Warning: This review contains spoiler alerts for the second season of “Stranger Things”
At the end of last month, Netflix released the highly anticipated second season of “Stranger Things,” just in time for Halloween. The show chronicles the supernatural-tinged adventures of a group of kids in the 1980s. Following the critically and commercially successful first season, creators Matt and Ross Duffer (affectionately referred to by fans as the Duffer Brothers) faced the task of living up to a lot of viewer’s expectations. For the most part, they succeeded, but not without a few missteps. Techniques and storylines felt cheapened by the nostalgic reinvention that had worked so well for the creators in the first season. It ceased to be a show that gave younger audiences the sense that they were watching a fresh twist on something vintage and older viewers the impression that their childhoods were accurately being represented. Instead, the fun homage to ’80s pop culture became cliché and contrived.
The show’s creators, brothers Matt and Ross Duffer, implemented a formula similar to that of the first season to guide its sequel, upping the stakes by adding a number of additional storylines that further complicated the plot. This move missed the mark for a sizable portion of fans who expected a continuation of the series they so loved, as opposed to a repeat performance. As in the first season, the second season saw Will Byers under the hold of the Upside Down, Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) yelling at people to help her son, Hopper (David Harbour) engaging in independent investigations that incapacitate him, a mysterious supernatural antagonist, and, finally, Eleven saving the world.
Despite these missteps by the writers, the actors—both newcomers and beloved veterans from season one—brought their very best. The standout performance of the season comes from Noah Schnapp’s performance as Will Beyer. At the start of the season, we see Will affected with what is perceived by the doctors as post-traumatic stress disorder caused by his initial disappearance into the Upside Down. Throughout the season, Schnapp puts his body through the wringer in a compelling performance rivaled only by the complexity and rawness felt from Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven in the first season.
The character that experienced the most development this season is Steve Harrington, who, in addition to fully participating in the action of the last two climactic episodes, also suffers an internal conflict in the first episode that haunts him throughout the season, as we watch him lose his love interest and social dominance at school. By the end of the season, Steve dedicates himself to caring for the kids and protecting them to the best of his ability when all of the adults are otherwise engaged. The selfishness and inattentiveness to other’s feelings, which characterized him in the first season, are long gone by the finale, and his character shines as a fan favorite of the season.
I have to tip my hat off to the Duffers for finally fleshing out Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), Mike (Finn Wolfhard), and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) as characters independent of Will. We learn that Lucas, the only central Black character, has a sister, mother, and father. The sister makes several comedic appearances that plays well with distinguishing Mike as a person independent of his friends. Dustin earns his own storyline rich with comedy, cursing, and emotional weight. We learn about his relationship with his single mother and how that influences his actions. While the linking of the storylines suffers from these additions, they’re important expansions that add to the complexity of this many-layered show.
New additions to the cast also enriched the second series, particular that of Sadie Sink’s Max Mayfield, who arrives in Hawkins, skateboard in tow, with her stepbrother, Billy (Dacre Montgomery). As Eleven is absent from the boys’ group for most of the season, Max becomes the token female friend, although her storyline gets somewhat constricted when she’s relegated to a love triangle between Lucas and Dustin. Mike and Eleven seem acutely aware of Max’s status as a replacement, so they treat her with malice. In an unfortunate perpetuation of the “there can only be one” cliché, Eleven and Max are pitted against each other to a certain extent until the very end of the season. Sink, however, does the best with what she is delivered and packs an edgy punch as the ultimate cool-girl, her bright red hair and tough exterior (coupled with a hopeful desire for connection with the boys) adding thorny texture to the usually harmonious group.
Max’s racist, abusive stepbrother, Billy Mayfield, is the direct adversary of Steve Harrington. He instigates the bulk of the conflict for the characters and is relentless in his abuse. At times, he provides comedic relief, as his chainsmoking douchebag persona taken to its ultimate extremes, but ultimately, he reinforces the tired bully trope to ignite development in Steve. While we’re eventually given a brief background that explains his behavior and suggests the smallest bit of sympathy for him, he ends the season a definite bad guy.
Another short-lived character, Bob Newby (Sean Astin), helped infuse Joyce Byer’s character with more complexity. Bob’s “nice guy” persona is never complicated or challenged, and his sticky fate, although beautifully portrayed, felt far too predictable.
Eleven’s storyline left her separated from the entire cast early on, causing the show to suffer. The convenient discovery of her mother and her birth name allows Eleven’s character to develop in a way that moves too slowly and lacks real emotional weight. More often than not, Brown’s acting performance suffered and her scenes slowed the momentum of the show. The extent of Eleven’s growth is physical through her attire and idioms, but otherwise, Eleven is virtually the same, which is a disservice given that she was deliberately kept in the season against the original plans of the Duffer Brothers, who never envisioned Eleven in potential sequels for the show. Perhaps this is why her presence feels shoehorned into the plot, only fitting well when she interacts with Hopper in the safe house.
This season brought deliverance in the form of fan service for character Barb Holland, who disappeared into the Upside Down last season and died with little acknowledgment or mourning, especially compared to the massive endeavor devoted to saving Will from that same fate. Thus, the writers devoted Nancy Wheeler’s and Jonathan Byers’ storylines to one focused on enacting said justice by exposing the government entity that unleashed the beast that took Barb’s life. Although closure surrounding Barb’s death was somewhat satisfying, focusing on a death that occurred early in the first season felt like a disservice to the storytelling possibilities for these characters. On the brighter side, these two characters’ isolation from the group gave their romantic subplot ample time to emerge with well-intentioned sweetness and humor for the audience.
The most satisfying scene comes in the very last episode, which concludes with the Snow Ball, Hawkins Middle School’s winter dance. Connecting a line from the last season uttered by Mike, the show peaks emotionally here, with all the main players of the season in attendance, each dealing with their own social and romantic endeavors, to varying levels of success. Though I could have done without the excessive kissing from the child characters, the scene felt neatly wrapped in a bow, with even Nancy’s character experiencing a moment of growth when she dances with Dustin. Even though it didn’t fall into any previously established logic, it was sweet to see and I’m sure not an eye was dry while watching the sequence.
Despite its frayed storylines and lack of focus, “Stranger Things 2” aptly quenched my thirst for a thrilling sequel. Unfortunately, the essence of the show floundered in its formulaic approach and mismanagement of certain characters. My only hope for the next season is that the Duffer Brothers reclaim the magic of the first and deliver both the supernatural and reality without such a stark imbalance.
Kalee Kennedy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.