The first season of Stranger Things lived and died on predictability. It was, as a whole, an out-of-left-field surprise that captured hearts unawares. And for all the 80s and sci-fi story tropes it luxuriated in, it also played with them lovingly and in some creative ways. Now, with Stranger Things 2, it’s safe to say that the show has cemented its love-hate relationship with predictability.
That is to say that this second season has lost its biggest advantage of being the underdog. But in that unceremonious excision and the kind of overexposure that Mother (seemingly?) chronicles, the show has also found a better understanding of what it has to offer. It stumbles a bit more than before along the way, but the place it ends up is also better for the missteps.
One of the best parts is the new setting. Shifting from a casual steep in the hallmarks of a 1980s lifestyle, the new story (which seems to once again take place in an endless October) is more of a Ready Player One-style explosion of the bright and vibrant parts of the 80s. It feels at once familiar and strange, especially for a 90s kid that had only a few non-thinking years of the late 80s.
(Spoiler alert: from here on out, I will touch on a few plot points. They’re largely brief and inconsequential, but if you want to go in completely fresh, then maybe save this for later.)
This is also where the show suffers, and it does so much in the same way as the first season. It kowtows to its influences, sticking to its guns loaded with round after round of Steven Spielbergs and John Carpenters and Stephen Kings. In some cases, it goes down a bit smoother (one particular Exorcist-inspired scene comes to mind) while some parts are painfully on the nose. Sticking to the Dungeons & Dragons monster manual being an integral part of the narrative just feels ham-fisted at this point.
Thankfully, even when the show is at its worst, the reuniting cast manages to make it all go down like a tonic. It’s truly remarkable how they managed to find not just one but five child actors capable of delivering the nuance and emotions necessary to carry the show, and now they’ve added a sixth kid in Sadie Sink who is simply stellar, even if her character Maxine is more of a plot point than anything else.
But we already know all those main kids like Millie Bobby Brown and Finn Wolfhard are exceptional (they did seem to let Gaten Matarazzo lean into Dustin’s worst character tendencies, though, and it’s easy to see how many fans will turn on him), but Noah Schnapp as the largely absent Will Byers is given a sizable opportunity to flex his acting chops. He carries several of the biggest moments of the season, and he does so with aplomb, jittering in and out of several modal perspectives, the differences between each one becoming more and more vital as the story unfolds.
The teenage ranks are also a continuing triumph, too. The villainous Steve Harrington (Joe Keery) who had an unearned and bewildering redemption in the first season seems to have found a reason to be decent and his interactions with the kids as well as Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) are tuned to perfection. In fact, with the introduction of Dacre Montgomery’s Billy Hargrove, older brother of the aforementioned Maxine, we have an even more vile character antagonist that is capable of embodying the first season’s Troy, James, and Tommy all at once and more.
Special mention, however, really needs to go to Sean Astin, a newcomer to the story by way of a stupidly trope-destined character named Bob Newby. If his name wasn’t enough of a giveaway, his perfectly placid fit into Joyce Byer’s (Winona Ryder) life is a lighthouse-sized warning of his fate. Despite this, however, Astin does an incredible job of making Bob seem the right blend of earnest, ignorant, and self-aware. When his arc eventually concludes, you can’t help but feel like maybe he was the best character of the whole season.
He does, though, still embody the worst qualities of Stranger Things as a whole, let alone this season. It tries to lampshade the deluge of predictable parts and then plow right on through to their inevitable conclusions, letting the overarching story and actors handle it on their own. Bob is bad enough, but then there’s Billy’s twisted backstory, Dustin’s newfound friend from the Upside Down, Mike’s reaction to Maxine’s addition to the roster, Eleven’s discovery of her past. It’s damn near laughable.
The biggest shame is Eleven’s arc; while she was the powerhouse of the first season that both had a great personal story and worked well as a plot device, she has siloed in what feels like Stranger Things timeout here. Granted, her story finds a couple great beats later in the season, but for the most part, it falls unbelievably flat.
We learn nothing new about her, she changes zero percent save for a new wardrobe, and it once again includes more new characters with incredible potential that is categorically wasted. Linnea Berthelsen’s Kali especially could have been the genesis for a bounty of revelations of both the past and present but instead relegated to a pitstop on Eleven’s journey back to where she started. And while her scenes with Hopper (David Harbour) are phenomenal, you only ever end up feeling like everyone would be better served with Eleven back with the kids.
Another huge waste is in Nancy and Jonathan’s journey to find justice for the first season’s sensation in the death of Barb. They twist and turn into a rabbit hole of conspiracy thriller tropes, all of which are wholly unsatisfying and feel like nothing more than a response to the Internet demanding #justiceforbarb. They could have instead been involved in the meaty events back in Hawkins rather than this side story that contributes precisely nothing to the eventual climax. (Journalist-turned-conspiracy-theorist Murray Bauman is, however, played wonderfully by Brett Gelman.)
It is easy, though, to pick apart a good show and find all the bad parts. It is, after all, the light that reveals the shadows. For all these (and many more) problems, this second season does end up being far stronger than the first. There is hardly any empty filler scenes or whole episodes where nothing is accomplished, even if the goal itself is problematic. The Duffer brothers definitely seem to have a better handle of how to wrangle several threads at once this time around.
Even as beats feel revisited (such as with the Byers house being plastered with an ad hoc communications device), the splits character intents into digestible chunks where the threat of consequence is always clear and purposeful. The growth of Dustin’s “pet,” the investigative life of Hopper clashing with his home life, the slow and unavoidable skewing of Will’s return. It splinters and peels off characters from the main road in surprising and daring ways until it smashes them all back together in the end. It ends up riveting in ways the first season didn’t even come close to approaching.
It speaks volumes about any piece of media when you take away its greatest asset and it still manages to find a way to succeed. In this case, Netflix’s hype machine went into overdrive as their 2016 retro darling approached a highly anticipated second season, and despite that, Stranger Things 2 comes out standing just a little bit taller than before. It’s a tough, troubled, and wayward journey, but just as the kids of Hawkins themselves, the show finds the path and we’re all better for it.
Final Score: 9 out of 10