If there’s any pop cultural item this year that could arguably have been more highly anticipated than The Last Jedi, it would have to be Stranger Things 2. Netflix’s surprise sci-fi phenomenon burst into the zeitgeist last fall and never left, as we all fell in love with Eleven and her gang of friends in Hawkins, Indiana. Season two was eagerly awaited by all, but there was an important question hanging over Stranger Things: would a second season of a show already coated in nostalgia for the works of Steve’s Spielberg and King (among others) be able to chart an original course, or would it now wind up feeling derivative not only of the pop culture of the 80s, but also of itself?
As it turns out, Stranger Things 2 actually was pretty derivative, repeating a lot of the same structure and story beats of season one. It also turns out that that wasn’t a problem at all. Resting on the shoulders of the strongest ensemble on TV (sorry, Game of Thrones), Stranger Things 2 transcended that derivation and was every bit as good as season one. All of the characters we fell in love with were back, and in top form, along with some solid new additions in Max, Bob, and Dr. Owens. The new season gave us the opportunity to spend time with characters who were less prominent in season one, like Will and Lucas, and developed some fun new dynamics, like the surprisingly delightful pairings of Hopper with Eleven and Dustin with Steve. This cast works together so well, and watching them is such an absolute delight that, were it not for a couple of significant structural mistakes, I would have called it even better than season one.
As things stand, season two will have to settle for being just as good as. Stranger Things 2, billed as a sequel rather than simply a second season, follows the logic of many movie sequels: go bigger. This was a successful tactic in some respects; the army of demodogs was a solid upping of the ante from last season’s demogorgon, for example. Other attempts by series creators the Duffer Brothers to expand the scope were not as successful.
The season’s biggest creative missteps are encapsulated by the now-infamous seventh episode, “The Lost Sister”. A solo hour that sees Eleven Jane take a trip to Chicago to find another girl who was experimented on by Dr. Brenner, the episode suffers from a bit of a dichotomy. Looked at by itself, “The Lost Sister” is a competently produced episode of television, and I get the impulses that led the Duffers to make it. Millie Bobby Brown obviously has the chops to carry an episode without any of her costars, and introducing Kali both broadened the scope of the narrative and gave the Duffers an opportunity to branch out and do a Warriors/Lost Boys-y type riff.
The problem is that “The Lost Sister” doesn’t fit with the rest of the show at all. While one can argue that the episode marks an important step in Eleven’s development as a character, I’d hazard that similar results could have been obtained in a way that meshed better—both tonally and stylistically—with Stranger Things as a whole. The episode is operating in a completely different 80s wheelhouse than the rest of the show, so “The Lost Sister” ends up sticking out like a sore thumb.
I can’t say the subject matter of the episode thrilled me either. The reason I’m watching Stranger Things at this point is that I’m invested in the story of this group of kids in Hawkins and the crazy shit that happens to them. I’m not even a tiny bit interested in learning more about Eleven’s past, which is what “The Lost Sister” was all about. I had enough information about where Eleven came from and what the Upside Down is to satisfy my curiosity about those subjects by the end of last season—I really don’t need any more.
The temptation to explain too much is a quandary a lot of genre entertainment runs into, and I worry that this is a trap Stranger Things is running into at full speed. It seems pretty obvious that future seasons of the show are gonna take an even deeper dive into Eleven’s past, and that is the last possible direction I want to story to go in. As the Iris DeMint song used over the credits of The Leftovers says: let the mystery be. The story of Eleven, Hawkins, and the Mind Flayer could easily be continued without pulling the curtain too far back on Eleven’s backstory or the nature of the Upside Down. Sadly, it doesn’t seem like the Duffers are interested in that kind of ambiguity.
“The Lost Sister” is also emblematic of Stranger Things 2’s general mishandling of Eleven. The best part of the first season was watching Eleven, Mike, Dustin, and Lucas interact with each other; by separating Eleven from her friends for the entire season we were deprived of the kind of storytelling that really makes Brown and Eleven spark.
Granted, Eleven’s isolation wasn’t a total loss. The father/daughter dynamic that developed between Hopper and Eleven was remarkably affecting, thanks to Brown and David Harbour’s excellent chemistry. That relationship could have been just as rich, though, had Eleven been reintegrated with the main group at a much earlier point in the season. Putting Eleven back together with the other kids earlier also would’ve saved us from having to watch Mike act like a surly brat for most of the season, which would’ve been cool.
Eleven’s absence allowed for one other good thing: the introduction of Max, although even that wasn’t perfect. Sadie Sink fit right in with the other kids, and Max served as an excellent source of conflict for the boys as they debated how much they should tell her about everything going on in Hawkins. If only Max hadn’t brought her brother with her, then everything would’ve been perfect.
Billy, Max’s step-brother, is a bad character. Yes, he’s supposed to be a bully, but he was written so shallowly that he just didn’t work at all. Steve was so effective in the first season as a foil who became a good guy because he was never actually that big of a douchebag, he was just acting like one so he could fit in with his two genuinely douchey friends. Billy just plain sucked, and every moment he was onscreen was the exact opposite of entertaining. There’s one scene between Billy and his father that tries to sketch some nuance into Billy’s character, but it was too little, too late; by that point I had no inclination to allow Billy even an iota of sympathy. In the grand scheme of things, though, Billy being terrible isn’t that big of a deal. He doesn’t have enough screen time to really be considered anything other than a minor nuisance.
If it weren’t for the significant mistakes I think the Duffers made with Eleven’s story, I’d say that Stranger Things 2 was pretty much perfect. Luckily, despite the problems, everything came together in the end, and the season went out on a very satisfying note. Now, we find ourselves back in the same place we were this time last year: waiting for next season, hoping that Netflix and the Duffer Brothers are able to catch lightening in a bottle yet again.