Stranger Things 2 is a true 80’s sequel, for better or worse.
I enjoyed the first season of Stranger Things. It delivered some decent visuals and superb performances, making it good enough for a satisfying weekend binge. There were certainly issues, most of which I blame on the miniseries format, which caused the writers to artificially extend plot threads longer than necessary to maintain a sense of mystery. The show also had a penchant for repeating events constantly to pad out the 90 minutes Spielbergian structure to an 8 hour run-time. You could probably cut all 8 episodes down to a single 120 minute movie and not lose anything of real importance.
The episodic structure also forced the show to rely on repetition and red herring diversions. Bits like the fake body, and the entire arc with Nancy, Jonathan and Steve could probably be cut out of the story entirely. I literally can’t even remember what, if any, purpose these subplots served to the overall plot. Did Nancy and the boys actually accomplish anything in the story apart from fight the monster at one point? Which, by the way, turned out to be another pointless diversion anyway since it survives, only to be killed for realsies later in the same episode.
All that aside, as a self-contained story it at least managed to wrap up its narrative to a satisfying conclusion. Apart from the scene where Hopper dumps some waffles in the woods, it didn’t feel like it was hooking for a sequel. That some questions were left without answers, such as Will’s final flashback to the nightmare world, only felt appropriate. Ending on an ambiguous note was pretty standard for the films that the show aims to emulate, such as The Thing, Close Encounters and E.T.
However, due to the unexpected success, a second season was all but inevitable. Even if it didn’t feel strictly necessary, this would at least allow the writers to expand on the deeper lore that they had only hinted at. They could dig deeper into the Upside Down really, and what the experiments performed at the Hawkins lab. Maybe we’d get some more insight into the characters. The show could take them to unexpected places, and let us see new aspects of their personalities. Sadly, Stranger Things 2 doesn’t really do any of that.
80’s Sequel Syndrome
Instead, Stranger Things 2 opts for a more-is-more approach that actually feels appropriate. If you view this through the lens of a genuine rushed sequel to a big genre hit from the 1980’s, it fits the bill. It’s also obvious that this season is trying to be the Aliens to the original season’s Alien. Last time there was one monster but now there’s loads of them! And Paul Reiser’s here! However, while the budget and the number of monsters has increased, the stakes feel considerably lower.
When this show was about several ordinary people trying to help a single child and stop a single monster it at least had a sense of comprehensible, immediate danger. This time there’s a Lovecraftian elder god waiting in the Upside Down, ready to kill everyone in the Light World for unexplained reasons and largely vague means. The whole world’s in danger now but that doesn’t come across because this threat only feels tangentially related to the characters. At the end of it all, nobody even seems to have been that bothered by the whole thing.
Let me ask you this: what do we know about the characters and world of Stranger Things now that we did not know at the end of season one? How have they changed between then and now?
This ties in to my biggest issue with this show. The characters are what consistently makes it difficult for me to engage with Stranger Things on any level deeper than the glossy, well-produced surface. Since this involves me criticising a cast consisting mostly of young actors I would like to make something clear right away. This is not a criticism of them or their performances, which I think is excellent across the board. They’re all genuinely charming and talented kids who I sincerely wish all the best going forward.
And I’m actually sort of lying when I blame the characters. I don’t think the problem stems from their personalities or actions. In fact, most of them feel fully realised and mostly believable, especially considering their age. The problem is the way that they are framed within the show and how we as an audience are expected to relate to them.
I don’t think it’s unfair to say that the core group of kids – Mike, Lucas, Dustin and Will – are intended as insert characters for both the audience and the creators of the show. Not because they are the same age as the audience and writers were at the time the show is set, but rather for how people who were to young to really experience the 80’s look back on that decade through pop culture. The Duffer Brothers were born in 1984, just after when the first season takes place, so the show does not reflect their childhoods. The show is clearly a depiction of an era as viewed through the eyes of people who never fully experienced it directly but through pop culture.
This is what Stranger Things is really about and why it elicits such a strong response in its audience. The kids are not portrayed as authentic geeks of the time, but as stand-ins for the audience. They are geeks in the first age of modern geekdom, early adopters of all the geek ephemera that would become cool in their future, our present. They are geek pioneers, geeks that understand the cultural value of certain properties decades before others would.
They are fans of things we now venerate, like The Thing, even though that film was a massive flop at the time or that none of the kids would have been old enough to have seen it in cinemas – they still managed to not just see it, but realise it’s greatness and importance. One of them somehow managed to buy a poster and hung it on the wall of their boy-cave.
The Ghostbusters references in season two is an even more obvious example of this. The kids are fans of this film in a way that feels extremely contemporary. They somehow have near-perfect home-made costumes, they recite full lines of dialogue verbatim and have in-depth conversations about the characters in a way that feels familiar to the fandom culture of today. In his article “Rose-coloured rear-view”, Myke Bartlett describes the show like this:
This is the 1980’s as we want it to have been, right now […] It avoids the sense of disappointment that often accompanies revisiting old favorites. While the kids look authentic to the period, their acting is more in line with modern standards.
It’s an interesting type of audience wish fulfilment – the fantasy of not only recognising the cultural importance of something, but being in the vanguard – but it also works thematically in the show’s narrative. The kids are not just the only ones that understand The Thing, they’re also the only ones that understand the threat and intricacies of the actual monstrous events around them.
In the first season this was occasionally distracting in a way that a lot of fan-service is, but at least it was an attempt to create a connection with the characters and it mostly worked. Film Crit Hulk expressed this perfectly in his spot-on analysis of the first season:
[Stranger Things] means well. It likes all the same things you like. But this show is a constantly confused story that always seems to vaguely know what it is aiming for and has no idea how to really get there or what to do with it.
However, in the second series this starts to work against the show. And to truly dig into that, we need to talk about Max.
Girls Don’t Play Video Games
Max is introduced in the new season as a potential new addition to the core group of kids, a sort of fifth Beatle. She’s shown to be cooler than the boys, she’s aloof, she’s rad at skateboarding and she’s even better at their favourite arcade games. In theory Max is a great character and the idea of adding a female geek character is a good way to challenge the group’s prejudices. One of the guys even scoffs at the idea that she is the new high score holder of Dig Dug – “girls don’t play video games” – which hints that the show may actually challenge that perception.
Instead, Max becomes a maelstrom of the worst female character tropes and the show’s creators take every moment they can to put her in her place, while continually justifying this via their surrogate characters. The group starts by literally stalking her, which she directly calls them out for. However, they never actually suffer any consequence for this. She later starts using “stalker” as a cutesy term of endearment towards Lucas. Man, this show sure likes to portray stalking as cute and innocent.
While Lucas and Dustin do seem genuine in their attempts to invite her in to their group, Mike is cold and aggressive towards her for no reason. We’re meant to read this as him still mourning the loss of Eleven and worrying that Max is going to usurp her spot in the group, but this comes across as obsessive rather than endearing. I can’t help but feel that some of Mike’s dislike of Max is based in the power dynamics in his relationship to Eleven, who he basically treated as a pet in the first season. Max is self-assured and confident, a person in her own right who does not allow herself to be manipulated as easily. Clearly not Mike’s type. But that’s a rant for another day.
Regardless of his reasons, he continually scolds her and several moments in the show is devoted to the group messing her around. This is despite the fact that all she wants is to sincerely make friends with them. There is also no point in the show where he or anybody else recognises that they have been treating her badly through and she never gets an apology. In fact, it is Max that apologises for her behaviour. She has recently moved into a brand new town, has no friends and comes from an abusive family situation and she is the one that apologises to the boys that have stalked, mislead and abused her.
This was the moment when I knew Stranger Things had lost sight of whatever good intentions it started off with. The problem is not that the kids act like dicks – they’re young boys, of course they’re going to act like dicks sometimes. The problem is that the show agrees with them. The characters that we are not just meant to relate to, but actively insert ourselves into, are shown to be in the right. When the cool girl they’ve treated like dirt apologises for being such a bitch, it’s framed as a redemptive moment for Max. You know, after they literally stalked and insulted her at every turn.
That’s not even getting into how this season turns Eleven into a jealous girlfriend archetype. In one scene she sees Mike and Max talking and she uses her powers to knock Max off her skateboard. Bear in mind that this is literally the first time Mike has even smiled in her presence, after she keeps doing her best to make him treat her as a person. When they’re actually introduced later in the season, Max gladly extends her hand in introduction. Eleven responds to this with a death-glare and refuses to even acknowledge her.
Again, this is not itself a problem. Eleven’s actions are perfectly within her character as a socially and emotionally stunted girl. The problem is how the show frames this behaviour. At this point Eleven’s return has been set up the entire season and it happens at a time when the others need her the most. She is a superhero returning to save everyone, with a cool new style – and let’s be clear, her visual makeover is spectacular. Everything she does throughout the rest of the season is akin to watching the third act of a Superman movie, so when she snubs Max it is not framed as a flaw or error of judgement. It’s just another cool thing Eleven does.
In light of how Max and everybody’s treatment of her is portrayed, I have to wonder why she was even added to the cast. Her family life is hardly ever touched on, except to show how cartoonishly abusive her bully brother is, but this never amounts to much and she never actually does anything proactive in the story. Not even her proven superiority at video games comes into play, like how the group used their D’n’D knowledge in the first season. The show never even bothers to let her use her skateboarding in a cool way. Max as a character is all set dressing and set up, but nothing is ever delivered. Considering the amount of potential her character had and what a great job Sadie Sink did with what she was given, it’s a huge shame.
Vindication Through Nostalgia
This speaks to the issues of a show that takes a largely uncritical look at a past that the majority of the creators and audience never experienced. What they choose to include in their version of this moment in time, good and bad, says a lot about their views and priorities. Stranger Things 2 makes it clear that the goal is not to challenge its audience or its main characters but to make them feel comfortable and vindicated.
Nothing exemplifies this like the scene in the final episode where Dustin gets a pity-dance from Nancy and she gives him a pep talk about how girls his age as all idiots. One day, she says, they will understand how wrong they are to not reciprocate his affections. One day, Dustin, when you’re a successful writer with your own Netflix show, those bitches will know what a mistake they made when they rejected you. One day, Dustin, all the stuff you loved growing up will be cool and marketable to a wider audience, and then you’ll finally be respected.
As one of the final moments of the season it serves as a sort of mission statement for the show as a whole. This is a show about making you feel better about a past that never was. By extension, it’s making a presumed audience of men feel better about themselves and their persecution complexes. We are the boys being comforted by our friend’s hot older sister in this scene. Dustin has suffered a pet dying and rejecting at a school dance from girls he never previously interacted with and yet he is the one on the receiving end of the “It gets better” speech.
Meanwhile, Max – who still has a broken, abusive home to deal with and little in the way of established friendships – gets nothing. Because this show doesn’t actually care about Max. Not unless she’s someone the other characters can prove their superiority over or take their frustrations out on. Not to mention, as a method for the producers to show how fucking creepy they are. Of course, that a capable, intelligent girl gets treated like inferior by boys is definitely true to real life, but the show really doesn’t seem to mind this dynamic at all. It’s not a show for the capable, struggling Maxes of the world. It’s a show for the self-involved Dustins that think the world owes them everything.
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So where do we go from here? Stranger Things 3 is naturally on the way and I’m really not sure what the next step could be for this franchise. The best aspects are already being recycled to rapidly diminishing returns with the writers clearly struggling to come up with new ideas, while the bad aspects are becoming downright ugly. I feel like the best thing it can do now is to stop trying. Why not let this show fully embrace the 80’s influence and go full camp. Make the plots more ludicrous, exaggerate the characters more, take the set-pieces further over the top. Because if this show continues on its current 80’s horror franchise sequel trajectory, we’re less than a few seasons away from Stranger Things… In Space!