The Stranger Things Formula | Stranger Things 2 Review

The following article contains Stranger Things season two spoilers. 

A six-pack of beer, sheer excitement and a large pepperoni pizza courtesy of Pizza Hut. That’s all I needed when I sat down Saturday afternoon to officially begin binge-watching the long-awaited season two of Stranger Things. 

Over those nine-or-so hours, I laughed, I cried. I cheered, I gasped, I rooted for my favorite kid heroes all over again. Like the rest of us, I waited over a year to be reunited with the happenings in Hawkins, Indiana and the Upside Down. When season two arrived, I was met by the beloved familiarity of sweet nerdiness and that heartwarming synth original score. As much as those things delighted me, made me smile so hard my cheeks hurt, I realized after finishing the season that familiarity ultimately resonated as repetition.

If you liked the original season of Stranger Things, you will love Stranger Things 2. I promise. fulfilled its promises of being a homecoming of sorts, because whatever you longed for in those miserable months between seasons was revisited almost exactly. Even though I enjoyed every moment of Stranger Things 2, this new season admittedly suffers from sequelitis. 

The Duffer Brothers certainly tapped a gold mine with their ambitious Netflix original. Stranger Things was the hit that no one saw coming, yet it managed to win the year as everyone’s favorite streaming series. The series tackled sci-fi without the bravado of recent extraterrestrial films; Stranger Things was the wondrous and eerie adventure we all wanted to go on.

Flashforward to the present, where the gang of child stars are Hollywood sensations and people are demanding that same nostalgic punch of the first season. Stranger Things left such a flawless impression the first time around, I can see, from a directorial standpoint, where veering from successful elements of the series could be discouraging. As a fan who hopes to see the series access its potential, though, I noticed storytelling techniques in Stranger Things 2 that directly mimicked the original season. I felt that this limited where the story could have gone and our journey to the finale.

Season one left the party estranged from Eleven, assuming the Stranger Things darling was trapped behind the goop of the Upside Down. Her whereabouts unbeknownst to them, Mike and the gang received a new female ally in season two. The arrival of Maxine and her testosterone-junkie step-brother, Billy, were purposed as a major story element in the first episode. Conveniently, the boys were then supplied another conflict of interest with a second female entering the group, as well as a romantic storyline that patterned the innocent, dorky flirting between Mike and Eleven.

The addition of Maxine –or lovingly, MadMax– did incorporate an interracial youth romance in her relationship with Lucas. That relationship allowed Lucas more screen time than the previous season, as well as character development in a conflict against Maxine’s racist older brother. Those successes considered, Maxine’s addition to the party was not beneficial to the greater storyline and read as disposable compared to the happenings in the Hawkins National Laboratory.

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Within the lab, we explored answers to season one’s hints about Will’s lasting condition from the Upside Down. Suffering from a supernatural PTSD of sorts, Will readily became the vehicle for the dramatic plot in Stranger Things 2. I must say, Noah Schnapp delivered an unexpectedly powerful performance in his time on screen. This season took his character into even darker territory and he definitely rose to the occasion.

But, much like his disappearance echoed greater repercussions in the first season, Will’s illness (and ultimately his possession-type condition) cast his character to the background of the events happening around him.

In the first season, the significance of his character in the Upside Down allowed other major characters to develop accordingly. Where I hoped Will would get a chance to shine in season two, the storyline ultimately fell into the same premise: the drama unfolded because of him and not with him.

Other repeat aspects of season one were not so layered– many were obvious enough without much consideration. The cherished “a-ha!” moment involving the Christmas lights in season one got its reprise in the form of sketches. Much how Joyce discovers an electric communication to her son in season one, we see the exact chaos of items strewn across the Byers’ home with Will’s pathway drawings.

Similarly, Will’s clever communication from the Upside Down makes an underdeveloped return in season two when Will uses Morse Code while his body is held hostage by the Shadow Monster. My critique of these elements are not the events themselves– because they were perfectly enjoyable in viewing them. Rather it is evident the Duffer Brothers did not attempt to rework plot points from the first season. That copy-and-paste mentality should have only been applied to the spirit of the Stranger Things, not the pattern of the story itself.

I have only reassured myself of this position because the new, inventive elements of Stranger Things 2 were what elevated the entire season to audience’s expectations. The new directions within the series taught us more about characters as well as expanded the mythology of the Stranger Things universe.

For example, the storyline involving Dustin’s new pet, Dart, was complete brilliance. The Gremlins homage to his owning a pet monster was perfectly smart, tender and, most importantly, incorporated throughout.

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Perhaps the biggest surprise of the season was Eleven’s parallel storyline to the action in Hawkins. Her journey of isolation and self discovery was one I didn’t expect in my many anticipations of Stranger Things 2. Foolishly, I predicted much of the season would be spent searching for her, shoving Eleven into a damsel in distress role she has no place occupying. This trip into her family life and accessibility of powers carried such dimension that actress Millie Bobby Brown was able to deliver with obvious dedication. Stranger Things 2 accessed the depth of Eleven and it is my hope that Stranger Things 3 grants its other characters with similar defining moments.

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The addition of Sean Astin– the original nice-guy in a group of losers– was the cherry on top of a sweet season for me. His initial introduction as Bob, Joyce’s boyfriend, had me worried– I feared he would be cast as a cruel stepfather figure. But the lovable Radio Shack oaf came to many characters’ rescue and aided the sense of family and community among the characters in times of trouble.

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What truly rocketed Stranger Things to its success is the sheer purity of the series. I have referenced Stranger Things numerous times in other articles because its impact as an independent streaming series about children is astounding. We don’t watch because it is juicy or grotesque, we watch because Stranger Things encapsulates storytelling that is innocent and compassionate; we watch out of love. Stranger Things is characters with honest-to-God connection and we watch because we relate to empathy, friendship and bravery.

Some moments in Stranger Things 2 could not be more powerful if they tried:

Bob’s fatherly talk with Will on the way to school– there were tears. Bob’s cruel demise as the season’s sacrificial lamb– there were tears. Hopper’s emotional radio message to Eleven– there were tears.

Oh, but the Snowflake Ball. Those were emotions I hadn’t felt in years.

The season’s finale went right for the emotional jugular, reminding everyone watching why they waited so long for the second installment. Maybe it was Will dancing with Joyce in his living room, or a tearful Dustin’s new hairstyle, or the way Mike told Eleven she looked beautiful. Those elements in combination, and the softness they effortlessly give off, will forever belong to Stranger Things— seasons past and present.