While overall I enjoyed Season 2, it certainly was not as strong as Season 1. In this post I want to critique the season in terms of technical story telling mechanics. I know I’m a bit late to the Season 2 criticism party, but hopefully you’ll find it interesting to look at the season not in terms of what was simply enjoyable or not, but what was (not) working mechanically.
To be sure, no one acts one way all the time. Characters have lots of competing traits, and they get expressed differently under different circumstances. A normally timid character might be brave when his friends are in danger. A character can simultaneously seek adventure and not want to get in trouble with their parents. This is the type of stuff that makes for a great three dimensional character. Where things go wrong is when a character goes from complex to contradictory.
In Season One, the show does a little bait and switch with Hopper’s introduction. He seems like a cliched burn out sheriff at first, but then we soon learn he’s actually very competent at his job (tracing Will’s steps back at his own house stands out). He’s detail oriented, meticulous, and has strong instincts.
In Season Two, he remains a very good cop, but we’re introduced to a new side of him, his role as surrogate parent to Eleven. Here he continuously screws up, forgetting to signal, and repeatedly being late and breaking promises.
People can be meticulous in one area but sloppy in another, but there’s always a good explanation for it. Steve is meticulous about his hair, less so about his college admissions essay — because he cares a lot more about his social standing at school than he does about college admissions. Hopper being forgetful and negligent when it comes to Eleven doesn’t make sense though. He doesn’t resent her for reminding him of Sara; quite the opposite it seems, he enjoys being a parent again. With how protective he is of her, it doesn’t make sense for him to be so forgetful. It’s hard to imagine Hopper thinking something is up with Hawkins Lab and his mind not immediately wondering if Eleven is safe back in the cabin.
I believe this inconsistency was introduced because the show needed Eleven to run off, so it had to come up with a reason for them to fight. Unfortunately, it came up with a reason that isn’t true to Hopper’s character and the conflict ends up feeling contrived. By contrast, the argument over Eleven getting to leave the cabin “soon” feels natural. Hopper thinks of it as a white lie (he doesn’t know when it’ll be safe to leave; would prefer it be soon but knows it won’t be), while Eleven sees it as a huge breach of trust. A fight over Eleven trying to contact Mike through the walkie talkie would have also been natural to both their characters.
Characters With Nothing To Do
What exactly does Mad Max do in Season Two? She gets seen by Eleven at the school, she’s the reason Steve gets punched out by Billy, and she drives Steve’s car while he’s incapacitated. Really, her only contribution is to make Eleven jealous in one scene so she doesn’t talk to Mike, but even without her, it would have been fine for Eleven to say hi. There’s really no consequences to the fact that the party doesn’t know what’s happened to her. Eleven still would have been away when the demo-dog battle went down. Mad Max’s biggest contribution is… beating Dustin’s high school on Dig Dug?
And what does Lucas do in Season Two? In Season One he provides and important source of disagreement about how the party should proceed in regards to searching for Will and how to treat Eleven. In Season Two he argues with Dustin about Dart, but it’s a position Mike or Will could have taken just the same. He also informs Max about what happened last year, but that knowledge is of no consequence other than to cause a soon-resolved argument with Dustin. There’s tension with Lucas and Dustin both liking Max, but that doesn’t really matter until the Snowball Dance in the show’s epilogue. Lucas’s main contribution is warning Steve about the second demo-dog in the junkyard. I guess his contribution is shouting “three o’clock!” rather than giving the line to Dustin and getting “oh shit! oh shit! oh shit!”
Then we have Nancy and Jonathan. They actually do stuff, but how it works structurally is weird. Their main contribution is bringing down Hawkins Lab and letting Barb’s parents put an end to their search (which is really more about Nancy getting closure, at least from the audience perspective). The issue with bringing down the lab is that it doesn’t really matter for Season Two. The lab is brought down only in the epilogue, after the gate has been closed. If the gate really is closed though… who cares? Imagine, by comparison, that the lab came under scrutiny earlier, before Will’s possession. Then perhaps Nancy and Jonathan inadvertently hamstring the lab’s ability to keep the growth of the gate in check, which then makes the mindflayer able to possess Will. Instead though, we get a plotline that’s probably only going to be relevant in Season 3, if it all.
And finally, Eleven. Up until Episode 7, Eleven’s job is to stay in the cabin and argue with Hopper. The two main characters of the show are Eleven and Mike, and you just can’t sideline a lead for that long.
Dividing Main Characters
If there’s any formula to continuing a franchise’s success, it’s taking your main characters and putting them in scenes together. Even among the staunchest critics of The Last Jedi, the scenes with Kylo and Rey interacting standout as great moments; meanwhile, Finn interacts with Rose (who we don’t care about), and Poe interacts with Holdo (who was also don’t care about). At least Empire Strikes Back gave Luke, Han, and Leia the Hoth sequence together before splitting Luke off, and sent R2-D2 along with him — imagine Han and Chewie being hunted by Vader, and then Leia escaping separately on one of the GR-75s and having her own story away from Han, yikes!
Some of the highlights of Stranger Things of course are when characters from one circle interact with another circle. The “Mirkwood” scene with Hopper and the kids is great, Dustin offering Nancy pizza, Steve and Dustin’s excellent adventures, Joyce and Eleven in the sensory deprivation pool, and (when it’s not creating contrived conflicts) Hopper and Eleven living together.
What went wrong with Season 2 was keeping Eleven away from everyone but Hopper (and some very ephemeral interactions with Mike). It’s not just that Eleven had so little to do in Season 2, but also that she had so few people to not do it with. Eleven’s entire interactions with Mike are two walkie talkie transmissions, and then hugging him at the end of Episode 8. After that, she’s off to close the gate. We get the dance at the end, but again, this is in the show’s epilogue, not in the main story.
Of course, I still think Season 2 had enough good going for it that we can forgive the weaknesses, and it certainly succeeded in its main job: keep us hooked for Season 3.