Stranger Things 2 review: Binge watching can't disguise how bad this is

The afterglow of binge watching Stranger Things 2 is very, very strong — believe us, we know.  Unless you’re a heartless, unfeeling demodog, you’re probably still feeling the warm fuzzies from Steve Harrington and Chief Hopper dadding all over our strange things.

But let’s put our feels to the side for a moment, and consider the ugly, upside down truth about Stranger Things 2: it’s a hot goddamn mess. 

A fun mess, for sure! With some great standout moments! But nowhere near the tight, expertly paced storytelling of the first season. Largely, Season 2 can be summarized as basically “Stranger Things: The Strangening.” You tread the exact same ground as last season, only more. And again. And it’s just kind of… boring.

In the Beyond Stranger Things aftershow, the Duffer brothers explained that their objective with Season 2 was, essentially: Season 1, but bigger. 

It’s clear that they tried to Aliens 2 their surprise summer hit from last year. But instead of expanding the universe of the first season with original ideas (ala Aliens 2), they just added a whole lot of sagging weight. And the unnecessary glut of new, strange things in Stranger Things 2 just drags every strange thing we loved about the first season down too.

Last year, the overarching critique of the cultural phenomenon came down to its derivativeness, as an unabashed stew of our favorite ’80s horror and sci-fi tropes. But to unknowing millennials and nostalgic Gen-Xers, that derivativeness generally worked in its favor.

It worked because of two core aspects that kept Stranger Things feeling fresh in spite of the familiarity: 1) The larger, compellingly inexplicable mystery of the Upside Down, and 2) The intimate connection we felt with its characters. The show immersed us in the small town mentality of Hawkins, in a way, creating a sense of relatability that grounded the fantastical elements.

Stranger Things 2, however, largely destroys those bonds, while also expanding the Upside Down in predictable ways (you thought one Demogorgon was bad? Try a bunch of baby demodogs on for size!), and ultimately robbing Season 1 of its impact.

In Season 2, instead of paying homage to the past while telling a new story, the show started paying homage to itself, becoming a self-referential ouroboros that couldn’t stop eating its own tail. 

Joyce is as disappointed as we are

Joyce is as disappointed as we are

Image: netflix

A scene in episode 5 encapsulates this perfectly, when the new character of Max (more on her later) reacts to Lucas telling her the story of Stranger Things Season 1. “I liked it,” she says, but “I had a few issues… I thought it was a little derivative in parts. I just wish it had more originality, is all.”

Aspiring screenwriters: meta winks to the audience have to be earned — please don’t force your character to become a mouthpiece for your own narrative shortcomings after producing a mere 13 episodes (aka half a season of a traditional broadcast show). Stranger Things is way too young to be so self-indulgent!

And there are numerous storylines and characters that appear to exist for no other reason than feeding the beast of fan service. 

Just look at what they did to Barb: Stranger Things Season 1 could not have cared less about her, sweeping past her death without a second thought and dismissing any potential repercussions for her friends or loved ones. But then the internet decided to care about Barb more than her creators did, so Netflix capitalized on it with promotional shrines to her at Comic Con and Topshop t-shirts

That’s all understandable (if annoying). But then the showrunners felt a belated sense of responsibility over their shoddy workmanship and tried to retrofit a realistic response to a high schooler going missing without a trace in a small town. Their forced deference to the internet’s Barb obsession proceeded to stink up the plot of Season 2, when Nancy Wheeler suddenly decided to develop a debilitating case of PTSD and guilt over a death she experienced a year ago.

The meme-bait doesn’t end there: Joyce solves puzzles by destroying her house again; D&D is referenced often (yet oddly never played); Nancy and Jonathan go on a sexually charged “we gotta do something” mission together; Eleven is still very into Eggos; and yet another boy in the group rejects the idea of letting a girl join their party.

The perfect encapsulation of the season’s shortcomings comes in the form of last season’s arguable protagonist, Mike. Poor, emo, purposeless Mike — whose greatest contribution to Season 2 is reminding us that his most powerful moments from Season 1 were exclusively thanks to his proximity to Eleven.

Speaking of which, a good chunk of Season 2 is occupied by retroactively walking back all the consequences that made last season feel so affecting. Because what are the answers to all of those burning questions Season 1 left us with? 

What happened to Eleven? She apparently just waltzed right out of the Upside Down seconds after “sacrificing” herself. And what about the big government baddies running Hawkins Lab, who were the main human antagonists and foils to Chief Hopper last time around? Welp, forget about all that, cause there’s a new guy in charge — and he’s actually pretty nice! Problem solved (offscreen). 

Which is another issue with Stranger Things 2: Aside from banking on the audience’s goodwill toward Season 1 (while simultaneously rendering it all pretty much moot), this season fails to introduce new characters, plots, or threats in any sort of compelling way.

Billy, who's strongest characteristic is how good his butt looks in those jeans

Billy, who’s strongest characteristic is how good his butt looks in those jeans

Image: netflix

And, look, we don’t envy the Duffer brothers — introducing new characters was always going to feel awkward at first. But the two major new additions, Max and her psycho brother Billy, exacerbate the existing difficulty of incorporating strangers into a tightknit cast by being inexplicably useless additions. 

We spend most of our time with them trying to solve the mystery of who the hell they are, why we should care about them, and what they contribute to the Stranger Things universe. (Except, of course, for Billy and Mrs. Wheeler’s scene — which very nearly justified his character’s entire existence).

At best, these characters feel like the writers were trying to check the box for obligatory cast additions in Season 2. At worst, they are poorly-disguised plot devices trying to pass as flesh and blood people.

Max serves the function of being a source of conflict and object of desire for Dustin and Lucas (which, ew, can we stop doing that to female characters?). Meanwhile, her stepbrother serves as a source of conflict for her and the rest of the gang, as the writers attempt to bring any sort of dimensionality to the conflict-disguised-as-a-person that is Mad Max.

Both fail miserably at justifying their presence. Because the culmination of Max’s character arc, let’s not forget, is her seeming to permanently solve the issue of domestic abuse in her household by threatening a beaten and bleeding Billy. Once. Billy gets a tragic backstory shoehorned in near the end of the season, but no further examination. Now, compare that to the character journey of Steve Harrington throughout both seasons. Can you understand our disappointment?

Then there’s Kali (aka Eight). God bless her, because actress Linnea Berthelsen does as much as she can with the role she was given, and her chemistry with Eleven is movingly believable. But why on earth would they dilute the realism of that relationship by surrounding Kali with a gang of dead-weight misfit caricatures who feel even less like actual people than Billy or Max?

Worst of all, these walking tropes only exacerbate the missed opportunity of Kali, limiting her to the role of their leader and a single standalone episode which (despite Eleven’s awesome punk makeover), sticks out like a sore thumb.

Sure, all of this helped the Duffer Brothers achieve their stated goal: Stranger Things 2 certainly is bigger. But… why? And at what cost?  Because “bigger” does not equal “better.” 

Even the developments in the Upside Down’s mythology via introduction to the “Shadow Monster” (aka “Mind Flayer”) proved frustratingly vague. The creature, which the cast calls “The Sentient” in the Stranger Things after show (and why the hell they wouldn’t use this rad AF title in the actual show is beyond us) is so wildly underdeveloped that we were too busy trying to figure out what it was even supposed to be to actually feel scared of it.

"You're being chased by a /what/ now?" - All of us

“You’re being chased by a /what/ now?” – All of us

Image: netflix

Unlike the Demogorgon, which the Duffers related to a Jaws-like threat, this new part of the Upside Down’s food chain ironically lacks any real weight or shape. That might come from the Duffers’ desire to make the new monster ominous and omnipresent, but instead it just renders the stakes of its threat woefully intangible. 

Sure, the Demogorgon might’ve felt “smaller” by comparison. But at least an alternate dimension shark presents a discernible, immediate danger that the audience can follow. The Mind Flayer is just… there, I guess. I mean, it made me feel bad for Will?

Overall, Stranger Things 2 remains enjoyable, mostly because Season 1 did such a good job of establishing its lovable characters, and at this point, we just enjoy spending time with them, no matter how repetitive their storylines are. The narrative missteps don’t get in the way of the visceral emotional beats that the show does pull off (RIP Bob, the only great new addition to the cast), and if you take the show as a momentary distraction designed to fill your weekend before being discarded, it’s consistently enjoyable enough to leave you full, if not satisfied.  

But Stranger Things Season 1 wasn’t momentary. It was a cultural phenomenon. And this is not.

The binge-watch model doesn’t really give audiences the space to think critically about the content they’re feverishly shoving into their eyeholes — that five second gap between episodes doesn’t invite deep analysis. 

So, let’s try a thought experiment: Take a step back. Wipe the tears from your eyes at Eleven and Hopper’s heartbreaking daddy/daughter reunion, and ask: What does Stranger Things 2‘s “bigness” actually amount to? Where does this story go from here? Will it just get bigger, and bigger, until it collapses under its own weight? (Ask the rest of the Alien franchise whether that model works, bub.)

Because, from our perspective, Stranger Things 2 might’ve gone big — but it didn’t go home.