Sometimes, a show is so good, you need to give it its own category because it’s impossible and unfair to choose from the masterpiece that’s been presented to us. Stranger Things season 2 took the series to new heights with the most impeccable, unbeatable character development I’ve seen in recent years. It’s brought friendships to life in an organic, pure display of what it’s truly like to be love people beyond our wildest imaginations. It’s brought to life destruction and evil with the harrowing reminder that it isn’t easy to defeat, but through love and persistence, it will be. And dare I say, Stranger Things is the best thing I’ve seen on TV (or computer screen). In my personal book, it’s the Star Wars of television – legendary. It’s now raining on my face so I’ll try my absolute hardest to talk about this ridiculous, exquisite little show without drowning in the puddle my tears form.
Most Noteworthy Performance by an Actress:
Millie Bobby Brown
Millie Bobby Brown left last season’s stage in an explosive, jaw-dropping spectacle in the performance that’d leave people buzzing for years to come. So how does a character as quiet, fiercely emotive go from there, to something even more riveting in Stranger Things season 2? She speaks. She screams. She cries. And she performs her heart out for nine consecutive episodes that are filled with a plethora of complex emotions. While last year we got to know Eleven silently through Brown’s heartfelt illumination of her bravery, fears, and reticence, this year we were given the chance to see her not only grow as a kid, but the chance to find herself a little more. And those chances brought forth all sorts of emotions giving Brown the platform to bare her soul.
Brown’s performances were easily so evocative, tears wouldn’t stop coming — especially in episode four where her rage was so intense, it was actually terrifying. Then came the moments … moments where she was happy, frustrated, and so unbelievably sad, I cried for about a good 20 minutes before I pulled myself together to watch some more. Whether Eleven found her mother or her sister, Brown delivered the scenes with such raw sadness, I’m in perpetual awe. A kid shouldn’t be in as much pain as Eleven was in, and to watch that with such organic performances allowed for the audience, myself for sure, to experience the most visceral, heartbreaking reactions.
And then she closed down the “The Gate” with the most harrowing, silent scream that was evocatively heart pounding because of how much pain Brown showed us in her eyes. That’s what worked with the music blaring as Eleven used her powers because it gave Brown the platform to show us the encompassing, haunting emotions. You knew that in that very moment, she brought it all in a way she’s never done before, with feelings that stunned her to her core, and it made the relieved, exhausted cry in the end that much more evocative. I have goosebumps just remembering it, and an incredibly difficult time finding the words to describe it. Point being, Brown is one of the most promising stars of her generation, and this is noteworthy performance was just the beginning.
Winona Ryder set the bar exponentially high last season when she showed us just how much pain Joyce was in because of her son’s disappearance, that’s why whatever occurred this season, Ryder needed a perfect, balanced break. And she did so remarkably by once again showing us just how much Joyce cares about her children. What Ryder has always excelled at is sincerity, and in Stranger Things season 2 especially, is vulnerability — there’s not a single moment where it isn’t painfully clear that Joyce is living in fear, agony, and heartbreak because when her child’s in pain, it destroys her. Plainly simply, breaks her. And all throughout Stranger Things season 2 though she was a bit calmer, she was far more broken, far more angry, utterly terrified, and more on edge than ever. But in spite of those feelings that were present in almost every scene, the sincerity that Ryder projects when Joyce is around her kids is unparalleled.
Ryder showcases the immaculate, eternal love between a mother and her child so beautifully, it’s seemingly effortless and thereby, the most balanced treat we get. Because even when she has to crank up the heat to drive the Mind Flayer out of her son with the hopes that he’ll make it, that very adoration cobbled with frustration and fear and guilt reveals a kind of hope that perhaps only Joyce Byers is capable of having. She always believed her kid would come back to her, and he’s done so twice already – a little faith goes a long way, and that faith is a clear presence through everything she does.
Most Noteworthy Performance by an Actor
It’s crazy to think that we weren’t subjected to Noah Schnapp’s raw talent last season because it could’ve potentially prepared us for the genius we watched in Stranger Things season 2. Schnapp essentially carried the season as not only Will the boy, but Will the messenger bringing to life emotions that I had no idea were possible from such a young actor. (Is anyone else still buzzing from the fact that creators, too had no idea what Schnapp had in store?) And that’s essentially what made the performance so riveting, Schnapp did such an evocative job of embodying Will that there were times I was genuinely worried for him as an actor. Did he get enough sleep later? Did his neck hurt from all the shaking? (I tried whipping my hair back and forth once and let me tell you, folks – it’s painful!)
The thing about Stranger Things is that when the kids have to be kids, it’s clear that there’s really little performing, it’s an organic display of what it’s actually like to be themselves, but when there are moments such as Will screaming “let me go” at the top of his lungs or the haunting, heartbreaking expression in his eyes as he shows us that Will’s still there trying indescribably hard to break free, that’s what can be easily classified as a groundbreaking performance. An authentic masterpiece because it takes such experience not to overdo intense scenes such as what Will was going through, and for Schnapp, a 13-year-old, to nail it as he did is worthy of great, unending praise. There are actors that don’t learn the trick of acute character embodiment for years, but when you looked into Schnapp’s eyes, in each and every scene, he was Will Byers and had something to say – something to show us.
In the same way that Schnapp, Brown, and all young actors embody their characters exceptionally, Finn Wolfhard has Mike Wheeler grounded to the t. And while I was easily impressed with the quiet work he did in earlier episodes, it was his performance in Stranger Things season 2, “The Gate” that I can’t stop thinking about. Mike was at wits’ end all throughout the season, you knew that something explosive was coming, and you knew that it’d be related to Eleven — so when Mike breaks down in Hopper’s arms after the realization that he was hiding her, Wolfhard crushes the moment.
It’s fascinating because upon watching Beyond Stranger Things it’s evident that the kids are fully aware of the mannerisms their characters have established, and there are moments that as young actors undoubtedly make them nervous – that’s why scenes like this are so gut-wrenching because the emotions that are presented to us are filled with a level of innocence that’s only present amongst younger performers. It’s in that very scene where you could pin point the pain, neglect, and heartbreak Mike carries with him. In that moment, Wolfhard makes it clear that Mike is physically and emotionally no longer able to keep it together because the reality is, going through everything they’re facing is too much and he’s not only never been more vulnerable, but he’s never been more desperate to cry out for help. And in that cathartic breakdown, where it could’ve been easily overdone, but most certainly forgiven, Wolfhard was instead fantastic. (Plus, the sheer look of disbelief in his eyes when he finally saw Eleven left me in awe – that level of profound, pure adoration is ridiculously hard to master, but these kids are on fire.)
Gaten Matarazzo and Caleb McLaughlin
There’s absolutely no part of me who could potentially choose between Matarazzo and McLaughlin because these kids are too talented not to praise. They’re legitimately the whole reason why the series is so successful, and as both of them were on edge during Stranger Things season 2, Matarazzo and McLaughlin took their characters to new heights by playing on emotions neither of them had experienced the year before. Whether it was McLaughlin’s frustrations towards his friends cobbled with the awkwardness that was fired up where Max was concerned. Or Matarazzo’s panicked, somewhat cool composure in the scenarios surrounding Dart then the quiet, downright heartbreaking cry at the end of the Snow Ball, both actors proved to be absolute stars.
As the town’s unapologetically sarcastic chief Jim Hopper, David Harbour is phenomenal — making phrases like “get away from me” feel ridiculously relatable for all of us, but the bold showcase of vulnerability in Stranger Things season 2 has left me stunned. We saw a glimpse into the darkness in Hopper’s life last season, but this year we watched it come to light more and more. This year, the darkness rarely left his eyes — the sadness was a constant presence leaving only for brief moments where he was either doing a ridiculous dance or reminiscing about old days with Joyce. In spite of his sardonic demeanor and the overpowering rage that’s easily triggered, Harbour showed us just how much is always at stake for Hopper — while he needs to be brave for the sake of the town, the reality is, today, there’s a lot to lose. To know great loss is also to know great fear, because the moment a loved one leaves, we tend to hold on for dear life to those who are still standing. We tend to hold on with harrowing fears that they could leave, too. And for Hopper, sometimes holding on for dear life can get so overwhelming, it’s easy to lose control. And Harbour allows the audience to see just how hard Hopper’s trying to keep it together.
Most Incredible Character Development:
#BabysitteroftheYear let’s shout this from the rooftops. When we’re given the chance to see that Steve’s on the path towards redemption last season, I imagined in Stranger Things season 2 we’d merely get a bit more and that’d be it. I didn’t think that he’d somehow turn into the dad no one knew they needed while competing for mom of the year alongside Joyce Byers. I didn’t even think we’d get any interactions between him and the kids but here we are. Steve Harrington willingly put himself in harm’s way because he’s now the kind of person who’d rather protect than defeat.
The choices he made to protect the kids every time showcases a kind of bravery that isn’t illuminated as frequently. How do we come back from a broken heart? Do we get angry and shut off the world? Do we grow unkind? Or do we pick ourselves up and harness our broken energy into helping others. That’s what Steve Harrington did — picked himself up and “adopted” a few kids vowing to protect them through any harm that’d come in their way. And while he may not give the greatest dating advice, his heart is in the right place.
Jokes aside, that’s where I’m most impressed with Steve — upon realizing that Nancy would like to be Jonathan, his reaction wasn’t malicious or unkind, but rather he chose to tell Nancy that it’s okay. He chose to move forward honorably. When she was drinking too much, he chose to stop her and then he chose to ask Jonathan to take her home because he didn’t want her around anyone the two of them couldn’t trust. When Billy came by raging, Steve’s initial reaction wasn’t to fight back violently but to calm him down, send him away.
We don’t know much about Steve other than its hard for him to believe in himself, but we do know that somewhere along the way, he made the decision to be kinder. He made the decision not to fight people, but the decision to fight towards achieving something bigger. He made the decision to be the bigger person even when he wasn’t at fault. He made the decision to become a better version of himself, and that alone is an organic arc for character development — no one forced Steve to do any of this, in each scenario, he made the choice to rise. Here’s the thing, Steve Harrington is anything but perfect; however, he’s avidly trying, and that’s more than enough. And Joe Keery’s remarkable display of sincerity made it all the more wonderful.
THE MERRY BAND OF LOSERS
There are a great number of reasons to appreciate Stranger Things season 2, and at the top of that list is the indescribable friendship between Mike, Will, Dustin, and Lucas. (Today, Eleven and Max included.) They may be losers to other kids at school, but if I was a kid, this is the group I’d want to be a part of. This is the group I want my kids to be a part of. Human beings are not designed to be alone, we’re here to grow and evolve, and that’s done best when we’re surrounded by people who love us just as we are. And that’s what’s so special about these kids, at such a prominent age where kids are often unkind, the merry band of losers are each other’s biggest fans. They fight like cats and dogs, but friends don’t lie continues to be the ever-growing foundation of their bond. Whether it was Mike fervently looking after Will anytime he noticed something was off, or Dustin and Lucas forgiving each other after a girl almost got in their way, these kids are the purest of kids. And to be honest, I don’t even know how to describe it other than pure. It’s why I love this show so much, the innocence in spite of the foul language is profoundly present amongst these kids making their interactions that much more incredible. I could sit here and talk about all 23 of my favorite scenes, the little moments that highlighted the steadfast loyalty amongst them, but we’d be here forever. Bottom line is, where a friendship like this one exists, the certainty that every little thing will be alright does, too. They’re all ridiculous, perfectly imperfect little nerds, and their friendship with one another is more meaningful than words could ever describe.
Jim Hopper and Eleven (Jane Hopper)
And yet another relationship I didn’t know I needed, therefore here we are drowning in my tears as I attempt to break down one of the greatest father/daughter showcases in history. We knew that Hopper cared enough about Eleven to take care of her if the opportunity rose, but I’m sure I speak on behalf of many when I say don’t think any of us were prepared for what we got. The truth is, the two of them needed one another way more than they could’ve ever thought possible, and the organic development of their little family has been lovely watch. The physical, emotional, and overbearing mental torture that Eleven had to go through in the hands of Papa is something that’s going to stay with her for a very long time — frankly, situations like that generally don’t go away, but having a man who cares as fiercely and as purely as Hopper does has certainly helped. For even when she couldn’t understand why he kept her locked up, in the end, she knew that it was for her safety above all things. And for Hopper to be given another chance at fatherhood after the tragedy that met his family years ago makes everything bearable — no one could take Sarah’s place in his life, that’s a fact that doesn’t even need to be stated, but having a life to care for other than his intuitively and naturally brings out the absolute in him. It brings out the happiest version of him. (Also, don’t even get me started on that gut wrenching phone call.)
Joyce Byers and Jim Hopper
If these two don’t rekindle whatever old flame they’ve had then everything’s garbage and we shouldn’t love anything. (I’m just kidding. No I’m not.) But on a serious note, the chemistry — it’s infectious. I definitely juggled the idea of these two finding their way towards something more last season, but after everything we’ve seen this year, I’m all in. And especially after the moment they shared in episode two? Be still my heart. There had to have been something in between them back when they were younger, you don’t share your cigarettes with just anybody and remember to tell the stories years later. But all that aside, it’s Hopper’s devotion to Will that’s left me floored — he cares so deeply for this boy whose own father doesn’t even bother to acknowledge his existence. He cares to be the first to know once something happens, and he most certainly cares about Joyce Byers’ happiness. Faith in someone when the world has gone silence could be everything, and Hopper’s choice to always believe in Joyce showcases that very faith and devotion potently. And that’s not where it ends, Joyce Byers wouldn’t go down to the pits of Hawkins’ hell for just anybody, but she took that fall in order to find Hopper because she too cares immensely. In a place where they’re both easily judged, jaded and broken beyond repair, around one another, all the dirty laundry is welcomed. They don’t need to change, they could just be — one day at a time, whatever’s ahead, they’ll face it together. Whatever’s ahead, the pain, the sorrow, the happiness, much like the cigarettes, will be shared, and they won’t have to run anywhere.
Mike Wheeler and Eleven (Jane Hopper)
Oh the purity. Oh my heart. (I’ll be perfectly honest, I debated writing about these two only because they are kids and I don’t want anything to be taken out of context. The bottom line is I can’t analyze a relationship amongst kids the way I would with adults, but where Mike and Eleven are concerned, it’s the innate purity that leaves me stunned.) They both care about one another so devotedly that it’s almost unbelievable how young they are, and the fact that they’d go to great lengths to protect one another speaks so highly on behalf of their friendship, too. And that’s what they are at the end of the day before anything else — they’re friends, best friends to be exact with a little spark between them that’s so innocent and so ephemeral, we can’t use familiar language to describe it. In the other, they’ve each found a place of familiarity, a place of comfort neither of them could quite understand, and it’s beautiful. And their loyalty that’s everything but fleeting continues to be the anchor that grounds them. (P.S. go ahead and listen to All Time Low’s “Ground Control” featuring Teagan and Sara because it’s Mike and Eleven in a song. You’ll thank me later.)
Top Three Episodes:
Chapter One | “MADMAX”
“MADMAX” set up Stranger Things season 2 remarkably, and I debated between this episode or Chapter Four: “Will the Wise” so much, my head hurt. But at the end of the day we’re going with this one because it gave us a glimpse into the season in a way that felt right. And most importantly, it gave us the chance to see where these kids are at because by the end of the season, they were each in the exact opposite place. It was a reminder of the fact that though they’ve changed, the full throttle into growth would happen from this very moment. The games in the arcade would end with even more terrifying games in the real world, and the lost would find themselves in a place where things would be slightly alright. This is the episode inner demons stir something, and we’d be forced to look back more times than not.
Chapter Eight | “The Mind Flayer”
I don’t know if I’ve ever gotten as much anxiety watching a TV episode as I did during “The Mind Flayer”. I’m talking Steve Harrington in the car with a 13-year-old driving anxiety. Stress level: Joyce Byers all through season one. That said, this episode was intense, but it was also the kind of penultimate episode that the world deserves. And frankly, though one of the saddest episodes on the series, it was also the funniest, the balance of emotions within Stranger Things helps in dark times — it really does. Bob the Brain would soon become Bob Newby, The Superhero, a terrified man who walked right into the mouth of darkness in order to save everyone else. And then for Mike to tell the kids that he’s the one who started Hawkins A.V. Club? Did I cry? Is water wet? But perhaps, the thing that made this episode a true masterpiece was Will’s loved ones trying to get through to him because that scene wasn’t about intriguing storytelling or whatnot, it was about the expression of love and the showcase that togetherness can defeat anything. It was Mike telling the story of how becoming friends with Will was the best thing that happened to him, and Wolfhard’s single-tear delivery of the walk through memory lane crushed me. It was the purest spectacle of friendship I’ve ever seen – crazy together indeed. Jonathan reminding him of the first time they bonded over music, and how unique musicians became their heroes when their very own father continuously failed them. (Charlie Heaton broke me in that scene by the way.) Joyce reminding him of how selfless his heart is because he could never stand to watch another in pain, even as a kid.) It was Schnapp’s duel-sided expressiveness that I still don’t understand how a kid mastered, but here we are, give him all the awards right now. It was the, thrilling realization that Will’s communicating in Morse Code and cracking it just in time before the Mind Flayer realized where they were. And it was that final, heart-pounding, jaw-dropping, perfect moment where Eleven walked in having defeated the “demo-dogs” as they were all geared up for battle.
Chapter Nine | “The Gate”
If I loved this episode less, I might be able to talk about it more. In order for a season finale to be successful, it demands to be thrilling and acutely timed to which “The Gate” was all. And especially because it picked up exactly where “The Mind Flayer” left off, it gave writers the chance to explore every possible storyline in order to wrap it up without a harrowing cliffhanger that’d be solely for shock value. Plus, this is the episode with all the hair-raising, heart-racing climactic performances, and the birth of “official babysitter/mom with the towel on his shoulder” Steve Harrington. Go ahead, give me another series that has had a more perfect season finale, especially for Stranger Things season 2. (We all know it tends to be the worse one of all. The terrible twos, friends.)
In all seriousness, however, “The Gate” was storytelling at its finest with intriguing action sequences, unique humor, honest, sincere conversations with admirable moments of vulnerability, the natural progression of relationships, and the reminder that there’s more with the revelation that Hawkins is still being watched. Yes closing the gate made sense, but we all knew it wasn’t going to be that easy, and though it was anything but for our sweet, bitchin’ Eleven, the reminder that the Mind Flayer is still out there is proof that there’s still so much work to be done. It’s proof that Kali (Eight) will have an even bigger storyline. It’s proof that the lights will continue to flicker, but at least, for a moment, or until “Time After Time” ends, the kids can have their solitude in the form of a slow dance (with no room for Jesus, but it’s okay.)
And in honor of 2017, here are the 17 scenes, I’m tempted to replay over and again (I do.), but don’t worry, you won’t have to read an analysis for each one – we all know we’d end up with another seven more pages.
- Eleven closes the gate
(2×09 “The Gate”)
- The team tries to make contact with Will
(2×08 “The Mind Flayer”)
- Mike tells Will they’ll go crazy together
(2×02 “Trick or Treat, Freak”)
- Nancy dances with Dustin
(2×09 “The Gate)
- Steve wakes up in the car to Max driving
(2×09 “The Gate”)
- Hopper adopts Eleven
(2×09 “The Gate”)
- Barb gets Justice as the truth is uncovered
(2×09 “The Gate”)
- Eleven finds Eight
(2×07 “The Lost Sister”)
- Steve poses as bait for the kids
(2×06 “The Spy”)
- Mike and Eleven reunite
(2×09 “The Gate”)
- The group negotiates and Steve disagrees to all of their ideas
(2×09 “The Gate”)
- The SNOW BALL
(2×09 “The Gate”)
- Harper and Eleven fight | The voicemail
(2×04 “Will the Wise” and 2×06 “The Spy”)
- Eleven dresses up as a ghost
(2×02 “Trick of Treat, Freak”)
- Jim sits with Joyce
(2×08 “The Mind Flayer”)
- Max scares off Billy
(2×09 “The Gate”)
- Will draws the map
(2×04 “Will the Wise”)
If you’re a longtime reader with us, then you know about the fact that I’m now a full-fledged believer in the fact that a show’s second season tends to be the worst. I have no clue if it’s the pressure or what happens in the writer’s room, but it’s easily the weakest, and oftentimes a massive, ridiculous filler. But that wasn’t the case with Stranger Things season 2 because the Duffer Brothers brought us so much more than I ever anticipated we would get. It may have lacked in a few areas, but it’s still the absolute best thing that graced my screen this year, through it’s undeniably strong performances, ridiculously sweet dynamics, and the intriguing, effortlessly evolving storyline, we’ve got ourselves one heck of a promising show. Stranger Things is a pure, perfectly chaotic, profoundly moving marvel.
What are your thoughts on Stranger Things season 2? Let’s discuss because I’m never out of things to say regarding this show.
Gissane (pronounced Geese-enny) or, as people often call her, "Goose," is a Christ fan above all and a romance enthusiast who's taken her Master's degree in English and love for essays into writing lengthy analyses about pop culture.
She is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Marvelous Geeks Media and the co-host of Lady Geeks' Society Podcast. She drinks too much coffee, wants to live in a forest, and cries a lot because of her favorite characters. She's a member of The Cherry Picks and can also be found writing features for MovieWeb and Looper.