TV

Stranger Things 2 Recap: Highs and Lows

On Oct. 27th Stranger Things 2 was released on Netflix, bringing my Halloweekend to a grinding halt. Like many of my fellow Stranger Things fans, I dropped everything to binge watch the show in my pajamas instead of going out to parties, and when it was over stared at my blank screen feeling simultaneously satisfied and hungry for more. This new season picks up where a lot of the unfinished storylines left off. We learn what’s going on with Will, where Eleven ended up, and are even introduced to some fresh faces like Bob Newby (RIP), Max Mayfield, and Billy Hargrove. Because there is literally so much going on in the second season, I don’t have enough hours in the day to discuss everything that happened, so I picked some personal highlights. Spoilers ahead, you have been warned.

 

HIGHS

The Female Characters

In the sci-fi/fantasy realm strong female characters can be hard to come by, making the plethora of strong female characters in Stranger Things pretty exceptional. Last year, we witnessed Nancy come into her own, stepping outside of her “perfect daughter” role, and revealing a brave, take-charge persona underneath. This year, however, it’s Joyce also undergoes an important transformation. While she’s always been unshakably persistent in her convictions and willingness to protect her son, this year she lost some of her past fragility, channeling it instead into a white-hot anger that eventually allows her to exorcise the evil Mind Flayer from her son’s body. Of course, Eleven is badass as usual, but the real surprise is Max Mayfield, the newest addition to The Party. Though they rarely have scenes together, Max is  a sort of foil for Eleven. Like El, Max has a tough exterior, making her wary of others, and, while she may not be able to lift a van over someone’s head, she can kill it on Pac-Man. As much as I love El, it’s nice to see a strong female character whose power comes from a more realistic and attainable place.

 

The Acting

The gold nugget at the core of Stranger Things is the casting. There were so many good performances this season, but a clear standout is Noah Schnapp who plays Will Byers.  Because he spent most of his time trapped in the Upside Down last year, Will didn’t have a lot to do last year, but that absence paid off because of the layered, complex arc he was given this season. After receiving some well intentioned but terrible advice from Bob, Will becomes possessed by the Mind Flayer, which inhabits his body while slowly eating away at his original human self. This means that as an actor, Noah Schnapp had to convey multiple personalities, Will, The Mind Flayer, and the Mind Flayer pretending to be Will, sometimes all within the same scene. All of this is conveyed through subtle shifts in tone like his voice when he tells Joyce to let him go, the way he says “you’re mom” when Joyce asks if he remembers who she is, and the look in his eyes when Joyce and Jonathan try to draw Will out by telling him stories about his childhood. The effectiveness of his performance is truly evident in Episode 9 when Joyce, desperate to get the monster out of her son’s body, puts Will next to a fire surrounded by heaters with the hope that the heat will drive the monster out. In the scene we see Will’s body writhe in pain, but while uncomfortable to watch the effect is less horrifying because we know that it’s the Mind Flayer, not Will, who is really hurting

 

Steve Harrington’s Character Development

Steve’s transformation from douchey prom king to stressed out soccer mom is brilliant not only because it manages to feel simultaneously surprising and natural but also because it’s uplifting to see a character progress so positively. So often making a character “complicated” is equated to heaping transgressions and psychological demons on their storyline until they become almost unsympathetic, and while that may work wonderfully in many shows, it’s refreshing to see a story arc that breaks with that tradition.  Steve’s arc also helped raise the stakes of the show’s teenage love triangle, by evolving the problem at its center. At the end of Season 1, when we realize Nancy chose Steve, most viewers probably felt at least a little unsatisfied because of the chemistry she built with Jonathan through their adventures in monster slaying. Coupled with the fact that Steve had so recently been a jerk to Nancy, painting Nancy Wheeler Is A Slut on the movie theater marquee, all signs pointed to Jonathan being “the right guy.” In Season 2 there is still remnants of that old instinct, where Jonathan was the clear right choice, but in the hearts of the viewer’s at least Steve’s sympathetic persona takes away Jonathan’s status as “the right guy,” if by “the right guy” we mean the male character who the audience wants to have emotional fulfillment. Personally, I wouldn’t buy Nancy going back to Steve unless the Duffers pulled some serious story-telling leg work in Season 3. Either way I just hope that next season allows Steve to resolve his broken heart whether that means getting back with Nancy, finding a new love interest, or simply continuing to teach Dustin how to pull off the perfect coiffe.

 

HIGH/LOW

Episode 7: The Lost Sister

My take on the most controversial episode of ST2 is that the episode was rough but necessary. As a voracious TV viewer, I love when show’s have conventions and clearly defined worlds. They’re what make the show feel cozy, like you have something to rest your head on even when everything is going crazy and drama is at fever pitch. So, when a TV show breaks out of those norms, I go into panic mode.  Questions like ‘What is happening?’,  ‘Why am I watching this?’, and ‘Can we make this stop?’ were running through my brain as I started the episode, in which El ventures out of Hawkins to find Kali, a fellow victim of Hawkins lab. All through the episode, I missed checking in on what was happening in Hawkins, but as it progressed I started to understand its purpose. The whole season leading up to Episode 7, El was on track to become the angstiest teen in Hawkins. She (understandably) had fits of rage against her father-figure Hopper, openly disobeying his rules to keep her safe in order to experience the outside world. As teen angst often is, El’s anger is debilitating. It’s hard to imagine that someone who would blow out the windows of her house one minute could save the world in the next. Between the threat of the ‘bad men’ and the small, intense community of Hawkins, it makes sense that El would need to escape and discover herself away from the pressures that caused her angst in the first place.

 

LOWS

Eleven & Max’s Relationship

Individually, Eleven and Max are amazing, and seeing them team up  in any way would generate an insane amount of girl power. But instead of putting them together, the show pits them against each other. In the few times they interact El is consistently cold to Max, first when she sees Max hanging out with Mike and then again when Max tries to introduce herself after El makes her badass return. It’s unclear to me why El hates Max so much, though it’s implied  in the scene where she sees Max and Mike hanging out that there could be some jealousy involved. However, that still doesn’t make total sense. I may not be an expert on love and relationships, but I’m guessing that if a guy calls you everyday for 353 days, he’s probably into you. El should have nothing to worry about in terms of her puppy love with Mike or her place in the party. A more interesting reason for El’s disliking Max might be that El resents Max for having girlhood she never did, although the show in no way makes this clear.

 

Nancy & Jonathan’s Storyline

Part of what made last season of Stranger Things so good was the way the individual storylines were all unified under the event of Will’s disappearance. Since the show couldn’t replicate that kind of narrative in Season Two, certain storylines fell by the wayside, particularly Nancy & Jonathan’s. After watching such a nice arc for Nancy last season, this year’s storyline felt a lot less impactful. Technically, Nancy’s arc this year was supposed to about relieving herself of the guilt she feels about Barb’s death. Though she does find #JusticeforBarb there’s no single moment where we see the weight of her guilt lifted off her chest, making the emotional arc feel incomplete. It seems like most of her emotional arc was focused on getting her together with Jonathan, which while fun to watch at times, was a surprise to basically no one.

Billy Hargrove

From Mad Max to Bob Newby, The Duffers did such a good job introducing new characters that integrated themselves seamlessly into the dynamics of the original characters. Unfortunately, this is not the case with Billy Hargrove, Max’s abusive older brother. I begrudgingly understand Billy’s purpose as a) providing insight into Max’s family life / an obstacle preventing her from hanging out with Lucas and b) dethroning former Keg King Steve Harrington and setting him off on his glorious character arc. I would argue he could have probably achieved both these things with less screen time than he got. My main issue with Billy is that I do not like him on a basic level, even as a villain. I know they tried to humanize him by showing his troubled relationship with his father, and while that scene certainly helped flesh out his character some, it failed to make his cruelty seem unique or interesting. Apparently, The Duffer Brothers say that Billy will have more to do next season, so I will give them the benefit of the doubt. But, until then, my verdict on Billy will remain TBD.

by Sophie Hayssen

Sophie is a 20-year old college student studying English and American Studies. She likes to creative writing as a form of self-expression and procrastination. Her other interests include music, playing guitar badly, and enjoying the great outdoors from the even greater indoors. You can follow her at @filossofee and find links to more of her work here.

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