A satisfying return for the Duffer brothers and everyone’s favorite ‘80s crew. It doesn’t have quite the same punch, and plays it relatively safe. Nonetheless, it is still well worth the watch this Halloweek.
The Good: Everything that was good from Season 1, but mostly Sean Astin.
The acting and music continue to be the stars of the show. The banter between the boys is as good as ever, with Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) taking more, and deserved, screen time this season. Newcomer Max (Sadie Sink) makes an excellent addition to the show providing a more pragmatic addition to the party. Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) and Jim Hopper (David Harbour) continue to carry much of the show, proving again and again the depth of their talent. And of course, who could forget Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), who gets to expand her role and test her chops this season.
But if there’s one show stealer this season, it’s Sean Astin as Bob. What better actor to call up than a veteran of The Goonies, than Rudy himself, than Samwise Gamgee, to play mild mannered 80’s dad Bob. I would be truly shocked if he didn’t earn himself a nomination of some sort. He steals every scene he is in, and the chemistry between him and Ryder is palpable. It’s worth watching just to see Astin back on screen.
Beyond the acting, the music and aesthetic design continues to thrive. Together, they create an immersive setting akin to Mad Men. It’s hard to tell that this wasn’t filmed in 1984.
Stranger Things niche is character play. It’s greatest moments are when characters are able to play off of each other, or the quiet moments when they’re alone. While the plot, story, suspense and action are certainly fine, it’s important that the show, and its future seasons, do not lose sight of that strength.
The Bad: Not necessarily bad, just derivative itself. The arcs aren’t as strong or clear this season.
Perhaps Season 1 is a bane to all and any future installments. It did such a tremendous job of setting up the characters and their arcs that the sequels simply cannot match. Such is the case here.
Joyce’s arc is strong though subtle, but does not compare to the now-iconic performance and journey of Season 1. Dustin and Lucas have more story this time around, but their arc is muddied. What do they learn? Not clear.
Will is primarily a victim again, with no real arc.
Max is fun, but her story resolution is contrived, and leads to a shallow feeling.
Worst of all is Mike. The setup is strong: the loss of Eleven and the general trauma of Season 1 have clearly effected him. And he doesn’t like that Max is “replacing” Eleven in the party. So how does that get resolved?
It doesn’t. That’s the answer. He comes to terms with both, or that’s what is implied.
Beyond these weaker arcs, Season 2 suffers from being derivative. This was a common complaint aimed at Season 1, though one I found overblown. It paid tribute to a bevy of ‘80s properties across mediums and genres, and it watched like a love letter.
Season 2 is derivative, but this time of itself. Trapped in the junkyard? Check. Codes sent from Will that need decoding? Check. Steve’s an asshole, but then he realizes it? Yep.
Circular storytelling can be used to great effect. But there is no pattern here; no A-B-A style narrative. Perhaps this serves a larger story, but for now, it feels already-done. Even the simple connective “nerd” theme from Seasons 1, Dungeons & Dragons, is re-used, despite constant references to Ghostbusters, Mad Max, and arcade properties.
The Ugly: The Duffer’s have a hard time with newcomer Sadie Sink/Max.
Max is cool; that’s the long and short of it. She skateboards, she has the top scores at the arcade, and she goes her own way, calling the boys out on their crap. She also has an abusive older step brother, and feels at least partly responsible for their family moving from California.
But her role in the plot is to be the thing that Dustin and Lucas fight over. And that’s a boring trope. She does add dimension to the group, proving to be more independent, critical, and risk taking than the others. But she does little to contribute to plot progression. She serves to advance the boys’ stories.
Given the fantastic performance from Sink, one can only hope that she is better utilized next season.