“Stranger Things 2”: Not quite strange enough

In its second season, Stranger Things shifts from a show about human beings with monsters in it, to a show about monsters with human beings in it.

Photo via Netflix

Editor’s note: The following article contains spoilers for Stranger Things 2.

Just before the second season of Stranger Things debuted on Netflix, I wrote, “The beating heart of Stranger Things is its moral depth and seriousness, which is the strangest thing about it.” The show’s first season really was a moral tale, and its attraction was its realistic treatment of morality without succumbing to moralism.

The good news about Stranger Things 2 is that it maintains the series’ resistance to wallowing in degradation, unlike most horror movies and shows. Even the quasi-possession of Will Byers by the menacing Shadow Monster of the Upside Down is handled with restraint (spoiler alert: no projectile vomiting or 360-degree head rotations here!).

The bad news about Stranger Things 2 is that it takes the emphasis off of the moral development of its characters. In the first season, the plot is usually moved forward through the moral actions of the characters; plot advancement and character development went hand in hand. The plot was fast-moving, and because there were so many moral choices the characters needed to make in every episode, Season 1 was chock-full of character development and character-revealing actions. The Demogorgon and the Upside Down were the external spur to solicit moral action from the characters; they didn’t take center stage.

In the second season, the malevolent Shadow Monster quickly becomes the focus of the plot, and the main action now turns on finding ways to defeat the non-human enemy. The move changes the show from a moral tale into an intellectual puzzle. The move is unsatisfying because it shifts the show’s focus from moral development to the half-baked mythology of the Upside Down. The machinations of the Shadow Monster are not nearly as interesting as the friendships of the children or the adults’ journey to parental redemption. In the second season, Stranger Things shifts from a show about human beings with monsters in it, to a show about monsters with human beings in it.

The result is boring. Season 2 depends almost entirely on the work the show did to develop its characters in Season 1, and, with a few exceptions, what character development we do see in Season 2 actually undermines the progress made in Season 1.

The emotional cliffhanger of Season 1 concerns the burgeoning romance between Mike and Eleven. Right after they share their first kiss, Eleven sacrifices herself to destroy the Demogorgon and save the boys. Season 2 squanders the emotional tension in two ways. First, it reveals that Eleven was neither killed nor hurt in her sacrificial act, but was only transported to the Upside Down, from which she escaped almost immediately. Her separation from Mike in the intervening period was because of Hopper’s overprotectiveness. Second, the much-hoped-for reunion between Mike and Eleven, delayed until the penultimate episode, is rushed and over almost before it began. Their season-long separation forces apart the two most interesting kids, who are also played by the most gifted of the child actors.

Shifting to the older teenaged characters, Nancy Wheeler’s decision to stay with Steve Harrington at the end of Season 1, while initially and viscerally unsatisfying, improves with reflection. Steve changed dramatically, from a selfish, irresponsible boy to a young man conscious of his duty to protect the girl he is beginning to love. If Nancy had dumped him after he had made so much progress, we would have considered her flighty or shallow, even if it was in favor of Jonathan Byers, who also displayed heroism in Season 1.

We’re given no compelling reason for Nancy to dump Steve in favor of Jonathan in Season 2. Maybe it is because of her residual guilt over their role in her friend Barb’s death; but Steve has atoned and shows genuine growth from the callow jerk of early Season 1, accompanying Nancy to spend time with Barb’s distraught parents and eventually protecting the younger kids from monsters. Maybe Nancy chooses Jonathan for the reasons articulated by creepy conspiracy-theorist Murray Bauman. He expresses surprise that Nancy and Jonathan aren’t together, telling them they have the best of reasons: they’re both good-looking and have shared trauma. These are, of course, terrible reasons for hopping into bed with each other. Nancy and Jonathan’s tryst in Season 2 does set up a parallel with the Nancy-Steve tryst that got Barb killed in Season 1. But that parallel is either unnoticed by the Stranger Things creative team, or left unexplored. There is little that is satisfying about the Nancy-Steve-Jonathan love triangle in Season 2. Resolution will have to come in Season 3 or the characters will lose interest altogether.

The most potentially poignant relationship in Season 2 is between Hopper and Eleven. Hopper’s acceptance of the mantle of fatherhood in Season 1 is one of the show’s high points, so how their relationship develops in Season 2 is critical to its success. There are several fine moments for the pair, such as a brief conversation in which Hopper explains why Eleven can’t go trick-or-treating with the rest of Hawkins children on Halloween. The scene is funny, sensitive, and has the best Hopper-Eleven dialogue of the series. But Hopper’s failures with Eleven seem forced. In desiring to protect her, he becomes overprotective, thereby pushing her to rebel against his authority and strike off on her own, searching for her mother. It is somewhat unbelievable that Hopper would fail in this way, but for it to work, the viewer needs more to go on. Again, Season 2 relies too much on revelations in Season 1, in this case about Hopper’s family history.

There are several new characters introduced in Season 2: Sean Astin’s Bob Newby, a fun, nerdy love interest for Joyce Byers (Sean Astin has waited 30 years to date Winona Ryder), as well as the brother-and-sister pair Billy and Max. Without significantly extending the number of episodes in the series, however, these characters were destined to be underdeveloped, taking screen time away from the characters we had gotten to know in Season 1. That’s unfortunate, because each of the three characters had promise. Even Bob, the best of the new characters, is finally unsatisfying; his transformation from lovable nerd to self-sacrificing hero has too many gaps. Billy’s purpose in the series is unexplained: underdeveloped foil for Steve? Prop for Max to explain her alienation? And Max, played very well by Sadie Sink, never integrates seamlessly into the plot, either, staying mostly at the level of a potential Eleven-substitute without giving a good way forward for how the girls might interact together in the group.

The most interesting episode of the series is episode 7, “The Lost Sister.” It functions as a standalone and is most reminiscent of Season 1. It concerns Eleven’s search for her “sister,” another little girl who was subjected to experimentation at the Hawkins lab and who developed her own set of psionic powers. The episode resolves what had been a lacuna up to that point by giving Eleven a super-powered foil. The purpose of the foil, her “sister” Kali, is to force Eleven to confront the moral implications of her powers. She has to decide how her powers are to be used: for revenge against those who have harmed her or for the protection of her friends. The problem with Episode 7 is that it is largely discontinuous with the main action of the rest of the series. If Season 2 had spent more time developing Kali and her gang as foils for Eleven and her D&D party friends, then Season 2 might have been able to achieve some of the thematic richness of Season 1.

Ultimately, Stranger Things 2 is living off of goodwill from Season 1. The characters are interesting because of their development in Season 1; the plot works mostly to tie up the loose ends from Season 1. The rich and varied themes about mothers and fathers, friendship and childhood are largely sidelined in favor of a mediocre beat-the-monster plot. If Season 1 was a revelation, Season 2 was more like a middling X-Files episode with better acting: basically entertaining, but without much thematic depth. If Season 3 is to regain that momentum, it needs to turn its attention from the Upside Down back to the human arena of character, choice, virtue and vice, family and friendship. It turns out that humans are stranger than monsters after all.

About Thomas P. Harmon 9 Articles

Thomas P. Harmon is Professor of Theology and Culture at John Paul the Great Catholic University in Escondido, California.

6 Comments

  1. Aren’t the main characters in this child actors? It’s the Harry Potter syndrome all over again. With a dollop of 80s nostalgia. I prefer “Where the Wild Things Are,” if we have to go down this road.

    • No, it’s not Harry Potter. Trust me: I don’t give a dang about the Harry Potter thing, and the first season of “Stranger Things” was fantastic. Yes, there is an element of ’80s nostalgia–but it is also subverted in some very clever and meaningful ways. I tend to agree with Tom’s assessment of the second season, but still think it is quite good.

    • About half the main characters are children. But adults play key roles; in fact, it’s the interplay of those two “worlds”, so to speak, that shapes so much of the series.

      • OK, I will relent. But I often wonder how people can now process reality when their heads are so over-crammed with these fantasy narratives.

  2. There must be something wrong with me. Really, there must be.

    Never watch serialized TV (broadcast or raiders such as Netflix or Amazon).

    Well, take that back, a bit. Am a Netflix subscriber. After a series (or season) is been finished, and has been out there for time to scrutinize it, do I perk up interest. (Usually a BBC detective or historical drama). But, then, only after hitting on Google to review all the episodes.

    Did so with the first season of Stranger Things. After reading the episode summaries summed it up with registering no interest in watching the series. Lacks imagination, I thought. A toe-hold in *what is*. I mean, in in the real, true *isness* of ‘strange things’. (Picked up, tough, an unsettling sense that one of the series’ undercurrent themes was the sexualization of children; but, then, the Grimm Brothers got there before they did! Still, )

    But, then, maybe that’s the problem, I have none – imagination.

    Don’t think do. Easy to acknowledge that imaginary moral universes (its visuals and characters) have been stock in the storytelling trade since the Arkkaidians/Babylonians chatted up their take on the genesis of the world, of good & evil. And, what would we be without Faust or even King Lear: or, as far as that goes, Black Elk’s calling down Sioux cosmology into his Catholic catechizing? Poorer.

    I honestly do mistrust the medium (television, film). The art of it is reduced to a capitalizing science. Its manufacturers can recite the screen’s flicker rate needed to elicit a targeted reaction. And, so on.

    Viewers don’t see it – for being in the midst of the pulled-in experience – but they are being ritualized. (Which explains why most of this film, televised series, genre pivots on childhood.) Yet, is that any different than a Babylonian or Israelite scribe reciting the genesis story of creation or the nation? I think the difference is profound.

    What about Faust rising again and again as poetry, novel, or drama? The same. The attempt to resurrect him in film freezes the tension, the give and take, of the storytelling. In film Faust is frozen into a stand-in for Pixelized color and movement cannot, in the end, represent what it intends to convey; imagination (the full range of it) is exorcised.

    For that I fault Wagner. In his ring cycle he attempted “to film” what cannot be – and, that, before the medium had its industrialized birth.

    Not being a braggart, or, for that, a snob!

    Regarding the subject here, the series “Stranger Things”, and its ilk, It’s the life I had led (once).

    [As a teen in Hollywood – scratching its underbelly at its worst – I came to detest the place. After all these decades, edging upon seventy, I still do. As we now know in 2017 nothing as changed: with the worst of it yet to be disclosed. Maybe my refusal to award film-making with the honor of art is born from this. An askewed and loaded eyeballing of the place, to be sure. Still, I’m not yielding.]

    Once more, it’s the life I had once led.

    You see, most folks are graced with God drawing a curtain between them and the world of “strange things”. It’s a fatherly act.

    Though such barriers and walls, to a degree, are always porous (to a degree), for some that curtain (willed or forced) is pulled or ripped and holed like canon fodder. Yanked down and torn asunder by – to put it softly – *experiences*.

    That was mine. From early on.

    Experiments and induction. The Occult. Back alley Satanism. Fashionable Luciferianism of Brentwood and Beverley Hills. When there’s no curtain of grace ‘Stranger Things’ are no longer strange. What was strange becomes familiar. Things which compel a boy to stand on the corner of Hollywood and Vine.

    Unlike poetry, novel writing, dance, painting, music, opera, even theater, movie-making was born of the Occult, from the technology of magic. The culture that gave birth and nourishes it is its witch-mother. Film-making (and thus Hollywood) was not born of enchantment (thus imagination) but from incantation.

    All other arts were born before they adopted methods and means. Film-making was born from, by, and for its technology. Born of and for technique it can only raid and confiscate. Which, also – and, herein, lies its *itness* – makes it the perfect tooled-up servant of Powers and Principalities. Movie-making (and,this,in its widest sense, down to gaming and YouTube) has the power to subdue peoples and cultures (their ways of visualizing and knowing) because it is a perfect slave.

    Film is magic doing a number on the sacred. Conducting *a working* on the ground trod by God with Man. Film freezes imagination under the illusion that it (the imagination) only needs to invoke incantation. (There is reason why, unlike poetry, live drama, music, painting, film cannot – or, only clumsily – represent sacred mystery.)

    But, back to that corner on the Blvd.

    !969. All was understood like half-a-murder. Somewhat, yet still fully.

    with a certain generation one asks, almost as a parlor game: “Where were you when President Killed was shot?”

    It can also be asked (I do): “Where were you when you first saw Charles Manson?”

    For me that would be San Francisco, when I bumped into Manson chatting it up with Anton LaVey on Turk Street. (Backstory to that, not needed here.)

    Charles Manson was Hollywood. He was there. He was on to their game. Manson understood that the place and its industry were fused to such a degree that the technique of the culture and the technique of film-making cannibalized one another. The result – from which all other arts were protected from becoming – was a portal for the unhindered entry of Powers and Principalities.

    Charles Manson saw this, understood this, and directed his Family in their final ritualized slaying as a studio director: Casting. Scripting, Assigning. Coaching. All done as a movie story-board.

    Not much different than boys standing on Hollywood & Vine ritualizing their comings and goings with the same folks Manson had assigned for murder.

    Hollywood is Charles Manson. Hollywood is young boys carted up into the hills where Manson sent the Family on their bloody trek.

    It’s all a movie. Takes little imagination to see the set-piece of the place. It’s all magic.

  3. Season 2 was a letdown. Long stretches of boredom. The Mind Flayer turned out to be a generic mother ship/hive mind villain with the tired solution to the plot. I was looking forward to the Byers kid being an actual character this season but nope; actually all of the kids kind of became non-characters caught up in childhood romance/creature shenanigans sublots.

    The Eleven/Hopper relationship was probably the only interesting development in season 2.

    I hope there’s a big timeskip next season because the 80s kids on bikes thing is getting worn out imho. Give them something to do in season 3. Make them teenagers/young adults or something, please!

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