The Second Half Of Stranger Things Understands Sacrifice

Hello, everyone! I’ve had several days to digest after watching the last four episodes of Netflix’s new series Stranger Things and I’m ready to write my second review of the season. In my last review, I touched on what I liked about the show, such as its score and design, but noted that in order for the show to be great, it needed to move past its homage to 80’s cinema. The second half of the season wasn’t perfect, but it had a strong emotional core and some surprising twists. The 80’s homages were too integral to the storylines for the show to completely shake off, but as the episodes got better, even the John Hughes rip-offs started to shine.

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Oh, Steve.

Synopsis: The discovery of Will’s corpse in the quarry officially ends the investigation into his disappearance, but many in Hawkins are unconvinced that the body is truly Will’s. The middle school trio of Mike, Lucas,  and Dustin learn about the existence of a parallel dimension, the Upside Down, from Eleven, and attempt to find the gate. Meanwhile,  good-girl Nancy and Will’s brother Jonathan hunt the otherworldly monster that has taken Will with guns, lures, and fire. Joyce Byers and Sheriff Hopper uncover the mystery behind Eleven’s powers and the secret government officials who are prepping her as a weapon of mass destruction. In the final showdown, all three groups play their part, with Nancy and Jonathan luring the monster from the Upside Down into our world so that Hopper and Joyce can find Will, barely alive, and bring him back to Earth. The middle-schoolers try to hide Eleven from the government, but are saved by the intrusions of the monster.  Even though Will has been found alive, El must sacrifice herself to kill the monster and keep the rest of Hawkins safe.

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My take: By the fifth episode, titled “The Flea and the Acrobat,” Stranger Things has begun accelerating towards it climax. The relationships between each character become more intimate and fraught, the action more urgent. Eleven served as an intriguing subplot for the first half of the season, but is thrust into the foreground in the second half. Her complex relationship with Mike drives much of the investigation of the Upside Down. She tries to help him and hinder in him in turn, which causes Lucas, always the skeptic, to grow distrustful. I grew frustrated at some of El’s actions in episodes five and six because they all seemed impeded by her inconsistent grasp on the English language. She could understand rambling conversations between Mike and Dustin, but couldn’t tell Lucas that she was trying to protect them from the monster by messing with their compasses. The little rift between Mike and Lucas is a silly distraction that follows the familiar beats of the classic bros before hoes feud. Luckily, everyone makes up by the next episode so that El can save Mike and Dustin and Lucas can conveniently alert the others to the fact that the bad guys are coming. Most importantly, El finally learns the golden rule of middle school friendships:

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While these episodes demonstrate El’s complicated role in the boys’ trio, it also shows the viewers the complicated hand she’s had in every event since the beginning. The build-up to the explanation of the monster’s release has been teased with El’s flashbacks in every episode, but it’s not until the last few that it all starts to come together. El’s time in the Upside Down was my favorite parts of the season. I love the way the Duffer Brothers imagined this parallel dimension as a place of complete darkness where El is the only source of light. It was a beautiful and original take on telekenesis. The reveal that El, through trespassing in the monster’s dimension, caused the rift between Earth and the Upside Down was heartbreaking, but it gave her sacrifice so much more importance. All this time it seems like she is only a distraction in the show, but she’s really the story’s driving force. Her “death” (for I’m pretty sure she’s only temporarily gone from the show), is both an act of martyrdom and a punishment for her sins. She saves the boys’ lives, therefore cleansing herself of the blood of Will, Barbara, and all the other random citizens who were hunted by the monster she indirectly released.

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El’s Iron Giant moment is one unexpected turn in the plot of Stranger Things. Most missing child stories end with the happily ever after, but Stranger Things takes a different approach, emphasizing that while Mike and Co are glad to have Will back, the hole left by El’s death can’t be filled. Nothing can be the way it was, not just because Will is still haunted by his time in the Upside Down, but also because his disappearance has irrevocably changed the relationships of those around him. Nancy might remain Steve’s girlfriend, but she’ll still hold feelings for Jonathan. Mike will continue his friendship with Will, but a part of him will always blame Will for the loss of El. And Joyce, Jonathan, and Will can try to make life continue on as usual, but as Jonathan’s new role of Will’s protective escort shows, they can’t pretend to have never felt loss.  The bittersweet epilogue of Stranger Things leaves many questions unanswered, which will provide good story fodder for the next season. I had doubts that this show had enough of a story for two seasons, but the epilogue put that fear to rest.

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I enjoyed the second half of Stranger Things far more than the first, but there were still some areas that I wish were taken out. For one, I did not like that Mike and El’s relationship took a turn for the romantic. Not because it was unrealistic, but because there wasn’t a single relationship between two characters of the opposite sex that didn’t turn romantic. Mike and El, Nancy and Steve, Nancy and Jonathan, and even Joyce and Hopper at one point, if the gross cop Callahan’s rumors were to be believed. I had the same problem with Nancy and Jonathan’s relationship; it was romantic for the sake of being romantic, not because they had anything in common or any chemistry. I was really, really glad that Nancy stayed with Steve, because if she had left him for Jonathan, that would have been the typical “loner nerd gets the hot girl” story, which I’m extremely sick of.  Steve was a douche at times, but he tried his best, and he redeemed himself by sticking around to help Nancy and Jonathan.

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What is this nonsense? Stop it!

Several other characters are underserved by clichés. Tommy and Carol , Steve’s mean friends, never change or grow throughout the series. Tommy even gets the eye-rolling job of telling Steve to “run away, just like he always does.” Having never seen Steve run away from anything, this seems a little out of place, especially since he does tries his best to rectify his mistakes in the next episodes. The weird thing is that Tommy and Carol don’t even fit the stereotype of mean, popular kids since the only friends they have are each other. In the same vein, the Mike and Co’s bullies take a Steven King turn into psycho character, which is not only a cliché, but also inconsistent with their character. How many times do we need to say it, writers? A bully who throws insults or pushes a character around is not equivalent to a bully who threatens to cut out someone’s teeth unless their friend jumps into the quarry. Those are NOT EQUIVALENT! These character failings are the main drawback in a series that would have benefitted by cutting all the deadweight storylines, such as the bullying and the romance, and sticking to the fun stuff: parallel dimensions.

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Final Consensus: Stranger Things is a beautiful, emotional show that gets stronger and stronger with each episode. Clichés abound, but so do unexpected gems like Eleven, Joyce, and Mike. The Upside Down is a unique creation with a design so harrowing and intriguing that you’ll want to keep watching through your fear. The Duffer Brothers managed to create a wonderful little show. I can’t wait to see next season. 4.5 / 5 Demogorgons.

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