It seems like every decade, there emerges a cultural touchpoint that reminds a particular generation of all things that excited them in their youth. When that cultural calling-card stirs up the memories, dreams, fears, pop culture and adventure – both experienced and imagined – in one’s own childhood, it becomes more than just an emotive and familiar time piece. It becomes almost a “responsibility” of sorts to visit and experience it as a hallmark event. This explains my draw and warm feelings toward Netflix’s “Stranger Things.”
Oddly, I didn’t watch Season One of the modern classic until almost a year after it premiered on the streaming service. But once a gradual chorus of viewers had shared with me that Stranger Things would, like 2011’s (J.J. Abrams-helmed) “Super 8,” remind me of that time in my childhood from ages 11-15 (1982-1986), which featured movies like “The Goonies,” and “E.T.,” not to mention BMX bikes, skateboarding, and all the awkwardness of middle school, I considered the show nothing less than a homework assignment. Needless to say, I loved Season One of Stranger Things. Everything from the overarching darkness to the small-town feel, the group of awkward, nerdy good buddies, the bad ‘80s hair that still looked like ‘70s hair, the supportive but clueless parents (certainly not my own!), all added up for me. Anything guys got into before they had a driver’s license, back when an Atari video game console was about as fancy as it got, speaks to me about Stranger Things and the first half of the 1980s.
If this aesthetic “had me at hello,” than the terrific plot and characters treated me to dinner. In small Hawkins, Indiana, one of the “guys,” Will Byers, disappears and there seems to be something funny going on at the mysterious Defense Department research facility in town (We all have one of those, am I right?). The mystery, the monsters, the boozy sheriff with a tragic past, the struggling single mom, and of course the mystery girl who comes out of nowhere, having escaped the slavish hell of being experimented on at the research lab (Her name only a number – “Eleven”). She’s the cute, somewhat mute type who you and the guys want to make “part of the group” even though you all share the same competitive crush on her. It’s all there.
As Will is eventually found in “The Upside Down” during Season One, and the team of protagonists achieve what seems like victory, Eleven is lost in noble sacrifice to defeat the Demogorgon that threatens Mike, the “team captain” type. This is the first sign that the audience knows there is more to come. There is no way this series makes the beloved Eleven a one-season character. What’s more, the fade out of episode 8 makes clear that Hawkins is not free of evil.
So naturally, with the release of Stranger Things 2 on October 27, I corrected my earlier mistake and immediately began easing through its 9 episodes on Netflix (the fact that this review comes a whole month later actually suggests, in these modern times, that my viewing of Season 2 was a “slow binge”) These episodes did not disappoint. In fact, a legitimate public argument exists as to whether Stranger Things 2 may have bested it’s original. And I can’t think of a better way to review and “honor” the current season than through some “Stranger Things 2 Awards.” So, without further ado – and for only those who have seen all of Stranger Things’s Episodes (1 through 17), here we go:
Best “Once More, Just Like Before” performance: Joyce Byers
Make no mistake, I think Winona Ryder is terrific as Joyce Byers. But has Will and Jonathan’s mom really “grown” in Season Two? Sure, she’s shown good judgement (it turns out) in finding a suitable step-father-figure in Bob. But like Season One, Joyce is largely relegated to making worried mom faces throughout the season equal to those the actress made during David Harbour’s passionate SAG Award’s speech last year. Outside of running back and forth, demanding answers and concerning herself mostly with her youngest son, Joyce’s only stretch was turning up the space heaters as she determined nothing would stop her from burning out the evil that had hold of Will. She’s either a reliable role player and will stay that way, or we’ll have to wait for Stranger Things 3 for any hope that Joyce takes on a skills-based or heavier plot affecting story arc.
The Bonnie Tyler Musical Inspiration Award: Jim Hopper
We all love our tough-guy local police chief Jim Hopper. He’s brave, and he knows just when to tell pencil-necked eggheads to “shut the fuck up.” But Hopper is also tortured by the loss of his child, and his descent into alcoholic mania following her death leads to the end of his marriage, as we see in Season One flashbacks. This trauma clearly bleeds into his treatment of Eleven in Season Two. Having discovered Eleven alive following her crawl out of the Upside Down upon defeating the Demogorgon, Hopper takes on the vow to protect her from any harm of discovery – particularly from those bastards at the Military Lab. But in isolating her to the point of suffocation, Hopper takes on more the role of jailer than that of protector. The silver lining is of course that once her patience is more than exhausted, Eleven puts her energy and purposes into escape and a mission of healing for her mother. But as far as Hopper is concerned, only in the latter episodes of the season do we see him understand what he’s done and apologize, allowing a rapprochement with Jane/Eleven to take place.
But while Eleven is off finding herself, Hopper continues to hunt evil and seeks to protect the other Hawkin’s gang. He confronts a reluctant Dr. Owens (Paul Reiser) and turns him into an ally. Finally, in his last acts of Season 2, he first escorts Jane/Eleven to the Winter dance so she can be with her friends, most notably her young love, Mike Wheeler. Second, our hero gives Joyce, his fellow chaperone-at-a-distance, a warm embrace and lets her know things are going to be ok. He isn’t necessarily right, but that’s some reassuring hero stuff.
Most Obvious and Wonderfully Nostalgic Casting Choice: Sean Astin as “Bob”
It’s no accident – I think the Duffer Brothers have even admitted as much (?) – that The Goonie’s hero was cast as a sentimental choice. But what’s more, Bob’s affection for Joyce, his encouragement of Will to be courageous, and even his sacrifice, are all emblematic of traits Mikey himself would likely possess. And if not Mikey – how about Samwise Gamgee? While it’s sad to see Bob lost to the Demidogs, it’s no “Basic” event (get it? Like computer code) that in the end he made the ultimate sacrifice for the good of the group. I mean – had Bob had been there, trying to buck up the spirits of a beleaguered Frodo on the edge of quitting – he may have repeated Sam’s great speech on Mount Doom, which I’ll just leave right here in honor of the great Bob Newby.
“Frodo: I can’t do this, Sam.
Sam: I know. It’s all wrong. By rights we shouldn’t even be here. But we are. It’s like in the great stories Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were, and sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy. How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad happened. But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something. Even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back only they didn’t. Because they were holding on to something.
Frodo: What are we holding on to, Sam?
Sam: That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo. And it’s worth fighting for.”
Best Villain: Billy Hargrove
Shadow Monster? The spitting anus in the tunnels? No way. When I was 12 or 13, there is no bully I would have feared more than angry California transplant and abusive stepbrother Billy Hargrove (played brilliantly by Aussie Dacre Montgomery). This guy not only shows you up on the basketball court, essentially alpha-dogging school king Steve Harrington, but he drives a screeching Camaro in intimidating fashion, ties his step-sister in Apartheid-like knots, and even seduces a bored and unstimulated Mrs. Wheeler into near submission. Make no mistake, my friends. I knew a few Billy Hargroves in my childhood. And thinking about these ‘80s bullies even now still unnerves me in ways against which supernatural evil can in no way compete.
Comeback Player of the Year: Steve Harrington
In Season One, Steve was the doucher boyfriend to Nancy Wheeler who had great ‘80s hair and won us over ONLY slightly, and by all means TEMPORARILY, when teaming with Nancy and Jonathan against the Demogorgon. But in Stranger Things 2, Steve evolves ALMOST into a worthy heir to The Goonie’s “Brand,” (Josh Brolin). While reluctant at first, he leads most of the kids in Will and Mike’s absence, showing great courage against the Demidogs and serving as a “cool bro” mentor type to Dustin. He shows a confident humility in realizing Nancy is perhaps above his station – or certainly someone he has a long way to earning – and gives up the goods on his “great hair” formula. Yes, Steve Harrington becomes a guy you find yourself rooting for. Who knew?
Honorable Mention: Will. We barely saw young actor Noah Schnapp in Season One, given Will’s quick disappearance. But Will came back strong in Season Two, not just in screen time but in the haunting way he is both possessed by the Mind Flayer/Shadow Monster and manipulative on its behalf as a villain. This kid is more than just a “pretty nerdy face.” He can act!
Best “Always Plays Creepy and Socially Inappropriate” Award: Brett Gelman as Murray Bauman
I don’t know when Brett Gelman showed up on the scene. But in a number of roles now, he has mastered the part of “that guy” who speaks out of turn, usually saying something embarrassing, and always in a bad sweater or other awkward wardrobe. He’s the creepy boyfriend about whom you ask, “why is she’s with him?” or the annoying tertiary player who wants to see all the popular people fail. Bearded and balding, Brett Gelman thrives on being just a little annoying.
So it’s fitting that in Season Two, we meet Gelman as muckraking conspiracy theorist Murray Bauman, possibly a former journalist stuck on a cold case involving a past victim of the evil goings-on in town. Bauman marches into the Hawkins police station insisting something is up and they are hiding it (or certainly protecting the Military Lab of their secret dealings). This, of course, engenders the curiosity of Jonathan and Nancy, who travel to the outskirts to find him. Of course, hidden away in what looks like a burned out bomb shelter they discover Bauman, who invites them in. Sure, they get down to the story at hand and he is giddy over Nancy’s recording of Dr. Owens defending his job as partly being about protecting secrets. But the real story coming out of the visit, beyond their orchestration of a giant mailing of the recording to regional media, is Bauman’s drunkenly goading the couple into what we guess is at the VERY LEAST some passionate foreplay. Upon their departure, Bauman inappropriately hands the minors a bottle of vodka for the road, and insists that they never come find him again. Thank you, Brett Gelman, for your true-blue Brett Gelman…ness? Yeah. That sounds right.
Best Counter Argument in FAVOR of Episode 7: Todd Flora (wait… that’s me!)
Sure, Episode 7 of Season Two takes us completely away from the group at a critical point for Will and his state of body and mind. But Eleven’s escape at this point in the season was a pent-up necessity, and her desire to find out more about herself through her momma, and through what she learns about the other child in the Rainbow Room, is critical to her maturity, sense of self, and source of strength at the apex of Season Two. Hey, I’m not exactly high on the fact that Kali / Eight encourages her to use nothing short of the “dark side of the Force” to summon her power. But had she not experienced her Chicago adventure – where the very unworldly girl bravely travels alone into the unknown – she would not have come to the realization that her destiny remained in Hawkins to protect her adopted family. Without this diversion, we don’t get Eleven’s dramatic, slow-motion return through the door in Episode 8. We don’t get her determination to put it all on the line to close the gate. Treat Episode 7 as your punching bag if you must, but just know that without it, she may not have grown into the Jane/Eleven we needed, and still need, to defeat the larger evil (and, perhaps, free her momma of her trance?)
Coolest Member of the Group: Lucas
If you had to choose just 1 of the Stranger Things crew to hang with, you can’t deny it would be Lucas. He’s got the coolest bike (let’s just say), the best headband (hands down), and knows how to practice his moves in the mirror. What’s more, when the time comes, he knows how to put those moves to work on the cute new girl, “Mad” Max (look to your right. She clearly approves!). He’s fearless, and knows how to work an archaic communications system to spring his crew into action. He even stands up to make sure “Winston” gets the respect he deserves… who most of us forgot was Ernie Hudson’s name in the original Ghostbusters. In Season One, he wasn’t afraid to fight with his own team for what he thought was right (unity and not splitting up), and in Season Two, he never leaves anyone behind, always there to lend a hand anytime he’s not thwarted by his pesky (but we love her!) sister Erica.
Most Underutilized: Mike
Considering that Mike is basically our “Mikey” from Goonies, it’s really tough to admit Mike’s minor role this season. But for most of it, he is relegated to “worried kid face” sitting bedside with Will, and “sad kid face” missing his beloved Eleven. Only when Mike realizes that Will isn’t Will, does he spring into action, crashing into the military guards to warn that the Demidogs are coming and that Will has set everyone up.
Honorable Mention: Erica. Who doesn’t want to see more sass from Lucas’s annoyingly awesome sister, Erica Sinclair? Whether she’s kissing two unrelated action figures or messing with the guys on the walkie-talkie’s, Erica proves a most entertaining and carefree foil seemingly unaffected by the evil threats that surround her brother, his friends, and the town. Will she serve some comically heroic moment in Stranger Things 3? I think I speak for most fans in saying that I hope she does.
Group MVP Award: Dustin
Hear me out on this one. Because I know what you are thinking – isn’t Dustin the kid foolish enough to bring a baby Demogorgon into the safety of his own home? Yes. But when the time comes, his strange bond with Dart as a matured Demidog allows him to tempt the beast with chocolate, buying time for the team to escape the tunnels. But his real bonafides as MVP are sealed by two important moments: First, when he conscripts a reluctant Steve Harrington back into the fight. Second, when he brings the team around to the theory that the evil they are dealing with is the Mind Flayer from Dungeons & Dragons lore, and that this evil controls the Demidogs through the power of a “hive mind.” That, coupled with Will’s Morse Coded message, helps the team understand that only by closing the gate can they be free of the constant onslaught facing the military lab and eventually the town. He’s got the hat, the groovy locks, is Nancy’s favorite of Mike’s friends, and finally – is a member of the only household (that I noticed) with a Mondale / Ferraro yard sign.
“Winner” of Stranger Things 2: Jane / Eleven
This may be obvious (s)hero worship. But Eleven has 4 critical winning moments in Stranger Things 2 that can’t be denied. 1) She escapes Hopper’s place to seek out momma and tries to find a way to heal her; 2) And this won’t be discussed by most critics – she goes against the “dark side of the force” that is actively taught to her by Kali / Eight in showing mercy to Ray the electro-shock technician; 3) Her slow-motion entrance toward the end of episode 8 after she kills the Demidog and throws it through the window is a super bad ass, “chill down your spine” moment; and finally, 4) She risks life and limb in confronting her greatest fear and closes the gate she had a role in opening. There is no doubt that this stronger, more mature Eleven is “bitchin’,” and ready to assume a life as Jane. And does anyone doubt her commitment to continuing to protect her friends?
We all know that Hopper’s request of Dr. Owens (Paul Reiser) that he help her find a way to lead and fulfill a normal life is a futile one. Jane/Eleven is not made for a traditional childhood and I would doubt teen years to boot. No, it is apparent to me as a viewer that Jane’s destiny will always lie at the feet of defeating evil and protecting those she loves. It’s an unfair burden, but one that can be carried out successfully by truly gifted and committed “winners.” And she’s one in spades.
Belated “Token Award After the Fact for Jonathan and Nancy” Goes to: Jonathan and Nancy!! Sorry, guys. You are critical players, but just didn’t fit into my awards architecture this time around. Looks like we’ll have to return for more accolades when Stranger Things 3 returns!