Stranger Things Part Two

Stranger Things keeps proving what seems the point of some contention among TV fans, namely: There are good child actors in America.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Stranger Things 2 is a sequel much the same way an eighties movie has a sequel. It mostly runs the same story all over again with a few twists.

When Netflix advertised the new season as "even darker" than the last, I kinda yawned. It seems like every show needs to beat that drum, at least everyone geared to the "horror" segment - "darker", "edgier", "scarier." But Stranger Things 2 isn't "darker" than the first season, and it isn't "scarier". In fact, it's a bit less scary, for reasons I'll go over later. At heart, like its first season, it isn't even a horror show.

Stranger Things is a relationship and coming-of-age drama. The adults play second fiddle to the teens, and the teens play second fiddle to the children. It's one of few shows to manage this feat without falling into the usual traps - getting silly, condescending, moralizing or babying its protagonists. I think that's a big reason for its popularity, and this endearing trait continues with the new installment.

The main difference between the plot of season one and two is that in this installment, there aren't really any diabolical human adversaries to speak of, unless you count an overgrown teenager - it's just "Kids-vs-Supernatural-Evil." The enemy is faceless and purposeless, and for me that makes the show less scary. Its only discernible motive seems to be, "kill everything." Putting it another way - which movie sends more shivers down your spine, 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers' or 'Independence Day'?


The main similarities are, well, manifold. Again, we have Will damselled - in season one Poltergeist-style, and now Exorcist-style. The 80's nostalgia machine is in full gear, even though, as others have noted, this show doesn't give you that much of a feel of what it was like to grow up in the eighties. We revisit the relationships between the kids, the teens and the adults - Mike and Eleven's puppy love, the rather bland love triangle between Nancy, Jonathan and Steve, and what can't even really be called a love triangle between the adults, which is resolved in unceremonious fashion by the end of the season.

The major improvement of season two is that the kids are older. Now, "being older" need hardly be an improvement in itself - Stranger Things season one would've been no better if the young cast had one more year on them - but this is something admirably utilized by the show as the fundament for a marked and natural evolution of the characters and their behavior. Gradually, we're moving on from "just a D&D nerd" territory to more fleshed-out characters, not that they were mediocre to begin with.


The major added element of the cast of Stranger Things part 2 is "Mad Max", AKA Maxine (portrayed by Sadie Sink, who had her first TV role on the excellent show 'The Americans', where she got to pull a shotgun on two KGB agents - a tough cookie from the get-go.) She seems primarily included to fill the "girl-badass" role while Eleven is grounded, act the love interest for Lucas and Dustin, and give Mike and Eleven someone to be angry at for no good reason. She's a particularly effective plot point for Mike, and this goes back to what I noted about the kids maturing - I don't think Finn Wolfhard could've pulled off this attitude of resentment a year ago without coming across as poutingly childish, but here, he sells Mike's pain of loss very well.

Apart from that, Max's almost inheriting the role of the bullies in season one through making fun of the gang for being creepy stalker nerds, while they - minus Mike, who's spoken for - are simply awestruck. This is no uncommon use of strong female characters inserted in a masculine environment in fiction. Still, in summary she's a working and likable presence. The actress is great, she gives the less-important members of the gang more purpose, and she's playing off the cast like a charm.


For me the only real detrimental function of Max is how she serves to procrastinate things between Eleven and Mike. This isn't "my shipper heart speaking" - well, so maybe it's that too - but it feels like a case of the writers not quite knowing how to write that emerging relationship over a number of episodes. Now, to be fair this is hard - few shows have managed to tell a heartfelt, age-appropriate and believable romance between two pre-teens - but the way they synthetically delay these proceedings reminds me a bit of Dale Cooper on the third season of 'Twin Peaks', with them leaving just enough time for a tearful reunion and a dance. As a verdict on the series, that's no good thing, but on the plus side, all they really tell works wonders.

All things considered, I think Stranger Things part two is a win, albeit a less interesting show than the first season. What's important is if there's a third season, the writers must realize this particular well has run dry. They can't revisit the same formula for a third run, and successfully reinventing the show will present a real challenge; one I hope they're up to.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

The only reason 1 can be considered 'better' was because of the mystery.
I don't see the problem with Max...Even in the story she could have been used as away to get inbetween Mike and Eleven but she wasn't so i don't see how she could ''give Mike and Eleven someone to be angry at for NO GOOD reason or procrastinate the relationship''.
Mike was upset his friend was gone so took it out on the 'new replacement' and Eleven showed jealousy..Which for me deepened her character as it showed pettiness, that makes her more human..
I like ships but the importance they seem to have over fandoms and there enjoyment of a series is quite annoying.

I think this season depends on how much you like Eleven's story without the boys. Probably the strongest aspect of season 1 was all the kids relationships so i can see peoples disappointment that they kept Eleven away for almost 8 episodes.
Personally i thought it was clear that they needed to explore Eleven as a character in the way they did, she had to and we as an audience had to see her learn about the world and herself without the others. I mean the girl has stone cold killed (pieces of shit but still) yet no one thought that was worth some sort of introspection on her part.

I enjoyed her faux father/daughter bond with Hopper and i thought there simultaneous ''were have you been'' and hug when she returned was one of the sweetest moments the show has done.
She had to find her mother at some point and discover where/who she was from.
Im in the minority as well for enjoying episode 7 for what it was..The Rejects were trash but i found Kali likeable even though she is from the school of Magneto...There was some really good underlying character work in this episode...Seeing these two abused and alone in the world individuals meet up with a kindred spirit 'sister' so to speak was beautiful. It was no Buffy and Faith but I found some of their interactions quite powerful. .It would have been far better if Kali was on her own. Ironically this was the episode where they tried to do something different but it was the episode every seemed to dislike. The execution was mostly poor but the idea was there..

magritte said...

My main problem with Max's storyline was that her homelife was underdeveloped. As it was, they threw out red herrings early "you're not my sister" and "it's your fault we had to move", which had me wondering if she was another numbered lab rat, but the reality turned out to be more prosaic. The stepfather, seen briefly, was the scariest human evil we saw in either series, but that remained unresolved.

The problem I had with episode 7 was it felt more like the pilot of a spinoff episode than part of the season. Maybe it's setup for season 3, because in this season it only served as a character builder for eleven. I liked the rest of her season though.

As far as scariness, I don't think the lack of human opposition was really the problem, I think it was just that the Upside Down had lost its mystery. Matthew Modine's character never really worked for me anyway. My main problem with the way the Hawkins lab story played out was that it made the Jonathan/Nancy seem rather pointless.

I still enjoyed it and the kids remain great, but I felt like the last third of the season was a bit disappointing.

TheShadowKnows said...

"As it was, they threw out red herrings early 'you're not my sister' and 'it's your fault we had to move', which had me wondering if she was another numbered lab rat, but the reality turned out to be more prosaic."

I actually thought she might turn out to be his daughter (with him pretending to be much younger than he was for some reason - maybe he was an agent looking for Eleven?) or even worse, his child bride. I was much relieved by the prosaic explanation!

magritte said...

Hadn't thought of that! Still felt the stepbrother didn't really work. The other thing that kind of bothered me in the latter part of Series 2 was I really found the Will torture scenes very unpleasant.

Mallena said...

Stranger Things 2: Jurassic Park. I liked it, mostly. Steve was great in the second half, you go Steve! I'd like more backstory in the future. What happened to the other kids? I wouldn't want a bunch of episodes like Ep 7, though, which was weird.

Okay, great - they closed the gate, but what about that hole they escaped from? The Upside Down doesn't seem to be far from the surface of the town, so more badness ahead, I'd assume.