Netflix’s wildly popular second season of Stranger Things is finally upon us! Just like the early franchises of the 80s from which it draws its inspiration, the sequel was bound to draw comparisons to its breakout first season. Just like how no one can watch Ghostbusters II without preconceived expectations based on the incredible success of its predecessor, Stranger Things 2 will undoubtedly be judged by what it does with the characters, monsters, set pieces, and motifs it established to such critical acclaim in 2016. The filmmakers seem aware of the blessings and curses of a sequel, cleverly titling the second season “Stranger Things 2” like a proper sequel as opposed to the continuation of a television series.
Just like all sequels to unpredictably popular films, Stranger Things 2 is chock full of enhanced production values. There are more special effects (although the demogorgons still seem a little too CGI-heavy from time to time), and the show has the polish of a feature film. Between the licensed tracks and the original score, the music really stands out in Season 2. The bigger budget means acts like Metallica and The Police are a regular part of the soundtrack for the show. The score is simply oozing with 80s nostalgia. There is an incredibly effective moment in the score in Episode 8 where the soundscape mimics the slowing down of a VHS tape. The synths capture the period where John Carpenter sound effects were all the rage in horror cinema. Stranger Things 2 is simply a pleasure to look at and listen to.
Smart sequels take the ideas and concepts of the original story and make them bigger. Sometimes this is better; other times it misses the mark. Kids loved Shredder in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, so they were thrilled to be treated to Super Shredder in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze. However, the fans loved it when Venkman got slimed and the moment where the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man terrorizes the streets of New York in Ghostbusters, but there was a lukewarm reaction when the boys in brown sprayed Lady Liberty with ooze and caused her to dance through the city in Ghostbusters II. There’s a fine line between fan service and appearing like you missed the point of your original creation. For better or for worse, Stranger Things 2 has both of these kinds of moments. This results in a season that is pleasurable to watch despite some of its unusual decisions.
The demogorgon was obviously such a beloved monster in the first season, it’s no wonder that the Duffer brothers bring the creature back in hordes this time around. In Season 2, they’ve taken on canine-like qualities à la Alien 3. The series is known for how it studies and captures the feel of the great films of yesteryear, and its exponential increase of these slippery beasts draws obvious parallels to what James Cameron did with the packs of xenomorphs in Aliens as opposed to the single Big Chap boogeyman of Alien. This move works for the show… bigger is better in the world of Stranger Things; and I certainly felt a thrill when the demogorgons all started climbing up the mine shaft for the first time. The series earns bonus points for introducing a baby demogorgon as a tadpole-esque cutey who lives in an aquarium in Dustin’s (Gaten Matarazzo) bedroom. I couldn’t help but think of little Gizmo from Gremlins, or the baby raptor at the start of Jurassic Park as Dustin took a liking to the slimy critter! There’s nothing more nostalgic than a boy and his polliwog!
But this is a sequel, and we’ve already seen a demogorgon before. The filmmakers know that, so they up the ante with the shadow monster, a gigantic vine-like omen of the complete takeover of the Town of Hawkins by the Upside-Down. While it doesn’t offer up the genuine eeriness of the stalking, murderous demogorgon in the early episodes of Season One, the creature effectively works as a metaphor for the systematic corruption of Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) and the town itself. And besides, how else could Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) top last year’s creative use of Christmas lights than by decorating her entire house with a hand-drawn map of the Upside-Down’s pumpkin-patch rotting underground channels!?
In all of these instances, the filmmakers target a successful element of Season One and offer an interesting (usually larger) twist than the first time around. What’s baffling is that they didn’t take the same path with what is arguably the most popular element of Stranger Things’ appeal: the undeniable chemistry of the main characters confronting their problems together as a group. A major missed opportunity of Season Two is just how much time the characters spend away from the core group.
From the start, the show seems hellbent on splitting up the Goonies-esque gang of kids who made Stranger Things so popular in the first place. The boys are rarely in the same place at the same time for the first 80% of the season. There’s no growth in their character dynamics because they don’t share much screen time to offer much more than a fleeting quip or silly shenanigan before splitting up again and going off into different directions. Keep in mind that these types of storylines occur in addition to the literal repeat of Season 1’s “Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) go off on their own and solve a mystery” plotpoint, so the episodes are constantly cutting to different locations in order to catch us up on a character or two at a time. Finn Wolfhard’s Mike suffers the most from these fragmented parties, as his pair-up with Will often leaves him with nothing more to say than, “Are you okay, Will!?” The inclusion of new characters for the second season tends to exacerbate the issue. The show has to juggle all of these “solo” or “duo” storylines while also explaining to the audience why we should really care about the new characters. It’s no coincidence that some of newcomer Max’s (Sadie Sink) best scenes occur in the earlier episodes… it’s simply easier to build an adolescent love triangle between her and Dustin and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) when they’re all actually interacting with one another. The decision to keep the gang apart for the majority of the season is a letdown, but some of the story threads it produces are entertaining. For example, Dustin’s moments with Steve (Joe Keery) reveal a cool side to Steve that we’ve never had the chance to experience before; and Jim Hopper’s (David Harbour) father-daughter “domestic bliss” with Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) has it’s special moments ranging from heartwarmingly silly to tender and sad.
Speaking of Eleven: for the majority of Season 2, I couldn’t believe that the series’ undisputed “most interesting character” was playing out such a boring storyline. Her interactions with her mother cover generally the same ground as what we understood during the first season, and she spends the first eight episodes completely separated from the gang. If this sacrifice of the familiar actually led to an incredible storyline, or even a greater understanding of Eleven as a character, it would have been worth the creative risk. But by the time Episode Seven rolls around and Elle is hanging out with a murderous pack of punk hooligans, I couldn’t help but feel like the show had strayed too far from its roots. And the anticlimactic nature of her side-quest makes the bombastic opening to Episode One seem even more confusingly out of place. It feels like the whole idea could have been scrapped for something better. She deserved to be reacquainted with the gang much earlier than the final episode of the show.
Fortunately, the final two episodes of Stranger Things 2 largely give the fans exactly what they’ve wanted all along. The kids finally are reacquainted for the first time since Season One for a satisfying climax. We’re treated to a variety of action scenes and cool shots of the group working together to battle the Upside-Down from every angle. All of the silly quips and 80s-style action of the previous season makes an incredible comeback, culminating in a climax which takes its visual cues from the ending of Terminator 2: Judgment Day. The kids kick some serious butt and Eleven unleashes her power just like how you’d expect. Then, the show takes a breather and lets the kids be kids in a final scene which reminds us of why we fell in love with them in the first place. Better late than never! Seriously, the final two episodes completely make up for any problems with the middle bits of the season.
In order for Stranger Things to sustain itself as a series, it had to take some chances and introduce some new characters and ideas. In practice, they offer mixed results. Paul Reiser makes an appearance as Dr. Owens, the nice-guy scientist who is running Hawkins Lab now that all of the bad guys of last season are gone. His character offers a refreshing spin on the “evil lab employees” theme of last season, and he has some great moments towards the final episodes. Sean Astin’s cleverly-named new character, Bob Newby, is a cheerful distraction for the traumatized Byers family. He’s funny and he’s useful (don’t let his low-level job at Radio Shack fool you; he’s actually pretty darn clever!). One missed opportunity, however, is the fact that the show rarely showcased Jim Hopper’s jealousy over the fact that Bob ended up with Joyce and he didn’t. This was hinted at early on when Astin was first announced as a newcomer on the show, but it never really manifested in Season 2 because the three characters are rarely in the same place at the same time (are you noticing a theme here?). Newcomer Dacre Montgomery’s Billy fares even worse this season. All we know for the majority of the episodes is that he’s the new bully in town. He basically serves as way for his step-sister Max to get around town when she isn’t skateboaring, and he’s easily the most underdeveloped character in the series. By the time he’s given some decent material in the last episode, it feels like it’s too little, too late. His scene with Mrs. Wheeler (Cara Buono) is downright hilarious; so hopefully he gets more scenes where he can grow next season. These examples all demonstrate that the show doesn’t always pull of its intentions because of the ambitious scope and storyline of Season 2.
Don’t get me wrong: I love Stranger Things. I wanted to love Season 2, but I ended up really liking it instead. Whereas the first season was genuinely moving in its storytelling and character development, the moments of Season 2 which will most likely put a smile on viewers’ faces is when it simply reacquaints them them with the characters and moments that made the series so special last year (with the obvious exception of the excellent final episode). With that said, while Stranger Things 2 doesn’t quite reach the same level of over-achievement as it’s freshman outing, the second season still has plenty of gas in the tank to provide a strong nine episodes of television, and I look forward to seeing where Season 3 ends up taking us!
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