Warning: Spoilers follow.
Last summer, the Netflix original series Stranger Things provided viewers with an unexpected, delightful surprise. I rarely watch shows right out of the gate, because I often prefer waiting until I have a backlog of several seasons ready to go. However, in the case of Stranger Things, the trailer hooked me from the start, and I had to watch it right away. I loved so many things about its first season: the way the cinematography evoked memories of eighties films, its references to Tolkien, how the characters reminded me of my childhood, and the fact that it practically bows at the altar of my favorite novel, Stephen King’s It. In short, the show was fresh, original, and an absolute ton of fun.
Flash-forward to this year, when Season 2 premiered on October 27. I once again broke with my standard approach for Netflix viewing—I normally watch one episode an evening, two at most, but this time around I completed the entire season in three evenings, which counts as a marathon compared to my usual pace. Now, when it comes to television, second seasons are risky. Shows such as Lost and House of Cards, both of which failed to deliver upon the expectations of their first season, are far more common than shows such as 24, where the second season improved upon the source material. Stranger Things, however, manages to solidly fall into the latter category. I’ll admit the buildup is slow—the first few episodes require the viewer to proceed on a little bit of faith, and the opening sequence is completely out of tone with what one expects (to the point where I checked to make sure I’d queued up the right title). However, I’ve often found that the best stories require us to have a little bit of patience. In its second season, Stranger Things places a lot of threads into place during the first few episodes, but the lack of overall plot development is compensated by an opportunity to see characters such as Mike, Nancy, Hopper, and Dustin onscreen interacting once more. As viewers, we get to find out a little about what they’ve been up to since we saw them July before last. Also, Netflix timed it well with the season: episode (chapter?) two works solely because the show premiered three days before Halloween. Hey, maybe next year they’ll do Christmas.
However, the payoff is powerful indeed. Things really start to click once my favorite badass Hopper finds himself in the Upside Down at the end of chapter four, and where the first season started with a bang and ended surely stronger than a whimper, but with nothing special, the second season lets the pot simmer for a bit before providing a truly explosive finish. The last two episodes are truly epic in scope, providing a gigantic mashup of action, emotion, and pure thrills.
Yes, the show did have weak moments. There is that one episode/chapter that caused a lot of moaning, and I get it. However, the creators stand by the episode, and I suppose they have a right to do so. It provided a means to truly develop Elle as a character, and there is little doubt it laid important groundwork for things to come—I’d hazard to say season three hinges on what happened in that episode. Therefore, my biggest criticism of chapter seven is not the subject matter itself, but in its placement. After the tense the climax of chapter six, it broke up the flow and ruined the tension; the writers placed some serious expectations into the place at the end of the preceding episode, and taking viewers on a completely tangential story arc made them feel like they were jerked around for forty-five minutes. In retrospect, it may have made more sense to alternate Elle’s scenes in the city with the progression of other storylines.
On the other hand, there are two items in particular I’d like to highlight. One was the way in which the eighth episode paid tribute to Jurassic Park. I enjoyed it both for the sheer fun of it, and also because I feel I owe a lot of my own development as a writer to lessons learned from Michael Crichton’s storytelling. Both Jurassic Park and The Lost World contain extended climaxes of over 100 pages each, both of which I read in one sitting. I was wowed by the way in which Crichton masterfully placed multiple characters in simultaneous instances of danger, and then juggled the viewpoints to keep the tension humming on all fronts. I used both novels as templates for how to write effective action scenes, and the raptors in Jurassic Park (not to mention a xenomorph or two) directly influenced the sarchon chase scene in Warrior of Light.
The second delight was the way Steve grew as a character. I’m not shy about calling out Hopper as my absolute favorite character, but Hopper was an easy sell for me—long story short, the character of a law enforcement officer who is struggling to protect and serve, while simultaneously holding inner demons at bay, will always win in my book. Hopper was a character I was pre-conditioned to like, but Steve, on the other hand, surprised me. At the beginning of Season 1, the writers placed a walking trope in front of us—Nancy even calls him a cliché, and I’ll admit I took the bait hook, line, and sinker. Then, however, they completely pulled the rug out from under us. I myself have said new writers often focus overmuch on “subverting tropes”, but that’s only because they rarely pull it off. Well, with Steve, they did pull it off. I hated him at first; he was a cocky jock that showed why far too many nice guys finish last. He redeemed himself by the end of the first season, but honestly, I was so fixated on the expectations of what I assumed his character to be, I did not notice the subtler nuances in his development until I watched it through a second time. During Season 2, however, they really build on Steve’s arc. The scenes between him and Dustin as they lay bait for Dart are priceless, he shows real guts when facing off against the demodogs, and it was incredibly satisfying to see him land that right hook on Billy Hargrove (damn, I wanted him to win that fight). I was really scared for Steve by the end—I thought he was going to bite the dust—and breathed a sigh of relief that he saw it through. Wherever Season 3 goes from here, I hope Steve is a part of it.
It’s a great show, and it’s well worth the time to watch. The showrunners have some pretty big expectations to build upon after this one, but if the past serves as any indicator, in Stranger Things the Duffer brothers have crafted a magnificent saga that will stand the test of time.