**WARNING: Full Spoilers Below**
When we open on season two of Stranger Things it’s a year later. Everyone is still trying to move on from the events of last season. Mike can’t get over Eleven, the Byers family is still trying to get passed what happened to Will, and for whatever reason, Nancy is still dealing with the death of Barb.
It’s because of this that the first several episodes of Stranger Things feel like an epilogue to the first season. Showing us how people have tried to move on, but failing to set up what’s going to happen in this new season. In fact, several characters get stuck in that rut for almost the entire season.
Mike for instance, doesn’t do much except whine about missing Eleven and being a brat to the new girl, Max. When he isn’t doing that, he’s being sidelined by staying near Will for several episodes. It isn’t until the last two episodes that he finds something interesting to do and contributes to the story in a meaningful way.
Which brings us to Will. Will was a mcguffin in the first season, the reason the story was happening in the first place. Now that he’s safe and back in Hawkins, you’d imagine they’d give the character room to grow. Instead Will is back where he started: a plot device. Save for a few lines of a dialogue in the first two episodes, Will does nothing but scream a whole lot. And by a lot, I mean entire episodes. By the last two episodes, Will is literally tied to a chair, a bed (twice).
Mike and Will aren’t the only characters given nothing to do for the majority of the season. Will’s mother, Joyce, continues over worrying about Will. I wish the Duffer brothers would allow Winona Ryder to make any other expression than that ridiculous wide eyed worried look that’s stuck to her face until the very ending of the show. At the very least they introduced Bob into her life (played by Sean Austin), one of a few new characters this season. Unfortunately their storyline doesn’t really go anywhere.
There was drama to be mined with Bob. How do the kids feel about their mother dating someone new? How do they feel about potentially having a stepfather? What about everything that’s gone on in the past year, how do they explain that to him? All of this is sidestepped in favor of Will Byers’ screaming. And while Bob isn’t given any room to grow as a character, he lends himself to the plot fairly well. In other words, he becomes useful as soon as its convenient and then is immediately disposed of. At least he was likeable, I guess.
Billy, older brother of Max and one of the other new characters, serves even less of a purpose than Bob does. He’s your cliche high school bully, who couldn’t give a crap about anyone else but himself. The issue is that we’re stuck with Billy being an asshole to anyone and everyone he comes across until he’s knocked unconscious by his sister. The only interesting scene he’s given is when he nearly seduces Nancy’s mother, not that it serves any purpose for either character, it’s just a fun gag.
Max is the only new character who is given a proper arc and given some real character development to work with. She’s fierce, and doesn’t put up with anyone’s crap. But she’s also alone, and doesn’t trust easily. Yet over the course of Stranger Things’ nine episodes, she learns to becomes one of the party members, and her growing relationship with Lucas is one of this season’s highlights.
The other two kids of the party, Lucas and Dustin, are given much more room to grow and contribute. Lucas finds himself steadily falling for Max, while grappling with the fact that this friend Dustin also has feelings for. The two have great chemistry and it makes for the fact that they sidelined Lucas for a few episodes last season.
Dustin, meanwhile, finds himself a little pet that manages to be something more dangerous than he could imagine. It’s this storyline that brings Steve and Dustin together in what can only be a match made in heaven. Who would have thought that these two could play off one another so well? It’s a shame that it took the show five episodes to get there.
“It’s a shame it took five episodes to get there” could be the motto of this season. Most of the story – and characters – are stuck milling around, inching closer and closer to what’s actually going on. This glacial pace would be fine if it meant we’d learn more about the characters. But most of them are stuck in place, unable to start their new arcs until almost halfway through the season.
There’s also a lack of focus. Last year, everyone was focused on one thing: looking for Will Myers. It wasn’t long before almost everyone was on the same page. This year everyone is off doing their own thing, without real knowledge of how it all ties together.
It doesn’t help that there isn’t a real villain this season. Last year we had the monster, but we also had the government scientist played by Matthew Modine. He was a presence of mystery and conflict. A human element that we could see as the antagonist. The monster itself was imposing and constituted a real threat whenever it appeared. So much so that Eleven nearly sacrificed herself in order to kill it.
Yet this year we’re stuck with the smoke monster from Lost. It isn’t until the eighth episode that we’re given some look into its motivation, but it never appears to us in the way the demigorgan did in the first season. Instead we’re stuck a herd of a demidogs (as Dustin calls them) which is not only silly looking, but kind of downplays the level of fear everyone felt from one in the first season.
This doesn’t mean it’s all bad though. Hopper’s storyline with Eleven is a direction I didn’t expect this season to take. He’s trying his best to keep her safe while also teaching her how to be a real kid. It’s tough, and it certainly isn’t easy, especially when your kid has psychic abilities. But there’s a real warmth there, which is explored until the very end, when Eleven – whose real name is Jane – officially adopted by Hopper.
Nancy and Jonathan finally stop playing around, which means, I hope, that the love triangle between them and Steve is over. Especially given that Steve spent the latter half of the season being Dad of the Nerds instead of hanging with Nancy like he did last year. It’s a more natural direction for both characters and I appreciate that the writers found something better for them to do.
Then there’s episode 7. If you’ve been anywhere on the internet you’ve no doubt heard of the seventh episode of Stranger Things being a “controversial” episode. In reality it’s what’s called a “break away” episode. Where we break away from the main plot in order to spend time somewhere else, doing something else. In this case, it’s getting back story on Eleven and her cellmate when she was a child.
The episode itself was fine. It’s nothing special. In fact, the most frustrating thing is its placement in the season. It could have very easily switched with episode six, allowing a clearer flow of action and drama. Episode six is exciting and thrilling, but that’s all tempered when we put it all on hold to watch Eleven try to discover herself.
What’s even more frustrating is that she doesn’t learn all that much. All she discovers is a “punk” sense of fashion (and I’m being generous here), and that maybe she doesn’t have the heart to kill like she thought she did. This episode could have easily been inter cut with the stuff going on in Hawkins and kept the momentum that started up in episode six.
While the first five episodes are kind of a slog, the action really picks up in episode six, and then again in episodes eight and nine. It’s here that Stranger Things begins to feel like itself again. The action swells and as a third act, it’s one of the best in television. The characters reconnect and their reunion is touching. To call some of these moments heartwarming would be an understatement. The ending is especially sweet, and will make you smile while – possibly – holding back tears.
Overall, the second season of Stranger Things is full of really low lows, and then comes back around to deliver some of the highest highs we’ve seen in both seasons. I just wish that there had maybe been an episode cut and things sized down so that there was a clearer flow and better pacing. It feels like a show that spends its first half in act one and them immediately jumps into the third act. It’s awkward and considering how well the first season was done, a bit of a disappointment.
If the question is, are the highest highs better than the lowest lows, I’d say yes. Maybe that’s all that matters.