Stranger Things - Season 2
"The women are complex and well-rounded but they remain, unfortunately, in service to the men and boys of the show."
Title: Stranger Things
Episodes Reviewed: Season 2
Creators: Matt Duffer 👨🏼🇺🇸 and Ross Duffer 👨🏼🇺🇸
Writers of Season 2: Matt Duffer 👨🏼🇺🇸 (4 eps), Ross Duffer 👨🏼🇺🇸 (4 eps), Justin Doble 👨🏼🇺🇸 (2 eps), Paul Dichter 👨🏼🇺🇸 (1 ep), Jessie Nickson-Lopez 👩🏽🇻🇪🇺🇸 (1 ep), and Kate Trefry 👩🏼🇺🇸 (1 ep)
Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸
Read Season 1 review here.
Stranger Things is an example of nostalgic TV done right. While desperate remakes like Will & Grace or Girl Meets World pander without bringing anything new to the table, Stranger Things crafts a whole new universe and instills it with tried and true devices that still resonate with today’s audiences.
I stormed through this second season as easily as I did the first, enthralled by its atmospheric maturation. While Season 1 was gritty and grotesque (think Alien or Gremlins), Season 2 moves towards current visual trends typified by neo-noir lighting and ethereal, neon beacons that emanate through fog, evoking shows like CW’s Riverdale or films Atomic Blonde and Blade Runner 2049.
I gave Stranger Things full marks in this category last year but Season 2 feels less focused. The ill-fitting episode ‘Chapter Seven: The Lost Sister’ comes to mind, arresting the show’s momentum in place with its starkly different tone and aesthetic. While Matt Duffer defends it, saying “It’s important for Ross and I to try stuff and not feel like we’re doing the same thing over and over again,” what he seems to forget is that Stranger Things is powerful because of its linearity. Experimentation should be left for shows that champion it, as in Master of None or Atlanta which deconstruct television into disparate parts that click together into a beautiful, futuristic machine. On the flipside, Stranger Things is a living, breathing, 9-hour organism and the Duffer brothers should focus on feeding the beast rather than quenching their own thirst for artistic evolution in the wrong venues.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES
Women are strong as hell in Stranger Things. Better yet, they’re complex as hell. A look at the main female characters (WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD):
- Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) is a canary in the mine who everyone thinks is crazy until she is proven right. I love her character development in Season 2 which builds on her traits of resilience and strength of conviction. Joyce is arguably the strongest character in the entire series, a fact made all the more interesting as she is hidden beneath the veneer of a meek, hand-wringing mother.
- Eleven/Jane (Millie Bobby Brown) remains iconic, but her arc in Season 1 was much stronger. Last year, Elle was characterized by her raw vulnerability and terrifying power. But in Season 2 we find her trapped inside a cabin for the majority of the season, crying, wailing, or looking otherwise tortured for 7 of the 9 episodes. While ‘The Lost Sister’ episode attempts to move Elle from childhood into adolescence, its jarring execution feels unworthy of her stature as a leading woman and is especially disappointing when compared to the boys’ organic development which occurs through new friendships, tensions, and burgeoning romances.
- Nancy (Natalia Dyers) has a great story arc, starting from Season 1 as a Bambi-eyed, insecure teenager who is forced to shift into survival mode. Season 2 picks up where her story leaves off, continuing to explore her romantic relationships with a focus on the guilt she feels over the death of best friend Barb (Shannon Purser). Throughout, she grows into her decisiveness and cements her status as an unlikely action hero. Best of all, her actions serve her own story rather than those of the men around her.
- Barb, a support character who is flippantly killed off in Season 1, caused enough fan backlash to garner a major plot point in Season 2. I was happy to see her get some closure and appreciated that the creators seem to be listening to their audience.
- NEW IN SEASON 2 — Maxine (Sadie Sink) is a much-needed female addition to the young Stranger Things crew. Unfortunately, her massive potential deflates across the season like a punctured tire, going flatter with each passing episode. By the time we’re at the finale, we look back and realize that, as Beth Elderkin points out for Gizmodo, “The sad truth is Max's entire storyline isn't for herself, it's for the characters around her.”
- NEW IN SEASON 2 — Kali (Linnea Berthelsen) is a similarly disappointing addition. She too began with great potential—another girl with supernatural powers and Elle’s only real peer—but her character is relegated to pure device as she exists solely in the episode of ‘The Lost Sister’ as a crutch for Elle’s development.
While the women are largely great, they remain unfortunately, in service to the men and boys of the show (with the welcome exception of Nancy). Additionally, women still have yet to meet parity by numbers: among the main characters, 11 are male and 5 are female.
There’s nowhere to go but up in this category, which last year saw just Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) as the token black friend in a sea of white faces. Luckily, the Duffer brothers address this in Season 2 by giving him a great story arc and multitudes more complexity. In Season 1, Lucas’ instincts for self-preservation were portrayed negatively, bending towards cowardice. In Season 2 he matures into a cautious young teenager who, unlike his friend Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), has enough common sense not to invite danger where it isn’t needed. He still takes action when he needs to and, when both he and Dustin have a crush on Maxine, Lucas is the one who “gets the girl”. I won’t excuse the flatness of Maxine’s character, but she does augment Lucas’ development.
Season 2 also adds support characters of color:
- Erica (Priah Ferguson) is Lucas’ bratty younger sister.
- Kali is Elle’s “lost sister”, played by Danish actress Linnea Berthelsen who appears mixed-race South Asian.
The show also peppers people of color into background shots—a seemingly simple integration that was nonetheless missing from Season 1.
While the above additions are laudable, Stranger Things remains a story largely driven by white characters. In the 16 main characters listed on Wikipedia, just one—Lucas—is a person of color. I hope to see Season 3 progress further on this front, perhaps developing Kali or continuing Lucas’ robust screen time. I won’t ask for the fictional town of Hawkins, Indiana to turn into cultural melting pot, but I still think there is room to grow in this category without losing the wonderfully alienating setting of the Midwest circa 1984.
Unlike Season 1 which sees queer themes manifest in pejoratives and slurs from bullies, Season 2 refrains from any mention of LGBTQ at all. I won’t crater this score since we are only drawing from 9 episodes, all of which revolve around a fairly tight cast. That being said, there are 41 names listed on Wikipedia as either main or support characters so if we’re going by real life standards—3.8% of adults self-reported as LGBTQ in 2015—one or two of these recurring roles should be queer roles. Barb, perhaps?
Bonus for Disability: +0.5
The young actor who plays Dustin suffers from cleidocranial dysplasia—a genetic disorder that affects the development of bones and teeth. In a smart move, his condition is incorporated into the show without fanfare, resulting in the lovable character of Dustin who benefits from an intrinsic authenticity that simply can't be faked. His popularity with viewers proves that Hollywood actors don't have to be flawless, conformist dolls to have widespread appeal.
Mediaversity Grade: B 4.00/5
The Duffer brothers kept Season 1 close to the chest, writing what they know. A cavalry of white characters led the charge, making for incredible TV but never managing to dispel overtones of “Make America White Again”—the mistake of conflating the past with a homogenous vision of America. Lest we forget, even in 1980, almost 1 in 5 U.S. residents were non-white.
Luckily, visible efforts were made to be more inclusive in Season 2. While the execution can be a bit clumsy, other threads pay off, as with Lucas’ fantastic story arc.
Season 3 is slated for late 2018 and I can’t wait to pick this conversation back up again, this time next year. See you then!