Editor’s Note: There are no spoilers in this article.
Last summer, Stranger Things took the world by storm. Season 1 received widespread critical and popular acclaim, and it’s not hard to see why. Stranger Things is, at the same time, a love letter to and departure from the era in which it’s set. The series defies convention and abides by them. It takes what’s familiar to a modern audience and plays with their expectations. Nostalgia for the 80s is a byproduct, and never a crutch that the show relies on. For all of these reasons and more, Stranger Things’ first season is a hard act to follow.
Season 2, thankfully, strives to tell its own story and never gets lost in its own popularity. The Duffer Brothers, the creators of Stranger Things, have proven once more that they’re able to juggle several moving parts and craft a well-told story. This new season continues the trend of establishing a wonderful balance of nostalgia, compelling characters, and well-paced, interesting narrative. There’s a fantastic montage in the first episode that jump-cuts between different shots of life in the 80s. Rather than consisting of gratuitous references and callbacks to the era, they’re candid peeks into a decade with a distinct personality. It’s a reminder for the audience of where they are: the time is 1984 and the place is Hawkins, Indiana.
It’s this nostalgic setting that informs the characters, who were given so much room to grow in this new season. Episode 1 picks up a year after the events of the previous season’s finale and builds upon what has happened to further develop the main cast. The curtain has been peeled back, they’ve gazed into the abyss, and each character is coping (or failing to) in different ways. This is the biggest difference between Season 1 and 2: Season 2 deals far more heavily in personal and interpersonal struggles. This has, with a couple noticeable exceptions, resulted in a narrative that takes a strong cast of characters and pushes them forward through interesting and unexpected arcs.
Pacing – Giving ample screentime and character development to nearly a dozen cast members is no small feat. The genius of Stranger Things as a series is its ability to maintain fantastic pacing and stay true to its characters. It expertly juggles multiple narrative threads and manages to convey enough information such that the audience is both informed and interested. There is a distinct lack of pandering; the show respects the viewers to fill in the gaps and understand what is going on.
One of my favorite aspects of the show is how it manages to thematically tie several stories together. In Episode 5, for example, there are four story threads happening parallel to each other, but the show still links them together around a central theme: piecing together the truth. That central idea manifests in different ways, from the Byers family figuring out what’s going on with the Upside Down to Eleven seeking out her past. The episodes, for the most part, are laser-focused and showcases the writing team’s strength at keeping a big idea from falling apart.
Character Development – The main cast knows what the threat is: they’ve been to the Upside Down, brought down the manipulative secret organization, and faced the monster head-on. But the events of the first season don’t exist in a vacuum. Several of the main characters struggle to deal with the emotional and psychological stress of what happened: Mike, Will, and Nancy have trouble returning to a normal life, Joyce, Hopper, and Steve try to regain some semblance of structure, while Eleven, isolated from her friends, searches for a place where she belongs.
Season 2’s strength lies in a narrative driven by character motivations and conflicts. The main cast has goals they want to accomplish and personal fears that threaten to stop them from doing so. This new season is interesting because of how those needs and fears overlap and intersect. Where this shines the most is in some unexpected character combinations, like Dustin and Steve and Hopper and Eleven. Character dynamics are pretty varied this season but are held in place thanks to actors that understand and convey their characters’ strong personalities.
New Characters – New characters are simultaneously some of the best and worst aspects of Season 2. Sean Astin and Paul Reiser as Bob Newby and Dr. Sam Owens, respectively, make fantastic additions to an already stellar cast by adding some much-needed optimism. I and, from what I’ve seen, many others fully expected the worst of Bob and Dr. Owens. This natural distrust of newcomers can be chalked up to a mix of genre-savviness and a protective instinct towards characters we’ve grown to love. But, like with many other facets of the show, Stranger Things defies expectations.
Using Tropes – It’s one thing to turn a trope on its head. Stranger Things does far more than that. Films from the 80s have a firm hold on popular consciousness and the show uses this to its advantage. Not only does it subvert tropes, it does so in a way that fully fleshes out the writing and the characters. Season 1 established this trend: the stuck-up jock ends up being a pretty nice guy, the surly town sheriff quickly drops his disbelief, and the kids feel like real kids, not movie kids. By playing with the audience’s expectations, a familiar story is retold in a way that’s fresh and exciting.
What Didn’t Work
Even at its worst, the new season is pretty great. Season 2’s weakest aspects are still enjoyable and inform the characters, but unfortunately, do nothing for the plot. Ironically, some of the best parts of this season also make for some of its worst.
Pacing – Those who have already watched Season 2 will know what I mean when I say that Episode 7 feels like it comes from a different show. For six straight episodes prior, Season 2 had a crystal-clear focus on its plot. The ticking clock of malevolent forces plotting in the Upside Down served to push forward and tie together the disparate character arcs and narrative threads. Except for one.
Eleven takes this season to better understand her past and her place in the world, which is all well and good. The issue arises when her character arc takes her out of Hawkins and into what can ostensibly be called a superhero origin story. Without spoiling too much, it’s safe to say that you feel like you’re watching a different show. The silver-lining to this is that Episode 7 still does a wonderful job of letting Eleven grow as a character. It allows her to explore one of the major themes of this season: how people deal with trauma and move on with their lives. Despite that, Episode 7 sticks out like a sore thumb because of the abrupt halt it puts to the well-established pacing of Season 2.
New Characters – Bob and Dr. Owens weren’t the only new characters this season, but they certainly were the best. Sadie Sink and Dacre Montgomery join the cast as Max and Billy, a pair of dysfunctional “siblings” who have no bearing whatsoever on the outcome of the plot. That’s not to say their screentime is useless, far from it. They do an excellent job of promoting character development (specifically with Lucas and Steve). It was frustrating to watch, as Max and Billy had some interesting things going on with their backgrounds but the show simply didn’t (and couldn’t) spare the time to make them more fully integrated into the narrative. At the end of the season, you’re left wondering what exactly it was that they did.
Despite some rocky bumps along the way, Stranger Things continues to impress with a fantastic second season. The Duffer Brothers have a keen understanding not just of their story and characters, but of their audience as well. Theirs is a show that respects its predecessors, the culture it comes from, and its own popularity. It’s unclear where the show will go from here, but with two strong seasons under its belt, Stranger Things is undoubtedly bound for greater things.