joyce, Mike, Nancy and Jonathan forcing the Mind Flayer out of Will, without Dustin, Steve, Lucas and Max distracting the Demidogs, Eleven and Hopper wouldn’t have been able to close the gate and win the day. Everything is set up to provide a satisfying conclusion for all the main characters.
Then things get better with the final dance. A rare sign of normality in Hawkins, the dance allowed our season two love birds Lucas and Max, as well as Mike and Eleven, to finally kiss. Plus there’s that perfectly, uncomfortable role for Dustin, with his new hair and confidence. It’s all just wonderful and a great juxtaposition to the intensity beforehand. Say what you want about the season as a whole, but Stranger Things 2 ended well.
If you’re actor Noah Schnapp, who plays Will Byers, season one had to be a little bit of a letdown. It was all about finding Will, yes, but he wasn’t really there that much. Stranger Things 2 gives him the best of both worlds. He’s not just a crucial part of the story, he’s a major character, and Schnapp knocks it out of the park, with a captivating performance throughout.
When the show begins, Will is still having episodes but trying to return to some kind of normalcy. Unfortunately he’s soon possessed by the Mind Flayer. Will goes from a kind little boy to cold-hearted demon. And, sometimes, they’re both there at the same time, each version simultaneously captured on Will’s face. He wants to be nice, he wants to be helpful, but he can’t. So he innocently sets up a bunch of soldiers, pretends to know who Mike and Joyce are, but really just wants to watch the world die.
Some of the best scenes of the entire season rotate around Will: The scene with him and Bob in the car talking about facing fears. The scene in the shed where Joyce, Mike and Jonathan tell him their fondest memories and, of course, the intense exorcism scene, which must have pushed the actor to the brink. All the kids on Stranger Things are great but in season two it was Schnapp as Will who is the real stand-out.
The (Mostly) Toned Down Pop Culture References
One of the biggest complaints about Stranger Things is that it’s just nostalgia porn, anon-stop onslaught of ‘80s winks and nods that serve no purpose. And at the beginning of season two, they’re there again, especially in the Halloween episode with references to Ghostbusters, Halloween, and so much more. (Though the moment where Lucas argues that he doesn’t want to be Winston is one of the best moments of the season.)
However, as the season wears on, obvious references like Ghostbusters take a backseat. Instead we’re left with Eleven meeting her mom as a kind of Rosemary’s Baby homage. Jonathan and Nancy’s late night Temple of Doom scene. Bob going into the basement of the lab, just like Ripley at the end of Aliens. Eleven and her Chicago crew looking like The Warriors. These references are much more rewarding because they aren’t in your face. If you get them, great. If not, it’s totally fine, and really, they’re pretty sparse. In fact, as the season goes on, the time period has almost nothing to do with what’s going on besides the limits of the technology used in the story. It’s almost as if the Duffers needed those nostalgia crutches to get back into the swing of things but, once the story locked in, they forgot about it and just told a great story.
There Was Indeed Justice for Barb
When the Duffer Brothers started coming up with an idea for season two they probably had no idea that the character of Barb (Shannon Purser) from season one would be such a fan favorite. So, as a result, that made the hunt for her killers a small, but crucial, subplot. Enter Murray Bauman (Brett Gelman), a freelance journalist hired by Barb’s parents to figure out who killed her. Murray is a hardcore conspiracy theorist but, in Stranger Things, those theories are but a sliver of the truth. He’s also Justice for Barb personified.
Now, to be fair, Murray is mostly an afterthought in the season; he’s kind of a muse for Jonathan and Nancy to finally express their feelings for each other. And the way he proves that Barb was killed is a little rushed and overshadowed by the other insanity happening in the show’s final episode. But the fact it’s given this much screentime at all just shows that Stranger Things 2 aimed to please its fans.
Stranger Things 2 introduced a good amount of new characters this season but our favorite had to be Bob, played by Sean Astin. Bob is a lovable Hawkins native who works at Radio Shack and is out-of-his-mind excited to be dating Will’s mom, Joyce Byers. At first, the character is so overly nice and accommodating you begin to think that he’s a bad guy, aperson hired by the lab to keep an eye on Joyce and Will. But, thankfully, that feeling never comes to fruition.
Actually Bob is just as nice, if not nicer, than we think he’s going to be. He brings games for Will. He loves Mr. Mom, he helps everyone solve the mystery of the tunnels and ultimately he becomes Bob Newby, superhero, when he turns on the lights at the lab and lets everyone escape.
The downside to all of this is Bob is the only major season two character to die. But that adds a nice range of emotion to the show’s last few episodes and it seems like it may keep the Byers in Hawkins for at least another season. Bob will be missed, but not forgotten.
In season one of Stranger Things, Steve Harrington (Joe Keery) is kind of a dick. Yes, he becomes more of a hero as the season goes on but you don’t feel particularly connected to him. Well, in Stranger Things 2, that changes big time First, you realize he truly loves Nancy; she may not love him back, but he’s sincere and mature about his feelings. And once Nancy goes off, Steve becomes the defacto leader for Dustin, Lucas and Max, which is when he gets really good.
Steve’s actions throughout the second half of the season continue to transform him into a hero. He leads the way against the demidogs at the junkyard, he leads the expedition into the tunnels and he offers great hair care advice to Dustin, who utilizes it in one of the best payoffs of the whole season. We’re not exactly sure how Steve will fit in moving ahead, especially since it seems like he’s going to college soon, but if this is his send-off, it was a great one.
The Development of Dustin and Lucas
When you have Will possessed by a demon and his best friend Mike helping out, it’s kind of easy for Lucas and Dustin to get overlooked. But in Stranger Things 2, they each play an expanded, worthwhile role. First is Lucas, who is falling for the new character Max and thereby bringing in more people to help them defeat the town’s evil. We finally get to meet his parents too, as well as his sister, who is so good she better play a larger role in the coming seasons.
Meanwhile, Dustin is also falling for Max, and finds a new pet named Dart, a little creature that turns out to be a baby Demogorgon. Now, granted, that whole storyline feels a little forced and him lying to his friends about Dart isn’t exactly in character. But it gives Dustin some much needed responsibility and drive throughout the season.
So take those two characters, put them together, and it just works. They’re rivals but also friends. They’re on the sidelines, but make themselves indispensable. They should be feuding, but they work it out. They take two roles that could have been nothing and make them into something the audiences loves to watch.
The Mind Flayer
The Demigorgon was an awesome foe for the kids in the first season, but season two had to make things bigger. And make them bigger they did by introducing the Mind Flayer, an omnipotent being that could have very well been the true antagonist from the very beginning.
A bad guy of this stature immediately shoots the stakes through the roof. This is a being that’s pure evil and it’s slowly taking over everything. It’s creating mysterious tunnels. It’s spreading killer Demidogs. It’s based in the Upside Down but has the ability to reach beyond it through possession. And at the end of season two, we don’t even know if it can be defeated. We just know it hasn’t been.
The season doesn’t end with the Mind Flayer losing; it merely gets pushed away and shut out of reality when Eleven closes the gate to the Upside Down. But there it is, still lurking in the last shot of the season. This is a major, major problem that will not simply be solved in a single season. And that gives us hope for more exciting stories.
Just More Mature Storylines in General
And no, we don’t mean what happened between Billy and Mike’s mom. We mean the characters acting more adult and the writing being more considerate. For example, there are strong reasons why Hopper’s choice to isolate Eleven was both right and wrong. We side with both Steve and Nancy in their complicated relationship. Dustin and Lucas avoid a love triangle with Max by being mature about it. Bob doesn’t shun Joyce when he realizes the truth about her family, instead he embraces it. And Mike is never mad at Will for what he becomes; he’s a steadfast friend, at his side the entire time.
The list goes on an on. Basically everyone has grown up considerably in season two. That means they feel more human, the emotions are more realistic and situations more complex and compelling. Take the simple fact the enemy this time isn’t just a single entity but a larger concept. That’s a pretty good metaphor for how Stranger Things 2 has evolved from the first season.
We Didn’t Love...
Most of Eleven’s Story
Mere days after the show’s release, this is already the biggest sticking point and for good reason. On one side, we feel like by separating Eleven from the group, you lose some of the chemistry that made Stranger Things so great. On the other hand, there’s no doubt that storywise it makes sense for her to be separate. Her relationship with Hopper is great. We get to learn her backstory. We see she wasn’t the only child at the lab, and she become a more confident, powerful character. Those things are all true and very strong arguments for Eleven’s story in Stranger Things 2.
And yet it’s just not as entertaining as last year. Seeing a young girl travel to Chicago on her own to basically be exploited by a bunch of new characters serves a purpose, to be sure. But it feels too unfamiliar for the show. Not in a terrible way, but just in a slightly disappointing way. Keeping her away from the main characters also slowed down the main story considerably. Imagine if Hopper had just talked to her about it; things could have be solved sooner, leaving more time for a more involved story. As it stands now, as wonderful as her comeback in episode eight is, and how kick ass her role in the finale is, she’s kind of this season’s deus ex machina, inserted right when she needed to to save the day, instead of being an active player throughout.
Again, it’s not that what she was doing didn’t add to the story throughout, it just didn’t feel as “Stranger Things” as you’d hope.
The Season’s Pacing
Stranger Things 2 doesn’t really start in full until Hopper finds the tunnels at the end of episode four. At that moment, the show finally has a very specific goal: figure out what created these tunnels, what their purpose is, and how to stop it. Until then, though, the show spends the better part of four episodes waiting for something to happen. Some of that is crucial to start a season. We need to see what the characters have been doing since season one, introduce new characters, set some things up. But in those first four episodes, there are basically only a handful of events that drive the overall story of the characters vs. the Mind Flayer forward. There’s the introduction of Dart. Will gets possessed and draws the tunnels. Then there are one or two more things, and then that’s it.
That’s not to say everything else isn’t entertaining and worth seeing. The season’s start is fun. But other than “Defeat that big shadow monster” you have no idea what the drive of the season is until we see Hopper in those tunnels. And then, things shoot off like a rocket ship, all the way toward that wonderful finale. We just wish things were a little more balanced throughout.
The Role of the Lab
Stranger Things 2 starts with a totally new story—a group of characters we’ve never seen before, on the run from the police. Then it’s revealed one of them was from the Hawkins lab. She’s subject number 008, just like Eleven was... well, 011.
And then that story doesn’t come back to that for seven episodes. And when it does, we don’t learn much more about it other than what we already knew, which is Dr. Brenner held tests on little kids. Brenner is largely absence from the season, save for a few visions, and is replaced by Dr. Owens (Paul Reiser). Owens is the new leader of the lab and while he’s secretive, it never feels like he knows what the hell is going on. In fact, there are full scenes where he and a bunch of doctors sit around and specifically say they don’t know what the hell is going on.
So that means the huge X-factor in this show, the lab, the place where it all started (and eventually ends) isn’t really a major player. We still don’t know exactly what they hope to achieve with any of their experiments. No one at the lab feels like an adversary. It’s just become a physical space for things to happen. Plus, its mysteries have now officially died with it twice, once when Brenner left after season one and again in season two when it’s blamed for the death of Barb.
Max and Billy
Max and Billy (Sadie Sink and Dacre Montgomery) are two other new characters in Stranger Things 2. The step-siblings are new in Hawkins and they’re both introduced for very specific purposes: Max is there to add some much needed girl power to their group and to give Dustin and Lucas something to talk about. Billy is the only human bad guy, even though he’s basically only bad to Lucas and Steve.
Of the two, Max is obviously better. Sink creates a strong character who is very much independent and a worthy foil, it’s just that the season doesn’t give her much to do. She’s the new girl Lucas and Dustin like, but she doesn’t really believe what’s going on until half way through the season. Max is cool, but she’s a bit of a letdown.
Billy, however, just kind of stinks. He basically serves no purpose on the show except to make things hard for Max and some secondary characters, sometimes. This is Stranger Things, for crying out loud. If you’re a character on Stranger Things that doesn’t get to encounter any stranger things, did you really Stranger Things? I don’t think so.