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I was a bit hesitant to head back into Hawkins, Indiana, and the world of the Upside Down because, unlike so many, I wasn’t particularly taken with Stranger Things when it premiered last summer. Sure, I recognized the strong performances, and I was happy to see Winona Ryder back on top after fading from view for so long, but I didn’t get swept up in the 80s nostalgia whirlwind that seemed to follow the series around the pop culture zeitgeist. I’m not sure I’ll ever really get the nostalgia element of the series (I’m just not all that enticed by the various films that the Duffer Brothers drew from as their inspiration the first time around), but I’m happy to say I thoroughly enjoyed my trip into Hawkins for Stranger Things 2.
Rather than take each episode and review it, or weave through the season and pull points that worked especially well (and those that didn’t), I’m going to simply run through the highlights and missteps for Stranger Things 2 (and a warning: There will be spoilers).
— Focusing on the Supporting Players: One of the disappointments in the show’s first season was that the Duffer Brothers didn’t know how to utilize Lucas and Dustin. Some of that was due to the world building and mythology surrounding Eleven taking up large chunks of the story, but it was absolutely great to see Lucas, Dustin, and Will get a chance to shine this time around. Anyone who followed the public appearances of the cast over the past year knows that Gaten Matarazzo (Dustin) and Caleb McLaughlin (Lucas) are hilarious, and I’m glad the show gave them a chance to show off their charisma. Noah Schnapp was forced to spend most of the first season unconscious in the Upside Down, so getting to see just how talented Schnapp is was a lovely change in season two. Schnapp became the emotional center of several episodes, really making us care about a character that was more of a plot point than a person in season one. Oh, and can’t forget Steve! Teaming Joe Keery and Matarazzo was a thing of genius, gave us a reason to really root for Steve, and it saved him from being stuck in the show’s worst arc (the Jonathan-Nancy story) for too long.
— Strong Cast Additions: The thing Stranger Things got perfect in season one was its casting- from the selection of pitch perfect child actors to bringing in some stellar adults (with Ryder, David Harbour, and Matthew Modine leading the way) to balance out the young talent. It was a casting coup across the board. Things only got better in season two, with the additions of Sean Astin (R.I.P. Bob, who, thanks to Astin’s great work, I genuinely cared about by the time he died), Sadie Sink (Max, my new favorite character), Paul Reiser (Dr. Sam Owens, who was a lovely addition after Matthew Modine’s sinister turn in a similar role last year), Priah Ferguson (as Lucas’s absolutely amazing little sister Erica- I would absolutely watch her spin-off), and even Dacre Montgomery (I had a lot of problems with the BIlly arc, but Montgomery’s work was not one of them). I don’t know how they do it, but kudos to the Duffers and their casting director, Carmen Cuba, for their work.
— Streamlining the Story: It can be tempting, particularly after a successful first season, to go for broke in season two, ratcheting up the the stakes by doubling down on the mythology. Thankfully, the Duffer Brothers resisted that impulse, leading to a pretty straightforward season that was high on entertainment, low on confusing additional plot points. It didn’t hurt that the show wasn’t afraid to get a bit meta, having Max or Hopper call out the precocious characters when they were getting just a tad too precious with their theories and plans (I enjoy Dustin, but the show has rightly realized that Dustin is only good in small doses). I wasn’t sure if I was into the season until the stellar fourth episode kicked things into high gear, but aside from episode seven (which I will get into later in this article), this was a well-realized season of television that more or less escaped the “Netflix Bloat” that tends to affect the bulk of the streaming service’s shows.
— Letting the Kids Continue to be Kids: Just like delving into too much mythology is a trap for genre shows like Stranger Things, turning kid characters into unnatural mini-adults is another. That wasn’t the case with season two, which continued to offer one of the most accurate portrayals of middle school life I’ve ever seen on television. Letting the kids swear more this year was a nice touch, as I recall my middle school classmates and I were quite adept at using foul language. Stranger Things doesn’t dumb down their kids, it doesn’t devalue their contributions to the story, and it doesn’t discount their emotional journeys. The final sequence at the Middle School dance was one of the most joyous moments on the series. I was gutted when Dustin didn’t have a girl to dance with. I was cheering when Max and Lucas decided to give their tween romance a go. And when Eleven and Mike reunited? It was wonderful. And it was also kids getting to be kids on screen. No danger, no high drama, just being a bunch of 13-year-olds dealing with Middle School life. It was great.
— Keeping Eleven Away From the Group: Eleven, and Millie Bobby Brown, were the breakout stars of the first season of Stranger Things, so I can get the thinking behind giving Brown her own, highly emotional, arc throughout most of the season. But, what the Duffer’s didn’t account for was how integral Eleven became to the character of Mike’s existence on the series. Letting Mike wander around in a Harry Potter and the Order of Phoenix hate-spiral for the majority of the season didn’t do the show’s thinnest drawn character any favors, and only served to make him rather insufferable. It made sense to keep Eleven out of the loop for a few episodes, but it wasn’t emotionally satisfying to have her roll-in for the final act without taking the time to really dig into how her exile affected her and her friends (Mike breaking down at Hopper in anger is all well and good, but it’s a cheap way to smooth things over before getting into the season’s climax). Maybe having Eleven around the bulk of the season hurts the development of a new character like Max (although, Eleven could certainly help her out with BIlly and his rage issues), but keeping her apart ended up neutering Mike’s season arc, and hindering the further character development of Hopper, Eleven, and the rest of the D&D gang.
— Eleven’s Stand-Alone Episode: Now, I’m sure Eleven’s jaunt through Chicago (which, I have to say, was one of the worst Chicago stand-in locales I’ve ever seen) will matter in season three (I can’t imagine that was the last we’ve seen of Kali), but boy, did it stop the forward momentum of the season cold. I was incredibly hyped to see what happened after the close of episode six, with the Demo-dogs emerging from the Upside Down, and then the excitement was just drained from me upon watching episode seven. I guess Eleven’s new “MTV punk” look was cool? And, perhaps, seeing that Eleven can’t just kill indiscriminately anymore was an important character beat. But it was a poorly timed moment to pull our focus away from the smart, taut storytelling going on in Hawkins, and force us to focus on a host of characters with no discernible character traits other than their costumes.
— The Teenage Storylines: What the show manages to get right about the Middle School crowd, it seems to consistently bungle when it comes to dealing with the High School storylines. Jonathan is a rudderless character and doesn’t really matter to the story beyond being Will’s big brother (honestly, if you removed him from the story, the show would continue on just fine). Same with Nancy, who continues to have little purpose or agency. The addition of Billy only added to this mishmash of confused storylines. I understand it’s tempting to try to give the show another 80s staple “Bad Boy” villain (particularly after Stranger Things turned Steve into a sympathetic good guy), but BIlly was not the right answer. He’s incredible anger over his parents divorce was poorly handled without any nuance (I assume he won’t remain cowed by Max’s temporary victory for long in season three), and, frankly, after the pain and destruction he caused, I would have preferred it if one of the Demo-dogs had eaten him. Because ugh. However, Billy wasn’t the worst plot point of season two, oh no. That honor belongs to the Justice for Barb plot. Now, the Duffer’s made a tactical error in season one, where everyone freaked out over Will being missing while no one seemed to care that Barb was, too. But the entire subplot that saw Jonathan and Nancy working with the PI to get to the bottom of Barb’s death and make the government pay was just idiotic and a complete waste of time. Barb may have gotten justice, but we were all punished for having to sit through that nonsense.
— Setting Things Up for Round Three: I was one of the people who was perfectly fine with the story ending after season one, and the series setting up an anthology for future seasons (different dark stories about other small towns). After season two, I’m glad we were given a chance to spend some more time in Hawkins and get a chance to see this cast meld even more. That being said, I don’t want a third go-round. The Middle School dance was the perfect end to the tale. The kids defeated the enemy. Eleven realized she has a family of her own and doesn’t need to search for the ghosts of her past. Hopper gets another chance at being a parent. Joyce has her sons and has learned how to grow and become capable on her own. Everyone got the thing they were missing at the start of season one. Why upset the wonderful ending with more darkness? The lightning strike of casting these kids might not work a third time (pre-teen kids are fun, actual young teenage kids are not as fun). I know Netflix won’t want to end the tale here, but I think it’s time to move onto other adventures with other towns and other people. Please don’t sully the strengths of Stranger Things 2 but trying to stretch it into a trilogy that it can’t support.