Review: “Stranger Things 2”

One of the pleasures of the first Stranger Things series was being caught so totally by surprise.  The season indulged in a lot of world-building, so every monster bursting out the walls, every journey into a black astral abyss, every crawl through a hollow tree into a parallel dimension had an elevated sense of “What the fuck?!”

I’ll still never forget Winona Ryder as Joyce Byers, plaintively asking her unseen son, whom she had just figured out how to communicate with via Christmas lights attached to letters, “I don’t understand … what should I do?  What should I do?!” and then the Christmas lights starkly spelling out “R-U-N,” seconds before the demogorgon came bursting through yet another wall.

Of the other ’80s revival products that dropped at the time and continue to drop (House of the Devil, It Follows, the new adaptation of Stephen King’s It), Stranger Things was the least avant-garde, the most flat-out entertaning.  It had crackerjack actors and characters like Finn Wolfhard as Mike, Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven, Natalia Dyer as Nancy, and Joe Keery as Steve – relatable characters who made you care about them.  And there was the occasional winking ’80s reference, mixed in with a synthwave score that was more evocative than winking.

Well, the world is built, and Stranger Things 2 has the luxury of sinking in and inhabiting it.  This is both a blessing and a curse, in that it is great to revisit our favorite characters in their environment and see them expand in interesting (though usually predictable) directions; but some of the Discovery Voyage is gone.  After only one jawdropping season, we expectStranger Things product to knock us out and entertain is in certain ways.  That it rises to the occasion is a relief, but somehow unremarkable.  I think Stranger Things 2 clears some (admittedly high) expectations, but doesn’t go much further.

Some bullet points …

Mike: Our hero from last season, played now by a full-fledged movie star due to Wolfhard’s scene-stealing turn in the aforementioned It, takes something of a back seat.  It’s a little disappointing, since Mike was an appealing everykid, first among several great audience surrogates and moral centers to the plot.  This season he is mostly consigned to moody seething, aggressively acting out his despair over the loss of Eleven.  Who can blame him?  She was magess to his paladin, the likes of which D&D nerds so rarely get in the real world.  She practically made his life worth living for the brief but exciting time she spent with him.  We’re building the entire season to their reunion, but the goodwill he burns by his moodiness makes that reunion harder to appreciate.

On the other hand, in a show noted for the quality of its child actors, it gives his co-stars a chance to shine …

Dustin and Lucas: Arguably the breakout star of the first season, Gaten Matazzaro’s Dustin remains addictively fun to watch – precociously foul-mouthed, eminently sensible, unapologetically and enthusiastically geeky but with a profound dignity.  Fittingly, Dustin gets tons of screen time, all the best lines, and an unexpected and highly fruitful odd-couple pairing with Joe Keery’s cool-kid jock character Steve.  The armor of Dustin’s age-defying wisdom shows chinks, though, when he misjudges the safety of befriending a small, adorable extradimensional monster.  Even cute baby demons have a way of growing up dangerous, Dustin …

In the first season, Mike acted with his heart, which made him obvious hero fodder.  Caleb McLaughlin’s Lucas, by contrast, acted with his head, which fitted him for a black hat (no terrible racial pun intended) among the kids.  Although ultimately just as heroic, he was slow to trust, hostile to Eleven, and resistant to the supernatural in a way that hindered the heroes’ progress.  In Stranger Things 2 he gets a more full-blooded treatment and a love-interest of his own in the form of Maxine (to which Dustin plays Third Wheel in a love triangle.  Boy, I know that feel, Dustin …)

Eleven: Separated from her friends for most of the season, Eleven gets to push her emotional range into different dimensions of frustration and anxiety – those resembling a petulant teenager.   The first season ended with Eleven’s fate uncertain, but with hints that she was not to be counted out for future seasons.  I was a little disappointed that her re-introduction was as simple as it was – that she woke up in the Upside-Down, wandered for a few minutes (or maybe it was weeks and the directors were playing fast and loose with time) before very shortly finding a way back into the real world.  Her subsequent time spent on the lam living in the woods, freezing as the snow gradually accumulated, was heartbreaking.  And hey … am I interpreting it right to say that Eleven’s way out of the Upside-Down ended up becoming the expanded rift that infected Hawkins with demogorgon-tunnels?  If so, whereas Dustin screws up; Lucas steps up; and Mike lashes out; Eleven has a startlingly similar arc this season as the last – the one who accidentally initiates the danger, and the one who ultimately has the power to banish it.

Eleven was the de-facto protagonist of the first season, in that resolution of a main conflict ultimately lay in her hands.  She reprises that role in the sequel series.  There are multiple climaxes to various storylines, but both seasons come down to Eleven holding up her hands and screaming as she flexes her psionic talents to stab at the heart of imminent danger.  The supremely emo Millie Bobby Brown manages to find new emotional resonance to what is basically the exact same climactic scene.  Her detour to Pittsburgh to reuinite with another one of her kind is entertaining, but ultimately slight as far as plot goes … it seems strange for such a left-field plot detour to have no lasting consequences.  Ultimately, Eleven’s storyline suffers for its isolation from the greater action.

Will: Will also has a similar role to play this season as last – Damsel in Distress.  Although his whereabouts are never unknown, he is once again a hapless victim of the forces of the Upside Down (although, now as then, through dissembling and cleverness, he has some agency in his own rescue).  It’s strange to have him go from McGuffin in the first series to fully-fleged character and main cast member in the second season.  It’s a good thing, though, in that we get more screen time with Noah Schnapp, another excellent addition to the young cast.  His trembling terror contrasts well his carefree smile, as well as the demonic rage that surfaces when he is possessed by the Mind Flayer.

Seeing him in frame with the other boys so much more often, I was surprised by how much smaller and more slight Noah Schnapp is than his castmates.

Nancy: Nancy remains awesome, the best big sister on television, and her survivor’s guilt over Barb’s death – resulting in a drunken bender and ultimately a resolution to do the right thing – is morbidly fun to watch.

Steve: Steve’s transformation from bully to hero – which was never part of the plan, until the Duffer Brothers realized what a next-level star they had in Joe Keery – continues apace.  His big-brotherly bonding with Dustin is impossible not to love.  Hairdo with a Heart of Gold.

Joyce and Jonathan: They remain watchable (well, I think Ryder is watchable) and admirably devoted to Will’s well-being, but not a lot of development comes to these characters, with the minor exception of Jonathan’s not-delayed-enough romance with Nancy.

Hopper: The biggest development for Chief Jim Hopper is the secret, fatherly bond he builds with Eleven throughout the season.  He is one of Brown’s only scene partners, which hardly seems fair since David Harbour gets to make the rounds from Wolfhard to Ryder to Paul Reiser.  But although the bond between Eleven and Hopper is rewarding, it doesn’t add a whole lot of nuance to the character, who was already partially defined by his identity as a bereaved father to a deceased little girl.  Still, it’s tough not to love Jim Hopper.  He’s a badass.  Don’t mess around with Jim.

Paul Reiser:  *Spoiler alert* – I liked Reiser in this season, but it seems like a waste to bring Burke from Aliens into an ’80s homage and not have him turn out to be a turncoat, doublespeaking scumbag without a shred of human feeling.

Bob: It’s hard for me to talk about this, so I’ll leave it here – Mikey from The Goonies makes out with Lydia from Beetlejuice.

Maxine and Billy: From newcomers to the young cast, I was hoping for more.  Maxine functions well as the tomboyish love interest for Lucas and Dustin – she’s just different and geeky enough.  She went from not giving a fuck to wanting to be their friends a little too quickly, but Sadie Sink really sold it.

Dacre Montgomery as Billy, though … less wild about him.  Maybe I’m just protective of ’80s metal and punk, which is always playing when Billy’s mullet and six-pack roll into frame.  As an obvious sex-magnet for the women in Stranger Things world, I didn’t expect him to be reduced to the most Henry Bowers-esque bully the show had to offer.  His browbeating of Maxine over whose fault their family move was; his insistence that Maxine not be referred to as his sister … it all lead me to believe that there was something more sinister in their background than slightly-more-than-typical stepsibling/abusive parent drama.  When it became clear that Billy was a pretty unambiguous monster, I was expecting him to be set up to be eaten by a demogorgon.  The fact that he survived the series with little or no exposure to the supernatural plotline made me question whether the character was necessary in the season at all.  His only purpose seems to be to give Steve his mandatory once-a-season beating.

The Mind Flayer:  Creepier in the trailers than it ended up being in the series … although its interaction with Will gave it some real sizzle.  “Go away!  Go away!

The Setting: There’s a lot more wink-wink, nudge-nudge about the ’80s references in this season.  Music cues like Devo, Scorpions, and WHAM! are played for laughs rather than for atmosphere this time around.  It almost feels like this time the Duffer Brothers are more self-conscious of the ’80s nostalgia that they wielded with such confidence last year.

What did you think of Stranger Things 2?

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