A 'Stranger Things 2' report card: Pass or fail?

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A letter grade evaluation on what the show’s second season got right and wrong. You decide if the show perhaps needs a new Dungeon Master. Screenshot from STRANGER THINGS/NETFLIX

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — The long-awaited second season of “Stranger Things,” Netflix’s unanticipated darling, went online on the streaming platform just before one Halloween weekend: a prime time slot for binge-watching. It’s been said that the direction for this season was more cinematic; and, more or less, aimed to broaden the world of the town Hawkins, Indiana that the showrunners, Matt and Ross Duffer or the Duffer Brothers, have built.

Although the season is entertaining as a whole, it feels a little clumsy and uneven, a sort of preamble to what the actual second season should have tackled. The Duffers Brothers maintain that they started to work on it before the first season broke the internet, but it constantly felt like there were too many loose ends they wanted to tie before getting to the meat of what really is up with the Upside Down.

Still, binge we did. Here is a report card of the arcs and additions to the “Stranger Things 2” campaign. You decide if the show perhaps needs a new Dungeon Master.

Warning: major spoilers ahead.

Mad Max and Billy the scapegoat

When you accidentally make your first season’s main jackass kind of lovable, I guess you need to make someone else the bad guy. Despite the already somehow pleasantly bloated ensemble, the show introduces Billy (Dacre Montgomery) as this season’s human baddie. Billy is sleazy-greasy and revels in the kind of anarchy high school boys in suburban America think they can live out. Billy also constantly antagonizes “King Steve” (Joe Keery) and his stepsister, Max (Sadie Sink) or “Mad Max,” who at one point averts Billy’s potential road homicide.

“Mad Max” steps in with the rest of the party a little bit more easily, and she plays a more pivotal, if similarly big-picture inconsequential, role in the series. For most of the series, Max tries to weasel out confidential party information from both Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) and Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) who both have eyes for her, but have wholly different wooing tactics.

Grade: Max’s sometimes-refreshing presence and overall potential as a party member (B) brings Billy’s overall uselessness (C-) up to a curve, rounding out the step sibling move-in grade up to somewhere around a B-.

Single dad Hopper

One of the big questions of the first season was whether or not Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) would return, after a face-off with the Demogorgon and being trapped in the Upside Down. The show tackles that right away, and long story short, Eleven ends up with Hopper (David Harbour) in a cabin he conveniently had in the woods.

Grade: As Hopper soon finds out, cabin fever is real, and it can be real scary when you try to take away the saving grace of television and waffles from a prepubescent power receptacle. Eleven, as Baby Hopper, has been fan fiction fodder, but after the last season wrapped, little options seemed to be available to Eleven’s survival, so this arc gets a B.

The Three Musketeers

One amazing addition to this season is a prolonged peek into some of the main characters’ lives at home. We get to meet Lucas’ sister Erica (Priah Ferguson) — hopefully a series regular by the next season — and Dustin’s mom (Catherine Curtin). We also get to meet their family cat, Mews, who meets its demise because of a pollywog Dustin adopted and named Dart (short for D’Artagnan, from “The Three Musketeers”). Dart turns out to be part-Demogorgon with a taste for cat and nougat. Mike (Finn Wolfhard) is mostly heartbroken, but he does make sure he’s there for his friend, Will (Noah Schnapp).

Grade: There’s nothing upsetting about this arc, but it helps the story plod along, I guess, so it gets a B.

Justice for Barb

Aside from breaking Steve’s heart, Nancy is out to find justice for Barb, the beloved minor character from season one, whose death seems to rattle no one but her parents. Racked with guilt and frustration at Steve’s claim of helplessness, Nancy calls everything around her “bullshit,” and sets off to expose Hawkins Lab along with Will Byers' brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), with whom she’s had weird tension with for over a year.

Grade: The Nancy and Jonathan super detective arc (facilitated by Brett Gelman’s Murray) brings us back to Hawkins Lab, but they actually don’t have much to do with the story — just some resolved sexual tension and a bit of closure for Barb’s family. C-.

Soccer mom Steve

Look, Steve Harrington was a jerk. A jackass, even. And while the end of the first season crowned him with a redemption arc an ‘80s villain could only dream of, the Duffer Brothers seem to have found it necessary for the rest of us to fall in love with him too. Barring the Nancy drama, Steve's story in this tale begins with an unlikely pair-up: him with Dustin. Finding no one else available to help him with the Dart situation, Dustin settles for Steve. And we love him for it. Because we see Steve in a light that Nancy couldn’t and what we see is delightful. And selfless and kind. Viewed from the lens of the first season, Steve’s character development is drastic, but it somehow doesn’t feel forced or nonsensical.

Grade: Steve Harrington transforms into a soccer mom (albeit one that totes around a bat embedded with nails) whose main goal in life is to make sure some kids he never really cared about are safe. Not to flex his good guy muscles or to win the girl over. A.

The makeover sequence no one asked for

Known for their indulgent referencing and soft spot for homages, the Duffer Brothers moved away from Hawkins, expanding the pool of ‘80s references whence to dip. The second season opens with the introduction of a new character, Kali (Linnea Berthelsen), but the potential of her story feels wasted on what  feels like a distraction.

The thing is, even as a standalone episode, Eleven’s journey in “The Lost Sister” doesn’t feel like it fits into the series as smoothly as it could have. It becomes a tiresome detour — what could have been an insightful look into Eleven’s history becomes unnecessary by virtue of its length — to Eleven’s inevitable return to her friends, a pre-teen’s temper tantrum that they could have done away with.

Grade: Despite impeccable acting by Brown, “The Lost Sister” is not quite as bitchin’ as they would want us to believe: D.

A Byers family affair

Fresh from harrowing trauma, no one in the Byers family seems to know what to do post-Upside Down. Joyce (Winona Ryder) brings Will to therapy whenever he gets “episodes”: flickers of the other world he somehow managed to leave behind. Although we never really find out what happened to the Byers dog (seriously — where’s the damn dog?), we do get the momentary comfort of Sean Astin’s dorky but well-meaning Bob Newby, Joyce’s new man. Bob gives Will really bad advice, Jonathan disappears with Nancy just as Will plays host to a swarm of evil, and Joyce keeps trying her best.

Grade: In this season, Will also spells stuff out. Just this time, in Morse code. They’re lucky this kid is smart: A-.

Snow Ball

The culmination of the season happens at the end: the Snow Ball, something the Duffer Brothers said was their pinpointed end goal. We get a lot of tender moments here between the characters, but much of it rings hollow. The road to Snow Ball feels like a tumultuous and confusing afterthought, that when you get to the end, even though you like it, it doesn’t feel nearly as satisfying as it ought to be. It doesn’t feel right to grade this part. It feels like it’s something they should get to have and keep.

Grade: Although there were a lot of good things in season two that were immensely enjoyable, they came at the expense of the other good things that set the first season apart. It might have been a classic case of wanting to do too much, but “Stranger Things 2” doesn’t feel as whole and complete as the first season did. Maybe that’s on purpose — to leave things a bit more open-ended for the next season — but maybe they should’ve kept their eyes set on this part of the story first.

 

Final grade: B-