Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 7 hours 38 minutes
Directed by: Matt Duffer, Ross Duffer, Shawn Levy, Andrew Stanton & Rebecca Thomas
Written by: Matt Duffer, Ross Duffer, Justin Doble, Paul Dichter, Jessie Nickson-Lopez & Kate Trefry
Starring: Winona Ryder, David Harbour, Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobby Brown, Gaten Matarazzo, Caleb McLaughlin, Natalie Dyer, Charlie Heaton, Noah Schnapp, Joe Keery, Sadie Sink, Dacre Montgomery, Sean Astin, Paul Reiser, Linnea Berthelsen & Brett Gelman
Over a year after STRANGER THINGS debuted as a massive Netflix hit and gained a dedicated fanbase, STRANGER THINGS 2 hit Netflix just in time for Halloween. While many Netflix subscribers binge-watched the entire second season over its opening weekend (myself included), I couldn’t help but feel that the series had gone through a noticeable decline in quality. STRANGER THINGS 2 brings back the characters that you know and love, but slow pacing and unbalanced storytelling really knocked this season-long sequel down a peg.
It’s been nearly a year since Will Buyers (Noah Schnapp) was rescued from a parallel dimension and he seems to be suffering from supernatural-related PTSD. Will’s trauma-fueled flashbacks might actually be current visions into “The Upside Down” and something very dangerous might be looking back at Will. Meanwhile, Will’s friends (Gaten Matarazzo and Caleb McLaughlin) begin a tepid friendship with new kid Maxine (Sadie Sink). Also, preteen psychic Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) is trying to find a way to get back to a depressed Mike (Finn Wolfhard), all while protective police chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour) keeps her under his watchful eye. And…this season also has interdimensional monsters and another tattooed psychic, but it takes a while to reach that point.
I want to make something clear, STRANGER THINGS 2 is fun. I like STRANGER THINGS 2. It’s a good season, but there are problems that cannot be ignored. This season’s flaws irked me enough to detract from my overall enjoyment of its nine episodes. One of the first problems arrives in the noticeably slower pacing. It seems like the viewer has to wait for a long while for anything of major consequence to occur within the first four episodes. A majority of the season’s first half is spent introducing/developing a couple of new characters, showing that Will has interdimensional PTSD, and delivering 80s nostalgia through the five (eventually, six) child characters. The GHOSTBUSTERS homage was funny and all, but what was really accomplished by showing that?
STRANGER THINGS 2’s off-again-on-again pacing and messy storytelling wouldn’t be so annoying, if the show didn’t try to distractingly shoehorn a few subplots in early on. The season’s very first scene involves a mysterious new character “Eight” (played by Linnea Berthelsen). Besides a useless opening prologue, Eight doesn’t return until the seventh episode(!) and this character didn’t have much of a purpose to serve at all in the grand scheme of the season’s story. Eight’s presence feels like arbitrary set-up for STRANGER THINGS 3.
To further harp on how dull and out-of-place Eight’s subplot was, she played a large(ish) role in Eleven’s storyline. Millie Bobby Brown’s performance is just as great as her work in the first season and she receives a bit more to do this time around. However, that damned seventh episode grinds things to a halt as a few episodes seem to forget about her presence altogether. It might have been better to intersperse her subplot alongside the craziness occurring at a nearby lab and Will’s increasingly alarming behavior. Instead, it felt like the writers and showrunners said “Oh shit! We have a ton of Eleven’s scenes and need some place to put them. Let’s just dump them all into the weakest episode of the season and grind all building momentum to a halt for an entire hour.” This was distractingly sloppy storytelling through and through.
For all of its messy pacing and distractingly uneven subplots, STRANGER THINGS 2 remains fun and entertaining. The storyline of Max joining the gang, the ever-present threat of her psycho older brother Billy (Dacre Montgomery), and a subplot about Dustin getting a secret otherworldly pet are fun to watch. One of the first season’s weakest points becomes this season’s biggest strength: the teenage drama between Natalia Dyer’s Nancy, Charlie Heaton’s Jonathan, and Joe Keery’s Steve.
As potential sparks fly between Nancy and Jonathan, Steve proves himself to be a better babysitter than a boyfriend (it helps that he’s adept with a spiked-bat against monstrous “Demogorgons”). I also thought it was extremely clever how the Duffer brothers took the inexplicable “Justice for Barb” movement that erupted in the wake of STRANGER THINGS and made that a crucial plot point during STRANGER THINGS 2. Brett Gelman also has a brief but hilarious role as a conspiracy theorist in this highly entertaining, intriguing storyline.
As far as STRANGER THINGS 2’s supernatural hijinks are concerned, the season has no problem in further fleshing out “The Upside Down” and its monstrous inhabitants. This season also has a big bad, though the finale’s “to be continued” final shot indicates that it will wind up possibly being a series’ big bad. The monsters are enjoyable to watch (there are multiple beasties in this season) and later episodes milk tense scenes for all that they’re worth. I won’t name names or spoil specific details, but this season’s most irksome character dies a painful death. It’s likely that this character will become Season 2’s equivalent of Barb. People will probably love this person and I’ll be just as baffled by the inexplicable fan following as I was for the briefly glimpsed Barb. Seriously, Barb was only in three episodes and barely a character. Why is she so special?
STRANGER THINGS 2 is fun, but suffers from an overall step down in quality. In some ways, this second season tries to be more ambitious than the first season (more monsters, Will is in a different kind of peril, and there’s the looming threat of a secret organization). However, this second season is too slow in its first half, has one annoying subplot that seems to be obvious set-up for STRANGER THINGS 3, and one episode that egregiously grinds everything to a halt for an hour. STRANGER THINGS was great and STRANGER THINGS 2 is only good. Though it references everything from GREMLINS to GHOSTBUSTERS to more King/Carpenter/Spielberg nods, STRANGER THINGS 2 seems to have unintentionally become the ultimate homage of disappointing (but still enjoyable) 80s sequels. I hope that STRANGER THINGS 3 pulls things back up to the quality of the stellar first season.