Compared to the high bar it set last year, the show’s second season fell far short of what I was hoping for.
Like any good genre nerd, I spent a good chunk of this past weekend binging the long awaited second season of Stranger Things on Netflix. For those who read my articles regularly (HI MOM!), then you know I consider the first season to be the best television show I’ve ever watched.
Whether that increases or diminishes your faith in my critical acumen, it at least gives you a baseline for my feelings on the franchise going into last Friday’s release of all nine episodes.
Just like last year, I will be reviewing this second season as a whole rather than an episode-by-episode breakdown. Also, there will be numerous and unbridled spoilers, because let’s be honest–no one’s deciding whether or not to watch this based on an online review.
But if you got done with the last episode and felt kind of ‘meh,’ then I might be able to help you parse out why.
Back when I was extolling the greatness of Stranger Things to anyone who’d listen, I implored people to at least watch the first eight minutes of the show. If they weren’t hooked after that, then they could safely pass on it.
Of course, they never did. Those first eight minutes were not only brilliantly shot/scripted, but also established everything you needed both thematically and narratively. The terrifying scene at the lab, the boys playing Dungeons & Dragons together, Will going missing…how could you not want to see what happened next after that?
This season, we started things off with an admittedly well done car chase scene involving another girl who was experimented on in the Hawkins lab. It’s pretty cool, but it ends up having virtually nothing to do with the main narrative until almost the end of the season…and in by far the worst episode of the season (we’ll get to that in a bit).
Once things get rolling, however, it feels like we’re going to be in for a real treat. It’s great seeing the boys all having fun together, even if Will is clearly (and understandably) messed up from his previous ordeal.
We also get to see Nancy (swoon) and Steve, who is much less douchey and a heck of a lot more likable than he was a year ago. So likable, in fact, that it probably won’t bother you that she somehow ended up with him instead of Jonathan Byers (at first).
And then we finally meet the new addition to the group. Take Beverly Marsh from Stephen King’s IT, remove most of her personality, add copious amounts of stink-eye, and you end up with Maxine.
I don’t blame actress Sadie Sink for this, by the way. She actually does a very good job with what she’s given, which is a painfully bland and predictable ‘troubled tomboy’ stereotype.
Maxine’s brother…sorry, STEP-brother…is almost as bad as she is. The guy makes Steve’s turn as the school’s king douche from last year look brilliantly nuanced by comparison.
The show’s lone attempt to provide him with some pathos involves a randomly inserted flashback that ends up leaving more questions than answers, including how two high school kids could essentially run away from and/or abandon their parents to start a new life in middle America. I know this is the 1980s and all, but c’mon. No way a school district would let a couple of delinquents into their system without looking into things–like who their guardians were. And even if Billy was 18, he couldn’t exactly claim to be Max’s guardian.
UPDATE: I have been informed by my colleague David Brooke Max and Billy’s parents were (probably) there the whole time…which actually makes sense, especially when you consider that scene I thought was a flashback to Billy and Max’s time in California and how random it felt.
So yeah, I’m an idiot.
But still, their parents must be pretty terrible even by 1980’s Movie Parent standards. Despite Billy’s father’s supposedly tight leash, he lets his abandon his sister at will. Also, Max is pretty much able to go anywhere without supervision. At least the other kids are occasionally shown having to trick their absent-minded guardians before heading off on another adventure.
The Barb Paradox
Much as the whole #JusticeForBarb fervor annoyed me, I at least agreed with one argument from her legion of followers: The poor girl was relegated to even more of a plot device than Will Byers. Her disappearance/death overshadowed her actual character, who was pretty interesting/cool before the demogorgon got her.
Unfortunately, the show’s attempt to address this just ended up doing the exact same thing to her parents along with serving as the foggy backdrop to Steve and Nancy’s breakup and her subsequent relationship with Jonathan. I’m sure she’d be happy to know that her death helped propel those two into having relations in the guest bed of a creepy disgraced journalist.
And what about her poor parents? There was so much potential to explore the Holland’s grief over their daughter’s disappearance and their frustration over everyone’s seeming inability care about what happened. Instead, they end up being portrayed as rubes whose sole purpose is to bring in the aforementioned creepy journalist. Speaking of him…
We get it. He’s weird (which obviously must mean he’s highly intelligent, too).
But no matter how noble his quest for truth, there’s something about a dude who unabashedly relishes the possibility of teenagers having sex in his run down apartment that negates any of his already threadbare likability.
After seeing the Upside Down in full at the end of last season, the ideas for new threats that could spring forth from it into our world teemed with Lovecraftian possibilities…
…and instead we ended up with a quadrupedal version of the demogorgon.
Don’t get me wrong–the demodogs looked cool. But it was still kind of a let down, especially when the only other creatures we got were the little seen Shadow Monster/Mind Flayer and those roots that only attacked people when they fell down.
The Eleven Episode
Once again, Millie Bobbi Brown was fantastic. Unfortunately, the episode where she got the most screen time was by far the worst.
After running away from her home with Hopper, she joins up with an interracial gang that includes a fellow Hawkins Lab alumni. After the crew of misfits give her a Hot Topic makeover, they take her out on their next outing to kill one of the people who worked at Hawkins back in the day.
As expected, Eleven realizes she can’t kill and that her real friends back in Hawkins need her.
Keep in mind this entire episode takes place after a massive cliffhanger and has virtually NOTHING to do with the story’s plot beyond some painfully obvious thematic elements. Otherwise, it’s a complete waste of time. The season as a whole had pacing issues, but this one brought things to an abrupt and jarring halt.
I will say, however, that I did like the character of Kali quite a bit. Hopefully we’ll get to see her again in a story arc that doesn’t make my nose start to bleed due to boredom.
I can deal with us not knowing (or understanding) how Eleven disintegrating herself to defeat the demogorgon resulted in her reappearing in the Upside Down like a refreshed video game character. But there was some stuff I just couldn’t shake.
- Did the vines growing out into Hawkins only effect pumpkins and a few crops people didn’t eat? Shouldn’t the town’s food and groundwater supply have been severely contaminated, as well?
- Jonathan and Nancy are taken into a highly secure government facility, get put into an interrogation room, and are shown a highly classified operation…all without ANYONE searching them and finding the giant 1980s tape recorder Nancy had hidden in her purse.
- Speaking of that recording, how would it confirm anything? It’s not like Jonathan, Nancy, and Creepy Journalist could identify the person talking on it. And since Dr. Mad About You was still fine and dandy at the end of the season, he was clearly never identified and/or punished by the government. If no one believes E. Howard Hunt’s confession about the JFK assassination was real, then I highly doubt a random recording without any identified parties on it would turn into the focal point for a bombshell report.
- Why are demodogs immune to bullets from Hawkins guards, but they go down like a sack of bricks when Hopper shoots them?
Great Ending Ruined by a Lame Coda
The Snow Ball!
Lucas gets the girl! Dustin gets a dance with Nancy! Will owns the Zombie Boy moniker and gets some game!
MIKE AND ELEVEN DANCE TOGETHER AND KISS.
(Oh, and most importantly, my prediction about Time After Time by Cyndi Lauper turned out to be mostly true).
Maybe I’m just going soft in my old age, but I absolutely loved that ending sequence. It wasn’t the perfect blend of happiness and unexpected malice that closed out last season, but it was still so sweet that I’m pretty sure I was on my way to getting a cavity before the final shot…which may have looked cool, but didn’t make a lot of sense.
So Elven managed to defeat and seal up the Shadow Monster/Mind Flayer, but it’s not actually sealed up? Bleh. Whatever.
So what did work?
I may sound harsh on Stranger Things 2, but part of that is due to the fact that it’s following up my favorite season of television ever created. There was still a lot to like, such as…
Bob the Brain
Damn you, Sean Astin. You made me cry when you played Rudy and Samwise and you almost got me here, too.
Not only did his character become more likable with every episode, but his final episode was arguably the most thrilling/entertaining of the whole season. His end may have been a bit telegraphed (Note to cinematographers and editors: Shave a few seconds off those lingering shots if you want us to be surprised by ninja monster attacks), but it was still all types of heartbreaking.
Maybe it’s because Paul Reiser will always be ‘Burke from Aliens‘ to me, but I kept expecting his congenial Dr. Owens character to go full villain at any minute.
Turns out he was a good guy with some actual nuance. He believed in secrecy and doing his job, but also had novel traits like empathy and compassion…and maybe even a little bit of heroism.
All complaints about that one episode aside, Millie Bobbi Brown still completely killed it this season. Not only was her performance superb, but watching her grow into a character with even more agency was great.
Elven and Hopper
The chemistry between these two was superb, as was the way their dynamic changed from caretaker and victim to father and daughter.
The Party (but especially Lucas)
Like I said before, seeing these kids all together again was wonderful. Lucas overtook Dustin as my favorite, though. Instead of the wary skeptic, he ended up often being the heart and consciousness of the group, as well. His screen time with Maxine ending up being the only times I actually liked her character.
Also, his sister was hilarious.
The poor kid may have gotten stuck as a plot device again, but damn if he wasn’t even better at it this time around. Equal parts sympathetic and creepy, Will once again put us all through the ringer as everyone tried to figure out how to save him.
He also had me fully convinced he was trying to help before springing that dastardly trap on the Hawkins lab.
Dustin and Steve
The moments with these two on screen together were easily the best part of the season. It not only provided plenty of humor, but also showed how Steve was changing into a different (and much better) person.
Stranger Things 2 is still good television. It’s certainly better than a lot of stuff you could watch instead. But compared to the high bar it set last year, the show’s second season fell far short of what I was hoping for.
I’ll still be there for season 3, obviously. Maybe we’ll get some more interesting monsters. If not, then let’s hope we at least get #JusticeForBob.
Oh yeah, I’m starting that. Don’t even try to stop me.