Growing Up, Branching Out, Staying Awesome: Stranger Things 2
In which I spend Halloween gushing about the show the entire Internet is gushing about.
CN: politics, Tr*mp
**SPOILERS FOR STRANGER THINGS 2, ALL EPISODES, FROM THIS POINT ON**
I finished Stranger Things 2 on Saturday, after two concentrated binge sessions, and my heart and brain are spinning in perfect harmony. The key point is that I really enjoyed it, and if all you wanted to know was if I liked it, well, now you know. But I have some deeper things to say here, because the other thing that struck me is how beautifully this season A. built on the characters and mythology they developed in Season 1, and B. grew up with those characters, making itself into something a bit more complex than the first season.
On a shallower level (...relatively speaking...), I adore how, structurally, this season is Aliens to the first season's Alien -- right down to having Paul Reiser show up as an employee of the evil bureaucracy. But in addition to Reiser being a nice creative choice, his character is emblematic of a larger decision this season made with its arcs: nobody is purely good or purely evil, including Hawkins Labs and whatever government agency they operate under, and often the evil dormant in the otherwise good characters is of a pernicious kind we are still fighting against today.
Sure, there's the literal, supernatural evil dwelling in Will Byers; but there's also Dustin's desire to be cool and special, leading to him hiding Dart from the rest of the party; Mike's and Steve's ingrained racism (Mike implies Lucas has to dress up as Winston because he's black; Steve conflates Germans and Nazis); Max and Billy's abusive home life and their difficulties coping with same; Nancy's grief-fueled substance abuse; Hopper's grief-fueled lash-outs; Eleven's destructive tendencies; the list goes on. Nobody here is portrayed as a saint, and none of their problems are dismissed as not problems, but nor are they just simply solved. And that's another way in which this season is delightfully deep: Mike doesn't suddenly stop thinking racially insensitive thoughts after Lucas calls him out; Billy is not a better person after one righteous ass-kicking by Steve; choosing to be with Jonathan does not erase the feelings Nancy has for Steve and vice-versa. Even the battle with the Mind Flayer, while a victory, costs the party the life of Bob; on top of that, the Flayer is still explicitly around at the end of the season, and it seems to know where the kids are. Life in Stranger Things 2 is not resolved by the credits, and while the characters are empowered to forgive and educate and try to move past their issues, we end with a lot of things hanging without it feeling like nothing was resolved.
(Note: None of this is to say the show is not problematic; it definitely is. This Facebook post by Son of Baldwin says it better than I could. I highly recommend you read it.)
Which brings me to the other thing this season that I adored: you can tell, in the best way, this was created post-election. They don't go parading by yelling "we hate Donald Trump" (that was left to David Harbour), but they make it clear that, problematic as they are, the cast and crew of Stranger Things 2 stand against hate and bigotry and stand with equality and progressivism. The two explicitly conservative characters (the Wheeler parents, with their Reagan/Bush lawn sign) are also the two most useless parents in the entire show, not getting involved even when their kids appear to be missing, nor requiring any lies or distractions to prevent them from interfering (which is at least true for Mrs. Henderson). The only character to drop a hard F-bomb in the show is Billy's father, who is also an abusive, paramilitary jerkass in an authority mustache. While I am not going to call the tokenism-riddled main cast "diverse" in a real sense, the party's diversity of skills and experiences is required to defeat evil in the end -- one of them being literally magical is a major factor, but even Eleven needs fire support, and without the rest of the group distracting the Demodogs they wouldn't have succeeded in the first place. It's not proper representation, but it's an acknowledgment that differences make us stronger, which while white-washed is a step in the right direction. And let's not forget the conversation where Dustin explains how mind flayers work and explicitly links the Mind Flayer to Nazis.
There are random other notes I could obsess over all day -- Billy's possible closeted LGBT+ status, my desire to see his father get his comeuppance, how well-executed the character of Max was, the use of "Every Breath You Take" in a context that makes sense both diegetically and exegetically -- but the biggest thing for me was seeing how well they built upon what they already had without losing sight of what made it so great. Stranger Things continues to be one of the best things on television in an era when there is a surplus of best things on television, and I am so glad I get to share it with the Internet.