(Spoiler alert: This story contains major plot points and spoilers regarding the second season of Netflix’s Stranger Things.)
If you’re like us—and if you’re reading this site, you probably are—you spent every minute this weekend that you weren’t working on your Halloween costume or playing Super Mario Odyssey binge-watching the latest installment of Stranger Things. It had more monsters, more telekinesis, and even more kids. There was even a trip to Chicago! It was … well, it was pretty good.
But was it great? Not so fast—or at least not so uninamous. Some of us loved it as much as Dustin loves pollywogs. Others saw it as a rehash of the greatest tricks and treats of the first season. But regardless how we felt, we consumed it all like a pillowcase full of candy on Halloween night. And now that WIRED writers and editors Jason Parham, Brian Raftery, Peter Rubin, and Angela Watercutter are recovering from their Stranger hangover, they’ve got a few things to say.
Angela Watercutter: First things first; I enjoyed Stranger Things 2, but I wouldn’t say I loved it. It kinda felt like it followed the same arc as the first season, but without the thrill of discovery that first season had. That said, Stranger Things is now just one of those shows where I kinda like hanging out with these people, so I wasn’t annoyed to be visiting again. What can I say, those opening credits still give me chills.
But first of all, let’s talk about the references in Season 2. The first time around it was very Stephen King, very Steven Spielberg—basically it had a nod to anyone named Steve. It even had a Steve. This time around I caught some Poltergeist allusions thanks to Eleven’s (Millie Bobby Brown) use of the TV as a psychic communication device. (And whenever she goes into that all-black space to communicate with people I always want it to be a nod to that Scarlett Johansson movie Under the Skin, but I don’t think it is.) There’s a bit of Alien in there, too, and Ghostbusters is referenced directly. Some even think there’s a touch of Top Gun, but that’s a stretch. What about you guys? What did you like, dislike, and pick up on in Stranger Things 2?
Jason Parham: I have to agree, Angela, the Duffer Brothers left little room for surprise with this installment. The anatomy of the season seemed to follow a similar arc as the last—down to Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) ravaging her apartment to help decode what it is Will’s trying to say (this time: his opaque drawings, which when connected make up a web of vines that reach into almost every room in the house and double as a map for Hawkins). Unsurprisingly, Will (Noah Schnapp) is again stuck in the Upside Down, only his existence (or is it more of a confinement?) now runs parallel to his real-world life—a slick, if appropriately gruesome, metaphor for teenhood, and that feeling of often feeling stuck between two places and not knowing what any of it means or how to escape.
Still, the show is a treat to watch. It’s vibrantly immersed in the manners and politics of 1984 midwest Indiana. I enjoyed the pairing of Eleven and Chief Hawkins (David Harbour), and watching that relationship unfold, only to eventually hit its breaking point (as all father-daughter relationships seem to during puberty). Getting a clearer view into home life for Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) and Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) was also an added bonus—though it left me wanting to know more about their families. (The choice by the Duffer Brothers to fasten Will’s character to the Upside Down grants his family more agency than it does others, which is unfortunate.)
There is one particular scene I keep playing in my head, though. It’s toward the end of Episode 4, when, after an argument with Lucas about feeling alienated from the group, Max (Sadie Sink) is given an earful from her step brother, Billy. “This is serious shit,” he says, forcibly holding her in place. “I’m older than you. And something you learn is there are certain type of people in this world that you stay away from … and that kid is one of them.” It feels like the series’ first real out-and-out moment of racial friction, but it’s also not especially blatant in the way, say, a Trump presidency has unmasked the flag-waving xenophobes among us. Maybe Max’s brother does genuinely care for her, and the only way he knows how to show her is through intimidation and fear, a kind of survival tactic. The scene startled me for its bluntness, but also because it seemed to carry so much weight concerning its social politics—that sometimes monsters are hiding in plain sight. Were there any scenes or moments that caught you off guard?
Watercutter: I’m glad you brought that up, Jason. That one stuck with me, too. And the second part of its one-two punch landed for me in Episode 8 when Billy’s dad confronts him about “staring at yourself in the mirror like some faggot instead of watching your sister.” It seemed like Stranger Things’ attempt at showing the cycle of bullying. When I saw Billy’s dad say that and then rough up his own kid, my takeaway was that whatever bigoted views Billy might have, they likely came from his father. I’ve always thought of Stranger Things as a relatively apolitical show, but I don’t think it’s an accident that Season 2 made a point of showing “Reagan Bush ‘84” signs in people’s yards and having moments like this. One of the show’s underlying themes has always been celebrating outsiders and the strength that comes when they stick together, and this season felt like it was, in these small instances, trying to tie that into the cultural-political divides that were surfacing in the ‘80s.
Speaking of which, I do have to give one very specific high-five to Millie Bobby Brown. Easily my favorite part of Stranger Things is the fact that its savior is a smart, strong girl, but Eleven/Jane as a character is wonderful to watch because of Brown. For me, ST2 didn’t click until it shifted focus to her search for “Mama” and journey to Chicago to find her sister and her sister’s punk-anarchist friends. (Side note: Did anyone else catch that Thomas Tull cameo? Moreover, can anyone explain it? I’m sure there’s something I’m missing.) The whole thing gave me a lot of Orphan Black vibes, which I really appreciated. On a show where most of the kids just go from being scared to being heroes, she gets a much better character arc. She also gets a super-cool makeover—I spent most of Sunday wondering if I could find the right blazer to pull off her New Wave look in time for Halloween. Anyway, I’ll be starting a MBB Stan Club shortly after we publish this story—join me!
Peter Rubin: Whoa whoa whoa whoa, y’all, we haven’t even gotten to the end of the I Love the ’80s party. Dacre Montgomery might have been beyond cartoonish up until the very last episode (with that horrible between-the-legs layup, dude was like the 1984 version of an And 1 mixtape), but with his Aqua Netted hair, three-o’clock shadow, and dangling single earring, Billy was a full-on clone of his namesake, Rob Lowe’s troubled saxophonist in St. Elmo’s Fire. (Supercut here for you young’uns.) By the time we got to his origin story—such as it is—I had fooled myself into thinking that the Duffers consciously drew him up as a Billy prequel…with maybe a little racism thrown in, as Jason points out, to ratchet up the villainy.
Season 2 wasn’t the Spielberg/Carpenter highlight reel that the first season was, but what it lacked in visual cues it made up for in conversational winks. Like Max’s reaction in the arcade, when Lucas comes clean with the full story about Eleven: “I just felt it was a little derivative in parts—I just wish it had a little originality, that’s all.” That might not have been officially written by the Duffers, but it felt like a clapback all the same. Or Bob’s tossed-off question about what Joyce is looking for in Will’s mind-map of the tunnels: “What’s at the X, pirate treasure?” Of course Mikey from The Goonies would ask that. (Also, Bob’s story about growing up in Maine in the ’50s and being terrorized by a clown? There’s something familiar about that, I just can’t put my finger on IT.)
But we’re not here just to audit the writing staff’s cultural recall—and Angela, since you’ve broken the seal by mentioning the already-infamous Episode 7, I’ve gotta ask: on a show when the best trick is investing characters with enough personality to transcend the archetypes they’re based on, why were Kali and crew so insufferable? It was every terrible “street tough” caricature from ’80s music videos, brought together like some kind of fever-dream mashup of “Beat It” and the Van Buren Boys. This season had plenty of missteps, but this was the only unforgivable one. Brian, please don’t tell me I’m being ungenerous here. (Which is always a possibility)
Brian Raftery: Hoo boy, episode 7! I stayed off social media all weekend, so as to avoid Stranger Things spoilers—so until now, I had no idea that this particular installment had wound up causing so much (justifiable) bitchin’. I’ve always been a bit suspicious of Stranger Things’ homage-podge style, which often favors nostalgic good vibes over narrative logic, but episode 7 felt almost daringly lazy in its ‘80s thievery. I love the idea of throwing an Empire Strikes Back-like training session into the middle of a Penelope Spheeris-style squat-punk saga, but on Stranger Things—which, for all its metaphysical elements, has always been firmly grounded in suburban, Spielbergian wonder—those elements felt like they’d been teleported from a different pop-culture dimension (also, playing Bon Jovi’s “Runaway” during a child-runaway sequence was painfully winky, even for this show; to quote another long-haired metallurgist who broke out in 1984, there’s a fine line between stupid and clever).
That said, Stranger Things’ Windy City excursion didn’t bug me too much, because by that point, I’d already soured on the season, which doubled-down on the Reagan-era references (I know we already mentioned Goonies and Aliens, so I’ll throw in Gremlins, The Gate, and even the cat-jeopardizing ALF) without finding a compelling reason for them to exist. As Jason notes, Stranger Things 2 shares a lot of story-strand DNA with Stranger Things 1, albeit with a few new characters whose sole reason for existing, at least initially, is to have the events of season one recounted to them. Until the frenetic last two episodes, I felt strangely bored and distracted throughout this season, which was kind of like those ‘80s years themselves: I didn’t love ‘em, I didn’t hate ‘em, but by the end, I was definitely ready for something else.
What kept me from flipping around, though, were the performances, especially by the teen protagonists—to echo Angela’s comments, the producers really found something special in Brown, who projects so much longing and rage, even when she’s remaining silent (I also thought Noah Schnapp was excellent as the tortured, perpetually suffering Will). Still, though the show is still largely driven by Eleven, it’s a shame Things can’t find more for its grown-up female characters to do. The adult men of Stranger Things are hero cops, sorta-hero scientists, or hero A/V club founders; the show’s same-aged women are, for the most part, stressed-out or checked-out moms who are largely limited to their parenting duties. Could someone politely point the Duffers to the section of the video store stocking such Reagan/Bush-era hits as Working Girl and/or Broadcast News?
Watercutter: Just chiming into agree with Brian on the lack of things the adult women on Stranger Things get to do. Also, speaking of the women of Stranger Things and it’s over-referencing nature, I have two questions for you all: What did you think of the justice Barb got? And how did you feel about the very-John-Hughes school dance the season ended with? I kinda felt that the Barb thing was something they sort of shoehorned in to appease fans and give Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) something to do besides make out. And the dance was … fine? It was cute, but I wanted Eleven to show up in her blazer, TBH.
Parham: Barb! She was too pure for this world, Angela. To answer your question, the Duffer Brothers providing a morsel of closure with regard to her story was part of a larger theme they were trying to address this season—the burden of private grief, and the way each character attended their personal wounds. As Ross Duffer put it in Variety: the idea was to have characters deal with “the trauma of what happened in the past.” We saw a lot of that in Eleven and Billy and Kali and Joyce—the various ways trauma ferments over time, driving bouts of confusion or rage or constant worry. This has, partly, been Eleven’s journey all along: trying to contend with the past so that she could move forward, and possibly live a normal teenage life (whatever that is). Still, it was smart of the Duffers to use that narrative device as a motivation behind other stories this season, mostly because it hinted at the fact that what happened didn’t end when the credits rolled. The people of Hawkins were still hurting, even if they didn’t fully understand why.
One personal gripe: Much of this season was devoted to Eleven’s personal journey, something that was just unavoidable. I just wish it hadn’t taken her so long to reunite with the gang—I mean, did you see how Mike lit up when she walked in the door? The road to the finale was bumpy, sure, but worth it: It was gratifying (and just plain fun) seeing them battle the Shadow Monster as a team. I guess it’s true what they say: the dark times are much more tolerable when your friends are by your side. Peter, Brian—what did you make of the show’s finale? Any speculation as to what will happen next season?
Rubin: After what was legitimately a grating 50 minutes of TV (sorry, I really didn’t like Episode 7), the last two episodes did a lot to redeem my experience, from the siege on the tunnels to Hopper and Eleven’s heart-to-heart. While Brown and Harbour are each fantastic in their own right throughout the season, they really shine when playing off one another. And given the way so many people watch this show, the last thing you taste is the one thing you remember—so overall, Stranger Things 2 was a net positive. No question there. However, as much as I loved the burgeoning brolationship between Steve and Dustin, and as heartwarming as it is to see our adventurers take their first halting steps toward hormonal chaos, I was left with a question that Brian and I asked ourselves the first time around: why did the show need a second season? And given the diminishing returns, can it support a third?
The new characters didn’t feel fresh, the new evils weren’t particularly new, and despite El’s earlier closing of the dimensional gate, that last-shot tag of Hawkins Middle School, Upside Down Edition felt like a threadbare promise. Stranger Things was originally conceived of as an anthology; that format may have gone out of vogue by the time Netflix greenlit the series, but imagine how that would have opened up the sandbox for the Duffers. Right about now, Hawkins is just feeling too small to contain multitudes.
Raftery: Yeah, that last shot didn’t give me much hope, as I’d really believed we were finished with the Upside-Down—meaning the show could finally move on to truly stranger things. But it seems as though the Duffers can never quite say goodbye to their demonic creations. And until they do, the show will always feel slightly stuck in its own past.