I talk a lot about how Netflix, and the tsunami of streaming services that have followed in its wake, have completely changed the television industry. Gone are the days of cable bundles, now is the time of a more a la carte viewing experience. While I’m a massive fan of the era Netflix has ushered us into, there is still one massive bonus that exclusively belongs to cable: Event Television. Because Netflix drops entire seasons all at once, and people watch at different speeds, conversation about TV have moved away from the water cooler dissections of the previous nights episode. For example, can you think of a single show on Netflix that generates as much workplace discussion as Game of Thrones? Well, if you’ve been on social media at all the last few months, you know that Stranger Things 2 is the perfect example of and Event-Binge. Almost everyone I know watched at least the first few episodes within hours of release. My office did a viewing party at lunch, my friends and I stayed up till 2 am to finish. This is the single most anticipated show this fall, bar none, and thankfully, it deserves every ounce of hype.
Stranger Things 2 is just that, the second installment in a fantastic series. This is something I was truly worried about going in. The first 8 episodes were given an insane amount of praise, and sometimes shows can buy into their own hype. This can be detrimental, as creators write what people want to see, not what best serves the story. But every moment felt tonally consistent with what had come before. Even though the scope is massive and tells a much larger story, this show hasn’t lost an inch of what made it great. The production design, the stellar cinematography, the delightfully retro costuming, I never once doubted that I was back in Hawkins, Indiana.
The aspect I was most worried about with this sequel was the cast of child actors. With Millie Bobby Brown rapping on every late night talk show and those kids being on every red carpet they could find, I feared they would let it all go to their heads. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The returning cast of child actors, along with newcomer Sadie Sink, are just as rock solid as you would expect them to be. Finn Wolfhard, hot off his turn in IT, delivers surprising emotional range. Caleb McLaughlin and Sadie Sink perfectly capture the awkwardness of young romance. Noah Schnapp as Will Beyers gets a massive step up and delivers what might be the breakout television performance of the year. If I had to pick a favorite of these kids, It’s Gaten Matarazzo’s Dustin. This kid is a star, I don’t know how else to put it. His ability to deliver comedy in the midst of chaos was one of my favorite parts of the entire series. And no spoilers, but his final scene brought me to tears.
While all the kids are great, the main cast member people were talking about last year was Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven. While I think Brown is solid in this role, I’ve never fully bought into the hype. I think it’s ridiculous that she was nominated for an Emmy. With so many amazing actresses struggling for recognition, to give that honor to a kids with her entire career ahead of her, a girl who pretty much just said “no” a lot while staring off into the distance, it rubbed me the wrong way. There are people calling her the new Meryl Streep. Again, I think she’s great in this role, but let’s see her in something else before we start comparing her to the greatest actress who ever lived.
I have more thoughts about Millie Bobby Brown’s star making turn as Eleven, but I don’t think I can give my full and honest opinion without including some pretty serious spoilers. For now, know that I think she’s great. For my full thoughts, I’ve included a section after my rating where I go more into spoilers.
The teenagers haven’t been left in the dust though, as their characters are taken in new and genuinely exciting directions. The central conflict for this age group is the love triangle brewing between Steve, Nancy, and Johnathan. While a relationship drama subplot is usually the telltale sign of a sophomore slump, it totally worked for me. While Natalia Dyer and Charlie Heaton are solid, and newcomer Dacre Montgomery is… well, more on him later, the standout is Joe Keery’s Steve. Steve was such a delight last season as a stereotypical “bad boy” turned good guy with a heart of gold, and that continues here. He steals the spotlight of every scene he’s in, and brings such vulnerability to a role that could have been a caricature.
Last but certainly not least, the adults. David Harbour is the anchor of this group, and the closest thing Stranger Things has to a main character. He’s a great lead, and has such a commanding presence on screen. This is a man plagued by his past trying to make the world, but mostly just his town, a better place. Winona Ryder is back as Joyce Meyer, and she was divisive in the first season, I liked the over-the-top distressed performance she gave. She’s given much less to do this go around, but delivers another fine performance. Surprisingly, Sean Astin is great. He brought much needed levity to the darker situations, and is such a goofy, lovable teddy bear.
What I find the most impressive about the cast this season is all the new dynamics we get to see play out. Last year, there were three very distinct storylines, one fore each age group. This season, there are multiple different plot lines that throw characters together you wouldn’t quite expect. My favorite of which, is the Dustin-Steve dynamic. These two side characters have such amazing chemistry. The way they play off each other, the mentor-mentee bond they share, it was an earnest, heartwarming aspect of this season. I wan’t expecting it at first, but by the end, I was clamoring for as much Steve and Dustin as I could get.
That brings us to the most impressive aspect of this series: the creative storytelling. I mentioned up top how this season tells a bigger story, and that cannot be understated. If the first was a campfire scary-story about things that go bump in the night, the sequel is a Lovecraftian heavy metal album. It’s a huge risk to try and scale up every aspect of your second season, how many shows have gone with a “bigger is better” approach and crashed and burned? And yet, Stranger Things 2 completely nails the landing. Even though it’s telling a decidedly larger story, it never forgets about its fun 1980’s setting, and most importantly, it never loses sight of its characters.
Every single character has a motivation for the decisions they make. Characters never do something “because the script says so,” rather, there’s a completely rational explanation behind every choice they make, one rooted in who these characters are. This show understands its characters and makes sure never to betray them. So when the story takes massive risks, which it does frequently, the audience can completely follow along because we believe the reasoning that got them there. It would have been so easy to do things “because they’re cool” but the creators of the show found a way to tell a character driven story that still cranks it up to Eleven (pun fully intended).
However, the shows biggest strength is one of its biggest weaknesses. Because all the characters go on new adventures with people we’ve not seen them interact with, that means the core gangs are all split up. What I loved most about season one was all the kids, sitting in a room, figuring out how to save Will. That first season was built on the incredible chemistry between its leads. While I love all the new character dynamics, I don’t love that it comes at the expense of splitting up the main cast. I understand there are more stories to tell than there are age groups to tell them, but I wish the characters could have gone on these adventures together.
For my only real negative about this season, we come back to Dacre Montgomery as Billy. Playing the older brother of Sadie Sink’s Max, he largely serves as a dramatic foil for Steve. Even though he sometimes seems to be in a remake of The Lost Boys, Montgomery is mostly fine in the role. My issue is more with the way his character was written. His is an important role in the plot, but the narrative function he serves didn’t require an entire character to be created. By no means does he ruin the show, but his subplot definitely felt like a needless detour from the fantastic story going on around him.
My final nitpick, and this is a nitpick, is the town of Hawkins, Indiana itself. How the hell do the resident’s not know what’s going on in their town? Psychic little girls, Demagorgan’s, and a government conspiracy are all running amok under their nose, and no-one seems to have caught on. It’s a small nitpick, and is more of a charming homage than it is an actual complaint, but I don’t know how much more the Duffer Brothers can do in Hawkins without the suspension of disbelief breaking.
Stranger Things 2 is a completely worthy sequel to the breakout show of 2016. It’s one of the rare season two’s, or as the creators would have you think, sequels to an original that not only hold up, but surpasses the original. Honestly, I can’t think of a single way in which the second installment falls short of the first. From the story telling, the acting, all the way down to the technical details like the vibrant coloring and cinematography, this show is a masterclass in filmmaking. The Duffer Brothers have stated they want to do 4 seasons in total, and if this is any indication on how they approach sequels, I cannot wait to see what they bring us next year.
Rating: 4.5 — Phenomenal
The following section is where I’ll address some spoiler filled thoughts I have about this season, specifically in regards to Millie Bobby Brown’s Eleven. You have been warned.
With that out of the way, let’s talk about Eleven.
The creators have written themselves into a corner with this character. She’s so powerful, so strong, that she can’t be apart of the main storyline the entire season, she took out a fully grown demagorgan, she would neutralize the baby ones without breaking a sweat. So instead of involving her from the start, they had to find a way to split her off from the rest of the cast. She got jealous of Mike and Max (a completely played out trope), met her mom, met her long lost psychic sister, and then came back to save the day. While the back story is solid, and it makes sense that she would have other superpowered siblings out there (she is the eleventh after all), I didn’t like that she was by herself for the majority of the season.
This is the same problem people have writing Superman. He’s so powerful, so unbeatable, that creators often don’t know how to introduce a compelling threat without de-powering him or kidnapping his loved ones. Eleven is such a powerful character, but she’s more just a plot device. If the following seasons can involve her in the central story, I’m sure her journey of self discovery will play much better in context. But for now, it’s a disservice to why so many people fell in love with this show in the first place.