Stranger Things 2
(SPOILERS) It would be very easy to uncritically adore Stranger Things. When it first filtered into my awareness it was still called Montauk, and I made a mental note to follow its fortunes due to that connection to the holy grail of unholy conspiratorial government projects (as noted in my Season One review, and it’s an aspect that curiously seems to be entirely not discussed by anyone involved for whatever reason, despite Eleven being a pretty clear gender-swapped carry-through). Perhaps because my immediate attention lay there, much of the subsequent negative conversation, relegating the show to no more than an ’80s genre pastiche, didn’t really vibe with me. Sure, there were references, but it was more than such relatively minor parts. Season Two, or rather Stranger Things 2, initially seems set on confirming the worst preconceptions of everyone who laid that charge at its curiosity door. Indeed, it had me immediately thinking sequelitis, so it’s gratifying that it can ultimately lay claim to building on the original in the manner most pay lip service to being essential but few actually manage: by focusing on its characters.
Random School Kid: Who you gonna call? The nerds.
Admittedly, I was entirely unconvinced by the need for a second run, as the show felt perfectly positioned as a one-off. A follow up seemed poised to tap into exactly the most surface level response to its Amblin-by-way-of-Stephen King sensibility. And that concern, of an unabashed nostalgia trip, looked to be what the Duffers were proffering in 2.1 (Madmax) and 2.2 (Trick or Treat, Freak), complete with shameless Ghostbusters-themed Halloween costuming.
Lucas: I specifically DIDN’T agree to be Winston. No one wants to be Winston, man.
The Duffers take their time introducing a selection of new characters, notably Max (Sadie Sink), her stepbrother Billy (Dacre Montgomery), Dr Brenner replacement Dr Owens (Paul Reiser) and Joyce’s safe new boyfriend Bob (Sean Astin). The younger recruits can’t claim to be as successfully defined as their peers from last year, however. Max may be great at arcade games, and skateboarding, but she’s essentially established as the object of Lucas and Dustin’s attentions. Which makes it fitting that she ends up with Lucas, as he was the least well defined of the original quartet.
As such, the Winston conversation is a tad ironic, since Lucas is rather given a second fiddle romance (to the distant yearnings of Mike and Eleven) to make him stand out. Adding insult to injury, we get to see his family, and they’re hilarious. Little sister Erica (Priah Ferguson) steals every scene she’s in (her timing when she mouths “Nerd” is impeccable). And, as with the other briefly sketched out parents in the show (aside from Joyce, obviously), the Duffers make Mr (Arnell Powell) and Mrs Sinclair (Karen Ceesay) marvellously memorable in only the briefest of exchanges, as Lucas asks his dad how goes about making amends with his mum when they have a disagreement.
Mr Sinclair: First, I apologise. Then, I get her whatever she wants.
Lucas: Even when she’s wrong?
Mr Sinclair: She’s never wrong, son.
Mrs Sinclair: That’s right.
Sink can’t be faulted, but the Duffers haven’t managed to make Max seem essential to the group; indeed, her best line could have come from anyone, a very meta breakdown of the previous season’s events/ critiques thereof when Lucas decides to let her into his confidence (“I just thought it was a little derivative in parts… I just had a few issues with originality”).
Billy’s issues aren’t that he doesn’t stand out, but that he stands out in the wrong way. The Duffers wanted to write a villain more aligned with how they initially envisaged Steve (until Joe Keery’s performance led them to moderate him towards a redeemable character), and they can boast success in an entirely one-dimensional fashion. Well, aside from the scene in 2.8 (The Mind Flayer) when we meet dad Neil (Will Chase) and get an insight into why Billy is the way he is (“What did we… talk about?” asks old man Hargrove, pinning his son against the wall: “Respect and responsibility” comes the reply through gritted teeth). There are early intimations that Billy’s driving rage may derive from repressed sexuality (his antagonism towards Steve, the shower scene where he calls him “pretty boy”, the pointed manner in which his father suggests he is “a faggot” for spending so much time looking in the mirror), but given the brothers expressly wanted to present him as a sociopath, any amelioration or resulting self-awareness doesn’t seem to be on the cards.
Billy: I didn’t realise Nancy had a sister.
As such, Billy’s pretty much there to be outright loathed or mocked. Montgomery (a Power Ranger) wholeheartedly embraces the opportunity to portray him as a horrifying exemplar of all that’s wrong with ‘80s trends and fashions – body building, mullets, soft rock. Hilariously, he even chain-smokes while pumping iron. He’s also given a most amusing, inverse Mrs Robinson scene in which he makes overtures to Cara Buono’s Mrs Wheeler (a mention too for Joe Chrest’s Ted Wheeler, another parent superbly defined in miniature: when Dustin calls looking for the absent Mike, he drolly responds “Our children don’t live here anymore. Can I go now?”) Generally, Billy’s function and presentation is entirely crude, and as such effective (the alt-mirroring with Steve comes to a head in the finale episode, where, rather than being revealed as a secret hero, he pummels Steve’s face in until Max forcibly sedates him).
Bob: I just looked at Mr Baldo in his stupid face and I said “Go away. Go away”. Never saw him again.
Astin’s Bob apparently grew in scope once the Duffers had cast him, having originally been designated an exit early (one idea had him killed soon after his fatefully terrible advice to Will in 2.3: The Pollywog). He’s so overtly an ineffectual, doughy putz, I had him pegged as a possible bad guy before it became evident he really was too good to be true (in particular, that advice to stand and face Will’s demons being just what the demons wanted couldn’t have better helped out the Mind Flayer if he had done it on purpose).
Bob was always destined to die, though (Joyce-Hopper shippers would be outraged otherwise, and probably David Harbour too, who suggested “sex would be a lot better with Hopper than with Bob”), and if plotting-wise his heroic action is strictly basic stuff (based on his knowledge of BASIC), Astin invests Bob the Brain with a genuinely likeable quality in spite of his infuriating affability (the feeding frenzy on his corpse is a particularly unkind cut, resonant of the walking dead, but absolutely the right move: no justice for Bob, nor should there be. There has to be some edge. Besides, there’s another in the season for whom nary a tear is shed when they die, and who is callously forgotten by those closest to him).
Astin was, of course, one of the cast of a key-note ‘80s movie informing Stranger Things, the wearily raucous The Goonies, and he put himself forward (as a fan of the show) to the initially wary Duffers. They, on the other hand, absolutely wanted a Paul Reiser-type for Dr Owens, only to land the real deal. It’s an expert piece of working-against-expectations casting (assuming they didn’t also change plans when they got him). Courtesy of Aliens, we instantly think Reiser is evil in sheep’s clothing, so when he’s established as a good guy, it’s something of a surprise (the key moment coming in 2.6, The Spy, when one of his group suggests that if Will dies, he dies, and it doesn’t really matter: “You say that again” warns Owens). The only problem with Reiser – and he’s a fine, subtle actor, and fits the part like a glove – is that when we get to 2.8 and the Aliens-in-a-lab with demo-dogs instead of xenomorphs, the homage element is perhaps a little too in your face (complete with motion tracking, Bob as Bishop bashing in the BASIC, and “Stay frosty” lines).
Eleven: FRIENDS DON’T LIE!
While 2.1 and 2.2 set up elements that eventually pay off (the dying crops leading to a particularly unsettling episode for Hopper as he’s subsumed by roots), only the “halfway happy” Hopper-Eleven relationship really feels essential, one of the season’s high points being pairing Millie Bobby Brown with David Harbour.
The Duffers contrive to keep her separate from her friends in a manner that feels organic (in fact, every different mission, excepting perhaps the fan service-y “Justice for Barb” fits seamlessly), such that, when she arrives to save the day (or night) at the end of 2.8, it’s a much-anticipated moment. Admittedly, the factors that inform her along the way, from perceived jealousy of Mike and Max to estrangement from Hopper, are more decisive fuel than her eventual destination.
Her visit to Momma works reasonably well, with a strong showing by Amy Seimetz (Alien: Covenant) as her well-meaning aunt, but the rest of 2.7 (The Lost Sister) is a low for the series, unconvincingly directed by Rebecca Thomas (pegged to shoot a live action The Little Mermaid for Working Title, Universal evidently keen to get the drop on Disney – look how well that worked out for Warner Bros and Peter Pan) as a laughable ‘80s street punk costume party by way of Oliver Twist, with sister-in-suffering Kali (008, Linnea Berthelsen) as a crucial link to her past entirely squandered in the aid of some deadly artful dodgering.
Aside from a confrontation with former torturer Ray (Pruitt Taylor Vince), everything here is laid on far too thick (“We’ll always be monsters to them”; “Find that anger”; Bon Jovi’s Runaway), and the dangling thread that Brenner may still be alive is the brothers probably not knowing to leave well enough alone (if they are to bring him back, they better have a very good reason to do so, other than just enjoying working with Matthew Modine). I wondered about Eleven/Jane’s conviction that her momma had sent her to Kali, and I guess the only reading that would make it a positive is that she knew she’d teach her to marshal her powers (this sequence is as hackneyed as they come). As for her makeover, it plays as cheesily as everything else in The Lost Sister.
The upside is that after this dive in quality, the later scene between Eleven and Hopper is a moving high, as he apologises to her and opens up about his loss (“Sarah’s my girl”). Arguably, the show often goes for the easy hit with its emotional rollercoaster, but this one is perfectly judged. Bitchin’, even.
Lucas: He’s like a living booger.
If the Aliens referencing is writ large in 2.8, the “Polywog”, or D’Artagnan, or D’Art, or Dart, fits much less clumsily, much in the manner of E.T.-Eleven in the first season. 2.3 is where the season finds its feet, perhaps surprisingly at the point where Shawn Levy (in person something approximating a more exuberant, socially mobile Tim Burton) takes over for a brace of episodes. Gaten Matarazzo is the show’s unfailingly energetic comic relief, the Mickey Dolenz of these little Monkeys, with a dash of Fozzie Bear, and his season arc has him fretting over girls (thankfully, the producers don’t completely sacrifice all plausibility by giving him a Snow Ball’s chance at the dance) and finding an unlikely new mentor in Steve. Matarazzo goofily elevates any scene he’s in, be it interacting with his indulgent mother (“Are you constipated again?” she dotingly asks at one point) or his new “pet”, the living booger Will snotted out at the end of the first season.
Steve: How do I know it’s not a lizard?
Dustin: Because his face opened up and he ate my cat.
Dustin wants Dart to be his Gizmo (Gremlins is wisely not mentioned in the pop culture melee, at least directly), but he’s really his Spike. Even more nastily, though, given the Gremlins didn’t actually harm the family dog (“I’m sorry. You ate my cat”). Dustin’s resourcefulness comes repeatedly to the fore, particularly in a sequence where he “coaxes” Dart into the secured (he thinks) environment of the coal cellar. Quite why Dart spent a year foraging around dustbins before experiencing a growth spurt, I wasn’t entirely clear, but it’s a nice touch that Dustin had a moment where his deception regarding the squittery critter was shown to be not entirely wrong-headed (not turning on its one-time master at a crucial point of fleeing through the tunnels).
As for pairing him with Steve (because he has no one else to call on), it’s the season’s stroke of genius. The Duffers admitted it was actually a choice born of practicality (they had nothing for Steve to do), but it neatly unfolds as the comic flipside to the seriousness of Eleven and Hopper.
Steve: I may be a pretty shitty boyfriend, but it turns out I’m actually a pretty damn good babysitter.
Steve’s rehabilitation is an all-round winner, judging by responses, making him the unlikeliest hero of the season (not so much for what he does, but how he does it). Keery makes him very easy to root for, his less laudable qualities in the first run dwindling in the memory as his better self’s deeds stack up; resoundingly gracious in losing his girlfriend (he’s wryly resigned to driving alone into the night in his final scene outside the ball, having offered Dustin advice that’s doomed not to work because, obviously, he isn’t Steve), and a nanny who actually can’t pull rank, he’s also very adept at getting his face pulverised.
In contrast, Jonathan, the underdog you were rooting for in the first season, becomes almost a non-event once he has Nancy. I’m not sure what the Duffers have planned for him in Season Three (if Charlie Heaton can lay off the nose candy and get let back into the country), but his story here is very much Nancy’s story, which is very much defined by the most enjoyable new character, paranoid investigator Murray Bauman (Brett Gelman). Harbour has suggested Hopper and Bauman being forced to team up at some point, and you can immediately see how effectively sparks would fly as a result.
Murray: You’re being naïve, Nancy.
Nancy’s mission just about flies, but it’s evident that the vocal contingent of fans disapproving of how Barb exited the show so casually and finally set them on this course rather than the express intent of the Duffers (and doesn’t Dr Owens keep a remarkably open house with regards to giving anyone who drops by a guided tour? There’s amenable and then there’s sloppy). Indeed, just about the best Barb-related scene isn’t about mourning her after the horse has bolted, but the visit to her parents’ home, where those gathered tuck into a grossly unappetising gourmet KFC feast (with Cokes). Was that the height of cuisine in 1984 (there wasn’t a KFC near me)? The Duffers wouldn’t know as they were still being wet nursed.
Murray: You need Them to believe you... With a capital T.
Indeed, it’s actually Murray’s psychological profiling of the not-quite-lovers that forms the highlight of their mission (“My goodness, you two are adorable, aren’t you?”), leading to a clearly Temple of Doom-inspired hallway encounter between the restless souls (talking of Indy, Hopper retrieving his hat from the roots is another nod). But the specifics of quite how Murray’s great idea were supposed to work in practice were lost on me. It’s all very well saying you need to dilute the truth for it to be picked up by the media, but why exactly were they supposed go along with or report on a disprovable fake story again?
A word also for Nancy’s adorable treatment of Dustin in the finale, inviting him to dance and plying him with compliments (“You know, out of all my brother’s friends, you’re my favourite. You’ve always been my favourite”). What a darling.
Will: No. He likes it cold.
2.5 (Dig Dug) and 2.6 (The Spy) were directed by Andrew Stanton, no less, fresh from Finding Dory and representing only his second foray into live action (after John Carter didn’t exactly crash and burn, but entirely didn’t set the world on fire either). It may just be a coincidence, but I think the season peaked with these two, perfectly juggling its mysteries and forward momentum and various subplots before the unfortunate street gang episode and then the expertly executed but more predictable final two.
These are the episodes where the extent of Will’s possession makes itself known, and one can’t praise Noah Schnapp highly enough, particularly since he was more of a MacGuffin than a rounded presence last year. Mike, with Eleven out of the picture, turns his saviour complex on Will instead, but Finn Wolfhard’s performance ensures his character doesn’t seem too diminished (particularly since he spends the rest of his time being mean to Max).
And Winona has really found her footing – I think I noticed only one scene where Joyce was waving her arms about excessively – completely selling the maternal concern, but willing to go all out when she needs to, even against Jonathan’s protests when it comes to exorcising the invader from her boy.
Joyce: What if you didn’t have to use words?
There are some rather less than elegant plot expediencies in adding up Will’s condition, much less resolving it, however. The whole “crazy Joyce doing crazy things in her house” idea had been more than sufficiently serviced when communicating with Will in the first year, so I’m not sure such an obvious repeat was in order (particularly recalling, as the map does, The X-Files first season episode Conduit, making a giant face from 0s and 1s computer printouts on the living room floor).
Mike: He can’t spy if he doesn’t know where he is.
And, while I liked the thinking whereby Will was cut off from the world and unable to relay information to the Mind Flayer (depositing him in a sealed-up shed), the Duffers also employ ideas that suggest these kids are maybe just that bit too impossibly bright (using Morse Code to send the message “Close Gate”, although one wonders if that worked, given the final shot) and that they, like the makers of the most recent season of Game of Thrones, are inadvisably beholden to George Lucas for their plot twists (“Maybe if we stop him, we can stop his army too”), specifically the climax of The Phantom Menace.
Jonathan: Would you rather be Bowie or Kenny Rogers?
Bob: Kenny Rogers? I love Kenny Rogers!
I wondered if the above, from the opening episode, was a knowingly ironic comment, given Bowie had just shamelessly whored himself in the most mainstream manner possible at that point, all tan, bottle blonde hair and Nile Rodgers production sheen. After all, this is a show that popularises the geek, makes the geek cool, and even attempts to make D&D cool (even Vin Diesel couldn’t do that). It rather dilutes the Brothers’ proclamation this is a show about outsiders – “an anthem for the outsider” – as, in their envisioning, everyone is an outsider. It’s that inclusive. Which means no one is. We now have an environment where comic books and former nerd niches like Doctor Who and Star Trek are thoroughly mainstream, where geek holds cachet rather than derision. It’s a social equivalent of the Upside Down. Is the series doomed to lose its essential footing, or ethos if you will, as its popularity burgeons?
That could go back to my original qualms about how it dodged any significant exploration of the Montauk Project, as the further down the line it gets, the more it reveals itself as essentially a very cosy concept, despite its horror element: life-affirming and character-building in the manner of a Joss Whedon series of old, but – fortunately – lacking the need for endless pop culture quipping. It’s John Hughes meets John Carpenter, but more of the former. Stranger Things 2 has designs on the character growth of The Empire Strikes Back (always the sequel touchstone), but ultimately carries the emotional weight of a Lethal Weapon 2 (right down to Sean Astin as Patsy Kensit), because it’s “just a sequel”, knowing a third and fourth (and maybe fifth) instalment will follow.
As such, if the show has developed a problem, it’s that it has set itself out a limited stall, that it’s already ploughed itself a predictable furrow and isn’t inclined to take a truly different or distinctive or divergent course now. It’s a furrow in which a (new) big bad is poised to threaten re-established order at the end of each season (the Duffers may have been granted a bigger budget this year, but those demi-dogs aren’t going to win any effects awards) and they take in the various horror icons (King, Lovecraft, er James Wan) but ultimately rest on their laurels, unable or ill-equipped to break any new ground themselves. One in which none of the young protagonists are really going to be endangered (well, the show might end in such a way, but only one important character died this season, two if the you include the one no one shed a tear for, and he was a newbie – the writers are going to think twice before they Barb someone so frivolously again), and are clearly too beholden to their own creations and performers (hence Paul Reiser surviving, not that I’m not grateful he did, but in any other scenario he would have been toast).
I probably shouldn’t complain about a show with a junior cast front and centre playing it safe, and I’m all for exploring character, but one thing Stranger Things 2 doesn’t do is build on its strong foundations ideas-wise. Its template is straightforward and unsophisticated. Maybe bringing back Dr Brennan would lend it something in the mythology stakes, or maybe I just have to accept that it’s content to be what it is. In the meantime, let Justice for Mews be the demand for Season Three. Forget Barb. Those Duffers are heartless monsters.
Season 2 Episode Ratings:
2.2 Trick or Treat, Freak
2.3 The Pollywog
2.4 Will the Wise
2.5 Dig Dug
2.6 The Spy
2.7 The Lost Sister
2.8 The Mind Flayer
2.9 The Gate
Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.