'Stranger Things 2' Spoiler Review: The Problem With Sequels...

(In our Spoiler Reviews, we take a deep dive into a new release and get to the heart of what makes it tick...and every story point is up for discussion. In this entry: the second season Netflix's highly anticipated Stranger Things.)

What was it that made Stranger Things season 1 such a hit? Was it the nostalgia factor, with the abundance of 1980s charm drawing viewers in? Was it the rather ingenious combination of Stephen King and Steven Spielberg-like material that tapped into an overall vibe that audiences were inherently familiar with? Both of those things likely played a part, but what truly worked best about the first season of Stranger Things was how it handled its characters. Specifically, how it created a cast of highly likable, relatable characters, cast them perfectly, and then had them work together. The chemistry was unbeatable.

Which is why Stranger Things season 2, or Stranger Things 2, as it's officially called, seems like just an anomaly. When it came time to plan the second season for their wildly popular show, the Duffer Brothers seemingly decided to take everything that made the first season so memorable and do the complete opposite. There's a certain amount of appreciation here: it's gutsy to go so against the grain; to reject fan service in lieu of something different. It would've been very easy for Stranger Things 2 to simply remake the first season, and the fact that the Duffers avoided that is commendable. But there's a difference between trying something different and completely jettisoning things that were working so well. You don't throw the Demogorgon out with the bathwater.

This isn't to say Stranger Things 2 is a complete misfire. When it's working, it's working considerably well. When the show stops bulls***ting and lets its characters come together again, the magic is rekindled. Yet the further removed I get from Stranger Things 2, the more its flaws glare out at me. This is a sharp contrast to season 1, which lingered for weeks after the first viewing, and where the moments that worked worked so well that they trumped most, if not all, of the flaws.

Was Stranger Things 2 worth the wait and the hype? Mostly, yes. The cast of this show continues to be charming, and the characters they portray work together incredibly well, whenever the Duffers let them. The biggest problem Stranger Things 2 makes, however, is it cares more about expanding the mythology rather than characters. Let's take a deep-dive into the Upside Down with a Stranger Things 2 spoiler review. Spoilers follow, obviously.

Eleven stranger things

Back to Hawkins: The Set-Up

Stranger Things 2 picks up about a year following the events of season 1. Things seem perfectly normal in the small town of Hawkins, Indiana. There's almost no sign of all the supernatural phenomenon that plagued the town, and with good reason: everyone is keeping their mouths shut, for fear that the secret government agency running the Hawkins Lab will come and kill them if they reveal what really happened.

Friends Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) are trying to get on with their lives now that they've been reunited with Will (Noah Schnapp), who was sucked into the mysterious alternate dimension known as the Upside Down. But getting back to normal won't be easy. Will is suffering from some sort of PTSD from his time spent in the Upside Down. He also keeps having dreams (or are they visions?), of a tall, looming, tentacled creature  – nicknamed The Shadow Monster – threatening Hawkins. Mike is having problems too, as he attempts to deal with the disappearance of Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), the girl with telekinetic powers who helped Mike and his friends rescue Will.

The end of season 1 saw Eleven vanquish a monster known as the Demogorgon, and for all anyone knows, she died saving the day. Mike, however, refuses to give up hope of ever seeing Eleven again. He continues to try to reach out to her through static-filled channels on his walkie talkie.

The group of friends find their close-knit group tested when new girl Max (Sadie Sink) comes to town. Both Dustin and Lucas are smitten with Max, but Mike, his mind preoccupied with Eleven, is hesitant to let a new girl into the group. Max has her own problems in the form of her downright crazy older step-brother, the cartoonishly evil Billy (Dacre Montgomery).

Elsewhere in Hawkins, Will's occasionally frantic mother Joyce (Winona Ryder) is understandably feeling very overprotective of her youngest son after getting him back from the Upside Down. But she, too, is also trying to find some semblance of normalcy in her life, with the help of a new romantic relationship with the charmingly dorky Bob (Sean Astin).

Meanwhile, Joyce's other son Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) is attempting to deal with his romantic feelings for Mike's older sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer), who is currently in a not-so-happy relationship with sometimes-jerk Steve (Joe Keery). Nancy is struggling too – struggling with keeping secrets. She's haunted by the death of her best friend Barb, and racked with guilt over the fact that she can't tell Barb's parents what happened to their daughter, whom they still think of as missing and not dead.

Then there's Jim Hopper (David Harbour), the Hawkins Chief of Police. Hopper has been keeping order, and making sure the supernatural events from last season are hushed-up. He's in frequent contact Dr. Sam Owens (Paul Reiser), who is both Will's doctor and the guy tasked with cleaning up the mess left over by his dastardly predecessors at Hawkins Lab. There's still a portal to the Upside Down beneath the building, and Owens and his associates work daily to maintain that portal and keep it from spreading, all while Hopper keeps things secret.

Hopper has a secret of his own, though. And it's a big one: Eleven is alive and well, and living with him in a secluded cabin. They have a mostly harmonious relationship, but Hopper forbids Eleven from leaving the cabin. He worries that the minute someone sees her, her life will be in danger. This, of course, is distressing for Eleven, who only wants to see her friends again, especially Mike.

Season 1 had three main story conflicts: the arrival of the monster known as the Demogorgon, a split-faced humanoid ghoul that could jump in and out of dimensions; the arrival of Eleven, a young girl essentially raised in a lab to be a psychic weapon; and the disappearance of Will, sucked into the other dimension called the Upside Down. There were other issues too, of course, but those were the primary ones. Season 2 has a lot more balls in the air; too many, in fact, but we'll get to that later.

First and foremost is the Shadow Monster that haunts Will. The creature is visually impressive, looking like something H.P. Lovecraft dreamed up while he was running a fever. The creature is also more sentient and cunning than the Demogorgon. While the Demogorgon was a blunt force instrument, the Shadow Monster uses deception and manipulation to destroy lives. But just what this creature wants, really, is rather vague.

Then there's the issue of the Upside Down, which, despite the efforts of Dr. Owens, is continuing to spread underneath the town, rotting crops in the process. The show keeps this element a secret, teasing it with a subplot about Hopper investigating several farms that report rotting pumpkins. But it's a rather easy secret to deduce, and when the big reveal comes, don't be surprised if you find yourself saying, "Well, duh," to your TV.

On top of this, we have Eleven trying to find out where she came from, and who her mother was. We also have new character Max dealing with her crazy brother. And then we have a brand new creature – an initially cute pollywog that looks sort of like a cross between a baby chicken and a lizard. This is D'Artagnan, nicknamed Dart. Dustin discovers the creature rooting around his his backyard trash, sort of like E.T., and the two develop a very E.T.-like bond that shatters pretty quickly once Dustin and his friends discover Dart is actually a Demogorgon-like creature that keeps growing and develops a taste for human flesh (and also cats).

Oh, we also have a team of X-Men rejects who seem as if they've accidentally stumbled in from a different show. They're terrible. We'll get to them later. But first, let's talk about the Stranger Things 2 elements that work best.

Stranger Things Dustin and Lucas

Friends Don’t Lie: The Good Stuff

The best moments of Stranger Things 2 are the moments that allow the characters to work together. Unfortunately, this doesn't really happen until the final few episodes, where everyone gathers to fight the forces of darkness. In the meantime, though, we have most of the characters split up into groups. Some of this ends up working really well!

Case in point: who knew Dustin and Steve would make such a great team? Probably nobody, but some of the finest moments of Stranger Things 2 involve Dustin and Steve working together, searching for Dart. In the process, Steve even opens up to Dustin and reveals the secret to his amazing mountain of hair, part of which involves Farrah Fawcett hairspray. This gets a great callback in the final episode where Dustin styles his hair similar to Steve's for a school dance.

The Steve moments get even better when the character becomes something of a default babysitter for the kids, and ends up being wildly out of his element. The character of Steve earns the Most Improved Award, and much of that has to do with Joe Keery's performance, which strikes just the right balance between smug and sort-of charming. The first season introduced Steve as sort of a jerk – the prototypical bad boyfriend. But he's grown. He still not may be the best boyfriend, and by the end of the season, his relationship with Nancy seems completely over. But there's a growth in character to Steve here; he becomes more noble, albeit still out of his depth.

Joining Steve in the Most Improved department is Lucas. To be clear, Lucas wasn't a bad character in season 1. But he was sorely underwritten. We knew almost nothing about him; we didn't even get to see his parents. Here, the Duffers rectify that by giving Lucas a lot more to do, and introducing us to his incredibly charming family, particularly his scene-stealing sister Erica (played to perfection by Priah Ferguson; make this kid a star, ASAP). Lucas feels like a well-rounded character here instead of just a background player, and the budding relationship he has with new kid Max is genuinely endearing.

All the core cast in general continues to do good work, particularly the kids. Although it is slightly jarring at first to see how older everyone seems here, with voices frequently cracking as they grow deeper. The standout of the bunch, of course, continues to be Millie Bobby Brown, as Eleven. This is bordering on the "not so good", but as written here, Eleven hasn't really grown much, and that's a bit of a problem. However, Brown is so extraordinary in the part that you almost don't notice. She has big emotional moments in almost every scene, and she knocks every single one out of the park. We genuinely care about Eleven based on how real Brown makes her.

Going back to the aforementioned pair-ups of characters: this season pairs Eleven mostly with Hopper, and this is a masterstroke. Brown and Harbor play off each other exceptionally well, and the father-daughter relationship that develops is one of the most emotional arcs of season 2. As Hopper, Harbor is gruff and prone to fly off the handle, but he's also an inherently good guy, and while he grows frustrated with Eleven he also clearly cares about her. One of the most powerful moments of the season comes in the last episode, where Eleven uses her powers to close the gate to the upside down, using tremendous strength to pull off the feat. "You did so good, kid," Hopper tells her, and the way Harbor delivers this line is probably going to wring a tear or two from your eye; it's so earnest, so genuine.

Speaking of emotion, another emotional moment comes when Mike and Eleven are finally reunited after being kept apart the entire season. This, too, is another topic for the '"not so good" section below, but it does result in this powerful moment where Mike tells Eleven he never gave up on her, and she tells him she knows. Woflhard and Brown are excellent together, and it's almost a crime the season keeps them apart so long.

Winona Ryder is a national treasure, and I feel terrible speaking bad of her in anyway, but her performance in season 1 was a bit too manic. Of course, the mania made sense: she had lost her son to a dark alternate dimension. But there always seemed like there was something off about Ryder's performance in the first season. Thankfully, that's not the case here. Perhaps Ryder is more used to the character now, or perhaps I'm more used to her portrayal, but Ryder's Joyce works much better in season 2 than she does in 1, even if the show again resorts to a scene where she hangs a bunch of crap all over her house to help solve a mystery.

But enough about the characters we already know and love  – what about the new people? First and foremost is Bob (Sean Astin), Joyce's new main squeeze. Perhaps because I'm so cynical, I assumed that at some point, Astin's character would be revealed to be secretly evil; that there would be some twist that connected him to Hawkins Lab, or the Upside Down, or something worse. As the early episodes of Stranger Things 2 unfolded, I continued to believe this, because Astin's Bob was just so darn nice. But it turned out there was no twist. Bob really was just a nice guy. Astin is superb in the role, playing Bob as a dork that you can't help but love. It would've been very easy for the show to make fun of Bob for being so square, but you get the sense that even though Bob's squareness is highlighted, the show loves him for it. Which means we as an audience can't help but love Bob too.

Which, of course, means he's doomed.

While Stranger Things remains hesitant to kill off any of its core cast, it has no trouble murdering memorable supporting characters. The first season did this famously with Barb, who was actually a very minor character who none the less inspired a wealth of memes with her demise, along with the #JusticeForBarb hashtag. Bob, in turn, has a much bigger role than Barb did, and he makes it through most of the season before meeting a rather gruesome end. This packs a punch, because gosh darn it, we've grown to love Bob. The show even gives him a big heroic sequence to go out on, paying homage to Jurassic Park in the process, where Bob has go on a dangerous mission to restore power to a building. Of all the new cast members, Astin was the best fit, so it's a bit sad that he had to kick the bucket. #JusticeForBob, anyone?

Bob turning out to be a really nice isn't the only refreshingly subverted twist in Stranger Things 2. While Bob's true nature could've gone either way, it seemed almost a given that Paul Reiser's Dr. Owens would turn out to be bad. After all, he works for the same mysterious lab that experimented on Eleven and helped open the gate to the Upside Down in season 1. On top of that, Reiser's casting is a direct call-back to his role in Aliens, where he played the weasley company man who put innocent lives in danger because he wanted to trap the alien for nefarious purposes. Stranger Things 2 even gives Reiser an Aliens homage moment where he watches people be picked off one by one on a monitor

But Dr. Owens isn't evil. In fact, he might be the one good person who works for the morally compromised Hawkins Lab. Late in the season, Will becomes possessed by the Shadow Monster. As a result, burning the roots that are sprouting from the Upside Down burn and injure Will. Dr. Owens' colleagues have no qualms about this – they're willing to sacrifice Will's life. Dr. Owens is not. Reiser is quite funny in the part, and brings a very natural air to the character that almost seems out of place in such a stylized show, yet works nonetheless.

As for Max, the new kid in school: she's a bit of a blank slate. She's not a bad character, and Sadie Sink's performance is pretty good. But there's just not a whole lot to Max, sadly. There are moments where you assume she's about to break out and have a big scene that will endear her to the audience, but they never come. Perhaps season 3 will rectify this. Max's characterization isn't ideal, but it's not bad enough to land her in the "not so good" category. Her step-brother Billy? Well, that's a different story.

Stranger Things Max

All Demodogs Go To Heaven: The Not So Good Stuff

Alright, let's start with Billy, shall we? What the f*** is with this character? Dacre Montgomery goes all-in on this part, and while there's nothing wrong with his performance, Billy is just way too much to take. The character borders on psychotic, which just simply isn't needed. One gets the sense that the original plan was to make Billy much more of a threat, but this idea eventually got scrapped due to rewrites, yet they kept Billy as a character anyway. If Billy were removed entirely from this season, absolutely nothing would change. That's bad writing, folks.

Speaking of bad writing, the season keeps teasing that there's more to Billy and Max's relationship than meets the eye, but there really isn't. Max eventually reveals that her homelife isn't ideal, but we could've guessed that. We don't even see her parents until near the end of the season, and this too feels like some sort of mistake, as if they were being withheld due to some big twist that never comes. Overall, the Max and Billy stuff seems needlessly tacked onto an already crowded season.

The crowded element of the season is another issue. There is a whole lot going on here, yet there's also a strange disconnect. While everything can be tied back to the Upside Down in some manner, none of the threads come together as well as they should. An entire subplot about Dustin growing close with Dart the Pollywog goes absolutely nowhere – it's all set-up, yet Dart turns out to be sort-of evil in the end. Imagine if Steven Spielberg had spent 90% of E.T. setting up the alien as a cute, benevolent creature only to have it suddenly turn evil in the end. Think of how cheated you'd feel. That's what happens here with Dustin and Dart. A poor side-effect of this subplot is that it turns Dustin into kind of a jerk; he continuously lies to his friends and puts them in danger just to protect a monster. This seems completely out of character.

The Demogorgon may not have been a very nuanced monster, but it was effective. Here, we get the rather vague Shadow Monster, who is barely a presence, and then there are creatures dubbed Demodogs. The Shadow Monster looks really cool, and having it be more calculated than the Demogorgon is a good movie. But we never really get any sense of just what this thing is, and that makes it less threatening. The Demodogs are just cheap rehashes of the Demogorgon. It's clear that the Duffers are going for an Aliens homage here – if you thought one Demogorgon was scary, how about a whole bunch of them? But it never quite clicks, and having our first introduction to these creatures be through the semi-cute Dart robs them of most of their power.

One of the biggest issues Stranger Things 2 has is that it keeps Eleven isolated from the main cast for almost the entire season. This is a completely boneheaded move that massively backfires. It calls back the piss-poor Netflix Arrested Development revival, where all the actors were too busy to appear together so they were all split apart. No one wanted that with Arrested Development, and there's no way they wanted that with Stranger Things. Yes, developing more of Eleven's backstory is a good idea, but to keep her removed from 90% of this season's action is a mistake.

While we're on the subject of mistakes, let's get to the biggest one this season makes. It's a doozy. In fact, it's such a massive miscalculation that you might find yourself wondering if the Duffers are pulling some sort of strange prank on you. Before we get to it, let's talk about the concept of backdoor pilots. A backdoor pilot is basically a pilot episode for a new show that airs as part of a currently running series. It's a trick, in other words. More often than not, the idea fails. The Office is a prime example of this: they aired an episode during a late season titled "The Farm" that was meant to serve as the pilot to a spin-off. The spin-off never happened.

Stranger Things 2 opens with a set of characters we're not familiar with. They pull of what appears to be a heist, which leads to a police chase, and then something surprising happens: one of the members of the gang, Kali (Linnea Berthelsen), is able to use psychic powers to stop the cops pursuing them. A close-up on Kali's wrist reveals a tattoo that reads 008, similar to Eleven's 011 tattoo. Kali, like Eleven, was another girl who was experimented on.

On its own, this idea is fine. It only makes sense that the Hawkins Lab would have other test subjects beyond Eleven. But the way Stranger Things 2 approaches it leaves much to be desired. By the time episode 7 rolls around, tensions are high in Hawkins and the main storyline is really picking up steam. So what does Stranger Things do? It airs a backdoor pilot episode where Eleven teams up with the rag-tag gang of punk rock misfits we saw in the opening of the series. Having a plotline where Eleven meets Kali and learns more about her past would've been fine, but to have an entire episode devoted to this, so late in the season, doesn't work at all. It reminds one of those frustrating episodes of Lost that would suddenly focus on members of the tail section when all we wanted to do was get back to the main cast. It doesn't help that the punks Eleven hooks up with are all generic as hell and unmemorable. This entire episode seems to exist simply to give Eleven a moment where she announces, "I'm going back to help my friends!"

But we already knew she wanted to do that! She spent the entire season thinking about Mike and wishing she could see him again. Adding a subplot where she leaves town and hangs out with some X-Men rejects brings absolutely nothing to the narrative. The only info gleaned from this is that Matthew Modine's villainous character from season 1 might still be alive. Maybe.

This probably borders on nitpicking, but I want to talk quickly about the ending of the season. Stranger Things 2 ends with a rather sweet sequence where all the kids gather at a holiday-themed school dance. This entire scene is handled really well, for the most part. Lucas and Max dance; Will and some girl we don't even know dance; Mike and Eleven dance. No one wants to dance with Dustin, so Nancy, who is chaperoning, steps him. It's a touching moment, and the actors handle it deftly. Yet something about it rings false. Perhaps it's the fact that Dustin and Nancy have shared almost no time together at all during this season. "Of all my brother's friends, you're my favorite," she tells him, but there's been literally no indication of anything like this at all. It almost feels forced – in their effort to give everyone a happy ending, the Duffers manufactured this moment out of thin air. The scene remains emotional, but it would've been even more emotional had it been earned.

Stranger Things Hopper

Future Things

The first season of Stranger Things remains one of the best original programs Netflix has made yet. It was exciting and entertaining, and even though it was touching on well-worn tropes something about it felt new and fresh. It helped that its young cast was so engaged and worked so well together. But as much as Stranger Things season 1 worked then, and still works now, there was a sense that the center could not hold. That perhaps the show couldn't continue to sustain these characters much longer, and that an anthology format, with new people and a new story, would've been the best route to go.

But that's now how the Duffers chose to proceed. Instead they stayed in Hawkins. For the most part, it worked. Yet there's a wobbliness to Stranger Things 2 that was not present in the first season. A real sense that too much of this narrative has run its course. So how should the show proceed?

First and foremost it's time to stop tormenting poor Will. To have both season 1 and 2 revolve so wholly around traumatic events happening to Will is a bit much, and if they keep that going into season 3, it's going to be utterly ridiculous. Let Will be normal for a little while, he's earned it. Otherwise, the best way to approach future seasons of Stranger Things is to remain focused on that main cast, and not worry so much about adding new characters to the mix. One or two is fine, but Stranger Things 2 adds almost ten new characters, only two of which really make much of an impact. If the Duffers wanted to pretend that Eleven's excursion to hang out with the punks never happened, I doubt anyone would complain.

There's a fine line here. It makes sense to want to take the show into new directions and not rehash the first season over and over again. But you can only stray so far before you dilute everything that made the first season so memorable. The powers that be behind Stranger Things seemed to have mistakenly thought what audiences wanted more of was mythology. But what fans are craving is more time with the characters they grew to love. When Stranger Things 2 finally brings everyone together in the final few episodes, there's a distinct shift in tone and energy. The show feels alive again, and gives us hilarious moments like Steve as the world's worst babysitter and Hopper struggling not keep a straight face as Dustin lays out Dungeons and Dragons mythology to him. These are the type of moments we want; not scenes where Eleven robs a convenience store with a bunch of characters who look like rejected Robo-Cop extras.

The two biggest influences on Stranger Things are Steven Spielberg and Stephen King. These creative forces have much in common, from the way they present suburbia, to the way they portray children in their narratives. They also have another thing in common: they don't do sequels very often. And when they do, it doesn't turn out that well. Think of Spielberg's lackluster Jurassic Park sequel The Lost World, or King's The Shining follow-up Doctor Sleep. These are inferior works that can't hold a candle to the original. Perhaps that's the lesson the Duffers should've paid the most attention to: sequels rarely work out.

There's still hope for Stranger Things. The cast is to likable, the premise is too malleable, to abandon ship at this point. But future Stranger seasons would be wise to remember what made the show so special to begin with, and work on expanding and exploring that rather than introducing us to entirely new people and situations. The paranormal mythology to Stranger Things is secondary. The friendships are the show's real magic.