Is this season of Stranger Things as good as last season?
Yes and no. While there were a few things I found disappointing, overall I think this season is even better than last season, and if you liked last season, I think you’ll love most of the new episodes. The monsters are even scarier, the friendship between the kids gets even deeper, and the new characters add wonderful elements to the stew. Rather than feeling overstuffed, Hawkins seems like a much more real town than it did last time, which raises the stakes. Plus we get to see more of Eleven’s past, and delve a bit more into the shadowy secrets of Hawkins Power & Light, and yes, we get to go back to the Upside Down.
But first, I know what’s important to you, so let’s get down to brass tacks: Is Steve Harrington’s hair still magnificent?
Reader, it’s even better.
[Note: Spoilers ahead for the entirety of Stranger Things season 2.]
He even…but wait, that’s a slight spoiler. Come with me below the cut, won’t you?
HE TELLS YOU HOW TO GET THAT MAGNIFICENT STEVE HERRINGTON HAIR.
It’s great. It involves Fabergé and Farrah Spray, and he just hands this information out to Dustin, because not all heroes wear capes, but some of them wield bats with nails through them.
The Big Stuff
For my money, the character development this season was even better, and all of the acting was impeccable. Each of the characters get at least a few moments to shine, and the new ones more than hold their own. Sean Astin and Paul Reiser are both fantastic in roles that start out fairly simple, and grow in complexity as the series unfolds. There are also a few new kids: Sadie Sink plays Max, a new girl in Mike, Will, Dustin, and Lucas’ class, and she brings along her hair metal-loving older brother Billy, played by Dacre Montgomery. We also meet another subject from Hawkins Power & Light, a young woman named Kali, played by Linnea Berthelsen, who has a very different set of powers than our beloved Eleven’s.
And speaking of Eleven—I had some issues with how she was treated last season, but her arc in Season 2 is so good I’d like to watch an entire series just about that. She goes off on her own adventure, apart from the boys, and proves herself to be a compelling lead in her own right. (She also throws out at least one more perfect Halloween costume.)
The monsters are still scary, and the kids go back to the D&D well in an adorable way. Last year we got one terrifying demogorgon. This season we get an army of demogorgons, plus constant hints of a much larger, more terrifying beast looming over the town and once again threatening Will Byers in particular. We also get hints of an even bigger monster, whom I’m assuming will be part of the threat in Season Three, since I think it’s safe to say this show is getting a Season Three.
Include but are not limited to: Ghostbusters, Gremlins, Tremors, The Goonies, Beetlejuice, John Hughes’ oeuvre, Poltergeist, Under the Skin, IT, Near Dark, The Lost Boys, Mad Max/Road Warrior, cameos include Mr. Mom, Punky Brewster, Siouxie Sioux, Reagan/Bush, and several arcade hits, and music includes Devo, an anachronistic appearance by Oingo Boingo, Metallica and Megadeth, Cyndi Lauper, The Clash, Kenny Rogers, The Runaways, Bon Jovi, and a bunch more.
A Couple of Things I Loved
- JUSTICE FOR BARB. We didn’t get Force Ghost Barb like I hoped, but the show did focus on Nancy mourning her friend, dealt with her parents grief, and called out the way so many townsfolk were willing to dismiss her and move on.
- Families! We got to meet all the kids’ families, and while Mike’s dad remains the checked-out Republican, we get to see Dustin’s adorable, supportive mom, Lucas’ loving parents and bratty sister, and Max’s nightmare of a stepdad. Plus Hopper tries to parent Eleven (this doesn’t quite work) and Joyce continues to be the best, if most frazzled and paranoid, mom ever. I mean, she sews Will a Ghostbusters costume during her shift at the crappy dollar store, come on.
- Max’s family, in particular, was a great addition. After a few episodes of hints that Max is More Than She Seems, it turns out that her family is weird and secretive because her stepdad is abusive toward his son, who then takes it out on Max. Seeing an ugly family dynamic in the midst of a show full of families that tend to be more loving is actually a great shot of gritty realism—the human monsters are every bit as bad as the cosmic monsters, and standing up to them, as Max does, is every bit as heroic. The writers allow her stepbrother to be both a villain and a victim, in a perfectly calibrated couple of scenes where we seem him alpha male-ing all over Steve, menacing Max, and then being humiliated by his own horrible father. The show takes the time to reveal why he’s terrible, and note the trickle down abuse of the family, but it also doesn’t let him off the hook. He could treat Max better. The two of them could band together against his dad. Instead, he becomes both the worst character and the most tragic figure on the entire show.
- Sean Astin as a heroic Radio Shack employee!
- Sean Astin asking if an X marking a spot on a map means there’s a pirate treasure!
- Nancy and Jonathan dipping out to be on The X-Files for an episode.
- Kali! There was a moment when it seems like Kali plans to use Eleven’s power for her own vengeance, so I was so pleased that, instead, she truly was trying to mentor Eleven. The way the show took time the time for her to remind Eleven she wasn’t a prisoner, to tell her that mercy could be her choice, but never to step on someone else’s choice, the way she protected Eleven and the rest of her gang of misfits—it was such a great look at complex characters who could be seen as bad guys, but who are also three-dimensional, abused kids who are trying to create a life and family that works for them. (If they’re the stars of Season 3, sign me up.) Especially given that this is a show that hasn’t shown too much female friendship, the way Kali and Eleven immediately bond was fantastic. And the butterfly maybe made me tear up a little.
- Lucas’ little sister! Specifically, the epic makeout session she orchestrates between He-Man and Barbie, and the fact that, when Lucas rescues He-Man, she simply has Barbie make out with a plush penguin. If she’s the star of Season 3, sign me up.
A Few Issues
So my one big (where’s the) beef with Stranger Things is something I touched on in my IT movie review. The Duffer Brothers are a decade too young to have experienced most of this first hand. They’re cherry-picking the references that they think are cool, when in actuality 1984 in small-town Indiana probably felt a lot more like the late ‘70s than like a Brave New Decade. This is a rural town—the people here would have satellite dishes rather than cable. The TVs we see are usually the rabbit-ear variety. That means that most of these people have access to four major channels and then some local/UHF ones. The radio stations would most likely be playing a mix of soft rock and country. Yet what we mostly hear is punk, New Wave, and hair metal. Now, Jonathan Byers, town misfit, loving The Clash and the Talking Heads? Obviously. The glorious nerd who runs the arcade playing Devo’s “Whip It” on a loop? Probably. But California New Wave outfit Oingo Boingo’s “Just Another Day”, from an album which wasn’t even released until the following year, and which itself was not released as a single until 1986, playing, apropos of nothing, on the soundtrack? It’s just a little too much spot-the-reference. When Nancy tells Jonathan that he’ll spend Halloween night listening to Talking Heads and reading Vonnegut, she’s right, but it also doesn’t sound like a conversation, it sound like they’re ticking off boxes. What is the point of all these references? Yes, certain people will get a nice little nostalgia hit for a second, but at a certain point they’re just falling into the trap of indicating personality through material goods. The show is at its best when its writers commit to developing its characters organically—which, to be fair, happens more and more as the season rolls along.
My other big issue? Again, we’re in rural Indiana. Speaking as someone who spent the first years of her life in somehow-even-more-rural Pennsylvania, one of the big things is the warring senses of isolation and claustrophobia. Everyone knows everyone in a small town. There is no hiding, no getting a fresh start. People remember your whole life. Hence, claustrophobia. Joyce is dating Bob now, who’s known her since high school, and watched her date Hopper, watched her horrible slow-motion flameout of a relationship with her ex-husband. He watched her elder son become a misfit, and her younger boy become a painfully shy nerd. He watched that boy go missing, watched the ex roar back into town, watched the ex leave again, and watched the family cohere again. He knows all of this when he begins dating her. Everyone does.
But there’s also no cellphones, probably not much cable yet, no college radio, obviously no internet. If you call a house and no one picks up, that’s kinda it. If they have an answering machine, you can leave a message. If the person doesn’t leave a message, you’ll have no idea why they called you until you talk to them next time. If a kid leaves a house, you have no idea where that kid is until they call or show up again. If you ask your friend to meet you somewhere, and they don’t show, you either have to wait, or leave without them. If a car breaks down and there’s no payphone nearby, you’re walking until you find a gas station or a friendly trucker picks you up. Your mail comes once a day, to a box. You have to go outside to collect it. There might be two newspapers a day? There is one local news program, and one national. They are at 6:00 and 6:30 respectively. If you miss them, you don’t know what happened that day.
It’s a world that many people reading this lived in, but it’s unimaginable now. The show could have leaned into this from the beginning, and emphasized the fact that the kids go out the door in the morning and have no contact with their parents until night. They might want to hang out on the weekends, but they have no way to get in touch with each other. But, the Duffers chose to work around this by arming the kids with walkie-talkies that have impossible ranges. This cheat annoyed the hell out of me, so I was really pleased that they dropped it halfway through and actually went with the isolation of life in that town. For me, that’s when the show kicked into gear.
Mike goes to Will’s house to see what’s going on, and basically disappears from his friends’ lives for at least two days. Lucas goes AWOL to tell Mad Max about all the group’s secrets, and since his little sister turns his walkie-talkie off, he and Dustin are cut off from each other for an entire episode. This leads to the serendipitous occurrence that Dustin and Steve Harrington just happen to bump into each other at the Wheelers, which is why Steve gets dragged back into monster-fighting. By cutting them off, not only does the show immediately become more realistic, but it also throws each of the kids back on their own resources. Lucas, who didn’t get much to do last season, gets to come to the front as the most thoughtful and sensitive of the boys. Dustin graduates from comic relief to co-monster fighter with Steve, but also retains enough of his sweetness that he trusts his bond with Dart, which ends up saving their asses in a very touching-80s-animal-movie type way. Steve isn’t the king of the school anymore, but he’s more mature, and shows every sign of being an upstanding lifetime resident of Hawkins who will almost certainly become the school football coach. Will, who we barely got to meet last season, is revealed as possibly the sweetest, most good-hearted 12-year-old that’s ever been put on screen, but Noah Schaap is so good that I believed it, and I understood that Joyce Byers could raise a kid like Jonathan and Will, and that we could see the outlines of their father’s damage on both of them. Weirdly it’s Mike who comes off not great. (And I say this with all due love for Finn Wolfhard, who was also perfect as Richie Tozier in IT.) Mike is just mean to Max, he’s rude to Lucas about the Ghostbusters costumes, he’s so fixated on Eleven that he lets his other relationships fade into the background. When they do finally meet I was of two minds: part of me was excited to see them reunited, but another part thought it was a bit creepy that a pair of children are this intense about each other. Which, if Season Three is all about their relationship, and how it’s both strengthened them and messed them up, I’m all in.
Steve & Dustin 4-EVA
Steve gives Dustin some titanically bad advice, which in turn leads to Max and Lucas getting closer. I was pleased that this seemed to be a direct response—Dustin missed his chance to get to know Max as a person because he’s trying to be a cool guy instead of a friend. But I absolutely love Steve as the big brother Dustin never had. The show did a nice job of using Steve as a mirror to both Jonathan and Billy, which I loved, because I’m excited that Steve got to have more depth than the rich cool kid we met at the beginning of last season.
That Ending Dance Sequence
I was a little frustrated by the perfect pairing up of the kids in the final dance. I always find this creepy—they’re barely pubescent, so why the mad rush to give everyone a heteronormative dance partner? Why can’t the kids just all dance together, as friends, rather than making sure there are kisses between Lucas and Max and Eleven and Mike? I did love Nancy dancing with Dustin, though.
Does Nancy Need Help?
What was up with the weird arc of Nancy’s blossoming alcohol problem? First she gets shit-faced on “pure fuel” and then shows up fresh as a damn daisy to school the next day, and then she downs vodka like it’s water while Jonathan and the much-older journalist both show the effects immediately. Actually, maybe it’s not a problem, now that I say it that way. Maybe the fact that Nancy’s mom’s veins flow with Zinfandel has given her a stronger tolerance?
The only moment that straight up pissed me off
Eleven bruising past Max, who’s proffered hand and attempt at friendship mirror’s Will and Mike’s meeting in kindergarten. I can accept the idea that Eleven is, emotionally, a toddler, and seeing Max talking to Mike was like seeing someone steal her woobie. But it’s also an abused girl rebuffing the attempted friendship of another abused girl, and it’s the show veering violently away from an opportunity to portray female friendship, as opposed to the complicated sisterhood, Eleven shares with Kali. Seeing Max get rejected over and over again, along with all of the simmering, terrifying scenes with her brother, felt like dispatches from a much darker, more realistic show about resentment in a lower-middle-class family. Like Roseanne without a laugh track, basically. I thought the arc was good, Max was great, and the complicated stuff with her brother and step-dad were perfect, but it was so tonally different from the rest of the show that I’m still trying to work out whether it was a feature or a bug for me. I think feature. I just wish we’d gotten a little more time with the family, so we could see a bit more of the brother’s depth. (Although I also loved the weird, cheesecakey near-seduction scene with Mrs. Wheeler.)
So there are my first, disorganized thoughts after binging Season 2. Now, how about you? Did you love this season? Do you think it built well on the last installment, or was this your last visit to Hawkins? And where do you want to see these characters go next?