When “Stranger Things” debuted on Netflix last year, it quickly became the little show that could. Dabbling in coming-of-age drama, parallel dimensions and “Dungeons and Dragons” inspired monsters, “Stranger Things” was the Steven Spielberg/John Hughes mashup we didn’t know we needed.
The success of the first season left fans asking: Can the show’s return live up to the high standard it set with its debut?
The answer, for the most part, is yes. While a bit bogged down by the nature of its own success, “Stranger Things 2” is top-notch and remains binge-worthy.
We pick up almost a year after the events of season one, with everyone trying to move on with their lives after the Demogorgon face-off. That’s easier said than done for Will (Noah Schnapp), who’s plagued by visions of a shadowy monster in the Upside Down. Will’s posse (or is it Mike’s posse?), meanwhile, is focusing their attentions on the new girl in school, Maxine (Sadie Sink).
The teens are also dealing with their own problems. Nancy (Natalia Dyer), besides complicating her relationship with Steve, wants to avenge Barb’s (Shannon Purser) death with her other bae, Jonathan (Charlie Heaton).
Over on the adult side, Joyce (Winona Ryder) has a new boyfriend, the clueless but ultimately kind-hearted Bob (Sean Astin). Their dynamic is a welcome vacation from season 1’s hysterical Joyce. Don’t worry, though. Hysterical Joyce comes back eventually.
Hopper (David Harbour), meanwhile, is harboring Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) and keeping her safe. Yep, El’s alive! And she’s still eating Eggos!
The pairing off of the characters in these unexpected ways is the best part of “Stranger Things 2.”
Hopper really benefits from his extended plotline with Eleven. He’s still the reliable superhero he used to be, but here, we really get a sense of his insecurities because of his new parental role.
Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), too, benefits from the added screen-time. The addition of Max into the mix, and her ensuing tween romance with Lucas, helps to flesh out both the characters in the process.
It’s Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Steve’s (Joe Keery) pairing, though, that offers the most comic relief and lends a certain je ne sais quois to season 2. Because of this unique team-up, we are able to get a glimpse of Steve’s growth since season one, who goes from a selfish jerk to a bat-swinging monster slayer and de-facto babysitter rolled into one.
Steve isn’t the only one to mature, however. Will’s extended role in season two also adds a three-dimensionality to his character that was missing from the first season. As viewers, we are given an inside look into the dread and desperation at the heart of his character.
Unfortunately, though, some characters, despite how watchable they might be, fall victim to some poorly executed story arcs in season two.
Nancy and Jonathan are the biggest example of this mistreatment. Until the second half of the season, both of them wander around as if they’re in a separate TV show — one filled with campy conspiracy theorists and formulaic romantic plots.
Their main quest to avenge Barb’s death is a noble one, sure. But, why did this story arc have to take six episodes to finish? It seemed like the Duffer Brothers just needed an excuse to appease the Nancy-Jonathan shipping club and to respond to the viral #JusticeForBarb online movement.
Eleven’s character arc also falls prey to questionable plotting. Yes, it’s important for Eleven’s personality to be explored separately from the boys, but her storyline should have been integrated more smoothly in the ongoing narrative.
As it stands though, Eleven’s pursuit of her own identity didn’t coalesce with the overall direction of season two. It didn’t help that the entirety of episode seven focused on Eleven in exclusion from the other star cast. This narrative problem could have been fixed by just trimming Eleven’s story with Hopper in the earlier episodes (see: the pointless flashbacks in episode two) and then integrating her self-exploration earlier on in the season.
What’s frustrating, ultimately, is that Eleven’s plot really is necessary, but because of substandard writing, one starts wondering if the Duffer Brothers just needed something for her to do before she reunited with the boys.
The last victim to get lost in the shuffle is Mike (Finn Wolfhard), who does not really have anything to do — a shame considering that he was one of the breakout characters from last season.
Because of the way some of the characters are treated, you start wondering whether the Duffer Brothers have bitten off more than they can chew. But, wait for the final two episodes because they are, as Eleven says, “bitchin’.” Once everyone comes together and starts to figure things out, “Stranger Things 2” begins firing on all cylinders. We get much-anticipated reunions, witty one-liners, terrifying jump scares and El being a total badass.
It’s here that “Stranger Things 2” reminds you of the unexpected bond you have formed with all of these people. We really want them to make it to the other side of this horror, unscathed.
Despite some missteps, if a TV show can still make you intensely root for all of its characters by the end of the season, it has done its job. “Stranger Things 2” did its job, even though it could have done a better one.
Contact Arjun Sarup at [email protected].