This season was presented with the almost insurmountable task of not only matching the hype of the first season but also surpassing it. As everyone is still attempting to come down from their post Stranger Things binge, many would agree that it succeeded in this endeavour. While this may be the case, this sophomore season did slump in some very obvious ways.
One of the strongest and most underrated characters of the entire season is the Stranger Things soundtrack. The first season offered an amazing encapsulation of the early 80s and this season managed to surpass even that playlist. In the first episodes, we are treated to a mixtape of 80s classics and when we think we’ve heard them all the show chooses to reserve some of the stronger tracks for just the right moments to help support emotional scenes in later episodes. One would believe that after their use of all of this good music in the early episodes that they are going to run out of songs to choose from but they didn’t. Also, there are some incredible instrumental synth tracks that help bridge scenes and story arcs incredibly well. Even if you are not from that era, the music still has this innate ability to transport you there with a feeling of comfortable nostalgia. It’s almost unexplainable, but I found myself listening more and more intently to the tracks that were chosen and how they fit each scene as the season progressed.
This season was also able to avoid the sophomore slump because of its infusion of new characters within the story. The introduction of Max (Sadie Sink), Bob (Sean Astin), Dr. Owens (Paul Reiser), and to a lesser extent Billy (Dacre Montgomery), alongside the beloved existing characters having more story in terms of personal development helped elevate the season to avoid the classic tropes and pitfalls of returning shows attempting to outdo their previous seasons. Max is a character that was fun watching interact with the main group of boys. She was every bit as quick-witted as them and it was fun seeing her give them a run for their money until they eventually caved and let her in as a friend* (Mike’s friendship pending).
Dr. Owens was the most curious character because it looked like he was going to turn out to be Dr. Brenner 2.0, but in the end he proved to be a valuable asset in closing the gate to the other dimension and strengthening Hopper and Eleven’s relationship. This helped soften his character to that of a person who realizes the wrong that the government has done towards Eleven and others and seeks to fix it any way he can. However, these newcomers pale in comparison to Bob Newby. Bob’s influence, comedic timing and atypical presence to that of Joyce Byers & Co. was an amazing change of pace within the season that managed to become increasingly better in every scene he was in. One of the best scenes of this entire season was when Bob was figuring out the tunnel system was a map of Hawkins. Even in death, he went out in classic Bob fashion. You will be missed sir…
While the second season still kept Will predominantly on the bench in the story, many of the supporting characters stepped up to the challenge of carrying the plot. The best example of this was Steve Harrington who managed to weasel his way into our hearts not with Farrah Fawcett hair product but via his mentor/mentee relationship with Dustin. After the last scene with Steve dropping off Dustin at the dance and offering him lady advice, it became easy to jump the Stranger Things ship for a Steve/Dustin spin-off. No questions asked. But Steve’s slight maturity wasn’t the only character development to shine through.
All the members of the main cast were given ample time to show their personalities outside of the wacky and weird goings on of Hawkins. We were able to see them interact and fail with the opposite sex in ways that viewers could relate. These moments were perfectly placed throughout the season and helped remind us that these characters are still just kids trying to figure out their place in the world. Similar to the score, he innocence shown from these child actors was so well written and captured in this season that it took you to a place of nostalgia and a simpler time of entertainment where you just wanted to spend more time with them.
However there were still three main areas of weakness; Will’s character struggle, Eleven’s storyline and a monotonous stretch of episodes in the middle of the season. The case against Will lies with his role in the major storyline throughout the season. Granted, he was the only one to spend a week inside the Upside Down and thus has a very different connection to that dimension than that of the other members of the party. When you think he has semi-progressed past his experience he is drawn back towards the Mind Flayer, the new big bad, and the Upside Down in a very similar role to season one where he is basically on the outside of the group for most of it.
From a fan’s perspective, someone or something has to be the catalyst to usher in a new menace so Will seemed to be the easiest to use for this based on his character’s history. This could’ve been more explored on the opposite end of the spectrum if he were on the road to recovery a year removed from season one’s story and his attempt to acclimate back into his group of friends and family. This could be perceived as a minor gripe being made into more than it should be and to be fair this thought briefly occurred towards the end of the season after realizing that he had been pretty much non-existent from the rest of the group for long stretches. Moving past this thought, the rest of the season was fine, but the “what-if?” factor towards Will kept gnawing as the season progressed and many will surely think the same about what could have been with his character.
The other weak aspect of the season was Eleven’s storyline. Many people became upset over the course of how she escaped from the Upside Down at the end of season one. That was miniscule compared to the path that her story took her over the nine episodes. Eleven was always strongest when she interacted with members of the original party and this season not only removed her from them but also saw her back in a similar state of isolation when Chief Hopper wasn’t home with her. Their relationship dynamic was enjoyable because they played well off of one another. It was painfully clear to see that Hopper’s affection for her took the place of his lost daughter, Sarah, in a way that he wasn’t sure could with all this coming across without any direct dialogue drawing attention to it, but the murkier side to Eleven’s pre-runaway story was marred with sadness as well.
This was a problematic choice on the writer’s part because her moment of growth and how would she achieve redemption after all that she’d been through and sacrificed never seemed to come. Instead we were treated by her getting pushed so far to the edge that her character just uprooted entirely from Hawkins for most of the season. In short, her plotline served as a method of reprieve from the main storyline involving the Mind Flayer and Will. It helped provide answers by explaining her mother’s predicament with the shadowy government figures from season one and also showed that she was not the only gifted child out there. Her character also did mature across the season, but it was very different from that of Mike, Lucas or Dustin. It would have been nice to see more interaction with the main group and the adults, but instead she was forced down a different path which made it difficult to become emotionally invested in anything her character did up until the final episode.
The last thing that could have been approached from a better perspective was the stretch of similar looking/feeling/written episodes in the middle of the season. Simply put, they were forgettable. Outside of introducing one of the best duos of the season (Dustin/Steve), these episodes did very little in helping build tension towards the finale. Instead, we were treated to the group breaking up, Dustin lying to his friends, Mike repeatedly being a jerk to Max, Billy peeling out….everywhere and a Demi-dog and cat relationship going south. There seemed to be pockets of greatness in each episode, but through the course of episodes 4-6 there is little else outside of the aforementioned moments to really draw towards.
This season did surpass the first in many ways by forcing the group to grow up and face issues in very uncomfortable albeit relatable ways. It took the characters we had come to love and pushed them to a place of personal growth while sending them on their own various paths. There were parts throughout this season that were difficult to stick with but all was forgiven after the last episode, specifically the last scene at the dance. Being able to see our heroes reunited with one another as well as their new paramours was almost as fantastic as Hopper’s dance moves. For its minor and few missteps, Stranger Things continues to entertain and provide engaging storytelling. Throughout both of its seasons, it hasn’t lost focus on the driving force that keeps people coming back to it; relationships. And by doing so, Stranger Things has set a high mark for other shows seeking to capture a piece of its glory.
Robert “Bob” Newby
Gone but not forgotten