A lot of Stranger Things season one felt like a fluke. It was an overnight pop culture sensation that on second watch, didn’t prove as sophisticated as it first seemed. It was still a hell of a thrilling ride, though, and created a legendary new character in Eleven. That didn’t quite mean it could rely on sly film references and ’80s nostalgia to carry the momentum to and through season two. But carry it, it did, and it brought along a meaningful story with it. If Stranger Things 1 introduced the Duffer Brothers as great fans of ’80s sci-fi, then Stranger Things 2 proves them to be fantastic character-driven storytellers who are not afraid to expand on their own mythology.
That’s what makes Stranger Things work this time around. It’s character-focused in a way season one was not. In season one, everyone was mostly reactive to the sci-fi plot surrounding them. Mike, Lucas, Dustin, and Joyce react to Will’s disappearance, then to Eleven’s appearance and the discovery of her psychic powers. Season two, the characters inform the plot themselves, and Eleven has the most compelling story of them all because she’s no longer defined by the psychic mystery of season one. This “character first” focus allows for different pairings and opportunities to see other sides to these characters. Mike, Lucas, and Dustin are still together, but now Will’s there too, expanding on their friendship from that first Dungeons & Dragon scene before Will disappeared. They break apart into smaller groups eventually, but that separation allows for more time to explore how they work individually outside of their group. There’s more time to give everyone a chance to breathe and be more than witty dialogue.
But it’s the Hopper and Eleven part of the story that is the more emotionally engaging. The revelation in early season one that Hopper lost a daughter is an understandable motivation to find Will beyond his capacity as sheriff. But that last episode hammered home that motivation a little too hard with flashback scenes of the events of that tragedy. Here, though Hopper doesn’t mention his daughter until episode nine, the attempt at a father/daughter relationship with Eleven is clear, but not overt. Though the stakes seem bigger, and the monster more threatening, Stranger Things 2 uses the small moments to make their story mean something.
At nine episodes instead of eight, the pacing of season two feels a lot more smooth. Part of what was frustrating with season one was how long it took everyone to realize they were all investigating the same thing. That’s not the case here. Each group is doing something different — Mike, Will, and Joyce investigate the smoke monster and how its affecting Will, Dustin deals with his new monster pet Dart, mostly by himself, until Steve shows up, and Jonathan and Nancy get justice for Barb, no matter how fan-servicey it may have seemed. All these different moving parts make for a more organic coming together to face evil at the end. Nothing feels rushed, not even the reunion between Eleven and the boys.
The introduction of new characters is probably the only really negative thing I have about this season. Sean Astin is great as Bob, Joyce’s new boyfriend, and I like his simple, yet powerful character arch. But Max and Billy are where things get a little dicey for me. Max, or Madmax as she’s known at the arcade, is a new student that immediately captures the attention of Dustin and Lucas, and for most of the season, she doesn’t move much past the enigma of “new girl in town.” Billy, Max’s stepbrother, is even more of a question mark. He’s supposedly the new Steve, the bully of the school now that Steve is an actual good person, but he also doesn’t go beyond that. There’s either too little of him to be a well-rounded character, or too much of him as a flat character that he doesn’t end up working quite as well.
Plaguing the town of Hawkins, and our characters, this year is something bigger than the Demogorgan. Will’s smoke monster is terrifying and compelling, and though the investigation of it hits some of the same beats as last season, it’s more satisfying when it all comes together.
Ultimately, this is Eleven’s story. Her fits of psychic melodrama blend perfectly with her desire to belong somewhere, to see her friends again, and to create the family she’s been denied since birth. The polarizing episode seven, Chapter Seven: The Lost Sister, is vital to Eleven’s journey this season. While it may seem like the show takes a step into a different genre of television for an episode, it’s still a bold move that works well in expanding the Stranger Things world outside of Hawkins. And it’s a great showcase for Millie Bobby Brown, who once again plays Eleven with a strength and vulnerability that’s unparalleled.
Stranger Things season two doesn’t fix every mistake from Stranger Things season one, but it has more heart. And more monsters.