(SPOILERS AHEAD for Netflix’s Stranger Things 2)
Okay, wow. It took a while to get going; it took a few episodes to do anything at all, even. But once it starts up, Stranger Things 2 hits the ground running and it doesn’t hold back. There is A LOT to talk about this season, so I’ll cut right to the chase: it’s brilliant. But not in the ways you might have expected.
The most obvious discussion to have is probably the events concerning the Upside Down. I have to admit, that stuff was a little lackluster coming into the season’s final act. A lot of interesting things get laid down in the first few episodes, the stakes get raised during the middle, and then just as we build to the climax… it seems to just fizzle out. The level of threat is much higher than the first season, but the Duffer brothers haven’t really raised the level of tension to meet it. The result is that the supernatural elements of the show don’t pay off in a satisfying way; the most we get out of it is a few really cool shots in the final two episodes.
It’s disappointing, but in a way, it doesn’t really matter that much in the grand scheme of things (that’s right kids, it’s time for a controversial hot take!). The stuff with the Upside Down is cool and all, but even the show has bigger priorities. The supernatural elements are a great backdrop, and they make for excellent trailer fodder, but it’s just the lure, not the hook. What’s far more interesting is the character drama the supernatural elements help to create, and Stranger Things 2 has enough character based drama to blow even Steve Harrington’s beautiful hair away. Every single one of the characters has grown and changed in the year since Hawkins Lab wreaked havoc upon the Byers family, and there’s plenty of new characters thrown into the mix. Sean Astin’s Bob Newby is the perfect positive foil to Joyce’s anxiety over her son, and Max Mayfield, played by Sadie Sink, introduces a love triangle into the group that’s in equal measures hilarious, heart-warming, and heartbreaking. Her step-brother, new neighbourhood bully Billy Hargrave, is an infuriatingly cruel human antagonist to the main characters, and his arc is a poignant (if underdeveloped) musing on the nature of abuse, and cycles of abuse. An entire episode is dedicated to Eleven, who’s split apart from the rest of the cast and goes off on her own adventure, learning something about herself (they could have made a whole arc out of the stuff that happens here, but it’s a fantastic standalone episode as it is).
Then, of course, there’s Steve Harrington, at once the redeemed and the great redeemer, who rose up from the rank of Hawkins’ favourite jerk to one of the greatest characters on the show. He is precious, and he needs to be protected, and I don’t think anyone saw it coming but it’s true. Steve Harrington is my second favourite character on the show. My most favourite is Steve Harrington’s hair. I’m not even ashamed. It needed to be said.
Stranger Things 2 makes the interesting choice to split its main cast into separate groups for most of the season’s second act. The pairings are interesting because they force the characters to show a different side of themselves. Steve’s brotherly affection for Dustin, Hopper’s fatherly caring for Eleven and the on-again-off-again chemistry of Nancy and Jonathan are just a few examples. The show might not have paid off in terms of action, but it created characters we care deeply about, and the result is one of the most beautiful emotional payoffs in recent memory. Which is exactly why the final shot to remind us about the Upside Down feels almost out of place. Sure, no one actually killed the Shadow Monster, but the ending was so perfect. It felt like an ending to the show as a whole, not just the season, and it sort of spoiled the mood to be so obnoxiously thrown out of that mood. I’m sure a third season will be great, but I just wanted to cry a little harder, and a little longer. Overall though, fantastic season. Very impressed. Someone please tell me how to have hair like Steve Harrington.