I really enjoyed the second season of Stranger Things, especially the first several episodes, with their well-paced plots and charming attention to detail. It’s a wonderfully character-driven narrative that’s told efficiently through visuals. That’s how it started, that was, before a problem called “episode 7” came around.
This is an episode almost entirely focused on Eleven going to Chicago to hang out with another special kid she grew up with, who also has wild powers, and who hangs out with dangerous, violent punk-rock-themed outlaws. Somehow, it was really, really boring. What went wrong? How could an episode like this happen to a show like this? What else sticks out to me? Let’s dissect the season like it’s that monster they left in the Byers family’s freezer, then never told them about, and then apparently forgot about.
Too Many Characters
Good god, there are a lot of characters in this episode. Stranger Things has a chunky cast already, but in 2.7, they introduce five more. To be fair, they were introduced in the cold open of the season premiere, but we learned very little about their personalities and they didn’t get any screen time between those points. Why bother, though? They served little to no purpose to the story that the season actually focused on. Eight kind of did, but what were her four friends there for? They had extremely similar personalities, their dialogue was cliché where it wasn’t indistinguishable, and, most importantly, none of them did anything that had a profound effect on Eleven, who was the only protagonist in that entire subplot.
Eight forced Eleven to make a decision that truly defines who she is, but that’s it. I’ll bet that if they had enough time to do some more drafts of this episode, all four of the generic criminals would’ve been cut. They simply had no personality. All they really did was take up enough screen time to stretch their subplot out to the length of a full episode. The actors portrayed them well, but that just shows you how shockingly-little control actors have over their characters. They only get to take their turns at making or breaking their characters after the writing is done.
One storytelling opportunity they missed was the conflict between Eleven and Hopper, and Eleven’s conflict with Eight. The relationship between Eleven and Hopper was emotionally compelling, but why was it totally separate from the stuff that happened with Eight? Had they happened at the same time, it would’ve given Eleven some real agony to deal with, and agony makes for excellent TV. That’s assuming, of course, that the side people from Chicago had been cut, because it would free up so much screen time. Hopper keeps Eleven locked up like a hermit to avoid risk, so he represents imprisonment/safety, and Eight, as the vengeful anarchist/murderer, represents freedom/danger. That’s the conflict within Eleven as she runs away, but those opposites are never onscreen at the same time. Also, Eight wants Eleven to get justice for herself by hurting people, and that could easily have turned into a situation where Eleven wants to be violent with Hopper over one of their fights.
How do we get all of this to work better? It’s simple, but it’s a hell of a lot of work, which is why I feel that time was the problem with this whole season. All you have to do is take Chicago out of the picture and simply have Eight seek out Eleven. This would also lend more meaning to the presence of the whole alarm system that Hopper built – as it is, that’s wound up almost literally as a Chekov’s gun which hasn’t even gone off. Also, Eleven’s conflict with Hopper would have much higher stakes with a manipulative illusionist messing around in her head, especially because that illusionist wants to her to kill people.
Eight doesn’t mind using her powers to manipulate Eleven, and she doesn’t seem to care if it’s traumatic either. We learn this when she forces Eleven to see an apparition of Dr ‘Papa’ Brenner. It’s cruel, and it’s well-motivated, and we don’t want it to happen to our protagonist, so why doesn’t it happen more? When you have a dynamic like that, you need to crank it up to Eleven, and no I will not apologize for wording it that way. Eight is trying to turn Eleven into a weapon to use for revenge, and that could have and should have directly clashed with Hopper’s goal to protect her.
Hell, Eight could’ve been the antagonist of the main plot as well. What if she wanted to unleash monsters from the upside-down, so that she could use them as weapons for her own goals, just like Eleven? If they wanted to take more cues from H.P. Lovecraft than they already did, there could’ve been a whole thing where Eight is a tragic victim being controlled by that big shadowy noodle thing. In that part where Eleven takes away Eight’s gun and they argue with each other, the person on the ground could’ve been Hopper instead of some guy who got introduced five minutes ago. That scene would’ve been an awful lot more compelling, and the growth it caused within Eleven would’ve had real meaning, rather than simply confirm the image the viewers already had of her.
Billy the Homewrecker
Billy, the new bully with the earring and the glorious ( just look at it) hair is a cool idea for a character. Guys like him have shown up in fiction already, but the writers of Stranger Things were on the edge of a seriously interesting way to tell his story. In the finale, we see pretty clearly that Mrs. Wheeler finds Billy extremely attractive, and he’s perfectly amenable to that. This will probably be explored to its potential in season 3, but it would’ve been a great thing to have around for season 2.
Imagine that for a second. This badass girl named Max shows up and quickly fills the void left by Eleven, who Mike still cares about. That’s his only reason for distrusting her, and it comes off as him being immature. Sure, that makes sense. Now what if Max’s older brother is riding the baloney pony with Mike’s mom, and everybody knows it? Mike would have good reason to be angry about that, but what if he directs that anger at Max, and uses the affair as his excuse, even though the real reason is his heartache over Eleven’s absence? He needs to grow up and admit why he’s really angry, and he has a more sympathetic reason to be upset with Max, even though it’s still unjustified, making the conflict tragic.
This would also ratchet up the tension within the party, where everyone but Mike likes Max. Dustin and Lucas disagree with Mike about Max, and this would be more fun with the higher stakes. Remember their conflict in season 1 hinged on their opinions of Eleven, and Lucas was the only one who didn’t like her? Now, Mike would take Lucas’s place, and the physical danger would still be there, because Billy is a sadistic piece of hot garbage.
This subplot would also give Billy something to do other than be a jerk. Maybe the validation he gets from enthralling an older woman makes him feel like a grown man, compensating for the weak spot where his dad always hits him. On that subject, that scene where we see Billy get abused by his dad should’ve happened much earlier. Like, four or five episodes earlier, because if you’re going to make a character interesting, then you should do it before most of his screen time is used up. Like the other flaws, I think the writers knew that, but they just didn’t have the time to fix it.
This season is a case study in the way talented professionals can make mistakes despite their track records. Like I said, hindsight is 20/20, and the writers probably realized each of these problems and solutions that I’ve brought up, but I’ll bet the sticky coaster sitting on my desk that they just didn’t have the time to do enough drafts. This season was a couple rewrites away from being truly excellent TV. Instead of that, we got pretty good TV. Rewrites are about as easy as I’ve made them look, but they take a lot of time to do. If you’ve ever written a script before, or anything that’s long and has a lot of words, just imagine doing it again.
As much fun as it was, season 2 feels rushed. Lots of “amateur” mistakes were made in the areas of structure and motivation, and the seventh episode is blatantly worse than all the others. As it stands, I still enjoy this show. If I didn’t, then I wouldn’t have cared enough to type all this out. My overall opinion of season 2, which I know you’re just dying to hear, is that I’m pumped to see season 3. They set up some interesting dynamics, but just didn’t explore them, and there was a lot of stuff that belonged in the waste basket. It’s unlikely that they lost a lot of fans, though – characters as compelling as the ones in Stranger Things have dragged TV shows free of rougher patches than this.
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