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.