Series Breakdown Rating:
Audience Assumptions: No familiarity
Season Two – **
Part One: Hey, We Might Actually Address the Trauma Associated with Losing a Friend and Being Trapped in a Dark Parallel World! Maybe. Don’t Hold Us to It.
Before the second season of Stranger Things (or as the show seems to want you to call it, Stranger Things 2) came out, I took some time to think back on the first season, then re-watched it, and came up with some predictions. I held off on watching the second season for about a month after its release so I wouldn’t get caught up in the hype.
Hopefully I’ve already articulated my thoughts on the first season in its review, but even though I can understand its appeal, I never quite understood how it could reach the level of hype it did. To me, it was good, but a bit overrated. I was fine with other people liking it more than me, and could wave the hype off as enthusiasm for something new and fairly good.
However, noticing the fan theories pop up and people getting stoked for the second season (one of the trains I take to work even rolling in with a massive “Stranger Things 2” advertisement on the side), I started to get somewhat irritated – selfishly, I’ll admit. I wanted to yell at someone, “The first season wasn’t that good! How come a mediocre show can get almost universal appraisal with little popular criticism when the shows I genuinely enjoy struggle to get positive attention before they’re cancelled?” But, like I said, these were driven mainly by my dislike of the show’s ridiculous popularity more than my dislike of the show itself, so I took a deep breath and tried to acknowledge my biases and distance myself from them.
Re-watching the first season, I still found it to be fairly shallow; the characters were well-designed but flat, and the story dipped off after the first few episodes. There were subplots I had forgotten but liked, a few elements I couldn’t care much about, and several things I’d glossed over the first time but which grew annoying upon reflection. Considering this, I formed four predictions about the second season.
First: Eleven would come back, because she was easily the most identifiable symbol for the show’s identity and a large part of the first season’s appeal.
Second: Season Two would also expand upon the lore of the parallel dimension by continuing the cliff-hanger from Season One, and I anticipated that the large monster in the ads would be something Will brought back with him.
Third: The second season would probably not take many risks, and would be pretty similar in quality to the first
Fourth: Despite the previous prediction, audiences wouldn’t like the second season as much as the first because it would highlight the flaws of the previous season.
I think I would count my predictions as two for two, and I’m not especially happy about getting those first two right. I wish the plot had challenged my expectations and not gone the exact direction it seemed to be going from the outset. If anything, I would have wanted to be right about the latter two predictions; I know opinions on the matter vary, and this is obviously just my own, but what I felt we got was a frankly terrible season that earned blankets of praise simply for existing. Without actively looking up reviews, I couldn’t find anyone willing to admit they disliked the season even a little bit, and found exactly one person in my extended social circle with anything concrete to say about it beyond “it was so good.” That person commented that there were a lot of positive mothers in it.
Having watched the season, I can deduce with some certainty that this person was struggling to find something to praise, because not only do the mother figures barely feature in the season (aside from Will’s mother, who I still don’t like), but one of them is obsessed with her cat to the exclusion of all else, one is effectively comatose when she isn’t sending her daughter to go find asshats, one ignores her husband’s violent threats to their children, and one of them flirts with an underage teenager. Lucas’ mom is a positive mother figure, I suppose, but she gets, like, half a line. I would beg to differ on the statement that this show is full of positive mother figures.
I’ve since talked to some people about their thoughts and found that even those who adored this season have minor complaints, and legitimate things they enjoy about it (I’ll concede the character development in this season is an improvement, and there are some moments to like). However, I’m finding more and more that a lot of people who watch the show are simply willing to overlook its gaping flaws, sometimes to the point of not recognizing them at all. It’s similar to the response I get on the rare occasions when I try to bring up Harry Potter and the Cursed Child with Harry Potter fans; some people do genuinely like it, or like elements in it, but those who actively dislike it censor themselves or come up with excuses for why it isn’t part of the main cannon, because to criticize part of that universe feels to them like blasphemy.
Say what you will about Star Wars, but its advocates have learned their lesson about blind faith in the franchise.
All that said, the first two episodes aren’t too bad. The story picks up roughly a year after the events in the first season around Halloween (mainly, it seems, so that the show can throw in Ghostbusters references). Mike is upset about losing Eleven and continues to obsess over her, attempting to contact her even though for all he knows, she’s been dead for a year. He has almost no other character traits other than “angry” and “misses Eleven.” Will is back, so we finally get to know him! He occasionally enters a catatonic trance where his consciousness is sucked into the parallel universe, so he spends a lot of time being treated for it. Also, he gets trapped there after a few episodes and remains there until the last one. So much for getting to know him. I mean, we do technically get to see more of his character, just not for very long.
I said the beginning wasn’t bad, but I never said it was flawless. The first two episodes still have cringe-worthy dialogue and some continuity issues, but their flaws are minor compared to those of later episodes, and more importantly, they’re offset by engaging, fresh material. The setup for both Mike and Will is interesting, especially in the first episode when we don’t know if Eleven is still alive, or if Mike wanting her back is necessarily a good thing. The last season left off with Eleven disappearing at the same time as the monster, and her connection to the parallel universe was ambiguous enough that the audience ended the series in a confused state of sorrow, satisfaction, and discomfort. She reappears at the end of the first episode, and I am fairly disappointed that the second episode’s explanation for what happened to her in the interim between the seasons was uneventful. That said, Mike remains oblivious to her survival until the end of the season, and, as annoying as the setup for their reunion is, the moment itself is still touching.
Lucas gets more definition in this season, as does Hopper the police chief, and their interactions with Max and Eleven, respectively, are fun to watch. Max is a somewhat problematic new character, as is Bob (whom I decided almost the instant he appeared was destined for the “cheerful parental figure sacrificial altar”), but they both get a few good lines in the early episodes. Steve’s advice to Dustin about hair products is not quite worth trudging through the whole season for if you suspect you’re going to dislike everything else as I did – but it’s almost worth it.
My takeaway from the first two episodes is that they’re different. The characters feel like they’ve grown and are dealing with the trauma of what they experienced. What little we do see of Will shows a kid who’s seen some shit and wants to get on with his life, but has reminders following him everywhere and friends who won’t let him forget it. He acts out because everyone around him is coddling him, and he can’t find a balance between being safe and being himself. It’s easy to sympathize with him, but because we know what everyone else went through, we sympathize with them as well, even when they’re acting against his wishes.
Eleven, meanwhile, isn’t traumatized by her encounter with the Demogorgon, but Hopper has her locked away in a cabin because federal agents are looking for her. The reasoning behind Hopper’s actions is faulty, especially given he never even gives any of the other characters notice that she’s still alive, and the federal agent angle is both clichéd and largely unfounded to the degree of paranoia Hopper supports. However, the actor conveys Hopper’s desperation in a way that feels sincere. There’s no reason Hopper should be so protective of Eleven based on the events of the previous season, but he nonetheless pulls off a protective father role. Their fights feel familial, especially given Hopper sees her as similar to his own estranged daughter. As such, their reconciliation near the end is heartfelt, even if it doesn’t quite feel deserved.
Part Two: Oh Good, Shitty Dialogue!
The problems begin around the time Dustin discovers a “tadpole” (that totally isn’t a baby Demogorgon – honest!) in his garbage can. The writing quality takes a nosedive into and most development on the characters is halted in its tracks. The child characters start infighting and the resolved plots from the last season return with little variation – up to and including Eleven returning dramatically to stop the intrusion of the parallel world on the real one using her telekinesis. Will becomes incapacitated by the massive monster from the trailers as the characters learn that it’s been using him to slowly work its way out of the parallel world. This naturally takes his character out of the story again, and while the others do get the chance to fret about him, their worry is no different in tone from what it was in the first season. The “save Will” plotline dominates almost the entirety of the rest of the season, though now that most of the other characters have their own subplots to worry about (Lucas with his crush on Max, Dustin with his Demigorgon-tadpole thing, Mike whinging about how much he misses Eleven, and Hopper investigating some suspicious pumpkins), none of them have time to interact with one another.
I could tolerate a few sidetracks from the meat of the series – the characters’ interrelationships and adaptation to the parallel world’s influence on their lives – if the sidetracks were interesting. None of them are.
Dustin’s tadpole is, surprise surprise, a baby Demogorgon, and it kills his cat. (On a side note, why does it seem that cats are always the punching bag pet of choice when it comes to horror stories? When a dog dies, it’s tragic, but when a cat dies, it’s just another fucking dead cat. Can it not, I don’t know, be sad if either one dies, given they’re both companion animals humans have bred for millennia for the express purpose of looking and acting cute?) Before the cat-killing incident, however, he shows it to his friends and of course he has a bullshit zoology textbook that capitalizes both portions of a species name like the set designers couldn’t be bothered to look up how species names are actually written (I swear, if I see “Homo Sapiens” written on anything one more time…), and of course they all argue about whether it’s from the parallel world, and of course he lies about it, and of course this comes back to bite them in the ass. Actually, I could almost forgive this overdone subplot if it literally did bite them, but aside from the cat, it doesn’t. I was practically rooting for the Demogorgon to off Dustin for his stupidity by the end, but that’s not what happens. You know what does happen? HE FEEDS IT FUCKING NOUGAT AND IT LEAVES THEM ALONE BECAUSE IT FUCKING REMEMBERS HIM! If you’re going to have a dumb-ass story that’s a PG rip-off of Gremlins and about a hundred other “hidden dangerous pet” stories, don’t give it an even stupider ending!
Beyond that and the rehashes are plenty of other plot threads to despise. There isn’t just one, or two, but four fucking love triangles, all of them unnecessary, and all of them of course between heterosexual characters. Dear god, do I not give a shit about love triangles. Almost all of them get resolved with little fanfare, and in some cases, little development beyond the setup of a triangle. One redundant love interest is dropped because he’s a dumbass who doesn’t know the difference between a tadpole and a reptile, one of them is only framed as a love interest because of misunderstanding, one gets eaten, and one just sort of gets discarded and dropped off with Dustin for some reason.
Speaking of Steve, he’s… actually the best character in this season? There’s a bit of love triangle guff in the first few episodes like I said, but given I wasn’t even aware he was still an active character, his doomed boyfriendhood isn’t terribly surprising. What is surprising is that he comes back to give Dustin life lessons about women and male hair products. All of that is amazing, as is his reaction to learning about the parallel world, which I would describe as confused terror mixed with blithe acceptance. He also tells Dustin to stop his creepy tooth purring. Good on you, Steve. I actually have pretty much no complaints where his character is handled here.
Back to things I dislike, though, the other two main teenagers from the last season spend this one grieving for the one character who’s actually been confirmed dead and end up trying to bring down “The Government” with the help of an astoundingly annoying conspiracy theorist. The series spends relatively little time on them, but that’s still far too much given their actions are redundant in the wake of the evil scientist facility from the last season being discovered. Why is this facility still running, again? Will’s brother gives him some positive advice, and that scene feeds both of their characters, but it’s too brief to leave much of an impact when the two don’t interact at any other time in the season.
I haven’t even gotten around to talking about the sixth episode yet. I might as well pull the bandage off all at once.
Eleven runs away to see her mother, whom she learns is also somehow psychic and reveals that Eleven had an adopted sister (because this show really needed more long-lost relatives). Eleven manages to find the sister, who is Russian for some reason, and who also has psychic abilities. The sister is that girl who appeared for about twelve seconds in the first episode and hasn’t been seen since. She lives alongside a group of youth who were clearly inspired by the aesthetics of the future film Suicide Squad, and I say “inspired” because somehow, some way, their hairstyles and acting are even worse than those in DC’s failed attempt at being “fun.” See, they’re rebels, you guys. They don’t obey anyone. They’re, what, fourteen. They’ve seen things, man. They know how to kill people and they’ve got plans or something and oh my god I just want to purge this episode from my head completely.
This season isn’t Arrow Season Two levels of brain-melting stupidity, at least not quite, but this single episode is easily the worst forty-five minutes of television I’ve seen in recent years. The plot is almost nonexistent, the new characters are abhorrent and lack any redeeming features or complexity, Eleven is almost as unbearable, and the writing is fucking atrocious. I’m getting irritated just thinking about it now. I know objectively the cinematography is decent and the sound design resurrects one of the musical refrains I enjoy, and some people even like these characters. If you’re one of those people, take solace in your ability to get something out of this episode I couldn’t, and stop reading this review because it’s just going to make you feel angry. Or, possibly keep reading if my sad little plebian frustration amuses you. My point is, something about the particular components of this episode just rub me the wrong way, right down to the adopted sister’s accent.
To be clear, I don’t know what the actor who plays her sounds like in real life, or anything other than that she’s Danish. I don’t hold her accent against her, but the character’s accent is not the right fit for this episode or this series, not in the way it’s written. The character is described repeatedly as Russian and her accent seems to bounce back and forth between some sort of Russian and British blend, neither of which make any sense for a character who, to the audience’s knowledge, has lived in the United States her entire life. Even if you were to argue that maybe the scientists who raised her were Russian or British or something, that just begs the question of why Eleven doesn’t also have a Russian/British accent if they were raised together. And if Eleven just couldn’t speak much, then why the fuck can this new girl? And where did those other children come from, if they’re not from the lab? Why does this episode not connect to the plot in any way? Where did the other characters go? I’ll take Dustin and his stupid tadpole back! Please, show, I swear I didn’t mean it! Just no more of this! No more of this, please!
I get that this episode is partly meant to sell merchandise, partly meant to be an experiment for the creators, and partly meant to set up an overarching story that presumably leads into the next season. I’m exaggerating slightly about how much I disliked it, but unlike the other episodes, I would actively try to avoid watching this one again. If it was mainly an experiment, I’d say it was a failure, but that’s okay when experimenting. As much flack as I give this show, I don’t want to bash the creative team behind it and I do want to acknowledge the effort that goes into creating any sort of entertainment. The people who work on this show work a hell of a lot harder on their craft than I do on these silly reviews. But my concerns still stand as a single viewer, and I don’t see this path as a productive framework for future story arcs, as this episode looks like it was intended to seed. If it’s a failed experiment, then there’s no harm there – the show can just pick itself up and move on, maybe resolve the sister’s story with a quick death or something. It’s not like the episodes around it are levels of magnitude better in quality, and even if they were, most excellent shows have a dud here or there. The thing is, while my likelihood of watching the next season is pretty low, a whiff of this arc’s continuation is just going to ensure my interest depletes to nil, as I imagine it might for other people who were disappointed in this season.
Part Three: Somehow, This Plot Seems Familiar…
Stranger Things Season Two lives up to my expectations of being a bit worse than the original, but it would fulfill this legacy even without the sixth episode and other subplots I personally disliked. The first season was an homage to the time period, drawing from horror films of the 1980s that kids the age of the characters would have watched at the time, and in the decades since. It was structured to appeal to people who were children in the 1980s and to their children who are the same age now. I still have difficulty understanding why the first season of Stranger Things was such a phenomenon, but I generally narrow it down to the show being a fairly well-structured, nostalgia-dominated series that was detailed enough to elicit an emotional response in its viewers, but not so challenging as to be alienating.
To some extent, I suppose the same is true of Season Two, but whereas the first season’s use of homage was carefully tailored so that it formed the series’ aesthetic identity, the second season seems to hold up its references, as so many subpar films and television shows do, to disguise its lack of substance. The season hits many of the same beats as the first, even sometimes specific details or scenes that are nearly identical. It feels much like a bad sequel to an otherwise decent film, a repeat of what fans liked about the first with just enough added to seemingly up the stakes. Instead of one Demogorgon, there’s a pack of them, and instead of the Demogorgon being the baddy, it’s a giant squid monster. Eleven learns how to use a new power and uses her telekinesis to save the day. Things are getting scarier because now both of her nostrils bleed instead of just one.
There’s a common writing rule when it comes to stakes that goes something like this: to raise the stakes, threaten something the protagonist cares about. The more personal the thing you’re threatening, the higher the stakes get. However, in blockbuster stories, there’s a tendency to inflate the scope of the story to encompass more people, because a story about a small team of people and their problems often feels a lot less important to the audience than a bigger story about global phenomena. We have a much better understanding of the wide-reaching impacts major events can have in real life, and if we’re told these action heroes are the best of the best and saviors of humanity, it’s no longer acceptable for them to just save one small town. Superman can’t just save Lois Lane anymore, he has to save Metropolis, the Earth, the Universe. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially in action films. It’s more fulfilling than when the heroes sit around and just save themselves, certainly. But it only works for particular stories, and writers can’t get roped into the idea that more people in danger equals higher stakes. You still need that personal connection to tie everything together and to get the protagonist invested. People in real life who seek to change the world for the better have slightly selfish motivations, because the thing they’re trying to improve impacts them and the people they know personally. People who have food security and have for their entire lives don’t push for economic stability in the same way as people who have experienced starvation or malnutrition firsthand.
The stakes in the first season of Stranger Things are not solely tied to Will; they are tied to the other characters’ mental stability. The stakes are high because they don’t know if they can save Will or not, but they can’t bring themselves to give up on him even though the attempt may be futile. They can’t accept that he might be dead, so any possibility of bringing him back pushes them to take it, no matter the cost. That cost is tied up a lot of interweaving smaller stakes too, like the risk of getting caught by this laboratory, or the risk of losing Eleven, and especially what the latter means for Mike’s emotional state. The first season doesn’t have the most complex stakes, but they are personal to the characters who matter, namely Will’s mother and Mike.
The second season’s stakes are diminished because the characters have other, unrelated concerns, and because the events are not novel or surprising to the audience or the characters. They’re not eager to let go of Will, but they’ve already been through this before and losing him a second time doesn’t have the same impact. There’s also less ambiguity about his state – he’s clearly alive, and they quickly figure out that his mind is alive as well as his body. Putting Will at risk so explicitly makes his fate obvious: either he is killed, the monster is killed, or the world ends. The thought of having to kill Will to stop worse things from happening is dark and might affect the characters who have been so concerned about keeping him safe until this point, something we see a bit of when they try to purge the monster from his system. As soon as the characters learn he can get out alive, though, the tension’s gone again. This series does not have the gonads to make its characters suffer, and because of that, its stakes are limp.
I get the feeling that no one, aside from the fans, really expected Stranger Things to get a second season when it first came out. The series was released when Netflix was still gathering steam on its exclusive shows and films, and while it had been going strong with several for the past few years, outside of Orange Is the New Black, House of Cards, Daredevil, and maybe a few others, most of its exclusive content was little known except by those who actively sought it out. Stranger Things was one of Netflix’s first runaway successes, and even it lingered on the site about a month before it gained anything near the popularity it now has. The first season’s success and widespread acclaim effectively required the show to release a second, and though I don’t know the statistics for its viewership, I suspect several more seasons are on their way. Given that the show has such a following, I’d be callous to hope it should end here, and I do genuinely want the next season to be an improvement. I don’t really appreciate shows that overstay their welcome, but when a show that has a lot going for it just peters out over a dozen dreary seasons, I feel that’s nearly as sad as when a show that has a lot of potential gets cancelled halfway through. The latter may give you a more intense feeling of dissatisfaction, but the disappointment of the former is drawn out as you naively wait for the series to improve. You get to see the thing you love die a slow, agonizing death like The Simpsons, and you don’t even really have the luxury of imagining how good an unexplored plot line would have been because chances are, they already did something similar, and it sucked.
At this point, I’m not sure how much potential Stranger Things holds for future seasons. The only possible future events established by the first two seasons include character deaths, Hopper getting it on with Will’s mother, Eleven being consumed by her powers or murdering people en masse, the return of Eleven’s sister, Dustin’s reunion with his Demogorgon, and repeats of events from the previous two seasons. There’s not a lot to explore with the parallel world that hasn’t been brought up already, and the characters don’t really seem like they have much to cope with aside from the regular teenage and middle school drama we’ve already seen them touch upon. Some people find that engaging enough, though, so I won’t knock them for it. My expectations for this next season are not high enough for me to have much interest in watching it, and I feel with how much praise the second season received, I would probably have difficulty telling whether it’s something I would want to watch. For the people looking forward to it, though, here’s to hoping you find it worthwhile.