From Sequel to Saga: Stranger Things Season Two Needs to Play the Long Game

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From Sequel to Saga: <i>Stranger Things</i> Season Two Needs to Play the Long Game

Some not-insignificant part of me was dreading the inevitable announcement for a solid couple of weeks, the way Will Byers must have felt as he was being stalked by the Demogorgon in the Upside Down. There I was, hiding in my Twittercave, singing “Should I Stay Or Should I Go” under my breath, when it finally got me:

It wasn’t a surprise, of course, that we’ll be returning to Hawkins, Indiana for the fall of ‘84 sometime next year. The only question was in what capacity. As Stranger Things creators Matt and Ross Duffer revealed to EW, they considered a number of possibilities for the second season—among them creating a Fargo-like anthology, or flashing forward a decade—before settling on just advancing the calendar a full year and sticking with their stellar cast. To anyone who was paying attention to their hopes that the show will feature the tweenage stars growing up on camera like the Harry Potter kids, this should have been obvious. The Duffer Brothers also teased some new characters, a universe that will expand into both the Upside Down and new earthly locations, and the ubiquitous #JusticeForBarb.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I loved Stranger Things. In one of the bleakest summers for film anyone can remember, this was the blockbuster the theaters lacked: a gripping narrative, tight writing and direction, and, most importantly, award-worthy performances from young actors who stepped the hell up to the plate. I want my own Dustin Henderson to converse with me about nerdy stuff and sniff out chocolate pudding like one of those truffle-hunting pigs. But looking back on the show after some time, the glow has dimmed and its flaws have begun to show. I’d detail them here, but my Paste colleague Michael Snydel and Vulture’s Sean T. Collins have effectively summed up all the issues I had with Stranger Things; for this piece’s purpose, it suffices to say that Season One was a gorgeous, unforgettable summer fling that wanted for character development.

For better or worse, we have here a show that blew up on a mix of throwback appeal, unusually prescient acting, and admittedly perfect execution of what it was trying to do. That’s all anyone needs out of a summer blockbuster film. The question now, then, is this: where does Stranger Things go next? What’s going to make Season Two worth watching? The good news is that the show will have a chance to make some tweaks and correct its shortcomings. The bad news is that I don’t think it will be so easy.

I keep going back to the Duffer Brothers’ desire to build their baby into the Harry Potter of the 2010s. That’s all well and good; I think the public would appreciate a novel franchise in this dark era of superhero movie after goddamn superhero movie. But to be the next Harry Potter, you have to be able to play the “long game” perfectly. One of the most underrated aspects of J.K. Rowling’s saga is that she planned the whole thing out, all seven books, before she had even watched Sorcerer’s Stone become the biggest cultural phenomenon since Star Wars. The broad strokes of character development were there from the start; Harry’s identity as a horcrux, and therefore the fact that he would need to die at Voldemort’s hands, was sneakily revealed before the end of the first book.

With the plot and series mythology firmly in place from the time Harry is dropped on the Dursleys’ doorstep, Rowling was able to focus not only upon building in sociopolitical and philosophical themes, but also upon constructing characters who grew with their audience and showcased impressive emotional depth from nearly the beginning. Hermione’s turn from arrogant, prissy know-it-all, to vulnerable, lonely girl crying alone in the bathroom was the first and most vital step in her transformation into one of modern literature’s great female heroes. Ron Weasley was able to become the spirit of the reader only because he was immediately recognizable on the Hogwarts Express as a kid whose loyalty and humor covered a dangerous inferiority complex, the type of which any everyman would suffer when surrounded not only by accomplished family members but also by accomplished friends. And Harry… well, Harry’s what Eleven could have been, the prophecy child who undergoes a difficult adjustment to a new world and then has to commit a self-annihilating act. We could sympathize with Harry, though, because he was human in a way that Stranger Things hasn’t yet allowed Eleven to be. From these strong roots—by the end of Sorcerer’s Stone, each of the main trio has an inner life the likes of which we don’t witness in any of Stranger Things’ kids—Rowling set the stage for an epic that will stand the test of time.

(A quick aside: not bringing Eleven back in Season Two, as the Duffers suggested was a possibility, would be a huge disservice to her unfinished character, a ballsy move simply for the sake of showing off one’s balls—that is to say, gross.)

Stranger Things, at least as far as we know, doesn’t really have a long game yet. That much is clear from the variety of different formats the Duffer Brothers mentioned considering for Season Two. If the show had gone the anthology route, we’re not having this conversation; we’re narrowing our focus to asking for more dynamic characters. But since Stranger Things wants to become a long-running classic, we have to demand a series-long arc to tie together the various plotlines it’ll explore. A show that relies this much on narrative and style needs as much time as possible to fill in the details of its characters, since it’s extremely impractical to hope that anyone can undergo a profound maturation whilst on the run from some demon from an alternate dimension. The more down time Stranger Things affords itself, the better it will become in the big picture, and it can only really achieve the necessary breathers if we don’t have to sprint for eight (next season, nine) episodes to tie up a standalone story.

But I already see a little trouble ahead. The Duffer Brothers are talking about Season Two in terms of being a “sequel,” albeit a quality one like The Temple of Doom or Aliens. (What, did you expect them to say Jaws 2? Of course they’re aiming high.) There are a number of common pitfalls for sequels: 1.) they become so beholden to replicating the magic of the original that they don’t take enough risks; 2.) they stray too far from the original and lose everyone in the weeds of try-hardiness; and 3.) in each of the above two cases, the focus is far more on crafting an engaging new plot than on continuing to develop characters, and the people who made us love the original become mummified, wooden zombies. Sequels that are merely continuations of a preexisting narrative avoid most of these problems, because they’re not concerned with plot in the slightest. It’s much rarer to find good sequels that were constructed from scratch, and most of them (the Rocky series until Rocky V, Sergio Leone’s Man With No Name trilogy, Pixar’s self-derivative works minus the abhorrent Cars 2) came from originals that featured better character development than did Season One of Stranger Things. That leaves the show a lot of room to improve—and therefore a lot of reason for hope for Season Two—but on the flip side of that coin, it also means there’s substantially less starting material.

Worldbuilding will doubtless be important going forward, and it looks like a great deal of focus will be placed on the nature of the Upside Down next year. But what’s the point if there’s no demarcated end toward which the Duffer Brothers guide their brilliant cast of kids? Upon learning that Hawkins’ interdimensional gate is still open, my cartoon-centric mind immediately turned to Nickelodeon’s The Legend of Korra. That wonderful series ran for four seasons, and at the end of the second, its titular main character opened a portal between the human and spirit worlds. However, although the portal played a vital role in the plot of all subsequent seasons and fundamentally changed the show’s universe, its most important function was to provide Korra with more opportunities for emotional and spiritual development. If the Upside Down is merely a source of monsters for the gang to fight and destroy, there’s no compelling reason to have kept it open in the first place. My hope is that the Duffer Brothers will utilize that hellish landscape as a sort of proving ground over what hopefully ends up being multiple seasons, a place where characters must voyage to grow in some important way. It would be a great start to send Mike and his friends on a lengthy voyage into the Upside Down to bring Eleven back to the world of the living.

Most crucially, I think these developments hinge on the show’s creative team thinking of Season Two as a season of television and not as a film, the way they approached Season One. Perhaps in thinking of their project as a movie, the Duffer Brothers unconsciously focused more on the visual and narrative aspects, and spent less time developing the dynamism in their characters that will need to carry the show beyond its wildly popular debut effort. Movies, from their origin, have been in the business of total sensory escapism, whereas great television has mostly been character-focused and relied on excellent storytelling. [There’s an excellent podcast featuring Bret Easton Ellis and Quentin Tarantino discussing this distinction at length.] Even though Netflix and the modern habit of binge-watching has blurred the line between the two mediums, the fact remains that movies stand alone and television show seasons do not. The hybrid is the miniseries, which Stranger Things could have been. But in choosing to build Season Two directly out of Season One and not pursue the anthology route, the Duffer Brothers chose to become a television series, and therefore consigned themselves to the requirements of the medium. And in a television world that increasingly favors the character development potential offered by the long game, the show will have to start thinking, not episodes, but seasons ahead. That means building in down time around events that advance toward an ending we won’t see until at least 2020; it means constructing a world that give the characters more room to flourish and grow, instead of constantly putting them under the plot gun; and, yes, it actually does mean #JusticeForBarb. Can’t have loose ends in the long game.

Stranger Things chose to stay instead of go; let’s hope it’s worth the ride, and not just a rehash.

Zach Blumenfeld is a regular Paste contributor. Selfishly, he would also like to see at least one Rush song in the Season Two soundtrack, because Mike and his friends are the type of misfits who would totally have listened to Rush.