Can Things Get Any Stranger Than This?

After some belated, post-Thanksgiving binging, I have finally finished Season 2 of the hit Netflix series Stranger Things. This new batch (Gremlins reference intended) of episodes was very well done, and transformed me into one thoroughly satisfied viewer. At the same time, though, I was plagued with concern at season’s end, because I can’t help but wonder: is Stranger Things henceforth doomed to diminishing returns?

The show’s sophomore effort adeptly (and no doubt self-conconsciously) follows the Alien to Aliens trajectory: the blight is more widespread, and a singular menace expands into a multitude of monstrous antagonists. And just as Sigourney Weaver’s explosive heroics at the end of the second film seem to shut the door on LV-426’s alien-infestation problem, Eleven’s climactic closing of the gate (mending the plot-inciting rift she accidentally created back in Season 1) in the finale appears to draw the two-season story arc to its logical endpoint. At least until the just-when-you-though-it-was-over final shot shows the shadow of the Mind Flayer still looming over Hawkins. But if the coming seasons of Stranger Things continue to reach out with Lovecraftian tentacles and the same cosmic-horror Sturm und Drang, could viewers grow fed up with the Upside Down? The dilemma here is that if the show actually takes the story in a whole new direction, it inevitably does so at the risk of believability, since its hard to imagine something else significantly paranormal just happening to be visited upon the same small town in the middle of the Indianan nowhere.

Season 2 repeatedly recurs to the previous year’s episodes, sounding variations on established themes. For instance, Upside-Down-linked Christmas lights festooned the Byers’ house last season; this time around, it’s a mosaic of crayon drawings that aids Joyce’s attempt to rescue her son Will from otherworldly clutches. But can Stranger Things keep dipping into the same well? At what point do such callbacks have to be called formulaic? When does familiar imagery (I’m looking at you, blood-dripping-from-Eleven’s-nostril) start to become cliched and uninteresting?

The nostalgic feel of the series is undeniably a big factor in its success, and timely pop cultural references are just as plentiful in Season 2. Again, though, I worry that this can’t last. My concern isn’t that the writers will run out of 80’s source material to invoke, but that the expectation of such allusive maneuvers (the Internet is inundated with enumerations of Stranger Things’ movie/music/Stephen King references) will cause the Easter eggs to grow too numerous and distractingly overt rather than subtly dispersed.

Perhaps my biggest fear is that Stranger Things will lose dramatic steam if it continues to allow its cast to survive dire straits. Call it the X-Files factor: the weekly jeopardy that Scully and Mulder were placed in failed to be terribly moving, because there was little doubt that the duo would be right back on the case in the next episode. Conversely, The Walking Dead creates maximal tension because the audience is painfully aware that any character, of any age, can go at any time (for me, the fate of Sophia remains one of the biggest gut-punches that show ever threw). Will Stranger Things ever have the courage–and the green light from Netflix–to kill off someone other than a minor (adult) character or a Hawking Lab spear-carrier?

Lastly, time does not appear to be on the side of the producers of Stranger Things. As can already be seen in Season 2, the show’s young actors are maturing rapidly. They are likely to be approaching puberty’s far border by the time Season 3’s episodes roll around. At that point, will these characters still strike viewers as cute and lovable, as vulnerable? As Mike and company move from middle school to high school, will their nerdy activities continue to be endearing or start to feel awkward to behold?

I don’t mean to sound like a curmudgeonly critic or doomsayer. To date, the Duffer Brothers have given us no reason whatsoever to doubt their storytelling prowess, so it’s not inconceivable that they will masterfully navigate any potential obstacles in the show’s ongoing path. I am holding out hope that my concerns will prove unfounded, and that Stranger Things will furnish more episodes of the same high quality, yet also marked by an entertaining difference.

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