Review: Stranger Things Season 2 Is Actually About the Characters, Not the Monsters (so Far)
NOTE: This is a review of episodes 1-4 of Stranger Things 2 and may contain mild spoilers. Reviews of the rest will follow at another time.
Episode three of Stranger Things: Season 2 concludes on a disturbing image, both in the context of the show itself and the sense of the subtext it may represent: a child is penetrated through every orifice in the head by a shadow figure, a violation that has consequences for the child's personality and behavior from then on. It's an image so directly from subconscious trauma 101 that it may make you wonder if you've been reading Stranger Things wrongly the whole time. These are the signifiers of abuse, and this has been, after all, the story of a conspiracy to paint one particular child who was horribly violated as a dangerous lunatic, believed only by a small group of peers who feel powerless against institutionalized stranger-danger. The '80s setting gets some cheap reference points, but is it also a coincidence that the '80s were when child stars Corey Feldman and Corey Haim were abused by a business that made sure nobody listened or believed them?
It's heady stuff, but not an unreasonable read given that Stephen King's It is one of key inspirations for Stranger Things, and even the movie version intended for mass consumption left in some explicitly icky references. And if all hell breaking loose at the end of season 1 to the point where everyone finally believed was Hawkins, Indiana's fantasy version of the Weinstein scandal, season 2 paints a palpably uncomfortable follow-up scenario: people move on after only the most obvious threat has been engaged, even if the roots of the darkness are still penetrating every part of the world you know.
You don't have to think that's the underlying theme to appreciate the new episodes; just understand that they may be a trigger if such things are especially uncomfortable to talk about. Meanwhile, there's also Dustin discovering the alien tadpole Will barfed up last season and making it into his pet, and Hopper and Eleven finding weird, brief domestic happiness as they fill one another's emotional gaps in the parent-child dynamic.
It's quite common for nerd-beloved shows like Twin Peaks, or Jericho, or Lost, to hook the audience in with a central mystery, only to promptly drag its feet about pursuing it further and arguing that the show was never about the plot, but the characters. Newsflash: I don't need the backstory of the guy who took a dump in the hatch while James Hurley was having an affair with his wife; I want to know if the radioactive polar bear killed Laura Palmer NOW, damn it! But Stranger Things actually pulls this off: it puts more stake in whether or not Dustin will ever ask new gamer girl Max out on a date then what exactly the tentacle monsters will do and if they'll be stopped. When it's revealed in the first episode that Hopper is taking care of Eleven, that's all we really need to know, but we subsequently get the whole backstory in flashbacks anyway, and it never feels like it's taking valuable time away from whatever Paul Reiser is doing back at the secret lab.
On the other hand, the woman in the teaser with Eleven's power and a number eight tattoo had better re-occur at some point. But in the meantime, I'm much more anxious for someone to confront Mike about his terrible sexism towards Max. Our hero isn't going to grow up to be a girl gamer hater, is he?
For those of us who remember Winona Ryder as the plain-looking girl mostly ignored by Corey Haim in the movie Lucas (almost certainly not-coincidentally the name of one of our main characters now) there's no small amount of ironic reversal in having her be the out-of-his-league object of a dorky Sean Astin's desire. There are hints that Hopper might turn this into a triangle, or that Astin might make like his former ring-buddy Smeagol and turn darker...again, this sort of drama is actually more exciting than what monster will pop-up next.
Or maybe we're just getting old. But we're still having a blast.