Really it’s mostly good.
Stranger Things 2 Spoilers Below
This is the definitive Film School Rejects review of Stranger Things 2. I watched the whole thing in three sittings over the course of 15 hours and, definitively, I was charmed to bits.
But why? What did this season of Stranger Things do right? (Even righter, I would venture to say, than the first season).
Some of it comes from familiarity. Second seasons are by no means destined to be good, but one thing they almost always have going for them is the return of beloved characters.
And Stranger Things has a few.
It doesn’t stop at characters, either. The show knows its appeal, and it maximizes its engagement with the audience through repetition of old favorites like Eggos and spiky clubs. But even better is the playfulness this familiarity allows. We’re at home in this world, now, and we love to notice changes and promised events — cue Dustin’s new teeth and the long-anticipated Snow Ball.
An even more enjoyable aspect of this playfulness is the introduction of unlikely alliances. When done right, they’re pure magic (think the Hound and Arya’s road trip in Got), and Dustin and Steve’s pair-up makes for some of the funniest and truest moments of the season.
There are also some welcome additions. Widely hailed as The New Barb, Sean Astin’s Bob goes above and beyond the title. I would never speak ill of the dead, but Barb was a good friend who got a very tough break. Bob, on the other hand, is achingly charming. He’s a lover, a father, a hero, and a total nerd, and Astin plays all these elements in perfect balance.
Another revelation isn’t strictly new, but he might as well be. Last year Will Byers did a lot of lying around looking cold and wet, and not much else. Thank God he came back from the Upside Down because Noah Schnapp can act. On the whole, the Stranger Things kids are a cut above, but Schnapp delivers magnificently as both haunted and held hostage by powers he doesn’t understand. I’m excited to see more from him.
But of course Stranger Things 2 is far from perfect. Eleven’s episode-long adventure in Chicago didn’t strike me quite as badly as other reviewers (its presence has a nice experimental quality to it), but it does feel like an entirely different show with an inconsequential plot. It’s the introduction of extraneous characters with potential for more (apparently Dr. Brenner survived his face being eaten — a ready-made recognizable spin-off villain), and it smacks of commodification.
Other problems include the minimal characterization of Mike (whose main emotion of “mopey” is occasionally replaced by “mopingly angry”), and the somewhat shoehorned Justice for Barb subplot (almost definitely a direct response to the hashtag and a negative side effect of the show’s eagerness to engage with its own celebrity).
The show’s worst moments come when it stumbles over social issues. Last season it was mentioned several times that Will might be gay, but this season it’s never brought up once, despite the fact that every other character has a romantic interest. I covered this topic more extensively in a separate article.
And while homosexuality is done away with (apart from a single bizarrely blatant use of the word “faggot”), race is handled only a tiny bit more straightforwardly. Billy clearly doesn’t want Max hanging around with Lucas. But is it because he’s black, or just because he’s a good thing in Max’s life?
Damned if I know.
Because Stranger Things 2 attempts to strike a bizarre balance between addressing racial conflict and never using language that addresses race.
The same thing happens in It, which I enjoyed well enough but can’t help but think of as Stranger Things 1 ½. Mike Hanlon, the film’s only black protagonist, is tormented by the town bully and told that he doesn’t belong. It certainly feels racially charged, but it’s never entirely clear since verbally he’s distinguished as “the homeschooled kid.”
The result in both cases is a truly despicable villain who’s somewhat vague in his motivations. It doesn’t add anything to the racial dialogue, and it makes for confusing characters. It’s a half-measure that does nobody any good.
What’s worse are Billy’s motivations that the show does seem to be hinting at. Between his negative reaction to the show’s single F-bomb and his unusual placement as the object of the sexual female gaze, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Billy turns out to be gay next season. But then, of course, he’d be the show’s sole queer character and its antagonist, which would be a rough way to go.
Steve made the transition from villain to a beloved asset, but I’m not confident the show could swing it twice.
Stranger Things 2 has its problems, but what show doesn’t? All in all, it’s a wonderfully charming and spooky adventure with a lot of heart. It’s very good at timing its comedy and its angst. It knows its audience, and it’s not shy about giving it what it wants.
I for one look forward to our Shadow Monster overlords in season 3.