Stranger Things’ first season was pretty much perfect in my book, thanks to an uncanny blend of sci-fi, nerdy humor, ‘80s references, Cold War nostalgia, and an excellent synthwave soundtrack. At times, I felt like series creators Matt and Ross Duffer had somehow tapped directly in my subconscious and were making a show specifically designed to hit many of my genre sweet spots. Given the series’ runaway success, I doubt I’m the only one who feels that way.
Suffice to say, there were pretty big expectations for Stranger Things 2 (as the show’s second season was billed). I tried keeping my expectations in check — after all, it’s nigh impossible for lightning to strike in the same way twice — and as the release date came closer, I did my best to ignore all of the teasers and other tchotchkes that Netflix’s marketing department were throwing at us.
But we’ve just finished the series, and I know I’m not going to stop thinking about the Duffers’ little universe anytime soon, so here are some initial thoughts and reactions.
The rest of this article contains numerous spoilers. Consider yourself warned.
What was wrong with Stranger Things 2?
Stranger Things 2 takes place one year after the events of the first season. Life has apparently returned back to normal in Hawkins, Indiana: Will Byers is back in school, the boys are getting ready to rock some kick-ass Ghostbusters costumes for Halloween, Joyce Byers has a new boyfriend, and Chief Hopper is as surly as ever. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth.
Eleven is nowhere to be found, much to Mike Wheeler’s chagrin, and worse, Will’s nightmarish visions of the Upside Down and a giant shadow monster contained therein are getting increasingly worse. Meanwhile, Hopper’s getting strange calls about rotting pumpkin fields and the Hawkins National Laboratory is still doing… whatever it was they were doing in season one, only under new management.
Let’s just get the bad out of the way first, shall we? Last year, I wrote about my biggest concern for a second season:
One of the things that makes Stranger Things so special is that, despite including government experiments and extra-dimensional horrors, its story is actually quite small, focused, and even humble in its scope… [M]y greatest concern with future seasons of Stranger Things is that the Duffer Brothers and the show’s other producers will try to make it bigger and more epic and complex then it can or should be.
And that’s precisely what happens in season two — and it was inevitable. If you want a series to flourish and develop, then you do need to go bigger, shake things up a bit, broaden horizons, etc. This expansion manifested itself in several ways.
Arguably the primary way involved Eleven’s backstory. Yes, Eleven survived her fight with the demogorgon in the season one finale, but she’s as lost and confused as ever, and unable to reunite with Mike for fear of endangering him and his family. Instead, she’s been living in hiding with Hopper, an arrangement that’s slowly grating on them. After the two have a particularly nasty fight, she uncovers some clues about her mother, which convinces her to go on a quest to track her down. This takes her outside of Hawkins and eventually to Chicago in search of her “sister,” another young woman with similar abilities and powers.
Back in Hawkins, meanwhile, Mike’s sister Nancy is wracked with guilt over her friend Barb’s death, guilt that is damaging her relationship with Steve. In her quest for #JusticeForBarb, Nancy and Will’s brother Jonathan team up and contact a conspiracy theorist who is determined to get to the bottom of whatever happened to Barb.
Finally, several new characters joined the cast: a Radio Shack employee named Bob who is Joyce’s new beau; a couple of new kids in Hawkins who may not be what they seem, including a girl who throws a wrench into the friendship of Dustin and Lucas; and a new scientist played by Paul Reiser who’s in charge of the Hawkins laboratory, and who seems just as shady as Matthew Modine’s Professor Brenner. Finally, Dustin even gets a strange new pet. (Go ahead, cue the Gremlins references.)
These additions weren’t bad individually (Dustin’s pet notwithstanding), but they had a cumulative effect on the season. Specifically, it meant that our core group of characters — Eleven, Mike, Will, Dustin, Lucas, Joyce, Hopper — spent an awful lot of time apart from each other. This was particularly painful with regards to the kids. So much of the joy of season one was watching the interactions between Eleven and the boys, and that sense of awkward-yet-charming camaraderie was missing for much of season two.
It makes sense on paper for Eleven to have her own journey so that she (and by extension, the audience) can learn more about her origins. But she was so far removed from what was happening in Hawkins, particularly Will’s plight, that the Eleven-centric scenes felt like they were from a different series altogether. (This was especially true for episode 7, “The Lost Sister,” which is exclusively about Eleven.) As a result, much of season two’s pacing felt off as well, particularly when compared to season one, which felt considerably more focused. Or, as Germain Lussier puts it in his exhaustive review:
Keeping [Eleven] away from the main characters also slowed down the main story considerably. Imagine if Hopper had just talked to her about it; things could have be solved sooner, leaving more time for a more involved story. As it stands now, as wonderful as her comeback in episode eight is, and how kick ass her role in the finale is, she’s kind of this season’s deus ex machina, inserted right when she needed to to save the day, instead of being an active player throughout.
All that being said, let’s move on to the good… of which there is a lot.
What was great about Stranger Things 2?
Stranger Things’ first season was far more than the sum of its parts. True, it was derivative and it was quite easy to point out all of the references and homages — but to their credit, the Duffers and their fellow writers and directors were able to take all of that too-familiar material and reinvigorate it. Or, to put it another way, they reminded us why we loved all of that stuff in the first place.
(Adam Sternbergh puts it well when he writes, “Stranger Things certainly isn’t a parody of resilient ‘80s pop culture like John Carpenter and Spielberg, and it’s not even really an homage. It’s more like a genetic recombination; less a show that’s nostalgic for ‘80s pop culture than a show that is a nostalgic reimagining of ‘80s pop culture.”)
By contrast, season two doesn’t do that quite so well (though part of that was due to the season being less reliant on pop culture references in general, which was a good thing). At the risk of contradicting myself, the second season’s willingness to expand its scope and go off in new directions may have resulted in a less cohesive season, but it did make for season that had lots of great and truly enjoyable moments as well as some solid character development. Here are a few of the more notable examples (in no particular order)
1) Season two really ramped things up in the “Big Bad” department. Whereas Hawkins was threatened by a single demogorgon in season one, season two revealed the “mind flayer,” a towering shadow monster that first appears in Will’s nightmarish visions, slowly begins to take root (literally) around Hawkins, and eventually possesses Will’s body (which sets up one of the season’s most intense scenes, that of Will’s exorcism). I’d earlier written that it’d be cool if the Upside Down was populated by some sort of Lovecraft-ian presence, and that’s exactly what we got — a being of pure evil and malevolence.
2) Although Eleven spent (too) much of the second season apart from Mike and the other kids, she did spend quite a bit of time with Hopper as she hides out in his isolated cabin. Much of the season’s emotional weight came from Hopper and Eleven’s relationship and slowly emerging sense of family. Both are damaged individuals; he’s still reeling from his daughter’s death (and, it’s hinted at, from Vietnam) while she’s basically been a government test subject most of her life. Naturally, things don’t go smoothly, which sets up Eleven’s quest to find her mother — and yet, for all of their stupid and selfish behavior, you can’t really blame them because it’s obvious both are working through a lot of trauma. Which makes their eventual reunion and final showdown with the mind flayer that much sweeter.
3) The season’s most powerful scene occurs in episode 7, after Will has become possessed by the mind flayer. In an attempt to figure out the mind flayer’s plan, the other characters build a makeshift interrogation room and begin trying to contact Will — which involves Joyce, Jonathan, and Mike sharing their most beloved memories of Will. It’s a scene that could’ve been overwrought but due to talents of the actors involved, as well as the investment that we have in these characters and their plight, it’s a truly beautiful and moving scene.
4) Steve Harrington may have begun Stranger Things as Nancy’s jerk boyfriend, but even in season one he showed signs of becoming someone more… noble. And that really comes into being during season two. Turns out, he’s more than just a fancy hairdo. Some of season two’s best scenes occur between him and the rest of the kids (Dustin in particular), especially after he becomes their unofficial babysitter/protector against the growing extra-dimensional menace.
5) And speaking of boyfriends, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Bob, arguably season two’s best character. Played wonderfully by Sean Astin, Bob is something of a dweeb: he works at the local Radio Shack, is way into gadgets, and tries a bit too hard to connect with Joyce’s boys. All of which immediately puts him under suspicion, but as it turns out, he’s actually a decent guy who really does care about Joyce and her family. Considering everything that the Byers have gone through, from a deadbeat husband and father to terrifying otherworldly threats, Bob represents a welcome bit of normalcy in their lives. (Alas, he was just too good for this world…)
6) We also got to see several other families that we’ve never seen before, specifically Lucas and Dustin’s families. Lucas’ bratty younger sister, in particular, was pretty fun to watch in the couple of the scenes she’s in, and Dustin’s scenes with his cat-loving mom were pretty amusing, too. Considering how Dustin and especially Lucas got a bit overshadowed in season one, it was nice to see some more of their “normal” lives.
7) Finally, season two ends with everyone getting a much-needed bit of celebration as the gang heads to a school dance. Yes, a school dance, and yes, it’s as clichéd as you might imagine, but darn it all… after everything Eleven, Mike, Will, et al., have been through, they’ve earned it. It’s a pitch perfect ending — from Dustin’s heartbreaking attempts to find a dance partner (not to mention his sweet new hairdo) to Mike and Eleven’s beautiful little moment — and it also served as a nice bookend to scenes in the season one finale.
What’s going to happen in Stranger Things 3?
So what can we expect to see in Stranger Things 3 (hopefully arriving on Netflix around this time next year)? Here are a few random ideas, theories, and questions…
1) As the season’s final shot reveals, the mind flayer is still alive and well in the Upside Down, so it’s pretty safe to say we’ll be seeing it again in future episodes. Or as Ross Duffer put it, “They shut the door on this thing but it’s still out there and it wasn’t aware of Eleven and now it very much is.” More psychic combat between Eleven and extra-dimensional horrors? Yes, please.
2) Will we see more of Eleven’s fellow psychic, Kali? When we last saw Kali, her gang was trying to escape a police raid. Will they continue their rampage of revenge against those who’ve wronged Kali and Eleven? Will that take them to Hawkins? Will Eleven and Kali’s next reunion be a pleasant one, or will it be psychic vs. psychic? And what happens if/when Kali learns about the Upside Down (assuming she doesn’t already know about it)? Here’s an idea: Kali discovers the Upside Down and its denizens and decides to try and use that knowledge to further her revenge, which necessarily brings her into conflict with Eleven and the boys.
3) What of Hawkins National Laboratory? By the season’s end, it’s apparently been shut down and boarded up, due to increasing public scrutiny of its experiments. (Which, by the way, provides some measure of #JusticeForBarb.) But is it really shut down? Have its experiments really ended? Or have they just been moved somewhere else?
4) Season one took place in 1983, season two took place in 1984, so it stands to reason that season three will take place in 1985 — and the Cold War is still going on. Indeed, Eleven is even labeled a Russian spy during season two. Presumably the U.S. government doesn’t want the Russians to find out about what happened in Hawkins. But what if the Russians did? What if the Russians have found their own way into the Upside Down?
5) At the end of season two it’s revealed that Hopper has adopted Eleven. It’s a sweet moment of redemption for Hopper. But don’t be surprised if there’s still more family tension in store for them, especially if/when Eleven and Mike get serious.
6) There are natural developments to impact the series, like puberty, given the relatively young ages of the most of the core cast. Matt Duffer: “Even if we didn’t want to deal with it, we have to deal with it because our real-life actors are going through it… I think that’s exciting because it forces the show to evolve and become something different every year. It’s going to test their friendships.”
7) More Steve and Dustin shenanigans and discussions about haircare, please.
8) And above all else, I hope we see more of Hawkins Middle School’s resident science and AV expert, Mr. Clarke. He was in far too few scenes this year, especially compared to season one where he helped the boys figure out about the Upside Down. I’d love a scene where Clarke finds himself in the thick of action, armed with nothing more than science and AV geekery.
Indeed, one wonders how much longer it’ll be until the rest of Hawkins becomes aware of the otherworldly horrors in their midst. Up until this point, our heroes have done a good job of keeping things relatively under wraps — but it’s only a matter of time before others begin putting things together. What happens then?
Why can’t I stop thinking about Stranger Things?
Even with its not-insignificant narrative weaknesses, Stranger Things 2 had pretty much the same kind of hold on me as the first season did. Put simply, I love this little fictional universe that the Duffers have created. Indeed, even as I type this, I’m experiencing a certain kind of withdrawal. So why does this show have such a hold on me?
It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot, and it’s not simply due to mere nostalgia, though that’s certainly a factor. But it’s not merely the nerdy nostalgia of ‘80s movie references. Gracy Olmstead’s on to something when she writes:
Stranger Things reminds us what it was like to have that sense of safety and camaraderie. It reminds us of the communal threads that hold us together, lending context and beauty to our lives. But it also — importantly — hints at that mystery and wonder that also thread their way through childhood, transmitted in fables and films and games. It suggests (as so many other stories have before them) that these tales are not to be taken lightly, but convey something vitally important to the next generation. It’s their attention to tales and lore that help Will’s friends find and save him, in the end.
In the past, I’ve suggested that younger people (especially millennials) crave mystery and enchantment in a largely disenchanted world. If this is true, then Stranger Things is an answer to that longing, and its success is indicative of its resonance. Despite the fact that we roll our eyes at the endless sequels and remakes that fill movie theaters these days, it’s also true that we seek films that offer us this sort of nostalgia.
Over the years, I’ve learned that one of my favorite storytelling concepts or tropes is that there’s a world behind the world, that this world isn’t all we see but that another world — one wilder, more dangerous, and/or more fantastical — exists just beyond the edge of this one. You see this idea pop up in the works of such authors as George MacDonald, H.P. Lovecraft, C.S. Lewis, Neil Gaiman, Haruki Murakami, and David Mitchell — and I’d argue that it’s the defining aspect of Stranger Things.
We live in an disenchanted age, one where it’s all too easy to feel that the material world we experience with our senses is all there is, and that we’re merely living out our lives in some mechanistic fashion. But stories like Stranger Things explode this idea and, at their heart, dare us to think of a world that’s even bigger and wilder than we might imagine. Paradoxically, the notion that our stature in the cosmos is even smaller and more tenuous than we previously thought can be liberating, exciting even.
Obviously, one doesn’t have to be a Christian or any sort of religious believer to find these themes in Stranger Things, or to even find them affecting. And there’s no suggestion that the Duffers are implying anything particularly supernatural about the Upside Down or Eleven’s psychic gifts. But it’s precisely because I’m a Christian who firmly holds to the belief that this world of our five senses isn’t all there is, that Stranger Things truly hits me so hard; it serves as a healthy reminder. And when you combine this reminding of the otherworldly with the series’ other important themes — friendship, family, loyalty, and sacrifice unmarred by cynicism and skepticism — that makes for a potent blend.
In other words, the ‘80s nostalgia and pop culture references are enjoyable for what they are, but the magic of Stranger Things is that it’s really so much more than pop culture references and homages. There may not be literal demogorgons, mind flayers, and psychic girls walking around Lincoln, Nebraska but there’s more to this reality and all it contains — my job, my relationships, my hobbies and pastimes.
Stranger Things serves as a powerful and entertaining (never underestimate the value of entertainment) reminder that this is, in fact, so much stranger than I often realize. The Ghostbusters costumes and Dungeons & Dragons references are just an added bonus.