After laying the groundwork for a cast of characters more versed in empathy than in Season One, Stranger Things immediately turns around to display the potential weaknesses of this development. In “The Pollywog” and “Will the Wise,” we’re reminded that when people care more about others, actions are more likely to follow. Potentially, very stupid actions.
These aren’t necessarily spawned from personality alterations born of physical trauma, like those found in the Phineas Gage case, which Mr. Clarke (Randall P. Havens) discusses in what must be the most eccentric middle-school science class ever. More like finding an alien amphibian and keeping it (after fighting off a demon less than a year ago) because you’ve got a crush on a girl. That’s what happens to Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) after he investigates the trash can outside his house emitting Stomp levels of racket.
His little monster slug loves Three Musketeers bars, is christened d’Artagnan (it’s cooler than Athos, Porthos or Aramis), and—as all mysterious creatures do when fed by humans—begins growing at an alarming rate. The sci-fi time bomb continues to tick because Dustin likes Max (Sadie Sink) and girls love weird pollywogs. Right? If that plan seems bad, don’t worry. Everyone else is making poor decisions, too. An iron rod would’ve been much cleaner, but the psychological trauma affecting the squad’s choices is a pubescence that no health class slideshow could have prepared them for.
Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) is one of the afflicted, as we learn that she’s been attempting to communicate with Mike (Finn Wolfhard) during her detainment at the cabin. The show builds up the relationship between her and Hopper (David Harbour) through a cleaning montage that shows rule-building and trust, just so we understand the depth of her disappointment in him for stowing her away with no clear end in sight. This is just another prison, and Eleven won’t be caged quietly—so she makes like a rebellious teen and goes to see her crush.
This strange escape parallels that of the nasty frog now known as Dart (because “d’Artagnan” was already a bit too highbrow for a show forcing in Mr. Mom references wherever it can) and the pair create a labyrinth of rapidfire editing in some winding school hallways. Two manhunts are simultaneously underway, both ending in decisions made out of jealousy. Eleven sees Mike talking to Max, which makes her feel forgotten and betrayed by the only non-Hopper presence in her life, and Dustin conceals his baby baddie because Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) seems to be hitting it off more with Max. Dart, unsurprisingly yet still effectively, decides to evolve into the newest stage in its Pokémon-like transformation towards demogorgon-hood and nobody seems nearly worried enough.
Missing from these perhaps too-lighthearted shenanigans is Will (Noah Schnapp), who—following the advice of Bob (Sean Astin)—decides to turn and face his “recurring Upside Down visions” problem. “Facing your problems” turns out to be excellent advice if your problems are almost anything besides an eight-story hell-monster made of shadow tornadoes, because if you face it then, the monster possesses you in a really disturbing, nightmare-in-every-orifice way.
Possession is much cooler to deal with as a group than disappearance because, from a narrative standpoint, everything important is within reach and it becomes a puzzle to solve rather than an emptiness to fill. The puzzle pieces are clear because of the willingness of Will’s friends and family to believe him. The idea is bandied about that Will has truesight, a Dungeons and Dragons ability to see through illusions and different planes of existence. I love that D&D is the Rosetta Stone through which the party can understand why Will is an underworld punching bag. Some people need ranting talk show hosts to cope with the president, some kids need D&D to deal with sci-fi PTSD.
Now, if you’ll allow a nerd to get nerdy, I’d like to entertain a popular theory. The D&D campaign from Season One revolved around a demogorgon, which is what the boys dubbed the Upside Down monster. The big bad final boss of that campaign was a thessalhydra (just a big mouth surrounded by hydra heads), which people thought was going to be in Season Two. However, ignoring that the shadow monster isn’t like this at all, there are some interesting points to look at. The “thessal-” monsters were made by a powerful lich, and the mad scientists at the Department of Energy (where the pumpkin plague and the dimensional rift emanate from) seem to fit that bill nicely. Those creatures are also genetically unstable so they can adapt wildly. This either makes for an extended puberty metaphor or I just made you read a paragraph about D&D for no reason.
That said, at least you didn’t respond to that paragraph with the hokiest line from these episodes, asking me to explain “in English, please.” Aside from some tragically generic dialogue, the blowhards of the series get their due often and relatively early.
Hopper’s well-meaning Mad Dad clashes with his psychic ward, which brings out some of the best acting of the series. Harbour goes big, swirling the middle of the Venn Diagram between dickish and overbearingly protective so that it becomes the single circle Eleven sees it as. Her punkish pre-teen X-Men phase makes sense—she’s realizing that sure, there are consequences for her actions, but as long as people are lying to her and she can keep throwing them around with her mind, it’s much easier to ignore them.
Exploring that side of Eleven, the side of unbridled power and hormone-influenced morality, is some of the season’s best stuff. Just as in the first season, the writing is often at its most clever when she’s alone, allowing her to be curious about the world and show off her (newly) complete confidence in her powers at the same time. Digging up a lead about her mom, Terry (Aimee Mullins), isn’t just a victory for a newly-emancipated El, it’s another betrayal by Hopper. On top of her recent spurning by Mike, El’s crusade becomes understandably self-centered. Jealousy and disappointment continue to drive these characters as they become closer to one another, things getting rockier as they get more intimate.
The exception to (or at least complication of) this rule is Nancy (Natalia Dyer). Nancy’s reclaimed some agency from the poor writing of the first season and decided that, yes, she really does care about her dead friend—even if it’s to assuage some of her own guilt. She and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) come up with a cockamamie scheme to record the shadowy figures they know had something to do with Barb’s death. It takes a silly but fun scene that exploits the underused fact that Duck Duck Goose is the childhood game with the most inherent tension to get any momentum going with their subplot, but seeing Nancy escape the curse of idleness and gaining purpose is worth an interminable walk-and-talk or two.
Stranger Things, as I predicted, has some trouble balancing its character work with all its plot. Joyce (Winona Ryder) almost becomes a running gag because of how one-note she is, but it’s also clear that the show is cognizant of how she is defined by her grief and panic. Jonathan, not as lucky, exists as a supportive prop for Nancy, while Hopper’s busy rushing between the two competing storylines of Eleven and Will.
I’m excited about Will’s possession works because of its focus. It is old wounds being more susceptible to reopening. His drawings, trying to purge the new knowledge he has thanks to his parasite, are not as cool a visual gimmick as the first season’s christmas lights but still enough to pique one’s interest. Before Hopper confirmed it, they promised navigation in our heroes’ future, be it on secret roads, secret tunnels, or the less-secret-but-extremely-unlikely scenario of shrinking down and going inside Will’s circulatory system. Tunnels, running underneath the town, is analogous to the underlying interpersonal threads connecting the episodes’ plot developments and plenty spooky—especially thanks to a final revolving shot that pulls back from Hopper and whispers an aching reminder that the Upside Down is not far away and Hopper, after alienating Eleven, is terribly, deeply alone.
Read Paste’s review of episodes 1 and 2 here.
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages, and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.