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Stranger Things’ personal dramas are more compelling than the supernatural ones

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Of all the unanswered questions season 2 left behind, the best ones are just about the people

Image: Netflix

It’s been less than two weeks since Netflix released season 2 of Stranger Things, and the internet is still buzzing with memes and analyses of every detail in the hit series. Nielsen estimates that 15.8 million people tuned in to watch on the premiere weekend, and that 326,000 people streamed all nine episodes on the first day. The show has a huge following, and a confirmed third season on the way, but the aspects that had fans charging into season 2 might not be the same things that will draw them back to season 3.

Spoilers ahead for Stranger Things seasons 1 and 2.

The initial run of Stranger Things introduced supernatural elements like The Upside Down, a terrifying Demogorgon, and the telekinetic Eleven. It also introduced an instantly relatable, lovable cast. Season 1 ended on a few supernatural cliffhangers: Eleven disappeared, and Will Byers coughed up a slug that seemed to be a remnant from his time in The Upside Down. The second season dives deeper into these supernatural elements, with demo-dogs and a terrifying shadow monster.

But this time, creators Matt and Ross Duffer neatly tie up most of the supernatural loose ends. Eleven closes the door to The Upside Down, the demo-dogs die (though Dustin refrigerates one corpse as an unresolved loose end), the Hawkins lab is shut down and exposed to the public, and Eleven is reunited with her friends. The Upside Down and the shadow monster still exist, but they no longer pose a clear threat. On the other hand, there are still a lot of loose ends on the domestic end of the story. What’s going on with Dr. Brenner? Is Billy still a threat, or has Max successfully intimidated him? Will Billy hook up with Mrs. Wheeler? Are Nancy and Jonathan an actual couple? Is Steve the father figure Dustin never had? The list goes on.

Image: Netflix

So while the supernatural elements of Stranger Things seemed like the initial draw, the personal dramas might be a bigger hook for season 3. (They certainly will be for me.) There are still questions about Kali and her crew, and what part she and her superpowered crusade will play in the next season. And her existence implies the possibility of other psychic kids with other powers. But Kali’s episode has been widely derided as the worst one of season 2, and the scripts don’t give much direction to her possible future. The Duffer brothers leave a lot more open questions and feelings about the personal dramas of nearly every character on the show.

Let’s start with the death of the breakout character who once looked like a narc — Bob Newby, aka “Bob the Brain.” While Barb was the unsung hero of season 1, Bob quickly dethroned her as the second season’s true victim. Founder of the Hawkins AV Club, employee of a now-defunct Radio Shack, Bob seemed like the first good thing to enter Joyce Byers’ life on this show. He even tried to connect with her kids. (His advice nearly killed Will, but hey, Bob didn’t know what he was getting Will into.) When he died valiantly saving everyone, Sheriff Jim Hopper was there to grab Joyce and take her to safety. There’s always been a tiny spark between Hopper and Joyce; he flirts with her all season. Is Bob’s death meant to give Hopper a chance? And should it, considering his failings in season 2? Is Joyce too distraught with grief? However the series navigates her future, it’s more interesting than the abstract threat of the shadow monster.

Bob the Brain.
Image: Netflix

Then there’s that insane scene in the final episode between the neglected Mrs. Wheeler and the psychopathic, tight-assed newcomer, Billy Hargrove. It’s hard to like anything about Billy in season 2, but Mrs. Wheeler seems to find him irresistible, and he almost flatters her right out of her bathrobe. Their scene is disturbing, but it comes with a lot of tension and intrigue. Will Mrs. Wheeler finally divorce her deadbeat, chair-sleeping husband to get with Billy? Or will the two start a clandestine affair, potentially causing an even bigger rift between Mike and Billy’s sister Max? There are a lot of ways that storyline could go, and I’m excited to see it play out.

Billy’s hand in determining the fate of other characters doesn’t end there. His head-to-head with Lucas seemed like a racially charged vendetta. While Max certainly proves her dominance over Billy by the end of the series, that doesn’t guarantee he won’t come after Lucas (or her) down the line. A lot more could happen between these three, especially given how much has been implied, but not yet revealed, about Max and Billy’s background, and how they ended up in Hawkins.

Billy Hargrove.
Image: Netflix

While Billy is an obvious antagonist in season 2, Eleven clearly hasn’t taken a liking to Max, and she brutally snubs Max’s attempts at flattery and friendship. It remains to be seen whether they can become friends, or they’ll be stuck battling for the “girl” slot in an otherwise male adventuring party.

Eleven’s return to Hawkins in the finale also sets us up for more of my favorite relationship dynamic in the entire season: her and Hopper. They share a touching moment in the final episode, where he explains his control-freak tendencies, apologizes to her, and gives her his blessing to attend the Snow Ball. By the end of the season, he has custody of her on paper, which gives him a chance to fully and publicly embrace his father role in season 3.

Half happy.
Image: Netflix

He isn’t the season’s only unlikely father figure. Steve Harrington and his glorious mane possibly had the best character development of the entire series. After breaking up with Nancy, Steve fully embraces his babysitter role, and does anything and everything to protect Stranger Things’ younger kids. He even takes a brutal beating from Billy. But he develops a particularly special relationship with Dustin. The heartbreaking scene with Dustin at the Snow Ball shows us he’s clearly in need of an older male figure to help him navigate the brutal world of middle school. In spite of Steve’s terrible “act like you don’t care” relationship advice, and his magical Farrah Fawcett Hairspray secret, Dustin doesn’t have any luck with the ladies. He’s the only one of his D&D gang to be left dateless and danceless, until Nancy gives him a pity dance. Dustin is also the only kid on the show without a visible dad. I love who Steve has become, and that he’s not letting his disappointment and hurt over Nancy stop him from being great. I want to see much more of this blossoming Dustin and Steve relationship, and also learn where Dustin’s dad is.

Babysitter’s Club.
Image: Netflix

As the characters grow and face hardships together, I’ve become invested in seeing them deal with trauma, romance, jealousy, competition, friendship, and secrets — things the average person is a lot more likely to face than flower-faced demons from another dimension. By contrast, I find it harder to get invested in The Upside Down, because there isn’t any intriguing motive for its creatures, other than wanting to kill everything in sight. The Upside Down just exists, with no clear purpose or direction.

And that seems to be entirely by design. In season 2, the Duffers made the choice to build the relationships instead of the mythos. They proved they still have new tricks up their sleeves when it comes to horror movie plotlines, but the way they ended the season suggests they thought more about adding layers to the characters than about digging deeper into the meaning of The Upside Down. They know they can keep doling out a little more each season when it comes to demo-dogs and telekinesis, but the most relatable, human elements of the show come from real-life struggles.

Image: Netflix

The supernatural does have an important place in Stranger Things’ character development. The bullying Will Byers faces in season 2 is a human struggle, but it emerges from his journey through The Upside Down. Nancy’s trauma from the loss of her friend Barb pushes her to leave Steve and admit her attraction to Jonathan, which in turn gives Steve the opportunity to fully come into his demo-dog-fighting babysitter role. The initial tension created between Max and the party is due to their undying pact of keeping Will’s true supernatural story secret. The series’s mundane side and its magic side are tightly intertwined.

But I’m finding it more interesting to see how magic shapes the dynamics between the characters than how it proceeds on its own. Season 2 ends with a few minor, spooky cliffhangers for season 3, but it also ends with plenty of human mysteries. What’s happening in the right-side-up in Hawkins is the real story.

Image: Netflix