Stranger Things was a sensation last summer as it combined a nostalgic look at the popular culture of the 1980’s along with a sci-fi horror mystery that would have fit right in with any horror flick that came out during that decade. Just a year later, season two has been released just in time for Halloween, and it continues to use what made the first season so good while attempting to build on it’s the universe within Hawkins, Indiana and the mysterious Upside Down. However, with much of the mystery around this world being solved at the end of the first season, there is not as much to discover in a second season which struggles to pick up the pace.
While many of the headlines about the first season revolved around the juicy amounts of 80’s nostalgia, the strength of the first season came from its characters, and its ever-present threat. By far the greatest strength of the series is its characters and the developments they made throughout the season. From the growth of the kids, to unraveling mystery behind Eleven, to the change within Hopper, to the redemption of Steve, the first season is saturated with great characters, and great moments for those characters to each shine in their own way. The second season continues the growth of these characters, but with so much happening in the first season, for some of them, there is not very much for them to do.
The two characters which suffer this the most are Eleven and Mike. For the first three quarters of the season, there is nothing for Eleven to do; she is separated from her friends for the first 90% of the season, and when she finally shows back up, the conflict is resolved within in seemingly a few seconds. Taking place a year after the first season, it is logical that her control over her powers would increase, but it felt like the writers did not know what to do with her. If she had been with her friends from the first episode, this season would have only been about 3 hours long, so she had to be sent on this odd spiritual journey. This journey included dedicating almost the entire seventh episode to her brief stint with another subject of the Hawkins laboratory as they commit crimes which has absolutely no pay-off and serves as the low point of the season as a result.
After playing such a critical role in season one, Eleven feels lost for much of season two.
As for Mike, I forgot that he was in the show until the eighth episode. He spends most of his time with Will, and as a result, does almost nothing before suddenly becoming a main character again with two hours left in the season. Throughout the first three quarters of season two, the group is being tested by Dustin and Lucas both fawning over a new girl in town and the strain that places on the group. Meanwhile, the connection between Will and the Upside Down is growing stronger as an amorphous creature haunts him. At this point, the group essentially splits with Dustin and Lucas going after this new girl, and Mike trying to help Will. While this concept looks great on paper, Mike ends up twiddling his thumbs for seven hours before finally showing up as the season reaches its peak.
The inaction of these characters may stand out, but there were others who were able to shine under a greater spotlight. The two that benefit the most are Steve, and the newly introduced Bob Newby played by Sean Astin. There came a point in the second season where the enjoyment level took a noticeable uptick every single time Steve was on screen. His relationship with Nancy splinters early on in the season, but he ends up getting stuck with Dustin as the two hunt down a second demigorgon-like creature. This unusual pairing very quickly became the best dynamic in season two, and only got stronger as the season went on with Steve further having to help the rest of the kids and serve as a bit of a baby sitter, a role which he says he is very good at. His redemption at the end of the first season was a highlight of the first season, and his continued development as a role model for the younger kids makes him an unquestioned highlight of the second season.
What everyone’s reaction should be when Steve appears on screen.
Bob enters the scene in the second season as a sort of lovable dope sort of character. That is not to say that his character is stupid, but he is naïve and ignorant of events which took place the year prior despite his intimate relationship with Joyce Byers. He becomes a father figure for Will and even Johnathan to a smaller extent, and his role in the second season rapidly intensifies in significance around the midway point of the season. He proves to not only be a reliable presence on the screen, but a heroic one as well as his role alongside Hopper is critical as the season reaches its climax. There were only a few new characters introduced, and for the most part they are average-to-fine, but Bob will no doubt end up becoming a crowd favorite, and Astin delivers a great performance as the wannabe step-father.
While the character strengths and weaknesses end up canceling out in a roundabout way, the real weakness of the second season comes the antagonists. Season two desperately misses Mathew Modine as the primary antagonist, as without him, there really is no antagonist on the human side. Paul Reiser initially seems to take on that role as the new individual in charge of the Hawkins lab, but it is quickly revealed that there is a committee in charge of the lab, and thus, no real individual to peg as the enemy, or bad guy. Reiser is actually a protagonist as he works save Will from the effects of the lab and the Upside Down.
Modine was perfect for the first season. His tall and thin frame paired with his slick white hair cast an intimidating silhouette, and his presence on the screen was always strong and significant. While not quite the sinister antagonist, he was certainly malicious as he sought to control Eleven, the demigorgon, and even the entire Upside Down. He provided the audience with something to direct their ire at, and as all antagonists do, gave them someone to hate. Without him, or another character filling that role, there was a void in the entire second season, as the threat never seemed as imminent without having a force trying to control or use it.
All of this brings us to the monster, which is nowhere near as fearsome or memorable as the first. In a fairly obvious nod to Aliens, it felt as though the showrunners though to themselves, “if one demigorgon was so much trouble, imagine how bad things would get if there were a bunch of them!” Admittedly, it is not exactly the same, as the new creatures are more dog-like while the first was more human-like, but that inspiration is very clear. Continuing the Aliens trend, these creatures are not even the real threat, as there is a more powerful one controlling them, however, this one is no Xenomorph Queen.
The new monster is a cross between a Lovecraftian example of cosmic horror and the smoke monster from Lost. It is a massive creature whose entire body seems to be made up of smoke, and it doesn’t really do any first hand damage. Instead, it controls both Will and the demidogs as it tries to take control of the world from the Upside Down. Unfortunately, it is unreasonable to have the characters confront such a massive creature (it is as big as a skyscraper), so there is no sequence like there was from the first season where Johnathan, Nancy and Steve all teamed up to try to kill it house hold items, a lighter and a baseball bat run through with a bunch of nails – which makes a much needed return in season two. The only characters who have any real interaction or who even see the monster are Will and Eleven with Hopper being around once it is overcome.
While visually intimidating in limited exposures, this monster just can’t measure up to the level of fear instilled by the demigorgon from season one.
Having said all of this, don’t let it seem as though the second season is nowhere near as good as the first, or that it gets nothing right. As noted above, some of the character developments are even better than the first season, with Steve quickly becoming one of the best aspects of the entire series thanks to the second season. His role alongside the kids was one of the highlights of the season, and made me want more unusual pairings in the future. And while the second season takes a while to get going, once it properly does, it results in one of the best episodes of the entire series, not just season two.
Many of the smaller charms which made the first season so good continue into the second; the style of the show still feels fresh and well executed outside of a handful of nods to films that felt a little too on the nose and obvious. The characters we fell in love with return, and many of them continue right where they left off with some becoming even better, while a few others see their roles diminish. The biggest difference between the first season and the second is that the first time through this world will always be better than the second.
Binging the first season was fueled by a need to figure out the many mysteries of the show: Who is this Eleven? What is this creature? What is this laboratory, and what does it and the man in charge want? What is the upside down? Those central mysteries which kept audiences proceeding to the next episode into the wee hours of the morning were all solved by the end of the first season. The second season only has one that involves the monster, but the Upside Down, Eleven, the nature of many of the creatures within it and the goals of the laboratory had all been solved by this point, so the drive to keep going onto the next episode simply wasn’t there. Some of the characters feeling left out, and a weaker antagonist are the main aspects of the differences between the first and second season which doesn’t make it feel as satisfying, but the lack of mystery is the real reason why season two cannot quite reach the heights of season one.