The following contains spoilers for season two of Stranger Things.
Eighties nostalgia is trending, celebrating an era of excess during our current dreary sociopolitical climate. Relying on an audience’s sentimentality can lead to hollow filmmaking. Thankfully the shows’ creators, the Duffer brothers, have figured out what drives Stranger Things isn’t nostalgia; it’s the series’ varied and relatable cast of characters.
Stranger Things Season 2; Creators: Matt Duffer, Ross Duffer; USA 2017. Our Rating: ★★★★½/5
Stranger Things’ first season established its characters, but rarely gave them a chance to really shine. Season two provides us with a real glimpse into the lives of the people of Hawkins. Characters who were one-note in the first season are finally fleshed out and allowed to grow. Some of the best moments in the second season come from unexpected character pairings that manage to feel completely organic.
That’s not to say that Stranger Things’ second season is perfect. Occasionally the eighties film pastiche borders on parody, and there are a few structural hiccups. Overall, however, it is a major improvement upon the first, with a few fun surprises and some nuanced character development.
The first season of Netflix’s hit show was a fun, nostalgia-fueled trip, but it left some fans feeling underwhelmed by certain elements. It appears the Duffers’ were listening to the fans, as most of the major fan complaints about season one are addressed in the series’ second outing. We finally get to see Lucas’ family, for one, and they’re lovely. His feisty little sister, Erica, is an internet favorite despite only appearing in a handful of scenes. Her meta-commentary on the self-seriousness of the boys and the series is a welcome one, allowing the Duffers to subtly poke a bit of fun at their creation.
A major complaint about the first season was its poor handling of several female characters. Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) was particularly one note, and Barbs’ disappearance was swept under the rug. Joyce is a powerful mother bear type in season two, in part thanks to her relationship with Radio Shack manager Bob (Sean Astin). Astin and Ryder are great together, and their 80s movie pedigrees are both impressive. Bob’s practicality and easygoing nature help steady Joyce as she’s forced to deal with the horrors her son Will brought back with him from the Upside Down.
Barb finally gets catharsis, through the determination of Nancy and Jonathan; they spend most of Season Two trying to find a way to get justice for Barb, who disappeared into the upside down and never returned. Their blossoming friendship turns into something romantic, which seems to be a big theme in season two. Everyone’s pairing up, from Lucas and new girl Mad Max (Sadie Sink) to Eleven and Mike reuniting at the school dance. While a lot of it comes off as sweet, early-pubescent romance, it also feels weird to be rooting for children to fall in love. It’s weirder still to watch a love triangle between Max, Lucas, and Dustin, given their ages and maturity levels.
Weirdness aside, the Duffers had a great opportunity with Max that they ignored in favor of a trope. Max serves as a pseudo-Eleven for the second season, as Eleven is secretly living in a cabin with Sheriff Hopper. When the girls finally meet, they’re instant enemies because Eleven sees Max talking with Mike from a distance. She’s jealous, and while that kind of young teenage behavior is typical, it pits the two against each other in a rivalry. It’s easy, slightly lazy writing, and the Duffers can do better. They’ve proven this season that they’re capable of making changes to improve the series, and there’s still more work to do.
The second season has more female characters, and some of them are better fleshed out, but they still feel like they only exist in service of male characters. Joyce only gets to be strong because she’s Will’s mother. Nancy is better, but even she relies on Jonathan to help her get justice for Barb. The only main female character on the show that’s given true agency is Eleven, and she’s relegated to a “mysterious female” trope more often than not.
Eleven’s interactions with Hopper are great, and their dynamic is one of two pairings that highlight the magic of season two. Their relationship is complicated and nuanced, and the Duffers don’t overexplain any of the major character moments. For example, Hopper has been wearing his daughter’s hair tie on his wrist for two seasons, but at the dance scene at the very end of season two, Eleven is wearing it on her wrist. Eleven and Hopper were the two best characters in season one, and pairing them up for a good chunk of season two feels perfect.
In the controversial seventh episode, Eleven goes to Chicago on her own in an attempt to find her mother. The episode, “The Lost Sister”, has come under heavy critical scrutiny. It doesn’t fit the tone of the rest of the series, for starters, and some of the characters are borderline cartoonish. Eleven’s “sister”, Kali, has surrounded herself with a gang of misfits that look more at home in The Warriors or Class of Nuke ‘em High than Stranger Things. The slow-burning cosmic horror at the center of Stranger Things was abandoned for one episode, and the difference is jarring. “The Lost Sister” just doesn’t fit.
Viewed as its own entity, “The Lost Sister” features an important character arc for Eleven, and it’s a pretty decent episode, even if it feels like it belongs in a different show. Eleven’s time in Chicago forces her to grow up and figure out who she really is. She’s killed people, but she confronts what that really means in the episode. Her experiences with Kali and her mother (and aunt) help her grow into a more rounded, complex young adult. The hokey romance storylines are gone, and “The Lost Sister” feels like where the rest of the series should be with its female characters. It’s a shame the episode is so jarringly different from the rest of the series, because it’s the most important episode in Eleven’s character arc.
The other character arc that deserves praise belongs to Steve. In the beginning of season one, Steve was the archetypal popular cool guy. He was a bully who cared more about appearances than doing the right thing. Over the course of the first season, Steve grew up. He realized that high school popularity is meaningless, and he became a more fully realized person by the time he had finished facing off against a Demogorgon with a baseball bat. He went from slut-shaming Nancy to just wanting her to be happy, even if it’s not with him.
In season two, Steve is a hero. He’s a bat-swinging babysitter with all the best lines. He teams up with Dustin to find a baby Demogorgon-dog named Dart, and the two are a blast to watch. Dustin and Steve have great comedic chemistry, and Steve’s advice to young Dustin is heartwarming and funny. It’s been a real ride watching Steve go from bully to hero, and actor Joe Keery is perfect for the role. He was easy to hate for much of season one, and now he’s even easier to love. (#TeamSteve.)
By the end of season two, Stranger Things feels as if it’s matured a bit. The series has moved past its early reliance on nostalgia and has started developing its own style. Season one felt like watching an Amblin film, but season two has an aesthetic cobbled from the entirety of 80s cinema that feels at least somewhat original. Hopefully, with season three, they’ll continue to develop the characters and aesthetic without falling prey to too many tropes. If they do, Stranger Things will just continue to get better with each season.