Praise, forgiveness and making sense of 'Stranger Things' season two
Hideous striped couches and mismatched wallpaper. That synth-heavy intro followed by Devo’s “Whip It.” Dragon’s Lair and Dig Dug at the local arcade. We were finally back in 1980s Hawkins and I couldn’t be happier about it.
I had some reservations about the second season of Stranger Things. There was a new pressure that didn’t exist before. People were looking forward to this season; uncharted territory for the breakout hit.
But it only took a few minutes to remember what I loved so much about the show. It’s the world-building. I care about the characters. I felt a longing for the past whenever the Duffer Brothers played with elements of 80s nostalgia, and I wasn't born until 1990. Put simply, I’m emotionally invested, and that makes it easy to overlook any presumed flaws in the writing.
I won’t lie, there were a few. I wasn’t into the whole Chicago subplot. It felt forced and didn’t have much of a payoff. Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) has a ‘sister’ named Kali (Linnea Berthelsen) who turned to a life of crime following her escape from the lab. She tried to corrupt El into killing one of the ‘bad men’ responsible for torturing them as children. But El’s good heart prevails. She realizes that helping her friends is her top priority, leaving Chicago and returning to Hawkins in the nick of time.
In Chicago, El gets a look at what she could’ve become had she not gained a sense of community. She also learns that anger is the key to amplifying her powers. Didn’t we already know that emotional outbursts trigger heightened kinetic abilities? Did we really need a group of punk-rock caricatures and an entire episode dedicated to this arch?
There’s no such thing as perfection (excluding the final season of The Leftovers). With any television show, there are too many hours at play for a flawless production. And overall, Stranger Things 2 was a great offering. I had to give at least one criticism. You know… for credibility and whatnot. But it’s all positive from here.
These kids can act. We saw fantastic performances from Winona Ryder and David Harbour, but it was the younger cast that stole the show. Millie Bobby Brown and Finn Wolfhard, who plays Mike, deliver in every scene. It’s the acting between the lines. The facial expressions and body language. The wordless display of emotion that show the audience how to feel rather than telling them.
If the Mike and Eleven reunion in episode eight didn’t make you feel a certain way, you need to check your pulse.
Season 2 also brought new stars to light. While Gaten Matarazzo (Dustin) and Caleb McLaughlin (Lucas) showed potential in season 1, we didn’t see enough of them to know their creative limits. It seems that the writing staff felt the same way, as both actors played a much larger role this time around.
Unlike the Chicago subplot, the love-triangle between Dustin, Lucas and Max (Sadie Sink) worked well. Humorous with a sprinkle of jealousy and longing, this felt like the real thing. Bringing a certain light to the otherwise sinister storyline was the right choice. It provided ample opportunity to explore darker avenues elsewhere.
And that, they did.
Stranger Things 2 felt like it was R-rated, while it’s inaugural counterpart had more of a PG vibe. The series was never meant for children, and the second season made damn sure we were clear on that. It felt like the production team was finally embracing the horror element. The image of Will’s seizing body at the end of episode 5 comes to mind. This is, after all, a show about monsters.
But at its core, it’s about more than that, as evident by the structuring of the season finale. We had the obligatory final battle between good and evil. There was the sealing of a big gate with the silhouette of a giant shadowy monster lurking beyond. There was the pseudo-exorcism of Will, surrounded by his closest loved ones. There was the crew lighting fires in the underground caverns, reminiscent of some boss-level from the Gears of War franchise. And it all came together in sweet synchronicity with all plots converging at once.
Yet after all the fighting, we saw the true conclusion of the show; the return to normalcy. Echoing my statement about emotional investment, we needed to see this side of things. There were loose ends in the personal lives of these characters and the ‘Snow Ball’ was the perfect place to tie them all up.
We had Steve (Joe Keery) giving Dustin some last minute romantic advice, a pleasant surprise of a character-pairing this season. He longingly looks after his estranged Nancy (Natalia Dyer) as she smiles at her new interest Jonathan (Charlie Heaton).
“Zombie Boy” Will gets asked to dance by some rando. Lucas scores with the new girl. Dustin gets shut down by everyone, only to end up dancing with a sympathetic Nancy; another standout moment. Joyce (Winona Ryder) and Hopper (David Harbour) share a cigarette out in the parking lot. Eleven walks in and pairs up with Mike for some long-overdue alone time.
The interactions felt clunky and awkward and weird. They felt real.
All of the dialog, with the exception of those damn punks from Chicago, felt real. It’s the underlying strength of this show, and it takes a rare combination of acting chops and clever writing to pull it off. Like season one, Stranger Things 2 was simply satisfying. It was a good watch. And lastly, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention it:
Shout out to Bob.
At first I thought Sean Astin was set to be a simple 80s reference, but he proved to be much more than that. He was the lovable underdog. The unsuspecting hero. I knew Bob was going to die as soon as he entered the series, and I fell in love with him anyway. He was just one of those characters; the second season’s Barb but with more personality. He will be missed.
Also, I’m on Team Steve. Jonathan’s whole brooding misunderstood act wore thin for me. Wake up Nance!
That is all.