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Question Club: Is Stranger Things season 2 a worthy sequel to the original?

Question Club: Is Stranger Things season 2 a worthy sequel to the original?


Heading back to The Upside Down, with some new friends along for the ride

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Photo: Netflix

This past Friday, Netflix released the second season of its hit series Stranger Things. Last year, the show appeared out of nowhere, catching pretty much everyone by surprise with its combination of retro-‘80s nostalgia and Steven Spielberg-meets-Stephen King storytelling. But this year, it was all about the expectations, with the streaming service creating a wave of hype that framed the show’s return as one of the must-watch entertainment events of the year.

Now that we’ve actually had a chance to see what series creators the Duffer brothers put together for the sequel, a group of us here at The Verge decided to sit down and discuss our feelings about Stranger Things season 2. The nostalgia, new characters like Eight, Billy, and Bob, and the unanswered questions — we’re going to dig into it all.

It should probably go without saying, but just in case: spoilers ahead.

Did the new season recapture that surprise Stranger Things magic?

Bryan: I really loved the first season of this show, and it wasn’t because of the period references and movie nods. It was because of the style of storytelling it embraced. Stranger Things wasn’t just about the 1980s. It felt like it could have been made in the 1980s — and combined with the show’s well-drawn characters, it created something that felt unique in today’s TV landscape. While all the same familiar faces were back for round two, however, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the second season was lacking by comparison. It felt unfocused, without a clear major threat, and with new characters that felt unrealized and half-baked. Was it just me? Did the show recapture the Stranger Things magic for everyone else?

Megan: Stranger Things season 2 recaptures the spirit of season 1 for me in its nostalgia, and the crunchy synth soundtrack. It felt comfortable. But the challenge of upping the danger is one they addressed by throwing more monsters at the problem, rather than relying on one unifying threat.

We didn’t learn anything new about the Demogorgon, other than it likes nougat

I think there’s something to be said about the power of one terrifying, mysterious monster in season 1 vs. the pack of “demo-dogs,” or even whatever that unidentified, giant hand-monster was. It’s like the first Alien movie vs. some of its sequels: a terrifying monster is teased, revealed, and established with the xenomorph, and escaping from it is then a Sisyphean task. I loved the reveal that there were more demo-dogs running around; I got bored really quickly with how they used them to immediately raise the stakes. We didn’t learn anything new about the Demogorgon, aside from the fact that it’s adorable when small — and, like me, loves nougat. It was all very predictable, and a little lazy.

Thuy: The first season really surprised me. I didn’t know what to expect, and it turned out I actually really loved it, so I had high expectations for season 2. Overall, the season does feel like it raises the stakes, but it never surprises the audience that much. The main arc centers around Will and The Upside Down, which I felt was an extension of last season, rather than anything refreshing. I wish they’d explored more about the hand monster, and more about the Demogorgon itself. The dynamic between the kids is what, to me, gives Stranger Things its magic — that sense of curiosity, having adventures, and growing up. But with Eleven separated from Mike and co. for the majority of the season, the spark she gave the group was missing. Still, everything that made the first season so enjoyable is still there — the plot, the retro-ness, the music, the visuals — so those who already like the series won’t be disappointed.

Chaim: I liked the second season a lot, but I wouldn’t say it recaptured the surprise Stranger Things magic. Part of the fun of that first season was its unexpectedness, and for better or for worse, season 2 sticks a lot to the plot beats of the first season. Like Megan pointed out, raising the stakes by just having more stuff doesn’t always feel like it’s the answer. And compared to the instantly iconic Demogorgon of season 1, the Mind Flayer felt underwhelming. It’s a literally faceless blob of smoke, yet it’s still so large a threat that it’s hard to imagine even our scrappy, ragtag bunch of teens defeating it.

On the other hand, the things that made season 1 great — the charming kids, Eleven being a badass, and most things involving Hopper trying to do his job in the face of unfathomable supernatural horrors — were really good. More of the show’s blend of ‘80s sci-fi / horror / thriller elements is always good by me.

Photo: Netflix

Barb didn’t come back, but her presence was felt. Did the show do her justice?

Megan: I actually wrote a whole piece on this. Justice for a dead character is always a little weird. There is only one way for it to reasonably end, and that’s for the bad guys to get theirs. Did Barb get justice? Sure. Was it a little too neat? Absolutely, but how else do you wrap up that thread in a satisfying way?

Chaim: I never understood the whole “justice for Barb” meme. I took a break from the show after watching the first two episodes of the first season (which ends in Barb dying), and I was honestly confused by the huge attention it got online by the time I came back a few days later to watch the rest of the season.

The fact that the show spent so much time on it in this season felt a lot like pandering to that weird cultural moment, and compared to the rest of the fallout from last season — like the far more compelling threads of Will dealing with his trauma from being trapped in The Upside Down — the Barb stuff just felt like too much.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, you maybe shouldn’t let the internet’s meme-obsessed hive-mind write your show for you?

The long-lasting repercussions of trauma is a theme that runs throughout the season

Thuy: Like Chaim, I never really understood the “Justice for Barb” thing. I thought she was cool (and very stylish, with her high-waisted jeans and grandma hair!), but didn’t really see her as anything more than someone filling the “Nancy’s friend” role. Mind you, I only watched the first season once. I’m glad she got her justice, but it didn’t do too much for me. (Am I heartless?) I did think Nancy fighting for her was great, however — especially when Nancy gets drunk and tells Steve about how she wanted Barb’s parents to know the truth. I think Barbara’s friendship with Nancy, and how that plays out in the series and in Nancy’s development, is really interesting and meaningful —- so I do like that aspect of Barb.

Megan: Wow, so many Barb haters.

Bryan: I thought the season handled this really well. Like you suggest above, Thuy, I found Barb wasn’t there just for Barb’s sake; she was there because Nancy was legitimately struggling with the after-effects of losing her friend. The theme that trauma has long-lasting repercussions runs throughout the season. (And looking at Eleven’s struggles last year, arguably the entire series.) It would have been easy for the show to sweep Barb under the rug, but instead, the Duffer brothers make her presence known by showing how her death is continuing to affect those around her.

It’s a shift away from the normal, tired formula we often see in horror movies and thriller sequels, where grief over a past death can just reset, almost as if we’re just watching one giant sitcom where nothing really changes. In a season where I really missed the well-rounded characters from last year, Nancy’s struggles over Barb felt like a notable exception.

Photo: Netflix

How did everyone feel about Eight and her episode?

Bryan: I had a really hard time not seeing the seams in this storyline. The season opens with Eight and her criminal cohorts escaping after a robbery. Its placement presents it as a massive, important incident in the world of this story. (As a point of reference, the first season opened with the Demogorgon escaping the Hawkins lab.) And the fact that another young woman with psychic abilities is out there does feel like a game-changing moment for this universe. And then the show just… ignores it for six episodes.

There’s obviously just a bit of storytelling sleight of hand going on here. When Eight shows up, it shouldn’t feel completely out of left field, so the Duffer brothers need to plant the seed in the audience’s mind early on. But this also sets an expectation, in my mind at least, that the show was going to be about much more than just Hawkins, Indiana. But that never really pays off. Instead, we get Eleven taking a bus and magically finding the wacky criminals for what essentially amounts to a really unsatisfying bottle episode in the seventh hour of the season. The people Eight hangs out with are more haircuts than characters, and the strange, jokey tone those scenes adopt never quite played for me. (If anything, I thought of the Howard the Duck movie as an ‘80s touchstone, and while I do have a childhood fondness for that film, it’s not the kind of callback anybody wants to make intentionally.)

Ultimately, what happened with Eight — like much of Eleven’s storyline in general — felt like the show treading water. Everything is clearly meant to be a journey of discovery that builds to the climactic moment when Eleven walks in to help Mike and the other kids near the end. But it’s as if the show needs to keep Eleven in its back pocket for most of the season, giving her things to do without a real sense of how to actually use her before the Big Moment. That’s not meant as an across-the-board slam; a lot of that time is used to explore how Eleven continues to struggle with the trauma she dealt with while being tested at the Hawkins lab, and that is effective. But it’s another example of those pesky seams showing.

Episode 7 was by far my least favorite of the season — and the entire series

Thuy: Episode 7 was by far my least favorite of the season — and series — so far. It’s a cool concept, but the execution was just too different in tone from the rest of the series. The concept of Eight as Eleven’s sister has potential, and I’m totally down with expanding the story beyond Hawkins, but the way episode 7 was slotted in didn’t feel organic. After the cliffhanger with the demo-dogs in episode 6, I was ready to jump right into the next moment of that story, but the show took viewers on a massive, frustrating plot detour instead. We just want to know what’s going on in Hawkins at this stage!

Instead, we head to an entirely different storyline, and as a result, everything with Eight and her ragtag gang feels forced. As the audience, we intuitively know Eleven will end up back in Hawkins, so the entire episode feels like we’re just waiting for the other shoe to drop. Yes, Eleven undergoes a makeover, complete with dark eyeliner and blackened eyelids, and on its own, it's pretty badass for this show. But lump it in with the rest of Eight’s group, and the whole thing reminds me a little too much of my Hot Topic phase.

Megan: I loved the ‘80s punk looks from this episode, but was pretty uninterested in everything else. Eight’s friends were all too stereotypically “rebellious” to be fun, and the whole plot about them tracking down and murdering those responsible for the lab experiments was just boring for me. This episode screamed “bookmark for season 3,” and I was annoyed by how it was just all dumped into one episode near the climax of the season, rather than being worked in smoothly.

I do want to thank this episode for Eleven’s new look, however, which will be my outfit inspiration for the next few months.

Chaim: I will admit to marathoning this season until 4AM on Saturday night, and this episode was immensely frustrating to come across at 2 o’clock in the morning — particularly coming off the cliffhanger of “The Mind Flayer’s trap has worked and everyone is about to be devoured by demo-dogs!” The fact that I spent the entire running time staring at the rapidly dwindling minutes, wondering if Stranger Things was really going to spend an entire episode on this, doesn’t speak highly of it.

As for Eight, she seems like a potentially interesting character who’s mostly used as an excuse to put Eleven in the middle of a punk-themed version of the Magneto training montage from X-Men: First Class. Sure, Eight’s crusade to hunt down the Department of Energy scientists is interesting in theory, but she mostly just ended up reminding me that Eleven was sidelined the entire season, and how much I missed getting to see her interact with the rest of the cast.

I’ll agree with Megan and Thuy, though. That new look is fantastic.

Photo: Netflix

Did the season give audiences enough new information about the Upside Down to keep the momentum going?

Bryan: This irked me quite a bit. Last year, The Upside Down was full of dark mystery and wonder — we learned enough to make it terrifying, but didn’t get too heavy into the explanations. Here, it felt like The Upside Down hit a pause button. Yes, there were new underground tunnels — shades of Ghostbusters 2, to be certain — and the demo-dogs were a fun threat. But I don’t think the show really gave a larger sense of impending doom and increasing stakes. Will sees the Shadow Monster early on… and that’s pretty much all we get.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t want, or need, some in-depth explanation. The mystery is a big part of why the engine runs in this thing. But as an audience member, I did expect some sort of escalation to the threat. That’s just basic sequel rules. Instead, everything plays like a regression, where the threat ultimately boils down to what felt like a scene from The Exorcism of Will Byers.

Chaim: I’m with you there, Bryan. I was kind of surprised by this, but we didn’t actually return to The Upside Down proper this year at all, did we? (Barring Eleven breaking out in a flashback.)

I’m also totally okay with the fact that we didn’t get answers about The Upside Down, since the mystery there is half the fun of the show. But a little more context as to why these horrifying monsters keep trying to invade our world wouldn’t be a bad thing either, especially since the Mind Flayer seems to be sticking around for another bout whenever season 3 comes out.

Also: where did all the demo-dogs come from? I get that Dart was implied to be the slug Will barfed up last year, but how did we go from one full-grown Demogorgon to like, a hundred half-grown demo-dogs?

Good scary stories aren’t about facts; they’re about myths and urban legends

Megan: I definitely don’t want cold, hard answers for a lot of the show, but I would have liked to see more of a mythology buildup than the little Mind Flayer explanation we get near the end of the season. Good scary stories aren’t about facts; they’re about myths and urban legends.

There was so much packed into this season that it seemed like the show’s creators had to rely on what they’d already established last year, because there was very little time to give to a new deep dive on lore. Clearly the Demogorgon isn’t the only monster roaming around The Upside Down, but we still don’t know what that really means, or why any of this exists in the first place. And I was surprised to see Eleven tear her way out of The Upside Down so easily in the season 1 flashbacks. It neutered the terror of the place for me.

Thuy: I’m with you guys on this. I wish we’d found out more about The Upside Down, and more about the monster that possessed Will. We’re given glimpses of it, and when Dustin consults his D&D manual about the Mind Flayer, we get a general idea of what the monster is up to. But I would have loved more context on the alternate world itself. There are still so many mysteries left. We still don’t know if there are any other gateways outside of Hawkins!

Photo: Netflix

A lot of the season is focused on new characters like Billy, Max, and Bob. Did they live up to the original cast?

Thuy: Billy annoyed me to no end. I felt like he was there to satisfy a bully trope. Yes, he's got an abusive relationship with his father, but it didn't really justify or explain his behavior, and I wanted a bit more substance as to why he is the way he is.  The tension between Billy and Max is executed to great effect, though. We can feel her vulnerability, and the fact that she’s caught in the middle, thanks to her burgeoning friendship with Lucas.

I spent most of the season convinced Bob was evil and somehow connected to The Upside Down, since he told Will to tell his demons to “go away!” which led him to being possessed. Bob was fun in the end though and he did give us this awesome GIF. I felt bad when he died, though, mostly because of Joyce. She's so awesome, but can never seem to catch a break.

Max was okay, but she felt like a bit of a stand-in until Eleven got back. The subplot with El getting jealous over Max’s relationship with Mike was ridiculous. Eleven is way too badass for that! Max’s relationship with Lucas ends up being really cute, though, so in general I’m thumbs-up on the new characters, except for Billy.

Megan: I had the exact same suspicion about Bob. I thought for sure he’d wind up being an undercover jerk for the show’s Evil Lab, but instead he was just dropped in as a redshirt. RIP Bob. He (and actor Sean Astin, who plays him) deserved better.

RIP, Bob — you deserved better

Which is actually my sentiment about all three of these characters. Eleven spends most of her time this season away from our favorite boy band, so Max is dropped in to fill what seems like a girl quota. She’s introduced as a total badass, but she isn’t given much to do. She gets a few standout moments, like driving the gang to the Mind Flayer tunnels, or taking down her obnoxious brother, but mostly, she seems like a love interest dropped in to drive a wedge between the boys. And of course no annoying plot-device girl character would be complete without a female rivalry, which means Eleven hates her immediately, and never rectifies those feelings. And then there’s Billy, the seemingly racist, classic ‘80s bully character who adds very little to the season. I know we’re meant to sympathize with him because of his abusive father, but it all felt very textbook. Are we on our way to a Billy redemption arc? My assumption is yes, but I don’t really care about seeing it happen.

My biggest complaint is that you could cut these characters out of almost every scene, and it wouldn’t matter. Bob obviously has his hero / martyr moment, in a sequence that feels very Jurassic Park to me, but he’s never given the chance to grow outside of his “nice guy” persona.

Photo: Netflix

Bryan: The fact that we were all sitting around waiting for Bob to be revealed as some bad guy (my money was on him being a Russian spy, given how many characters kept banging that particular drum) is probably a sign that he worked exactly as the Duffer brothers intended. And if I put on my ‘80s hat, there’s plenty of precedent to explain why that may have been the perceived direction. The Lost Boys in particular comes to mind, where the golly-gee video-store owner who starts dating Corey Haim’s mom turns out to be the big-bad vampire.

But other than Bob, I found the other characters frustratingly thin. Billy is a hard-rock burnout and a super-jock? A bitchin’ Camaro-driving bad boy who is also obsessed with establishing dominance in the school’s social hierarchy? He seemed like a dozen conflicting stereotyped traits, and the reveal that he suffers beneath the yoke of an abusive father doesn’t make those piece comes together any better. Mad Max was much better, in that her interactions with the boys tracked dramatically, and it was easy to understand who that character was, and what she was dealing with. But even then, the Max / Billy combo was an odd pair, seemingly dropped into Stranger Things from an entirely different story altogether. The first season had a real sense of cohesion: from the characters, to the tropes, to the visuals, it all felt part of a singular whole. Most of the new characters — save, perhaps, for the doctor played by Paul Reiser — didn’t feel cut from the same cloth in the slightest.

Chaim: I actually didn’t assume Bob was going to be evil, because he was played by the ever-jovial Sean Astin. That said, it wasn’t exactly a stretch to see that Bob was going to die, because he was simply too nice to survive to the end credits.

Billy was a jerk. He did not bring anything useful to the show. I do not understand why he was there, except to serve the generic ‘80s movie bully role, now that Steve is an exasperated babysitter. I had Billy pegged as being eaten by a demo-dog, actually, and I am a little disappointed that didn’t happen.

As for Max, she was okay, I guess? Certainly the most successful of the new characters, and it was nice to have a new member of the gang. She definitely worked as someone who wasn’t completely jaded to the craziness of things in a way the other characters were after the events of the last season. But I could also see the show working fine without her.

And as Megan pointed out, her use as a female rival / delay tactic for Eleven rejoining the group through the thoroughly overused “obvious misunderstanding” trope was one of the more exasperating moments of the season. Stranger Things, you’re better than this.

Photo: Netflix

Did the show give you enough to keep watching for season 3? What questions do you want answered?

Bryan: I’ve talked a lot about what I found disappointing this season — but I should probably clarify that my reaction comes from having very high expectations. The second season didn’t live up to the first for me, but I’m still fascinated by this world, and what’s to come. So of course I’ll be watching future seasons.

My hope, however, is that this season ends up having been setup for what the show is really interesting in diving into. What is the Mind Flayer? Where did The Upside Down come from? Are there more Elevens and Eights out there in the world, and will they all team up to defeat the threat once and for all? (That last one seems like a given.)

The most satisfying scene of the second season didn’t have anything to do with psychic powers or alternate dimensions; it was the school dance

But I’m actually most interested in what happens to the residents of Hawkins, Indiana. I legitimately fell in love with these kids, their friends, and their parents last year. Their archetypal stories were familiar and comforting, but there was some real weight and gravitas there, too. In fact, I’d argue that the most satisfying scene of the second season didn’t have anything to do with psychic powers, alternate dimensions, or dog-monsters at all. It was the school dance, precisely because it eschewed all the mystery and science fiction weirdness in favor of good old-fashioned human stakes: Dustin trying, unsuccessfully, to have charm; Mike and Eleven — and Max and Lucas — having their first awkward dance moments on a crowded gym floor.

These characters are what make Stranger Things interesting — not nostalgia, not endless period music cues, and not even the mythology of The Upside Down. It’s the people, and I hope future seasons spend a little more time focusing on them, and a little less on reminding us, yet again, that the 1980s were really, really cool.

Thuy: I'll definitely be watching season 3. These nine episodes teased out enough to keep me interested in the characters and their world. The frustrations I have with the show are minor, and after you get over a somewhat slow start, the show has shown it’s certainly capable of generating excitement and surprise.

As for next season, I’d like to see more of the mythology of The Upside Down, and why Hawkins is such a magnet for these events. I'm keen to find out more about the other children who were taken along with Eleven, but hope it's done more organically. One of my favorite parts of this season is Eleven’s relationship with Hopper, and how that grows; it's cute, and I hope we see more of their dynamic in the future. (All the feels hit home for me in the final episode, when she holds Hopper’s hand right before she closes the gate.) The last two episodes were easily the best of the season, and I hope the show can keep up that momentum going into next year.

Megan: In terms of the new concepts and characters it introduced, I think season 2 was without question weaker than the first. That said, the foundation the show laid is still rock-solid. My favorite moments of the series to date have been, as Thuy mentioned, the Hopper and Eleven relationship. I’d tune in for an entire show about that.

Season 2’s cliffhanger — if you want to call it that — is pretty weak, but I don’t think it’s about being left on the edge of your seat. It’s an emotional investment, and I am all-in on these characters.

Chaim: I’ll definitely be back. Like Bryan, I focused a lot in this conversation on gripes and frustrations with the show, but they’re ultimately minor things, and I’m only pointing them out because Stranger Things has shown us it can be better. The last two episodes of season 2, for example, were an exhilarating reminder of what this show can do when it really puts all the pieces together.

And like pretty much everyone else said, I’m excited to see where the characters go next. Will Hopper and Joyce end up together? Will Dustin manage to get a date with his new hairdo? Will Billy get eaten by a Demogorgon? I’m looking forward to finding out.

Bryan: I can’t believe we went this long without discussing Dustin’s new hair. If that look can’t stop evil from overtaking Hawkins, I don’t know what can.