If Strangers Things 2 had a traditional TV broadcast schedule, we’d be discussing episode 3 this week. Instead, visions of tweens dancing at arms’ length and more darkness looming over Hawkins will be the last glimpses of Eleven, Hopper, and co. until at least 2018. (Yes, the Duffer Bros. have already discussed a third season with a similar time jump and a desire to do a fourth and final go-round.)
Haters, lamenting some lack of urgency or happenings in the early part of Stranger Things 2, may hear such news and immediately sigh. Why do we need more Stranger Things (or Star Wars, Star Trek, beloved series X), they ask? Based on the final trio of this Stranger Things sequel, even familiar stories in a beloved universe can deliver the things that made them beloved in the first place. The Duffer Bros. and their collaborators have, once again, shown they know how to stick a landing that’s packed with both action and feeling.
Strangers Things’ late second season had so many excellent passages that simply wouldn’t be possible without the build-up the show gave us previously. Bob’s tense escape from the Hawkins Lab works because we saw his attempts to endear himself to Will early on and his willingness to embrace Joyce Byers for who she is—family drama and all—in the middle of the season. Bob in episode 8 represents a fully-rounded character. We knew the risk would take him outside of his comfort zone and could compare it to willing volunteer Hopper, who works in a field that carries such danger regularly. (The lab’s auto-lock system needs to be manually turned off in BASIC? “OK, teach me,” Hopper insists. “Sure, can I teach you French in 10 minutes, too?” Bob retorts.) Bob volunteers out of genuine care for the Byers, and the result had real emotional weight. He wasn’t a red shirt. He was a hero.
Similarly, the process of the group identifying Will’s situation and then coming up with a solution resonates due to a reliance on our shared history (S1 included) with these characters. Mike has a hunch about what’s happening with Will, but he struggles to explain it—of course Dustin can call on his established encyclopedic nerdery to fetch the perfect Dungeons & Dragons analogy. And from there, we see Joyce and Mike once again out-think the demons and commit to executing a plan no matter what, because their concern for Will seems to simply, always elevate their capabilities. This faux kidnapping and the various attempts to jog Will’s memory back into his body felt smart and also realistic for this group; the same can be said for brief instances of heroic action from Steve (standing up to Billy), Nancy (nabbing a coal stoker), and the kids (willingly jumping into the freakin’ Upside Down).
This last third of the season successfully flexed the new muscle Netflix provided Stranger Things after S1 was a surprise hit. Jonathan brings out the Clash again, but the soundtrack doesn’t hold back at all in this final trio. Eleven literally runs away to Bon Jovi’s “Runaway” in episode seven, and Dustin drums up the necessary courage for a middle school dance floor as Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” sets the mood.
Visual capabilities spare no expense, either. More characters head into the Upside Down. More characters interact with those CGI demodogs. The final battle with Hopper/Eleven and the Upside Down gate feels like a cinema-quality visual spectacle. Seeing the Duffer Bros. successfully deploy their new, amped-up resources bodes well for the show’s future.
About those nits…
Was Stranger Things 2 perfect? Of course not. Mike and Eleven served as the center of S1, and S2 gave them little to do until the very end. Mike went all angsty-teen without Eleven until he became the No. 1 Will-whisperer. Eleven went all angsty-teen while literally being secluded from everything else before her find-herself journey to Mama and 008. New characters Billy and Max got shafted in comparison to Bob and Dr. Owens. Billy got a bit of (successful, if you squint) backstory but rarely had things to do outside of a delightfully ‘80s “Hot for Teacher” moment with Mrs. Wheeler. Max had plenty to do (including a badass moment of standing up to her big brother) but got very little of her personality fleshed out. And regardless of what you think of the standalone story the Duffer Bros. delivered in episode 7, having it inserted right as the darkness monster laid its trap seems like bad timing.
All that noise felt a little overblown in the end. A standalone episode filling in some Eleven backstory and expanding her world isn’t the worst concept in the world. And the ideas that Dr. Brenner may have survived and that Eleven represents one of many and not one-of-kind give the show a wider scope to play with in the inevitable S3. Sure, 008/Kali’s group came off strongly as one-note tropes (they are, but so are the Hawkins group—we just spend more time with one set). The tone became less fun (possibly trying to mimic your ‘80s dystopian cop aesthetic from Terminator or Escape From New York). And the events in this hour only kinda, sorta come back into relevance at the end (Eleven’s ability to channel anger gets explicitly referenced as she closes the gate).
But while it won’t go down as the season’s highest hour (we’d reserve that for episode 6, “The Spy,” or one of the last two hours), “The Lost Sister” doesn’t justify dismissing the season as a whole, especially given the show’s release strategy. (Any fellow Mr. Robot fans stew on that Wellick hour for a whole week, too?)
Perhaps the biggest issue with S2, however, comes from a decided lack of stakes in retrospect. S1 of Stranger Things embraced Stephen King-ish horror. People died—lots of people. S2, by and large, saw all of our main characters—including one possessed fully by an other-dimensional beast and another that housed an other-dimensional beast—skate by with few touch-and-go moments. (S1 Will had a “body” show up in a lake and spark a funeral; S2 Will had scientists talking about sacrificing him for the greater good only for a few seconds.)
Again, there was some drama: Bob’s unfortunate demise did have real weight because that character’s persona and relationships had time to build. But, long-term, it could get tough for Stranger Things if audiences kinda-sorta know its main characters—the four boys, Eleven, Joyce and Hopper, Nancy/Jonathan/Steve—will never be in danger beyond the typical growing pains of that middle-to-high school transition.
Whatever missteps happened in Hawkins this time, however, revisiting this world and these characters still proved too enjoyable to get hung up on negativity or nitpicking. We knew from the moment we saw Eleven secluded in a cabin that she’d eventually rendezvous with the boys, but that didn’t diminish the season’s crescendo moment in the Byers’ living room at the end of episode 8.
Everyone finally stood together again against a common cause—Lucas with his sling shot, Mike with an upside-down trophy, and Nancy with a gun, while Hopper and Joyce watched the windows and Steve brought out his bat. Everyone was paralyzed with fear but ready to act as the unseen demodog noises crept closer. The score is perfect, (“The Return” on the S2 soundtrack) when suddenly a dead demogorgon bursts through the window to pierce the tension. Everything slows down, with the only movement being the slow unlatching of the door locks. The knob starts to open, and you know who it is even if they don’t.
The sequence encapsulates the ultimate strength of Stranger Things: it can transport you, allowing viewers to get lost entirely to a place and time, a feeling of hope and adventure that many of us lack in our day-to-day. I watched this scene with the hair on my arms tingling and perhaps even a tear welling up. Maybe the second time can never match the first, but not every TV series or film (S2, sequel, or otherwise) can give its audience a moment of emotion like that to enjoy. So whatever happens in Hawkins in 2018 or beyond, count me in (especially if the gang has to get back together… and Dustin asks for more tips from Steve).
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