The Highs And Lows Of The Sequelicious ‘Stranger Things 2’ (Complete with SPOILERS)

Stranger Things 2 debuted early this morning on Netflix. I published my overall review of the new season on Monday, noting that it was repetitive and sequel-y — in a way that winds up justifying the silliness of calling it Stranger Things 2 rather than “Stranger Things season two” — but mostly executed at a high enough level that I was glad to have it back, despite initial skepticism.

Now, though, it’s time to get into more specific thoughts on the highs and lows, for the benefit of those who have finished, with full spoilers for the whole season throughout. (If you’re busy with work or school or just life, bookmark and come back when you’re done.) That’s coming up just as soon as I use four puffs of the Farrah Fawcett spray…

Low: Keeping Eleven separate for so long

Far and away the biggest mistake the season makes is to keep Eleven — Or are we all calling her Jane from now on after she found her mother and Dr. Owens legally changed her name to Jane Hopper? — apart from Mike and the other boys for virtually the entire season. Really, it’s only a few scenes sprinkled across the final two episodes, because almost as soon as she reunites with the whole group, she and Hopper have to go off too close the portal.

There’s a lot of her throughout the season with Hopper (more on that in a moment), and with her exploring her past (ditto), but one of the most appealing parts of the first season was watching these three nerds teach a girl who’d lived her entire life in monitored isolation how to be a person. The sequel repeated and/or did variations on a ton of things from last year, yet somehow the Duffers looked at Eleven’s bond with Mike, Dustin, and Lucas and thought, “Yeah, we don’t need so much of that.” Max turned out to be a good character in her own right, but it did both her and the season a disservice in essentially saying, “We can just plug a new girl into the group and it’ll feel close enough to satisfy.”

And as a result, both she and Mike spent most of the season being justifiably bitter about being separated from one another (Mike assuming she was dead, Eleven essentially being kept in a different kind of prison for slightly more benevolent reasons), which was also less fun to watch. A lot of the season is about various characters dealing with PTSD from the events of the first, which was a nice touch and the kind of thing you can do in a TV show rather than the kind of movies the Duffers are paying homage to — nobody knows what it was like for Elliot to go back to school and have to just be a regular kid after E.T. made his bike fly — but Eleven’s forced separation wound up making the whole thing feel darker than it needed to.

High: Hopper and Eleven’s parental drama

You also get the sense that the Duffers were aware of how good Millie Bobby Brown was, and the same for David Harbour, and that perhaps putting the two of them alone in a room for long stretches would give both a chance to shine even more. And, indeed, those scenes were really strong and did a beautiful job of slow-playing Jim’s chance at a fatherly do-over after the death of his daughter. They could have hammered the idea home over and over, but instead mostly trusted us to know, and left it until the finale for him to really talk about Sara even briefly — which made the mention of her hit that much harder. Among the many moments that choked me up a bit across the last two episodes was seeing the forged IDs that Owens arranged, making her legally Hopper’s daughter.

High & Low: Eleven explores her family tree

Eleven tracking down her mom and Aunt Becky felt both necessary and emotionally strong. Terry being trapped in a loop of the same terrible memories was similar to how Preacher portrays Hell as being a place where you’re forced to relive the worst moments of your life over and over again for all eternity, but it was put together well, and gave Eleven more things to feel angry about when she needed more rage to fuel her powers.

On the other hand, the Eleven spotlight in “The Lost Sister” felt like a wrong turn on a bunch of levels. It not only comes at a really bad time in the arc of the season — right after the cliffhanger with the demodogs climbing out of the hole at the lab — but traffics in in two-dimensional archetypes even more than the rest of the show does. Almost everyone else on the show sticks around long enough to feel fully developed and lived-in, but Kali and her crew each have one distinctive visual signature and at most one recognizable character trait, and that’s it. The whole hour felt like a backdoor pilot for a spinoff about Kali seeking revenge on all the men who did her wrong over the years, and other than teaching Eleven how to better use her powers, seemed beside the point of everything else the season was about. I complain all the time about how Netflix shows need more distinctive episodes: this was an instance where it was a bad idea in both timing and execution. For a minute or two, I was intrigued by the images of Eleven wandering through the crowded streets of Chicago — a girl who’s spent her entire life kept apart from humanity being deposited in this big, colorful sea of it — but almost immediately she was in a huge warehouse in a deserted part of town, learning how to dress punk.

High: Trouble for Will

All the non-Mike members of the party got a lot more to do this year — Lucas flirting with Max, Dustin bonding with both D’Artagnan and Steve — but none got more of a promotion than Will, who in season one was basically Justin Bartha in The Hangover, kicking the plot in motion but being largely absent from it. Here, he’s still the plot device, but he’s out in the real world rather than tied to a wall in the Upside Down, dealing with both PTSD and this brand-new trauma of being haunted and then possessed by the Smoke Monster. It’s a lot to put on a young actor who didn’t get much opportunity to show his talents a year ago, but Noah Schnapp more than justified the Duffers’ faith in him with how he played so many of the things Will suffered through this season, and particularly the moment where he tries to follow Bob’s advice of standing up to the Monster at the end of episode three — only for it to go horribly wrong when the smoke just filled him up and took him over.

Low: #JusticeForBarb

Look, the Barb thing was an obvious Duffer misstep, in the way that everyone on the show seemed so worried about Will’s abduction, and only Nancy seemed to care about Barb’s, and only sometimes at that. But the meme-ing of Barb also went too far in the other direction, given what a relatively non-entity she was before she got pulled into the Upside Down, and season two overcompensates to try to appease all the hashtaggers out there, which, again, turns her into Poochie:

So Nancy spends much of the season searching for a way to let Barb’s parents know that she’s dead, and fretting that Steve and everyone else don’t feel an appropriate level of grief: “It’s like everyone forgot. It’s like nobody cares.” Which isn’t an unreasonable starting point for Nancy, since Barb was meant to be her best friend, whether or not she ever did much beyond expressing her distrust of Steve, but there’s just so much Barb pandering going on, particularly over the first few episodes. And then, in an appropriately ironic twist, the quest to save Barb’s memory gets co-opted into an excuse for Nancy and Jonathan to finally hook up; even when Stranger Things is trying desperately to be all about Barb, it keeps being distracted by other ideas.

But hey, at least it gave us Brett Gelman as the conspiracy-loving Murray, who turned out to be less of a con man than Hopper assumed at the jump.

High: Dustin meets D’Artagnan

As the new girl in the group who’s not trusted by one of its members, Max is the more overt Eleven substitute this year. But Dustin’s new inter-dimensional pet D’Artagnan, very much had echoes of E.T. in the same way Eleven did at times last year, down to the use of a signature bit of junk food. (Eleven does get one E.T. moment, though, when she dons a sheet to show Hopper how she might be able to trick-or-treat without anyone recognizing her.) Of course, D’Artagnan is also very much in the Gremlins mode, and the larger horror movie tradition of pets who prove far more than their owners can handle, even if Dustin connects with Dart enough to save everyone’s life in the final scene down in the tunnels. One of the more entertaining and effective examples of the new season not just copying something they did a year ago, but doing enough of a variation on it to feel worth the time.

Low: Crayon drawings instead of Christmas lights

On the other hand, the use of Will’s drawings of the vines as this year’s unusual Byers house decor felt a little too rote, and “Here’s this year’s version of that thing everybody enjoyed the last time we did it!” There are some nice moments inspired by the drawings, particularly how Bob the puzzle nerd is the one to figure out how they’re a weird map of the town, but it’s definitely the season’s most blatant (or perhaps least inspired) rehash of an earlier plot device.

High: Good guy Steve

Good as Joe Keery was as an archetypal ’80s high school movie bully last season, he was even better this year as Steve stayed reformed, was largely gracious about the end of his relationship with Nancy (and her getting together with Jonathan), served as babysitter/bodyguard to the younger kids, and, particularly, served as dating mentor and style guru to Dustin. I would not have expected those two to become one of the show’s most endearing duos, yet here we are.

Low: Bad guy Billy

Billy gets a great introduction, don’t get me wrong, and he fits a different horror tradition of being the human antagonist who ultimately proves much less of a threat than the monster. But despite all the build-up, and all of his threats about what could happen if Max keeps hanging around with Lucas — Is he racist? Anti-nerd? Both? Neither? — the payoff was pretty underwhelming, with Max knocking him out with the same drugs Joyce had been using to sedate Will, then threatening him with Steve’s barbed bat before her stepbrother completely passed out. The amount of time spent hinting at the danger to come didn’t nearly justify what actually happened.

(Like Steve, I wouldn’t be shocked if Billy turns out to be more appealing as a good-ish guy, as by far his most entertaining scene was when he turned on the charm to flirt with Mike and Nancy’s mom in order to get Max’s whereabouts.)

High: The entirety of “The Mind Flayer”

From top to bottom, the season’s penultimate hour was the best episode Stranger Things has done in either season, with the Duffers at the height of their powers. It was scary and thrilling and tragic and happy, from the power failing at the lab in the opening moments all the way through Eleven and Mike smiling at each other in the closing ones.

Two sequences, in particular, stood out: Bob risking — and ultimately losing — his own life in order to get the power turned back on to save Joyce and the kids, and the extended montage of Will’s friends and family telling him stories as an excuse for him to tap out the Morse code message about how to stop the Smoke Monster. The former was a testament to the work that Sean Astin and Paul Reiser both did in making what could have been really thankless roles — Bob as the oblivious new boyfriend whom Joyce’s sons don’t really connect with (even though he was an AV club nerd like them), Owens as the lab boss who’s not quite as creepy as Dr. Brenner — feel so indelible and nice that I was worried for both of them (and right about Bob, since Sean Astin characters so often die so nobly on behalf of others, and also since it feels like the Duffers want Joyce and Hopper to be the romantic endgame), but also to the basic construction of that sequence, where Bob could have plausibly died a bunch of times before he actually did. Bob Newby: superhero. That’s damn right.

The “Should I Stay Or Should I Go” montage was even more technically impressive, pulling together a lot of ideas from both seasons — Jonathan’s love of The Clash, Hopper and the kids all knowing Morse code, everyone’s concern for Will — into one single, giddy sequence that almost singlehandedly melted away a lot of my concerns with earlier episodes.

High: The plan comes together

If “The Gate” wasn’t quite as thrilling as its predecessor, it’s only because “Mind Flayer” set such a high bar. But the finale was pretty exciting in its own right, and again in the way it connected so many different pieces of the season together for the three-pronged assault on the Upside Down: Joyce, Jonathan, and Nancy performing an space heater-enhanced exorcism on Will at Hopper’s cabin, the kids burning the vines in the tunnels to distract the demodogs(*), and Hopper and Eleven down in the elevator trying to seal off the gate for good. (That last was similar to the climax of The Defenders only — like everything about Stranger Things — much better executed and more entertaining.) It all worked out nicely.

(*) The running gag about how only Dustin cared about what to call them — and always at the least appropriate time — was one of the season’s best.

High: The school dance

Where season one’s epilogue felt mostly unnecessary (and existed largely as a set-up for a second season I didn’t expect to enjoy as much as I did), this year’s was in some ways even more appealing than the action that preceded it. We had more payoffs — Lucas and Max, Mike and Eleven, Dustin and Steve’s haircare regimen — and the sweet mixed in with the bitter, like Dustin being rejected by every girl he approached until Nancy (who knows a Steve hair acolyte when she sees one) took pity on him and invited him onto the dance floor. It would have rung false if all the nerds had gotten impromptu dates on the same night, and what made it work especially well was that Dustin almost instantly grasped that she was doing him a kindness — sparing him humiliation in the moment while also planting seeds with the girls his own age — rather than mistaking it for the beginnings of an actual romance. A nice capper to the whole thing, and to Eleven/Jane’s desire to get out in the world even for a little while and experience what normal kids do.

Low: The Upside Down school dance

On the other hand, the glimpse of the Smoke Monster hovering over the Upside Down version of the school left me with even less enthusiasm for a sequel than last year’s epilogue did. As a whole, Stranger Things 2 proved there was more life in these characters than in that one particular story, and it was able to get away with a lot of narrative repetition in part by going bigger: an army of demodogs rather than one demogorgon. But I feel very Upside Downed out at this point, and would hope a third story would go in a different supernatural direction — or, at least, would bring in some other entity lingering on the other side of the gate that Jane closed while levitating.

What did everybody else think? Did Stranger Things 2 live up to the original? Did any of it surpass season one for you? And are you more or less excited for a third season after seeing the second?

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@uproxx.com. He discusses television weekly on the TV Avalanche podcast. His next book, Breaking Bad 101, is on sale now.

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