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Josh Reviews Stranger Things Season Two!

Like most everybody else, I quite enjoyed the first season of the Duffer Brothers’ Stranger Things last year.  (Click here for my review.)  But while I enjoyed that first eight-episode installment, by the end of it I wasn’t sure the show could sustain a multi-season run.  Would the show’s eighties-homage nature get old?  More problematically, while the final two episodes of season one were thrilling, I was disappointed by the number of narrative threads left hanging (read to the end of my review to see what I’m talking about); and if the show couldn’t be bothered to resolve these plot holes, it didn’t seem to me like a strong foundation for a lengthy run.

So color me pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed season two of Stranger Things.  While this second season doesn’t have the joy of discovery of this new and unexpected show that was part of what made watching season one so exciting, I actually think season two is a stronger piece of narrative story-telling, compelling from start to finish and with a more tightly plotted story.

I’ve read some complaints that the season starts too slowly, but I didn’t feel that way at all.  I enjoyed the way the show took the time to re-establish the characters and where they all were at, emotionally, a year after the events of the first season.  The obvious question was, why would any of these characters stay in Hawkins, but the show smartly answered that.  (Showing how Joyce Byers and Jim Hopper have become reliant on the scientists at the lab to monitor Will was a clever way to keep the characters tied to Hawkins.)

As always, all of the main kids are terrific, and the show smartly gave each of the main boys their own individual story-line here in season two.  We see that Mike has fallen into something of a depression at the disappearance of Eleven, while Dustin comes to care for a baby monster he nicknames Dart and Lucas begins to fall for the new-girl-in-town, Max.  Season one focused on the search for the missing Will Byers (Noah Schnapp), but that meant that Will wasn’t actually in the show very much.  Here in season two, Will steps to the forefront, and we discover that young Noah Schnapp is a fantastic actor, taking Will on quite a harrowing journey as he begins to succumb to the influence of what the boys nickname the “Mind Flayer” from the Upside Down.  There were more than a few scenes in which I was stunned by how great Mr. Schnapp’s performance was.

The older kids remain very interesting as well in season two.  Though Nancy ended season one in a relationship with Steve Harrington, season two doesn’t take too much time to find reasons for her to go on another adventure with Will’s older brother Jonathan.  Meanwhile, Joe Kerry’s Steve gets a lot more screen time this year, and the show performs a complete character resuscitation on him.  Steve wasn’t terribly likable back in season one, and I was bummed Nancy wound up with him at the end.  But suddenly in season two, Steve became perhaps my favorite character!  I loved the way he became a sort-of guardian of the younger boys by the end of the season, and the way he bonded with Dustin (even sharing hair-care tips) was spectacular.

One of the great aspects of Stranger Things season one was how the show successfully made the adults — specifically Winona Ryder’s Joyce Byers and David Harbour’s Chief Jim Hopper, just as interesting as the young kids, and luckily we get lots more great stuff with both Joyce and Hopper in this second season.  I like the gentle way the show portrays their connection to one another, and they both get several great “hero” moments this year.

We got a number of new characters here in season two.  When the season begins, we see that while in season one we might have rooted for Joyce and Hopper to get together, Joyce has struck up a relationship with a kind though somewhat hapless fellow named Bob (Sean Astin).  Mr. Astin was a delight in the role, fleshing out Bob into a good guy who is, eventually, able to be as much of a hero as Hopper if not more.  At first I was annoyed by this character, seeing him as an obvious obstacle the writers put between Joyce and Hopper, but Mr. Austin’s performance allowed Bob to become far more than that.

As great as the casting of Sean Astin was, casting Paul Reiser as the new head of the Hawkins Lab was even more genius.  Not only is Mr. Reiser reliably great, but casting him was an obvious connection to his role as the nice guy turned corporate villain in Aliens, thus allowing for a fun game of speculation as the audience wondered whether this character would be evil, like he was in Aliens, or whether the show would flip that on its head.  I won’t spoil where this winds up, but I’ll say I was fully satisfied with this character’s arc and I’d love to see him again in season three.

Slightly less successful was the inclusion of Max and her jerk of an older brother Billy.  I love the idea of adding a girl into the group of four boys, and the writers did a nice job setting up Max as a tough, strong character easily able to hold her own with the boys.  But in the end, I was disappointed that Max didn’t have much to contribute to the story.  Her skills didn’t wind up proving useful in the way that all of the boys’ skills did back in season one.  She existed more as a plot point, and a way to drive Lucas and Dustin’s stories, rather than having much of a narrative arc of her own.  That was a letdown.  Sadie Sink seems like a great actor, so I’d love for “Mad Max” to get more to do in season three.  And the less said about her over-the-top-horrible older brother Billy the better.  He was so one-dimensionally evil that he bored me.  They tried to give the character a little depth in one scene late in the season in which we get a glimpse of his terrible home life, but I still found Billy to be a bore.

If there was one other narrative mis-step this season it’s that I was disappointed that Eleven was separated from the main gang for so much of the season.  I am seeing a Charles Xavier problem developing with Eleven.  In the X-Men comics (and we see this in the movies as well), Xavier was so powerful that the writers had to keep finding increasingly frustrating ways to take him off the board, because otherwise he could defeat the villains too easily.  The same seems to be the case here with Eleven, as this season’s story would have been over pretty quickly had Eleven actually been around.  It seemed a little transparent as a writerly device to have Eleven separated from her friends for almost the entire season, not to mention a bit disappointing since the relationship between all those kids was one of the best aspects of season one.  It was satisfying to see Eleven go all Jean Grey at the end of the season, but I hope she is able to be more skillfully incorporated into the main story in season three.

This season felt like it had a slightly larger canvas than the first season, and the visual effects of the huge monster and all the Demo-Dogs were terrific throughout the season.  As in season one, I enjoyed the way the story built up a nice head of steam before exploding in those final episodes, which were so tense and exciting to watch.

The Duffer Brothers spoke a lot, in interviews, about crafting this entire season as a sequel movie to the first season, and that came through in all sorts of wonderful little touches, my favorite being the newly-tweaked opening credits that built to the Stranger Things 2 title.  I love the idea of naming this second season like the sequel to a hit movie!  It fit nicely into the whole eighties vibe of the show.

Speaking of which, while of course it was fun to see the boys dressed as Ghostbusters for Halloween, I was pleased that the eighties references seemed a little lighter this season, particularly after those first few episodes when the story really started to take off.  Those references could start to get tiresome, so I was pleased that the show pulled back on that a bit, allowing the story to stand on its own.

There are still a number of lingering plot threads from season one that this season did not address, and they bug me.  The biggest question is: while we saw Eleven shut down the now-enormous portal between our world and the Upside Down that had been created in the Lab, back in season one we saw many other portals.  There was one in the Byers house, and another in a tree in the woods.  How were those created?  Are those still there?  Why does no one seem to remember or care about that?  Shutting down the portal in the Lab is irrelevant if there are already many other portals.  It’s a season one plothole that, in lingering, undermines the season two story somewhat.  Will this be addressed in a future season…?

That being said, I enjoyed the new avenues down which season two took the show’s story.  I can see the beginnings of a solid multi-season story that is beginning to develop.

Bravo to the Duffer Brothers and their entire team for showing that Stranger Things was not a one-hit wonder.  This show has legs, and I am excited to see where this story and these characters go in future seasons.  It’s going to be a long wait for season three…!

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