In retrospect, I was not as critical as I should have been of season 2. While it was enjoyable, I didn’t like it much as season 1. For one, it suffered from underdeveloped characters. With a cast this big (and expanding every season), that’s hard to avoid. They certainly didn’t this season.
[There will be mild spoilers.]
This time around, for example, the show adds Cary Elwes as the hapless Mayor Larry Kline, who mostly exists to be beaten up by Hopper and a Russian super-soldier (Andrey Ivchenko). That’s right–the Russians are here.
As it turns out, they apparently never got the memo about how dangerous it is to mess around with the Upside Down, because they’ve been diligently experimenting with it for God knows how long. To that end, they’ve installed a research facility underneath the new mall in Hawkins. Sure, that checks out.
Meanwhile, our kids in Hawkins just want to grow up and have fun. Well, mostly. There’s a minor plotline running through the season about how frustrated Will is that his friends just want to hang out with their girlfriends, instead of playing Dungeons & Dragons. This is understandable, to an extent–Will’s had his growth stunted, in a way. Unfortunately, the show never spends enough time with Will to make his feelings clearer.
This is one of the major failings of the season. For all the time and talk about how everything’s changing, nobody really seems to. Or if they do, they change in ways that don’t feel true to their characters. Hopper is a prime example. While I didn’t find him as boorish as some critics, he is A Lot this season. And the weaknesses with his storyline are similar to Will’s. We can infer, for example, that Hopper is so gung-ho because he doesn’t want to lose a daughter again, but that’s just it–we have to infer it. The groundwork for that motivation is never set. It’s unclear what’s driving him exactly, but it ain’t police work.
So while Hopper is drunkenly storming out of restaurants, Nancy (and to a lesser extent, Jonathan) do the bulk of the investigative work this season. They get to the bottom of this season’s Upside Down threat, because sometimes they come back…again. If there is a major failing this season apart from weak characterization, it is the sameness of the Upside Down plot. It’s grosser this time, so we can give them that.
But it still feels like the same ol’, same ol’. On the other hand, the season crackles with energy whenever we spend time with the “Scoops Troop,” the rag-tag group comprising Steve, his new Scoops Ahoy coworker Robin (Maya Hawke), Dustin, and Lucas’s little sister Erica. The latter is a particular delight. Seen only in brief glimpses last season, she really gets a chance to become part of the group this season and we’re all better for it. She’s smart and hilarious–her line to Murray is one of the best of the season.
And this is a good season. I know it sounds as if I didn’t like it, but I found it much more bingeable than the last season. I just feel as if there were an even better season buried underneath this one. The early allusions to George Romero–the kids sneak in to see Day of the Dead–and some zombie-esque behavior hinted as a cool direction the show could have gone. That storyline, again, ended up turning into the much grosser one.
In addition, Billy’s storyline might have been more interesting if it had been someone else, someone we trust. Or if we’d gotten to know Billy a little better before everything happens to him. As it is, it’s hard to feel sympathy for him, even when we’re shown his backstory.
That’s not a problem when it comes to characters like Robin or Russian scientist Alexei (Alex Utgoff). We’re able to spend more time with them and their respective storylines end up being more moving as a consequence. The scenes with Robin and Steve are particularly well-done, especially the scene where Robin confesses her secret. Joe Keery and Maya Hawke apparently spent time workshopping that scene and it shows, specifically in its realness.
That’s where the show is best. In its first season, they hit enough vintage beats that it really felt like a product of the 80s. But in this season, that old-school finish is starting to show signs of wear. It feels more like 80s dress-up than the real thing. It’s supposed to be a show that makes us nostalgic for the decade. But by the end of this season, it’s only nostalgic for itself.
8/10 – Overall, this was a pretty good, bordering on great, season. But the repetitiveness of the Upside Down plotline is starting to drag the show down. I understand that’s the hook of the show, but it needs a bigger twist at this point. Unfortunately, the post-credits scene in the last episode hints toward more of the same in the next season (if the show is renewed for season 4). But the kids are changing. It would be cool if the show would, too.