Here’s my rambling breakdown of what worked and didn’t work in Stranger Things 2. SPOILERS LIKE CRAZY ARE AFOOT! Proceed with caution.
The Stranger Things sequel had a lot to live up to, so I was delighted to hear the Duffer Bros explain on the ST2 after-show that they began cooking up ideas before the series had even been renewed for a second season. That means they were, at the time, mostly free of fan reactions, given them space to develop a story based solely on the events that had taken place in ST1.
Sorry for playing Captain Obvious for the moment, but that’s a good starting point for a follow up to a popular series with a bazillion nerds binge watching it, just waiting to take apart the sequel with a fine-tooth comb. As nerds themselves, the Duffer Bros surely did their best to develop a complex, rich story that dealt with ST1’s loose ends while satisfying the nerd chorus at the same time. I mean, you can’t play D&D for as long and as seriously at the Duffers and not gain some understanding of story and character development. And, for the most part, they succeeded. Is it as good as ST1? Of course not. We no longer have the intrigue of what’s going on the Hawkins Lab. We’re no longer just as confused about where Will is/was as his mom, Joyce. That’s the nub of why so many sequels don’t work: The mystery is gone, so where do we go from here?
Thankfully, ST2 doesn’t exactly suffer from that. I make no secret about my thirst for character development, and ST2 offers a rich look into most of the characters it established in ST1. I love that Eleven has been living with Hopper in his secret cabin. I love that everyone has been incredibly fucked up after everything that happened in ST1. I love that Joyce went out and got herself a stable, nerdy, and sweet beau after the shitstorm she experienced and how it brought Lonnie back into her life in ST1, because that’s exactly what you do after something like this if you’re Joyce Byers. These are realistic reactions to having your world turned literally Upside Down. You long for normalcy, stability. ST2 refers a lot to the desire to be normal again. It’s practically the theme of the first half of the sequel. Well played on the verisimilitude within a completely fantastical set-up, ST2. Well-played. You know I love that shit.
Speaking of shit I loved about ST2, let’s talk more about what worked:
Eleven and Hopper – David Harbour is so damned believable as Chief Hopper, his presence grounds the entire series. He grounds everyone he’s in a scene with. He makes everyone a better actor just for standing near him in a shot. And, he’s basically Harrison Ford. The director acknowledges it, showing Hopper grabbing his hat, Indie-stye, multiple times over the course of the series. Millie Brown is equally believable, bringing me to tears every time she cried, so it’s no surprise that her scenes with Hop are some of the best parts of about ST2.
Steve Herrington and Dustin – Unlike Hopper and Eleven’s pairing, I did not see this one coming. Steven’s character evolution has been one of my favorites from the start. The writers realized they had to turn him from the show’s human antagonist in ST1 to someone more sympathetic pretty quickly, which added complexity to his, Nancy’s, and Jonathan’s relationships to each other. And I love that! While Steve definitely still had Eau de Douche all over him at the start of ST2, his meet-cute with Dustin made Steve a Complete Character with a soft-spot for the kids he was charged with protecting. So good!!! And Dustin, played by Gaten Matarazzo, is one of my favorite characters in the show from the get-go, so I appreciated the sheer amount of screen time he had (and the screen time he had with his mom! Nice believable chemistry between those two!!).
Eleven’s Journey – I did not love the stand-alone episode with El’s sister, Kali. More on that later. However, I did love that her mother managed to send El an encrypted message to find Kali in order to become strong enough to close the gate at the end. The visit to Kali was necessary, but poorly executed.
Nancy’s guilt over Barb – I knew Barb wasn’t coming back. The Duffers made no secret about the fact that she was gone…and she had to be gone, because Nancy needed to deal with the fall-out of her actions that lead to Barb’s death. As heavy handed as it was written, the scene in which Nancy and Steve have dinner with Barb’s parents was the perfect way to add still more guilt to Nancy’s growing shame pile: They think Barb still alive, and they’ll spend every penny they have to find her. Nancy and Steve, however, know the truth, but their non-disclosure contract with Hawkins Lab means they can never tell them, and that means Barb’s parents can never truly put their only child to rest. That’s some dark shit, ST2, and I love that you’re not afraid to go dark. As in real life, death has far reaching implications for those left behind, and people do not move on from it quickly or, sometimes, at all.
Joyce and Bob – I was on the fence about Sean Astin as Bob…at first. I have no issue with Astin. Dude has made an entire career out of being a lovable schlub, and I have no doubt at some point in the future we’ll see him on a season of Fargo playing against type, and I can’t wait for that to happen. Bob was so gosh-darned lovable in ST2, in fact, that my husband concocted a whole theory behind Bob as being a human already infested with a Shadow Monster/hive mind being, and was leading Will down the path to become infested himself. After all, the scene in the car in which Bob tells Will just to stand up to his fears was what lead to Will becoming possessed. This was likely intentional. A red herring, perhaps? Either way, it didn’t take long for me to come to this realization: Bob is exactly who he claims to be, and of course he’s going to be a hero. One of the underlying themes in ST is that nerds get shit DONE, and Bob was a nerd who got shit done. So much so, he got the most disturbing death in the series so far saving the woman he loved and her son. And, I get why Joyce was drawn to him after all the crazy shit she’s been through, so his addition to the cast made PERFECT sense.
Lucas’ evolution – When Stranger Things began, Lucas was the group’s skeptic and naysayer, an important role in any band of misfits even if it’s the most unsavory position in the group. By the end of ST2, Lucas is the one telling Max everything, a move I seriously doubt Lucas from ST1 would’ve made, given the old Lucas’ penchant for playing it safe and not wanting to rock the boat . And, even though I didn’t particularly like Max as a character, she gave Lucas a buffer to allow him to shine as a heroic character (this is also, sadly, one of the issues I have with Max’s character: she was merely a device to make Lucas more interesting, and the writers can do better than that).
Brett Gelman as Murray the conspiracy theorist – I will watch Brett Gelman play any role, in anything.
Which leads me to what didn’t work in ST2:
Max, Billy, Dr. Owens, Kali, and just about every other new character – So many of them were pointless. I get that there had to be a human antagonist, and that could no longer be Steve Herrington. I get that Billy needed to be the bully of the piece, and I think that if there had been just a little more time spent on his abusive home life – and I’m talking about, like, two more scenes – I would’ve appreciated his character more than I did. And, he wasn’t bad enough compared to the non-human aggressors in ST2. The writers could have made him more vile, more complex, more subtle. Maybe that’s something to look forward to in ST3. Max was a device to develop Lucas and Dustin’s characters, specifically Lucas’, and it felt like a cop-out. Moreover, time spent on Max was time taken away from Mike, which I’ll discuss in a bit. Dr. Owens could’ve been played by anyone, but Paul Reiser Reisered it up so much I wasn’t sure if Owens was supposed to be comic relief or a bad guy akin to Reiser’s character in Aliens. Having finished the series, I still don’t know what his purpose was, and I don’t care if I never see him in the series again. Kali was fine and her character was essential to the plot (and, it shows there are others like them out there, and I’m sure they will pop up in future seasons), but her band of misfits were terrible and unbelievable. The scene between Mike’s mom and Billy, however? LOVED IT. More of that, please.
Mike’s absence for half the season – Where the hell was Mike? I mean, he was physically there, but so much time was spent on Max, there was no room for ONE OF MY FAVORITE CHARACTERS in the first half of the series aside from some short scenes showing him angry over something or trying to contact El on the walkie. I get that the slow-bleed of revealing El to Mike was necessary to fill out the length of series. I get that El had to be elsewhere for most of it, learning to become strong enough to seal the gate. But I missed Mike, and there was not much of a pay-off in Max’s character to make up for it.
Heavy handed writing – This is what happens when you have a ton of exposition to get through: Every explanation of everything becomes super explain-y. ST1 revealed plot points to us as they were revealed to the characters, making it so we can live in the moment with the characters. ST2 explained and telegraphed every move every character was going to make, leaving behind a lot of the intrigue they created during ST1. We knew Bob was going down when he left the gun behind in Hawkins Lab. We knew the tentacle drawings were a map as soon as the first body of water was revealed. We knew the Upside Down was growing under the pumpkin patches, and that’s what was killing the pumpkins. We knew all of these things before the characters knew them, which takes the viewer (or, at least, THIS viewer) out of the moment. It removes us from the shock and dismay and surprise the show’s characters are experiencing because we already know what’s coming. However, the surprises did come in the form of character evolution, for that, I can forgive some heavy-handed exposition.
CGI vs Practical Effects – I’m starting to feel like a broken record, but I miss practical effects. One of the things I loved about ST1 was that it had a low budget feel that was totally convincing. The Demagorgon from ST1 was a guy in makeup. Sets were constructed and effects were minimal. In fact, the Duffers revealed in the after-show that the special effects crew for ST1 was one guy who worked part time. ST2, on the other hand, uses tons of CGI, and I understand that it was necessary in order to create a herd of demo-dogs, a huge shadow monster (that thing looked very cool, BTW, so good use of generated graphics there), and lots of the Upside Down’s environment. My favorite scenes, however, were when characters faced the underground tunnels solo or in small groups, dodging practical effects tentacles grabbing at their ankles. So, consider this yet another call for more practical effects TV/movies.
Dart – Sigh. Bonding a major character with a cute, strange animal is hackneyed, and this case, a distracting use of CGI that really took me out of the fantasy of it all. I liked that it gave Dustin some funny moments as well as one very heroic one near the end of the series thanks his bonding with Dart, but overall, the inclusion of Dart was a big miss for me.
Ghostbusters costumes: Mike, Dustin, Lucas, and Will should’ve shown up to school ALL wearing Venkman name tags on their costumes, leading to some hilarious “We can’t ALL be Venkmans!” dialogue.
TL;DR: ST2 was not as good as ST1, but I didn’t need it to be. Maybe I grew up reading books or something, but I see series and stories like Stranger Things to be like long, juicy D&D campaigns played in Mike’s basement. There are going to be hits. There are going to misses. There are going to natural ebbs and flows to a tale, and not all of it is going to be a masterpiece of visual storytelling. But like books of yore, a story doesn’t need to be perfect in every aspect in order to be an enjoyable, thought-provoking, LONG GAME experience. ST2 gave me a lot to think about in terms of human complexity, our drive for “normalcy,” and how we relate to people who are nothing like us. ST is also about how nerds get shit DONE, that it’s better to crazy with someone who gets you than to pretend to be normal alone, that friends don’t lie except for when they do, and that they will always be there to light a screaming tunnel full of tentacles and demo-dogs on fire in order to save your life, no matter how much of a brat you’ve been to them before that.