‘it was always the character arcs that mattered more in Stranger Things’
Season Two review by John Winterson Richards
This is a spoiler light overview of the second season of the Netflix horror drama Stranger Things, but note that it is not entirely spoiler free and it assumes you are familiar with the first season or at least our overview of it.
In purely artistic terms, there is a strong case for saying that the show should have ended with that first season. This is not because the second season is bad - on the contrary, it is a more sophisticated and polished version of the first: while this makes it technically superior, it also raises the question of its dramatic necessity. Why, apart from the obvious - money - make basically the same thing twice? Or, come to that, watch it twice? The first season ended on a bittersweet note that could not be bettered. Undoing that undermines the emotional impact of the whole project.
In purely commercial terms that matters not at all, and the contest between the artistic and the commercial is no contest at all in "the Industry." Had there been any doubt, the huge viewing figures on Netflix and the immediate "cult" status of the first season settled the matter. The Duffer Brothers had originally intended it to be a freestanding "miniseries," with the possible option of a separate sequel set some years later in the Nineties. However, the popularity of the characters, especially the youngsters, demanded immediate exploitation - while they were still young.
So the poignant self-sacrifice was negated in a rather perfunctory manner and a character noted for her almost ethereal "otherness" became a relatively ordinary human being. In fairness the idea of a superior being trying to cope with normal, everyday humanity is full of dramatic and comedic potential, and Season Two makes the most of the opportunities, but the sense of high tragedy is lost forever.
The plotting, a minor weakness in the first season, is a lot tighter in the second. We are given a very clear idea of where we are going and there are no great surprises. As in the first season that does not matter much because the whole point is to enjoy the journey rather than to get to the destination, which is much the same destination as last time.
The journey is indeed very enjoyable, as it was last time and for the same reasons - the cast and characters, and the chance to bask in all that gloriously vulgar Eighties nostalgia.
Doubling down on what works, the Duffers give us even more of the decade as people remember it - which is not quite the same as the decade as it was. Some references, like the gang dressing up as the team from 'Ghostbusters,' could not possibly be more explicit, while others are brief 'homages.' A controversial visit to Chicago seems to be a product of a subliminal desire to remake the 1979 feature film 'The Warriors.' They seem set on including everything but 'Star Wars' - except they manage to sneak that in too.
Since the story is set in late 1984, there are passing visual references to that year's US Presidential Election. It is surely no surprise that Nancy and Mike's parents are Republicans.
There have been changes in the year since the events of the first season. El (Millie Bobby Brown) has, predictably, taken the place of Chief Hopper's own lost daughter, but both have difficulties adjusting to their new roles. Joyce (Winona Ryder) has a new boyfriend who is not Chief Hopper (David Harbour). Steve Harrington (Joe Keery) has matured into a far more likeable human being but that is not actually helping him with Nancy (Natalia Dyer). Will still has a permanent haunted air about him after his experiences the previous year - quite understandably. This is all good stuff, showing that people do develop and evolve, and that significant events have significant practical consequences. Life is not neat happy ever afters.
The Duffers also try to keep things fresh by introducing a number of new characters.
The casting of Sean Astin as Joyce's new beau seems like something of an in joke, given that 'The Goonies' was evidently one of the formative influences on 'Stranger Things.' Astin himself has said that this was actually an obstacle to him getting the role. Either way, his character of Bob Newby, a nerd who had a hopeless crush on Joyce at High School and has since risen to become Manager of the local Radio Shack, is an agreeable presence. Contrary to what Hopper "shippers" among the fans and possibly the writers themselves might think, he and Joyce actually make a viable couple: Joyce surely needs someone who genuinely cares for her and wants to make her happy more than another "bad boy" type.
Max (Sadie Sink) is a self-confident, skateboarding redhead who attracts the interest of both Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) and Dusty (Gaten Matarazzo), despite them having hardly anything in common with her. Beneath her carefree exterior she is having to cope with the casual bullying of an obnoxious stepbrother, Billy (Dacre Montgomery). The suspiciously well developed Billy - who looks old for a High School pupil even by the standards of American television, which habitually casts older actors as children - is even more revolting than the early Steve. Arrogant and aggressive, he humiliates Steve on the basketball court and soon strips him of his status as "King of Hawkins High." It is not long before we are hoping that a really, really nasty death is being lined up for him - and then a single scene alters our perspective by showing why he is as he is: if it still does nothing to make us like him as we came to like Steve, it does at least evoke a genuine moment of pity, perhaps even sympathy. Sometimes a moment in a silly television show can really make you think.
Paul Reiser plays the new chief scientist at the evil laboratory. He has a pleasant, friendly demeanour and says he only wants to put things right. He provides free treatment for Will who, he says, quite plausibly, is suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) - and not at all from the side effects of ongoing evil stuff at the laboratory. He asks Joyce to trust him. Of course she does not - but the veteran Reiser knows how the keep us guessing: the guy seems so sincere. Is it possible, just possible, that Joyce might be wrong?
Brett Gelman, apparently channelling Paul Giamatti, is fun as Murray Bauman, a former journalist turned private detective and conspiracy nut. Priah Ferguson is amusing as Caleb's annoying younger sister. Linnea Berthelsen is potentially interesting as El's "sister" - a fellow victim of the evil laboratory - and it is not her fault that her storyline plays out like what video "gamers" call a "side quest" with little relevance to the main plot. It is also ethically dubious, even if El herself seems to forget she had absolutely no problem with casual homicide in the previous season. Perhaps we are meant to conclude that this is a sign that she is growing up under Hopper's healthy moral influence? It seems unlikely. Anyway, the ever watchable Pruitt Taylor Vince has an effective cameo as one of her former torturers who inadvertently forces her to consider these issues. It is a missed opportunity that she does not do so in greater depth, but she has to be back with the regular cast in time for the final battle.
This is definitely El's season. Her cautious exploration of what it means to be a normal human child on the verge of womanhood is a delight. She retains the child's very literal and straightforward way of looking at things, almost entirely ignorant of nuance, but at the same time seems desperate to learn and to become part of the human world. Yet even as she is becoming more human she is also discovering the full extent of her powers. She may in fact be in danger of becoming what the video gamers call "over powered," in that there is very little drama and suspense in a potential threat if all the Good Guys have to do is point El at it.
Dusty is also rewarded with a well deserved promotion from supporting character to, in effect, star of his own thread. He is teamed up, rather arbitrarily, with Steve - apparently because Steve had nothing else to do - to form a very odd "odd couple." This works surprisingly well: Steve is the older brother Dusty needs and Dusty is the responsibility Steve needs, even if in some ways Dusty seems the more adult of the two.
Once again the script just about manages to keep its balance walking the fine line between comedy and tragedy. Once again the likeability of a character is absolutely no defence against horrific death. Animal lovers should also beware that there are a couple of scenes that might be upsetting, even when one knows it is all CGI.
Yet the Duffers' acknowledgement that events have consequences means that this is handled with some sensitivity. Loss and suffering are not simply swept under the carpet to be forgotten. This leads to a satisfying conclusion to some unfinished business from the previous season that had provoked a great deal of comment among fans.
Season Two - officially 'Stranger Things 2' because the Duffers still want to think of it as a sequel despite the fact that it is not - is as enjoyable as Season One and for exactly the same reasons. Indeed, one feels at the end that one has watched the first one all over again, so Netflix got exactly what they wanted. The main characters end up more or less exactly where and who they were at the end of the previous season. There are, however, some changes. There are hints of the four young boys beginning to drift apart a little as they cease to be young boys and mature at different rates. Nancy and Steve have also drifted apart. El is now closer to the mainstream of humanity, where she wants to be. Although the main story arc seems to be concluded, it was always the character arcs that mattered more in 'Stranger Things' and we are left with a lot of potentially interesting places to go in this regard.
Published on May 24th, 2022. Written by John Winterson Richards for Television Heaven.