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Stranger Things 2 is bigger, weirder, and — eventually — better than season 1

It isn’t a bust. But it’s also no longer an out-of-nowhere surprise.

Stranger Things
The kids of Stranger Things are back!
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

At once better and worse than its first season, Stranger Things 2 is good enough to suggest the breakout Netflix series isn’t a one-trick pony, while still falling into many of the pitfalls that made season one diminish a bit in the memory the further one got from it. It takes a long time to get where it’s going, it makes some bafflingly strange choices on the way there, and it still feels like a show that’s set in “the ’80s!” instead of the 1980s.

But when it works, it works. I’m powerless to resist it. You probably are too.

In some ways, the series is trapped by elements entirely beyond its control. The first season became a phenomenon entirely by word of mouth and gentle nudging by the Netflix algorithm. Before you knew it, think pieces rained from the skies, catalogs to the show’s ’80s movie references popped up on every website in existence (including this one), and merchandise filled Hot Topics across our great nation.

It’s the kind of overexposure that’s dangerous to any TV show, much less one as unassuming as Stranger Things — a good show, but not a perfect one. The hype machine quickly put a spotlight on its (mostly forgivable) flaws; I kept finding myself taking the opposite position of people in arguments about how it was great and how it was overrated. And yet somewhere in the intersection between its synth-heavy score, its pitch-perfect casting, and its “always October” aesthetic, the show’s biggest moments and best characters had a tendency to stick in the memory. It was deeply flawed but hard to shake, the kind of TV show you could love in spite of its worst moments, which was appropriate for a series about kids approaching adolescence.

Season two is, in the grand tradition of sequels, even more than season one. Sometimes, that’s good. Sometimes, that’s very bad. But to tell you more about it, I’m going to have to spoil everything. (If you’re not quite ready for that, check out our spoiler-free rundown of what to expect.)

Good: the main story arc is much, much better constructed

Season one of Stranger Things had a reasonably involving opening, a solid climax, and then a bunch of other stuff in the middle. There were moments in that long midsection that worked beautifully — like Joyce (Winona Ryder) communicating with her missing son via Christmas lights — but so many other storylines seemed to exist solely to keep the plot from advancing too quickly. (I see you, Joyce’s ex-husband who just showed up to run out the clock.)

Season two has much less of a problem with this. Since series creators the Duffer brothers know what an incredible ensemble cast they have (about which more in a bit), they feel more comfortable splitting up the characters and filling episodes with multiple storylines. The cross-cutting between the stories can sometimes feel a little arbitrary, but it’s still exciting when 15 different things are happening at once and all of them are bad.

Even better, there’s more attention paid to the idea of each installment of the show as an episode of television than there was in season one. The season’s boldest conceit is its seventh episode, which seems to exist solely as a test of whether young Millie Bobby Brown, who plays the telekinetic badass Eleven, is as good of an actress as she seems to be. (Good news: She is!) It sends her off on a quest of her own, expanding the show’s backstory just a bit by introducing some of the previous kids with psychic powers experimented upon in the lab where Eleven grew up. And it doesn’t feature any of the other regulars at all.

Stranger Things
Yes, Eleven returns.

But more importantly, the Duffers know when to bring their many splintered storylines and characters back together. The season’s final two episodes are a long process of reweaving everything that’s been frayed, and when the season’s coda (which takes place during a Christmas season that seems to exist in the middle of summer) unfurls at a school dance, there’s a distinct sense of time having passed, lessons having been learned, and kids growing up.

You can quibble with how this arc gets where it’s going — I’m about to! — but as a piece of television storytelling, as opposed to the fabled “eight-hour movie,” this is a much stronger feat than season one.

Bad: the main story arc is much better constructed — except when it’s not

The Eleven-centric hour may be structurally daring. It may be a great showcase for Brown. It may be proof that Stranger Things can do standalone episodes, despite its streaming origins.

It’s just not very good.

The story tells us nothing new about Eleven, and it has her decide to return to Hawkins, Indiana, to save her friends via a plot device that could have occurred literally anywhere on the globe. It’s intriguing to see her meet up with Eight (Linnea Berthelsen), her older predecessor, whose psychic power is making people see whatever she wants them to see, but the show doesn’t do anything with it except offer a riff on crime movies. I think the point is to show Eleven building confidence, or at least maturing into the kind of person who will make the selfless decision to go back to Hawkins, but the show doesn’t earn this story beat anywhere other than on its surface.

Stranger Things
“Hey, everybody. Our storyline is kinda disappointing.”

This is the basic problem that plagues season two, especially its first half. It has all of the right ideas, but its execution often ends up shooting those ideas in the foot. Stranding Eleven from the rest of the cast (save her eventual adopted father, Chief Hopper, played by David Harbour) to let her take time to rebuild her psyche after all the trauma she’s faced is a great idea. But because the story can’t find much to do except have her argue with Hopper a bunch of times, it feels like it’s running in place, while the other characters could really use a superpowered telekinetic girl.

Eleven’s major bit of character development — meeting her biological mother — is therefore delayed. It feels like she’s been sent to her own storyline not to develop her character, but because having her on the side of the other heroes wouldn’t make it a fair fight.

A similar thing unfolds in the season’s single worst storyline, which follows Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and Steve (Joe Keery) as they attempt to atone for the death of Nancy’s friend Barb, who became an internet cause célèbre based on how little the show seemed to care that she got lost in the parallel dimension known as the Upside Down. These scenes — ostensibly taking place a year later — feel like they’re responding to online criticism, not an organic character journey, and they always bog the show down.

Thus, the show is better at macro plotting, but still not terribly great at micro plotting. It moves in fits and starts, able to suddenly, wondrously impress with a gigantic moment, and then frustrate when it cuts corners to get characters exactly where it needs them to be.

Good: this cast can do anything, apparently

Stranger Things
Winona Ryder is still here!

One of the five Emmys Stranger Things won for its first season was for casting (for the team of Carmen Cuba, Tara Feldstein, and Chase Paris), and it was well-deserved.

In addition to finding five kid actors who can nail every emotional beat, the show’s casting directors also found a bunch of actors to play teenagers (harder than it might seem), as well as an adult cast that blended well-known names (like Ryder) and familiar TV actors who, nonetheless, had never had a break like this (the aforementioned Harbour). If great TV casting often comes down to just finding actors viewers want to see together onscreen, the Stranger Things casting team is one of the best out there.

Season two, then, is a dual exercise in finding new actors who will mesh with the old ones (including Sadie Sink as Max, another tween girl to join the central quartet of boys and thus balance things out a bit) as the writers explore just what they have in their original troupe. Every single character gets a moment or two to shine throughout the season — save maybe Cara Buono, sadly wasted as Karen Wheeler, mom to two important characters — and every actor delivers, in ways both big (some of the moments handed to Brown and Harbour) and small (a touching act of kindness from Dyer’s Nancy in the finale).

The new actors fit perfectly as well, even when asked to play ridiculous beats like “buff teenage boy turning on frustrated housewife.” Even Sean Astin, who’s handed a character so moldy the writers actually name him “Bob Newby” to point out that you know he’s a walking trope, gets a few moments to surprise and subvert his role as “the guy who dies in the season’s last third.” (He dutifully does so in episode eight of nine.) And Paul Reiser isn’t just playing his corporate stooge from Aliens — he’s playing that guy if he had developed a conscience shortly after that movie’s events.

But the really big moments are saved for the returning players — especially Harbour, Brown, and Noah Schnapp as Will Byers (who spent almost all of season one in the Upside Down). Second seasons are often so good because those involved in them now know exactly how to write to their actors’ strengths. The same seems to be true for Stranger Things.

Bad: the show never met an obvious pop cultural touchstone it couldn’t appropriate

Stranger Things
Dustin winds up in a strange riff on E.T.

Truth be told, Stranger Things 2 blends in many of its movie references with more finesse than the series did in season one. A climactic attempt to drive the malicious “Shadow Monster” out of Will — who’s been infected with some sort of evil virus — lifts heavily from The Exorcist, for instance, but in a way where you’re not doing a mental shot-for-shot comparison to that classic film. Stranger Things gets to the same place but handles things in a different fashion.

But the show remains stranded in the ’80s as interpreted through movies and TV shows; it doesn’t capture the ’80s so much as it captures how it felt to watch movies on VHS.

This is most evident in its musical choices, which are slightly more adventurous than in season one but still run headlong toward the sorts of songs that play in time-travel movies to indicate the characters have arrived in the ’80s. (Devo’s “Whip It” receives particular abuse.) This might seem weird to say about a show containing monsters from parallel dimensions and telekinetic supergirls, but Stranger Things never feels as if it takes place in a reality that couldn’t be captured on a movie set.

That grates, especially in the earlier, slower episodes. Once the plot kicks in, it’s easier to ignore how indebted the series is to its main trio of influences (Steven Spielberg, John Carpenter, and Stephen King), but in the long setup period, the game of “spot the pop culture touchstone” feels enervating far more often than it does inspiring, simply because these pop culture touchstones aren’t particularly hard to spot. It’s like solving a Where’s Waldo puzzle that consists of Waldo standing in a field with a handful of other people scattered about, nowhere near him.

On the other hand, that’s probably central to the show’s appeal. Its heightened blend of pop culture influences and pulp storytelling tropes reminds me, at times, of Lost, which managed its own blend of Spielberg, Carpenter, and King with more panache (and better disguised its influences beneath its own original ideas). And as with that show, I imagine some of Stranger Things’, “Hey, I recognize that bit!” factor is inherent to the series’ appeal — it’s how the show captures a feeling of nostalgia for a life none of us could possibly have lived.

Weird: the season avoids the Home Alone 2 problem — but only barely

Stranger Things
Chief Hopper is my secret favorite.

If there’s a place where Stranger Things 2 is likely to lose points in the eyes of its most diehard fans, it’s in the way the second season tries desperately to repeat many of the most memorable elements of season one. Will, once again, is almost lost to his loved ones. He once again communicates through an unlikely means (a series of crayon drawings, as opposed to season one’s Christmas lights). Once again, there’s a strange visitor from another world who becomes attached to a particular food item (instead of Eleven and Eggos, it’s a larval monster that loves Three Musketeers bars — and, yes, the series gets way out ahead of your, “Hey, isn’t that just E.T.?” thoughts).

The character beats and moments in the season’s final episodes keep the show from feeling like it’s running around endless iterations of the same ideas. They remind us that, yes, this is a show full of engaging characters, that knows how to tell a compelling story, that can craft immensely exciting cinematic moments. But it’s also a show that seems worried about moving too far past season one, about leaving behind elements of the story it probably should ditch for fear that the audience might turn on it.

That sort of transition often plagues shows that blew up in season one and enter their second seasons unsure of what made them blow up. (For another example, look over at NBC’s This Is Us.) It’s, of course, also true of movie sequels, especially the ones that drag elements from their predecessors into a new scenario wholesale. I always point to Home Alone 2, which had Kevin McCallister meet a new seemingly menacing old person whom he befriends later on, simply because he had done so in the first.

Stranger Things hasn’t yet fallen into the Home Alone 2 trap. But it’s telling that the most exciting moments of season two are the ones when the characters evolve and change, and when the world around them does too. When the season ends with an epilogue promising that the battle against the shadow monster isn’t over, it’s not hard to wish the show could find some new beast to battle. We’ve been here. TV is all about going to the place that’s next.

Stranger Things 2 is streaming on Netflix.

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