‘Stranger Things 2’: What Worked, What Didn’t About the Return to Hawkins

A year ago, when I finished the first season of “Stranger Things,” I wrote up some thoughts about the season as a whole — and suggested that it might be a good idea to set the second season away from Hawkins, Indiana. What if, I asked, the second go-round of “Stranger Things” embraced an anthology format, and transported its mood, references and retro vibe to a new place with new characters?

Well, no one was going to follow that suggestion, given how popular “Stranger Things” became. And truth be told, I wasn’t completely sure I wanted the Netflix drama to do that. I enjoyed plunging into the world of Hawkins and savoring Season One’s many fine performances. Returning to those people’s lives certainly wasn’t an inherently bad idea. But could Season Two be as good as Season One?

But in one key way, it couldn’t be. The show is now a known quantity, and so the joyful sense of discovery that accompanied Season One could never be recaptured. Season Two would have to up its game in order to be as nearly addictive.

And there’s no doubt Season Two ran the risk of turning into a nostalgia ouroboros. What if an intensely retro show became nostalgic for its own first season, copied what had made it popular, and repeated the same story (with slightly different pop-culture references) in Season Two? Would “Stranger Things” become a bloated celebration of itself and forget to tell a story, or would it have fun with Stephen King, Devo and “Alien” but still go for the emotional jugular?

Thankfully, Season Two did a respectable amount of the latter, as I noted in my review. If I had to rank the two seasons, I’d still put Season One first, but after a slow start, “Stranger Things 2” turned out to be a solid endeavor, and eventually, in the home stretch, it was a lot of a flat-out fun. Whatever other highs and lows, the last two hours were certainly among the most entertaining “Stranger Things” outings ever. (Spoilers from here on out.)

• Elements that worked well

Excellent new character combinations. Though it was a bit annoying that Eleven was separated from almost everyone else for much of the season, she and Hopper together were generally quite effective. That’s no surprise, given that David Harbour and Millie Bobby Brown are both extraordinary actors. Hopper’s anger toward El was frightening, but Harbour, with his typically detailed performance, made it very clear that his rage was a cover for his deep love for El and his worries about her future and safety.

Steve and Dustin were also pure gold, as were Nancy, Jonathan and their new friend, the slightly sketchy but generally lovable freelance journalist Murray Bauman (Brett Gelman FTW). Nancy and Jonathan’s budding romance was generally quite sweet, subtle and engaging. And Gaten Matarazzo as Dustin is a continual wonder; his attempts to raise and then trap that cute little version of Dart were great.

And thanks to these excellent combinations, I have ideas for Season 3: Dustin and Nancy hang out! Lucas and El go on important missions! Joyce and Steve go shopping for hair products! The combinations are endless. More, please.

Meditations on adolescent female rage. If El, Kali/Eight and Max had anything in common, it’s that they were mostly misunderstood and often had to retreat into survival mode. All were in difficult situations that frustrated them — but they often had to keep a lid on their emotions in order to get by. That’s why scenes of El using her powers are so often cathartic: Who wouldn’t want to be able to control matter, time and space — and right wrongs — with supernatural abilities? If anyone had any doubts about whether El would be as compelling this season, Brown’s work this season (especially in the finale) put those to rest.

“I felt frozen.” So much of what Will goes through functions well as a metaphor for PTSD, profound loneliness and other kinds of trauma. His situation is particularly heartbreaking: He is both affected by an evil presence and worries that he is a conduit for that evil. Noah Schnapp powerfully depicted all the gradations of his character’s distress; asked to step up and take the spotlight in Season Two, he did so in spectacular fashion. I can get past most of “Stranger Things’” missteps because it often grounds its storytelling with these kinds of compelling performances.

Steve as a surprisingly responsible babysitter. There were issues, this season and last, with wobbly or inconsistent character development. But what proves to me that the writers are capable of wonders is the redemption of Steve the Haircut. He began as a preppy joke, but transformed into a credible hero. Quite a feat, which was repeated and developed further this season (especially when Steven and Dustin were starring in a “Stand By Me” spinoff). Same goes for Natalia Dyer as Nancy, who can clearly handle any kind of physical challenge or emotional struggle the show throws at her.

Elements that were iffy

That patented Netflix slow-burn start. Would Dart turn out to be a baby Demogorgon or Demodog or Demo-whatever? Obviously. The slow “reveal” of Dart’s true nature was, like much of the early going, more than a bit frustrating at times. See also: Would El get frustrated at her isolation and leave? Yes, of course. Would Max eventually be made part of the group? Yes, but not before Lucas imposed an exposition dump on her. Were the poisoned pumpkin patches related to the secretive research facility that all the core characters knew was up to no good? Duh.

Max and Billy. It seemed like the idea behind Max was: What if we just created an amalgamation of every on-screen tomboy character ever — and just added a skateboard? As for Billy, it felt like the writers just threw a mullet at a fast car and that was that. The writing for both of these characters was mostly one-dimensional. If they’re going to hang around next season, they’re going to have to be more fully fleshed out.

And I really hated that things got tricky because El didn’t like Max. Nooope. Setting female characters against each other in a superficial manner is never a great move. When it came to Max and El, “Stranger Things 2” never quite tipped over into cartoonish catfight territory, but it got too closer for comfort. I hope it stays away from that kind of thing in future. 

Mike. I know I was supposed to feel a bit swoony when he and El reunited and eventually kissed, but I did not care at all. The writing for Mike was just kind of awful and repetitive this year, which was a shame — he and the D&D games at his house were among the best parts of Season One.

The “Liquid Sky” standalone episode. While aspects of Kali/Eight’s Scooby Gang were visually exciting (I think I visited that loft for an underground dance party back in the day), Chapter Seven ended up being a wasted opportunity. The biggest problem is that Kali and Eleven’s relationship was boiled down to a very reductive idea: Kali thinks straight-up murdering their abusers is the way to go; El doesn’t. End of story. It was disheartening that one of the few women of color to ever get serious screen time in this drama was reduced to a predictable archetype: Kali simply advocated violence, and we never got a nuanced understanding of her mindset or personality. None of it was a good look, despite Linnea Berthelsen’s electric presence. A suggestion for next season: Explore the kinds of themes we saw on “Orphan Black,” the story of young women and their allies banding together to protect their ad-hoc family and their autonomy.

Elements that were truly awesome

The last couple of episodes and the dance. Am I made of stone? I am not. Dustin sitting in the bleachers, trying to fight off tears after he was rejected, was just such a perfect John Hughes moment. And the entire vibe of the dance just hit so many “Stranger Things” pleasure points. Retro music? Check. Eighties fashion? Yup. Sweet, nerdy kids just trying to have fun? Of course. 

Bob, Dr. Owens, and Murray Hargrove. All three additions were great fun. I especially enjoyed Paul Reiser riding the line between concerned doctor and shady researcher, and Sean Astin was just about perfect in another turn as “Lord of the Rings’” Samwise Gamgee. Poor Will was another Frodo, but faithful Sam — er, Bob — triumphed with his knowledge of nerd lore and his quietly adorable courage. Now we’ll never get to see the spinoff set at the Hawkins Radio Shack (which I absolutely would have watched). But … is anyone else wondering if we haven’t seen the last of Bob Newby? Or that demodog in the freezer? 

Which leaves me with a few last questions for the show. Next year, will Joyce (the great Winona Ryder) get more to do than express concern for her sons? Will she get her deposit back if the Byers family decides to move? (That’s got to be a no, given how much that family tends to trash the floor and walls.) Should “Stranger Things” maybe phase out the Eggos and the Barb love (and I say this as one of America’s leading Barb-alikes)? What are the commonalities between Ewoks and Demodogs?

And is “Stranger Things 3” ready yet? Asking for a friend.