You Heard Me: Stranger Things Season Two Is Better Than Season One

I admit that I came to Stranger Things a little late in the game, binging season one over the summer.  While I thought it was very well done, it didn't wow me to the same extent that it affected so many others.  Still, as a child of the 80s, it was a fun ride and I was looking forward to the second season.  To my surprise, I (and, judging by other early reviews I've seen, only I) found myself enjoying season two more than season one.  Let me explain.  No, there is too much.  Let me sum up.  Spoilers ahead, naturally.

Horror with Rules

You may have heard I like my genre entertainment to play by the rules, whatever those rules are.  Season one bugged me at times because new elements appeared seemingly from nowhere.  The demogorgon traveled to earth through a rift at Hawkins, yet could travel by will between dimensions, despite there needing to be a significant amount of energy used to pierce the veil between worlds.  It was attracted by blood, except when it wanted to kill people who weren't bleeding.  It killed its victims in the physical world except when it decided to bring them back to the Upside Down and leave them alive, only to kill them when they made a sound, except for Will (an exception to an exception).  Its powers were of overwhelming physicality and ferocity, except for the one time it used telekinesis to open a lock for the sake of plot.  Will was able to affect things in the physical world through some random, unexplained plot device.  As the inconsistencies mounted, that part of me that demands orderliness started twitching.

In season two, the show was much kinder to me.  While there were some eccentricities to the odd goings-on (that half-in, half-out state that Will would go into when confronted by the Shadow Monster, where he was still physically in the real world but could still be infected in the Upside Down in a way that crossed over the veil), the show mostly played within an internal consistency.  The demodogs (still unclear if these were baby demogorgons or a different species, even though we all assume they're developmental stages of demogorgons) behaved uniformly except for the one that bonded with a human, with all exhibiting the same capabilities across episodes.  Eleven's power set remained the same, even if she learned how to amp up her power and even though the range of her powers made her easily more powerful than the only other psionic we know to date.  Even the mysterious Shadow Monster acted surprisingly predictably with respect to prior observed behavior.  

Your mileage may vary, but for me, this internal consistency allowed me to enjoy the unfolding plot without constantly wondering why something happened and whether it should have happened.  When you're not questioning the world, it's easier to sit back and enjoy it.  Season two, by operating within its own rules by a much greater degree, allowed me to live in the world of Hawkins undistracted.

Spreading the Wealth Across the Cast

In season one, Dustin and Lucas almost had less to do on the show than Will, who was, you know, missing in another dimension the entire season.  Instead, it was Mike and Eleven, Eleven and Mike, with periodic cutaways to Joyce being crazy, Hopper being befuddled, and the Hawkins High kids being teens.  

Girl power!
This season, almost everyone had a mission.  Joyce, this time knowing she's not crazy, was able to worry over Will without becoming shrill.  Hopper split time between investigating a new mystery, being an incompetent father, and starting the world's next great meme.  Nancy championed for Barb.  Jonathan championed for Nancy.  Dustin found a new interpretation for man's best friend.  Lucas got his schwerve on and helped diversify the cast just a touch more by recruiting Max into the group.  And Eleven took a mission to track down her mother and the only other psionic currently known just when it was convenient to the plot.  

Bet you forgot they were a party of five.
Really, the only major cast members without a significant mission were Steve, who moped about being rejected by a drunken Nancy until discovering a nascent skill as babysitter and pick up artistry guru, and Mike, who still managed to stay too busy being Will's nursemaid/confidante to notice his sister had been Chuck Cunninghamed.

Even if I didn't care for all of the character threads (Eleven's plot line was problematic to far more than just me), it was refreshing seeing all of these characters running around with actual agency.  These characters' decisions mattered, and not just by accident.  Informed by their experiences from season one, they planned instead of just being able to react.  That made the plot more of a chess match between sides (as imperfect as those sides were) rather than a game of blindfolded dodge ball.

Faith in Humanity

Every article I saw prior to season two release knew (or at least speculated) that Paul Reiser's Dr. Owens was going to be a dastardly villain like pretty much everyone associated with Hawkins National Lab was in season one.  Turns out not so much.  He heroically sacrificed himself to stay behind to protect the Hawkins civilians, managed to keep himself (barely) alive by himself, and worked to protect Eleven's identity when all was said and done.  Those expecting his character to be a Burke got a bit of Michael Taylor (though just a bit) instead.

Damn it, Bob, we hardly knew you.
Also, one day I'll share my Sean Astin story, but not today.
Sean Astin's Bob Newby had a similar arc in my mind.  When he was first introduced as a prospective stepfather to the Byers boys, I immediately got an Ed Hermann from Lost Boys vibe.  Fortunately for us (and ultimately unfortunately for Bob), Astin gave us a grown up Mikey Walsh/nerdy Rudy Ruettiger instead.  Astin (who on a personal note is one of my favorite celebrities I've ever met) has this uncanny ability to exude enthusiasm and likability, and it played well in Hawkins.  His short time among the expanding Hawkins Scooby gang produced one of television's better death scenes in recent memory and spawned the #JusticeForBob hashtag, allowing us to finally put Harambe to bed.

When I first saw Kali's crew, I immediately thought Warriors, and I'm sure I wasn't alone.  But they turned out to be a colorful sort of family (though one with questionable hygiene), a group of humans clinging to each other out of desperate need and finding a form of love, or at least a substitute for it (duty?).

Even Billy Hargrove, the only unrepentant asshole in this season's human cast, had his moment of explanation of how he achieved his particular level of douchebaggery, giving us all hope that in season three he, like Steve before him, can graduate from villain to awesome-haired hero.  Hopefully before he becomes Mike and Nancy's stepdad.

You know who you are.
This is, I think, an important point for the show.  In order to illustrate and contrast the evil of the outsiders from the Upside Down, we have to embrace the fact that the people around us (or at least in Hawkins), though heavily flawed and at times severely broken, are still part of the crazy family called humanity. That family is indeed dysfunctional, filled with small people who use too much syrup and are rude on the phone, but as the great Latin philosopher Dominic Toretto said, "You don't turn your back on family, even when they do."  Especially when your dimension is being invaded by demodogs and extradimensional vines straight out of Evil Dead.

Actual Coming of Age

Aside from Steve's change of heart, season one did not showcase a lot of character advancement for the kids of Hawkins.  Mike developed a crush for Eleven, but denied it every chance he could get lest the psionic cooties get him.  Dustin and Lucas seemed largely unaffected by their experiences.  The high school kids left the season with largely the same attitudes (except for the aforementioned Steve), though with perhaps a slightly greater appreciation for each other and the middle schoolers they shared their adventure with.

Dr. Owens was screwed too, but in a different way.
Season two changes that significantly.  The first signs of it come early when the Ghostbusters find they're the only ones coming to school in costume and Nancy finding alcohol can make you morose as well as help get your party on.  Along the way, both Dustin and Lucas discover girls, Mike finally admits he has a thing for Eleven, Nancy and Jonathan learn pull outs aren't just for couches, and Steve, like Joel Goodson, finds there's more to life than ruling his portion of the high school world (and he didn't even have to open a bordello to do it).

The middle school kids, experiencing sudden onset rushes of hormones for the first time, argue and fight in typical teenage fashion.  In many ways it reminded me of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, in which Harry acted just as much like an entitled jerk as every other boy his age throughout time, so vividly recollecting my own experiences at that age that it vaulted into the top two of those books for me.  The bickering and intrigue in Stranger Things felt similarly real.  It all culminates in a dance that features first kisses for several of the characters and, reportedly, several of the actors as well.

Becoming Family

There she is, scary as all heck and I still want to
make her a waffle and read her a story.
The result is that I feel closer to most of the main cast than I'd ever expected to.  I'd already been pulled in by Eleven in season one: it is a supreme credit to the acting talent of Millie Bobby Brown that at first sight of her character in season two, my first instinct was to reach through the television and hug her, so happy I was to see her safe.  It's incredibly difficult to pull off making a character who has the power to kill you with a wave of her hand seem so preternaturally vulnerable and in need of protection, yet Ms. Brown does so with amazing ease.  After season two, I'm equally invested in many of her co-stars as well.

Seriously, no more scenes like this.
I'm now shipping Hopper and Joyce as much as anyone.  I fear what faces Lucas and Max as they undertake an interracial relationship in the 1980s in Indiana of all places.  I'm rooting for Dustin to find a match of his own.  I'm hoping Nancy and Jonathan make it and that Steve figures out a way to be their friend.  And I'm hoping Will can make it a season where he's not an interdimensional victim.  And I want Bob back, dammit.

To Sum Up the Summing Up

While many have expressed a preference for the trail blazing and more streamlined, central focus of season one, I appreciate the expansions (and constraints) of season two.  The characters, as well as the series as a whole, has taken a considered step forward in its narrative.  The characters feel more real to me, and the world they populate makes more sense.  To me, that's a natural and necessary evolution for a show like Stranger Things.

The Duffer Brothers have invented a show that shows imagination and heart, as well as an inventive way to use nostalgia as a shorthand for getting ideas across.  They sucked me into their story with season one, and integrated me into their world in season two.  Now all they have to do is top that for season three.  Easy peasy.

JL Franke is a fan of both hard science fiction and hard fantasy.  He has been collecting comics for over 40 years and has been an on-and-off active member of online fandom for 25.  Those interested can find other writings at his personal blog,  When not geeking out, you may find him at a baseball park or cheering on his favorite college and pro football teams.  In his spare time, he is chief scientist for a research and development laboratory somewhere in the Washington, DC greater metropolitan area.
You Heard Me: Stranger Things Season Two Is Better Than Season One You Heard Me: Stranger Things Season Two Is Better Than Season One Reviewed by JL Franke on Wednesday, November 01, 2017 Rating: 5
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