It’s almost become expected that as a series continues the quality will trend downhill; it doesn’t always happen, but it’s so common as to become cliche. I suspect the reason for this is because the lead up time to the original film or TV season (or novel) can often be years, while the turnaround for the next installment is very quick. For the initial story, ideas come up, stew on the back burner, get tinkered with off and on while working on other projects, until finally it’s ready. In order to get green lit, the writers throw all their best material into it, holding nothing back for later. …And then if they have enough success, “later” is added to the calendar, and it’s much sooner than they’d like. They’re playing the bonus round of Family Feud and all their best answers are already on the board — but they don’t even get any extra time because it’s harder.
In this post I’m going to discuss a few of the common pitfalls series run into which, hopefully, Stranger Things Season 3 will avoid. I’m just discussing things to avoid, rather than things to actually do, because if I knew what they should do for Season 3 I’d be getting paid to write rather than just geeking out online (they should rename the Master of Fine Arts to the Master of Armchair Arts; it’d make my education a lot more accurate).
Faux Stakes Raising
This is probably the most common mistake franchises make over the long term. How do we make it more exciting? Raise the stakes. How do we do that? Bigger and badder big bad. …Nope, doesn’t work like that.
Amazingly, “raising the stakes” has the solution right in the name. You literally put more at stake. It’s not about the villain the heroes face, but what they stand do lose should they fail. Through the 3rd, 4th, and 5th books of the Harry Potter series, for example, the stakes are raised by giving Harry a relationship with Sirius Black, the closest thing he has to family. In books 6 and 7, Hogwarts, which was previously a safe-ish space is itself put in danger. Stakes successfully raised.
To see a series that does fake stakes raising, look to The Walking Dead. Early on, the stakes do get raised. The group gains relative safety at the farm, Maggie and Glenn start a relationship, they then get a more secure long-term community at the prison and a baby is born. Then, the group goes from one walled community to another, but they’re all functionally the same in terms of what’s at stake. The show tries to raise the stakes by making a bigger and badder bad guy, going from the Governor to Gared to Negan, but they’re all basically “the guy who threatens the walled, sustainable community.” What’s at stake doesn’t change.
Season 2 of Stranger Things did something entirely different though. It didn’t try to raise the stakes. Technically the stakes do go up a bit, Joyce has Will back but might lose him, more of Hawkins is under threat — potentially the wider world is at risk from the Mindflayer, but really it’s just our core group of characters in danger, same as before. But, this works because the show didn’t try to say “ooo, this time it’s even more evil!” No, it just gave us a different threat. We got another story rather than a bigger one. And it worked.
What Season 3 will need to avoid is a story line that goes “last time He was mad, but this time He’s really mad.” When you go out to eat, you probably like to try different things, not just same-thing-but-bigger-portion.
Wash, Rinse, Repeat
A really tricky thing for any franchise is to make later works feel like they’re part of the franchise while also not feeling like they’re just repeating the same story. If you got bored with the pre-Daniel Craig James Bond films, this is why. It’s the biggest criticism of The Force Awakens. It was the weakest point in Chamber of Secrets (largely retracing story beats from The Sorcerer’s Stone). With enough interesting dialogue and set pieces, this doesn’t get too objectionable (I really like Chamber of Secrets), but it does run a huge risk of feeling stale.
If we think of it like food (I’m kinda hungry writing this, so forgive the second analogy), if Season 1 is enchiladas suizas, Season 2 ought to be chicken fajitas. There’s a lot of overlapping elements (chicken, chiles, cumin, tortillas), and they obviously belong to the same franchise, but it’s not following enchiladas suizas with enchiladas rojas or a burrito enchilada style.
So, when it comes to Stranger Things, what does this mean exactly? Obviously we’re going to be dealing with a demon from the Upside Down, probably the same Mindflayer as Season 2. Maybe also the demogorgon and demo-dogs. Maybe some sort of government bad guys, and obviously Eleven’s psychic powers will come into play. That’s the cuisine, and we want more of it.
Where Season 3 may misstep is in repeating specific story beats set within the “cuisine” of the universe. Both Season 1 and 2 end with Eleven going Super Saiyan with her powers, either to obliterate the demogorgon or close the gate. Season 2 felt fresh because of the integral role Joyce and the exorcism crew played, along with the zoomer burn squad. Season 1 did have Joyce and Hop rescuing Will, but it felt more like an Eleven solo victory, while Season 2 was a concerted team effort. In fact, I’d argue the exorcism is the climax of Season 2, while closing the gate is more denouement. But, if Season 3 again has an Eleven-saves-the-day ending, I think it’s going to feel unsatisfying. It’ll need a significant twist to stay fresh. She needs to do something other than reaching her hands out, bleeding from the nose, and spontaneously leveling up. Rather than just “Eleven focuses really hard to beat back the enemy with her mind,” give us some unique creative us of her powers, something more like “Dormamu, I’ve come to bargain.”
The other story beat we’ve seen repeated is a romantic interest causing a conflict between friends. In Season 1, Mike and Lucas have a fight over whether or not Eleven is on their side, and while Mike’s position isn’t entirely because he’s crushing on Eleven, it’s an important dynamic in the season. In Season 2 of course we get both Dustin and Lucas wanting the attention of Max, and fighting because Lucas revealed the truth to Max while Dustin kept it a secret (though this dispute is very quickly resolved). And, back in Season 1, we also had a sort of falling out between Nancy and Barb during the party at Steve’s house. It’s not that this kind of story beat can’t ever show up back in the series, but if we get it for a fourth time in three seasons, that’s a bit of a problem. (By contrast, Joyce and Bob got to show us a romantic relationship which, while awkward and imperfect, had an entirely different dynamic to it than the others.)
Unlearning and Nerfing
It’s fine for Homer Simpson to learn a heartwarming lesson about family only to forget it by the next episode (the early seasons were actually super wholesome, but followed this pattern). It’s fine for the cast of Seinfeld and Always Sunny in Philadelphia to never learn anything at all. They’re episodic comedies. Stranger Things is a drama, and it’s telling novel-length stories. A lack of character growth would be incredibly underwhelming, yet it’s something many series have fallen back on. They get a story arc that works, and then repeat it though doing so means moving the character back to where they were a season or movie before; they have unlearned what they learned. Similarly, characters may grow in power, only to have that growth inexplicably undone so that they don’t just immediately faceroll the next opponent.
The main party has overcome multiple disputes — they need to not have the same minor squabbles as before. They can have new issues, but those issues should be handled in light of the characters having experience in resolving conflicts among themselves. Hopper needs to take Joyce seriously when she says something’s up (in fact, he does this in Season 2, which is great); Mike and Nancy should have a lot more respect for each other; Hopper and Eleven need to deal with the fact that their dynamic wasn’t working for them and something needs to change.
While it’s true that people can backslide into old patterns in real life, in story telling we expect characters to grow. When they do blackslide, it needs to be with good reason and play a meaningful part of the story. If you’re going to tell us the frog and the scorpion, we really need to believe in the scorpion’s nature.
The Contrived Cliffhanger
The best TV over the last 15-ish years has avoided cliffhangars. Instead, they give a climax followed by a fulfilling denouement or epilogue. In the first several (good) seasons of Game of Thrones, the “big” episode is #9 of the season with a #10 showing the fallout. Cobra Kai shows us the moments after the season-ending fight. The Wire wrapped up each season’s story before moving on. Seasons 1 and 2 of Stranger Things likewise give us a lot of time to wind things down after the climax. What these moments after the climax do is give the audience space to think about “what does this mean for the characters moving forward?”
The most notorious cliffhanger in recent television has of course been the Negan baseball bat execution on The Walking Dead. Instead of being left with maybe 20-30 minutes of show after the execution wondering “what will Rick’s group do because __ died?” the audience is just stuck with “who do you think died?” Tune in next season to find out! …No, piss off! Contemplating what a story means is really enjoyable for an audience; questioning what the story even is just becomes a game of playing pocket pool.
Even though Stranger Things has ended with teasers for the next season, similar to the post-credit scenes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the seasons’ stories have been wrapped up. A teaser epilogue is fine, not finishing the story isn’t.