Stranger Things season two, or Stranger Things 2 as creators Matt and Ross Duffer have dubbed it, has now been available for streaming since Friday (with Netflix conveniently hiking their prices on Wednesday). That means you’ve likely checked out at least a few episodes by now or crushed the entire nine-episode season. This piece, which takes a look at the highs and lows of the sophomore effort, is for the latter group. That means there are spoilers aplenty here. If you haven’t seen the entire second season, make like Barb and disappear.
Are all the people with active social lives and an affinity for outdoor sunlight gone? Good. Let’s jump into it with what didn’t work first, then what did work.
Didn’t Work: Speaking of Barb…
It’s clear that season one’s handling of Barb’s death was…sub-optimal. It doesn’t send the best of messages when a young girl goes missing and of everyone in the entire town, only her best friend seems to care. But while the #JusticeForBarb social media campaign that popped up in the wake of season one was entertaining, it also over-emphasized a relatively meaningless plot point. Barb was a bit character that served no real purpose to the story other than as a marker for Nancy’s arc and as a snack for the Demogorgon. Season two shouldn’t have had to go out of it’s way to pander to viewers for fear of being made fun of online again. It’s an example of how social media trends can influence content programming, which is not a good thing long-term.
And yes, you can say Barb’s season two storyline fed (no pun intended) directly into the exposure of the Hawkins Lab and the shady government activity. But eliminate Barb from that equation and you still get the same exact results.
Didn’t: Eleven’s Placement
It was great when Luke Skywalker left his friends to go train with Yoda for the majority of The Empire Strikes Back. But this isn’t Star Wars, so separating Eleven from the main cast of characters for virtually the entire season was a huge misstep this time around. We get some great moments of her with Hopper (which we’ll discuss in the Did Work section), but the magic of season one came from the three nerds and a girl core.
It just seems odd that the second season, which recycled storylines and motifs from season one in clever ways, wouldn’t return to the well on this one. Eleven’s gradual integration into normal—well, as close of an approximation to normal as you can get in a show about super powered girls and inter-dimensional monsters—everyday life was downright delightful last year. But her separation this time around led to extended stretches of dreariness for both her and Mike and something that felt a lot like plot stalling at times. Of course these characters need personal obstacles to overcome, but that can be achieved amid interaction and engagement with one another.
Didn’t: “The Lost Sister”
I’m a big fan of the Bottle Episode, which is typically a self-contained story that follows only a few characters in a set location (that’s a reductive explanation, but you get the idea). Think “Fly” in Breaking Bad or “The One Where No One’s Ready” in Friends. Episode seven of Stranger Things 2, “The Lost Sister,” doesn’t quite fit the bill, but it’s close enough. And it doesn’t work for many reasons, which is a shame because Netflix needs more diversity in format and structure in its original series.
Bottle episodes are high risk-high reward endeavors. When they work, they often emerge as a clear peak of creative quality. When they don’t, they stick out like a Demodog in the real world. As a character, Eleven—maybe we should start calling her Jane?—needed to find her birth mother as part of her emotional arc. Raised in isolation and experimented on like a lab rat, she needs to continue this journey of self-discovery and identity formation. But why did she need to hang out with Kali AKA Eight and her crew of Blade Runner 2049 extras?
The episode disrupted the pacing of season two, leaving viewers to squirm on “The Spy’s” cliffhanger without a satisfying short-term substitute. It didn’t do enough to differentiate Kali and company as characters we need to care about nor do proper justice to the season’s thrilling prologue. Was the entire purpose of the episode to give Eleven a psuedo-training montage and emphasize her reluctance to killing? Didn’t we basically already know that? We didn’t need a one-hour punk rock detour for a meaningless mission from Mom. None of it rang true.
Credit to Netflix for green-lighting an experimental episode of sorts, but the execution was lacking. Hopefully, this won’t dissuade the streaming service for trying something different again in the future.
Did Work: New Character Pairings
Millie Bobby Brown was a newcomer to the Hollywood scene when she inspired a million Halloween costumes last year. David Harbour was a longtime character actor who mainstream audiences weren’t familiar with before Stranger Things. Both quickly emerged as two of the show’s beast weapons, making the decision to pair them up this year a brilliant one. Game of Thrones is often at its best when two character are just sitting in a room talking to one another. The same holds true for Eleven and Hopper this season as they struggle through their surrogate father-daughter relationship in heart-wrenching fashion. Each finds what they’ve been looking for/need in one another, but it is rarely easy. Some really beautiful work here.
Other character pairings that really connected: Dustin and Lucas both trying to impress Max in a friendly rivalry. The comedy and camaraderie that emanated from their screen time was pure gold. Similarly, Lucas and Max’s connection felt well-earned. Nancy and Jonathan’s slow burn romance felt genuine and satisfying, while Steve’s connection to the kids (Dustin in particular) really shined. Honestly, Steve and Bob could have their own sections. Love those guys.
Each of these characters found themselves in a new role as a result of these new combinations and they all really worked, giving season two a sense of freshness.
Did: Noah Schnapp’s Will
Other than Mike, our lovable nerds each received beefed up plotlines this season, but no one was asked to shoulder more than Noah Schnapp’s Will. In season one, the character was really nothing more that a plot device; the inciting incident to get things rolling. In season two…well, he’s still a plot device, but a much more present one.
Will spends Stranger Things 2 suffering from serious PTSD before being further traumatized as the mouthpiece for the Smoke Monster. That’s not easy, especially when you’re asking a 13-year-old actor to bring it all to the forefront. But Schnapp delivers over and over again as he emerges as an essential cog in the Stranger Things machine.
That scene where Joyce, Jonathan and Mike all recount intimate stories with Will to break through the Smoke Monster’s hold on him? Perfection.
Did: The Climax
Episode eight, “The Mind Flyer,” and episode nine, “The Gate,” are just so much fun. Comedy, action, suspense, tension. They’re great, with the former making a strong case as Stranger Things‘ best episode period. The lab losing power and our heroes having to escape felt like an amazing side quest in some awesome video game. Bob’s death was legitimately sad as he really was a super hero. Mike and Eleven’s reunion was beautiful and the “Should I Stay or Should I Go” montage is a standout sequence. Watch Will’s family perform a space heater-assisted exorcism on him and tell me you don’t get the heebie-jeebies (people still use that term, right?). Watch our heroes split up into three teams to beat back the Upside Down and tell me you don’t think that’s just plain cool. Stranger Things 2‘s stretch run fired on all cylinders, which should be the model for all Netflix originals as it perfectly plays into the binge consumption method.
The school dance was a particularly excellent moment. Who among us hasn’t felt the sting of rejection and the pain of being, to quote Almost Famous, “Uncool?” We’ve all been Dustin-crying-on-the-bleachers and hoped for a Nancy to do us a solid and make us look cool in front of our peers. And how satisfying was it to see Eleven show up at the dance to enjoy just one night of being a regular kid? It’s a small thing, but it’s what the entire season was building towards in a way.
The Duffer Brothers have proved to be especially adept at constructing a narrative and paying it off and that was on full display in season two’s final two episodes.
- Billy was a pretty bad bad guy. I kept waiting for him to cross over into full blown Stephen King teenage villain territory, but he never really lived up to the tease. He just kind of yelled a lot.
- Stranger Things is obviously setting up Joyce and Hopper as the true romantic conclusion, but dammit, Bob was The Man. Sean Astin turned what could have been a throwaway role into something more meaningful. Much respect.
- Having Eleven at odds with Max, the only two female characters in the main kid group, is not a great look, especially when the source of their tension is a boy.
- Mike was his typical self-assured, resourceful and kind self this season, but nothing more. We got exactly what we saw in season one of him, except less. Hopefully, season three utilizes him a bit more.
- Stranger Things is arguably Netflix’s biggest hit, but it’s fair to wonder how The Duffer Brothers can stretch the story to four or five seasons. Are we really getting another Smoke Monster battle next year?
- Overall, I give season two a B+.