When Stranger Things 2 released last month, TV critic Alan Sepinwall said something to this effect on Twitter: “People will love it or hate it for the same reason; it’s just like the original.”
I think that hits the nail on the head.
When its debut season hit Netflix in the summer of 2016, Stranger Things was an instant critical and audience favorite. Heavy on 1980s nostalgia (everything from Atari to Goonies to Winona Ryder), the show clicked with the generation who came of age on Steven Spielberg blockbusters and movies like Gremlins and Ghostbusters—which just so happens to be the generation most likely to subscribe to Netflix.
Naturally, the Duffer Brothers didn’t opt to mess with a formula that worked. But Stranger Things 2 is more than just a retread of the formula. It goes deeper with the characters and explores their bonds in ways that underscore how this is a show about more than just nostalgia and kitschy horror. It’s a show about friendship.
Trouble Isn’t Over
Warning: what follows contains mild spoilers for Stranger Things 2.
It’s 1984 in Hawkins, Indiana, one year after the events of season one. Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) is trying to return to a normal life, and his friends—Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), and Mike (Finn Wolfhard)—are trying hard to let him. But the dust doesn’t settle easily after the kinds of trauma experienced the year before. And of course, the trouble isn’t over.
The rift in space/time still exists underneath an inconspicuous laboratory—only now, rather than exploit its potential, the government agencies overseeing it are trying to contain it. In fact, that’s a fair description of the government’s role throughout the show: trying to contain the crisis, whether keeping the rift from growing larger or keeping people silent.
Predictably, that silence is shattered. Crops begin mysteriously dying and rotting overnight. Dustin finds an odd, sluglike creature in his garbage can. Mike pines for Eleven, and Will has horrific visions of an evil presence haunting Hawkins.
For better or worse, Stranger Things is a franchise now, and it shows. Many of the story’s arcs are fairly predictable, and characters fall into place, for the most part, just as you’d expect them to. The new characters—Mad Max (Sadie Sink), Bob Newly (Sean Astin), and Sam Owens (Paul Reiser)—all are welcome additions in season two, though again, they play fairly predictable roles.
Outside Looking In
Perhaps the most interesting part of Stranger Things 2 is Eleven’s story. (Surprise! She’s alive!) Sheriff Jim Hopper has kept her secretly in a cabin far in the woods, promising that at some time, when it’s safe, she can go out again and see her friends. Eleven grows restless, though, and eventually she ventures out alone, leading her far from Hawkins in search of answers.
Eleven’s longing for family and home is palpable, but home proves elusive and unsatisfying. Only when she finds her “sister” (a fellow ex-resident of the Hawkins Lab) does she realize that Hawkins is home, and that her commitment to her friends is ultimately what gives her any sense of rootedness in the world.
This is the best development in Stranger Things 2. It humanizes Eleven, making her more than an oddity or a superhero. She’s a child, longing for connections and roots in a world that has been nothing but dangerous and alienating for her.
Eleven’s story is identifiable for anyone who has felt like an outcast or a stranger, like someone on the outside looking in. In a poignant moment, she stumbles across a mother and child playing on a swing set, and she freezes. Later she spies on Mike talking with Mad Max, and her jealousy flares. She sends Max’s skateboard flying out from under her, and then she disappears.
Eleven’s isolation contrasts with the tight bond of the four boys. It’s their radical commitment to one another that can save them. When that bond is threatened, evil finds a way to take root.
Many who watch the show will find the boys’ bond whimsical and nostalgic. Others—myself included—will feel a different kind of nostalgia, the kind Don Draper once referred to as “pain from an old wound.” There’s something sacred about friendships. And if they were sparse, difficult, or shallow when you were young—as they were for me—then the boys’ idyllic bond will evoke some melancholic longing. You’ll feel a bit like Eleven, or like Mad Max, on the outside longing for a way in.
It’s a melancholy that can persist throughout our lives. “It’s not good for man to be alone,” after all, and we need the nourishment that only friendship can afford.
But this runs counter to many cultural archetypes, doesn’t it? There’s a prevailing myth that we ought to be autonomously capable of happiness and mental health, and that real strength is independence, needing nothing from anyone else. But that’s simply not how humanity works.
The Myth of Autonomy and the Might of Community
In his book Spiritual Friendship, theologian Wesley Hill writes about “the myth of what we might term, simply, freedom—the myth that the less encumbered and entangled I am, or the less accountable and anchored I am to a particular relationship, the better able I am to find my truest self and secure real happiness.” Hill continues:
This myth is so ingrained in our imaginations, I suspect, that it may undergird and nurture all the other myths. . . . And it’s not hard to see how it strikes at the root of friendship. If your deepest fulfillment is found in personal autonomy, then friendship—or at least the close kind I want to recommend in these pages—is more of a liability than an asset.
There’s probably no one more capable of autonomy that a superpowered telepath like Eleven. But her isolation is her deepest pain, and her need for others drives her both away from and back to Hawkins. Words like “home” and “family” find their meaning in the way deep bonds are formed in our lives, both through shared suffering and shared love. In Stranger Things 1, the struggle to expand the bond of friendship to include Eleven led to the show’s salvific climax. In Stranger Things 2, the circle has to expand again to include others, and the deeper bonds formed prove essential as the new crisis unfolds.
Where 1 gave us a storyline of superheroic self-sacrifice, 2 gives us a story of community and friendship. Our connections to one another aren’t a luxury; they’re essential to our flourishing, a buffer against a dark and hostile world.