The middle of Stranger Things 2 is the most fun TV of 2017
Warning: This post contains spoilers for Stranger Things 2 through episode six.
“The Golden Age of TV” has become a cliché: it should almost go without saying that the TV we get in 2017 has a depth and breadth that prior eras simply can’t match. And 2017 in particular could very well outpace recent history, too, given newbies like The Handmaid’s Tale and Star Trek: Discovery joined our DVRs next to new seasons of favorites like Fargo and Twin Peaks.
In a strong year when a great spin-off of an all-time show show brings back its perfect villain and the most-hyped show of today does mindblowing things with freakin’ dragons, it says something that the most fun I’ve had watching TV in 2017 happened in the middle three hours of Stranger Things season two.
The horror returns
Stranger Things has always been an unabashed descendant of two ‘80s Steves: Spielberg and King. Season one captured the zeitgeist in part because it balanced those two impulses so well. We may fondly think of Mike and Eleven getting to know each other in a blanket fort first, but the series started with a scary opening 10 minutes (involving a poor scientist in the Hawkins lab and Will’s first encounter) and had look-away sequences like bullies threatening to stab Mike.
The opening trio of S2 episodes lean toward the likable Spielberg adventures of yore. The kids need to figure out who upended Dustin’s Dig Dug score; Jonathan tentatively ventures into high school social circles (presumably for a glimpse of Nancy). But when we last left our Hawkins heroes, Dustin had loosed an otherworldly creature, Eleven finally had enough of living in secrecy, and some kind of Upside Down force of darkness descended upon Will. This middle chunk of the season comfortably brings Stranger Things back tonally to the King-iverse.
It starts with that predicament of Will’s. Some kind of Upside Down parasitic being has inhabited his body in ways that complicate his memory and ability to communicate. Each being can essentially see what the other does and listen in on thoughts, but only the Upside Down darkness monster seems capable of manipulating the other. When Joyce tries treating her son like he has an illness by drawing him a warm bath, things get delightfully eerie: “He likes it cold,” says a voice that is Will’s in sound only.
There are other great bits of Stranger Things keepin’ it strange here: Nancy and Jonathan call a meeting with Barb’s parents in a public park seemingly knowing that the Pleasantville-style lab employees posing as civilians would be ready to detain them. Dustin’s mom’s cat meets a fate perhaps popularized in the ‘80s by Alf, not Annie Wilkes or others in that lot. Hopper starts parading around the Upside Down once more. And Joyce Byers’ home yet again gets covered in cryptic junk as she searches for whatever message her son tries to convey. With a cliffhanger in episode six to punctuate it, Stranger Things’ return to its terror roots simply makes these the most engaging episodes to date.
Yet the fun remains
Of course it can’t be all doom and gloom—again, tonal balance proved vital for S1. So in this middle part of S2, the writers room unleashes a couple of old-fashioned (and effective) TV tricks to keep things light even as the darkness keeps expanding.
Most noticeably, new characters to this universe get to react in meta-commentary ways when they finally came face-to-face with the realities of S1. The boys have spent this entire time keeping Max in the dark about the source of Will’s peculiarity, so when Lucas decides he has to tell Max in order to enlist her help, she sees it as a desperate attempt to win her affection.
What do you think, Lucas asks. Max then speaks for her and the show’s critics: “I liked it, I just felt it was a little derivative in parts,” she says. “I just wish it had more originality.”
The same technique gets applied to eye-opening moments for Bob and “investigative journalist” Murray (Brett Gelman). Bob the Brain has an affection for puzzles, and he’s able to deduce Will’s drawings… which forces Joyce to introduce the family’s recent history sooner than she would like. Soon, Bob is helping her dig Hopper out of another dimension/ditch and being rushed to an ultra-secret hospital facility. “I thought stuff like this only happened in movies and comics books,” he says. “Not in Hawkins, and not to you.”
Murray’s turn gets a bit lighter as he helps a desperate Nancy and Jonathan devise a plan to spread the word on Barb and Hawkins Lab, hopefully causing an uproar that’ll take them down. The two eventually have to spend the night but insist on separate beds. “Lovers’ quarrel?” Murray asks. “You’ve told me a lot of shockers today but that, that is the first lie—you’re young, attractive, you’ve got chemistry and, most of all, shared trauma.”
The most fun sequence in these standout episodes comes from perhaps the oldest trick in the TV playbook: get your most popular-yet-opposite characters together somehow, some way. David Simon’s shows excelled at this (how on Earth does McNulty end up shopping with Omar?), as has Better Call Saul (parsing out Mike and Jimmy moments to make them special every time). So when Dustin can’t find backup in his quest to track down and face Dart—Nancy and Jonathan left town, Lucas had to catch Max up, Will and Mike sit inside the Hawkins’ Lab facilities—he fortuitously stumbles upon one heartbroken young man also knocking at the Wheelers’ door.
I would personally watch an entire 50-minute show of Dustin, uber-nerd tween, and Steve, high school heartthrob, walking down the train tracks and discussing life. For instance, how do you know if a girl likes you?
Steve: “It’s like electricity before the storm…”
Dustin: “Oh, you mean an electromagnetic field… ”
Steve: “No, no no, not like that.”
The two swap hair secrets (“When it’s damp—not wet, damp—do four pumps of the Farrah Fawcett spray”) as they drop chunks of raw meat to set the stage for the Pièce de Résistance sequence of this middle stage of the season.
Crestfallen after Nancy seemingly drops him and still-enigmatically-evil, Billy upstages him in front of the varsity, Steve still has it in him conjure up his heroism and dust off the nail-ridden baseball bat to fight demogorgon babies in a familiar abandoned bus-setting.
The lighting and score work perfectly, and a fog lays on top of the junkyard to only heighten the tension. Things look touch-and-go for several moments, as Dart seems to bring reinforcements forcing Steve to rely on every bit of acrobatics he has. But just as he and the kids manage to sneak into an increasingly fragile-looking bus, demogorgon heads seeming to pop in from every opening, the roars stop. Lucas breaks the silence.
“Steve scared ‘em off,” Dustin insists.
“No, no way,” Steve says frankly. “They’re going somewhere.”
Somehow, Stranger Things 2 has kept Eleven and Mike separated for more than half the season, and it has yet to unleash a scenario in which all three facets of Hawkins heroes—the core kids, the Nancy-Jonathan-Steve age group, then Joyce and Hopper—work together toward something. Major happenings simply must be on the horizon given how episode six ends: Will’s “true sight” seemed to be used against humanity, Murray has sent out the tapes that will bring down (or at least bring unwanted attention to) Hawkins Labs, and that herd of baby demogorgons left the Steve showdown to go somewhere. It sure doesn’t seem like Joyce, Will, Mike, Hopper, and Bob will want to stick around that lab for very long.
Yet almost regardless of what’s to come or how well Stranger Things 2 can or can’t stick the landing, this three-episode heart of season two ensures this goes down as one sequel that falls squarely on the “success” half of the spectrum. Now, time to head back for episode seven, which, for some reason, has oddly become the one thing everyone keeps asking about first.