While some fans are probably already pestering Netflix's social media accounts asking when the fourth season of Stranger Things will arrive, I'm not even on Season 3 yet. In fact, as of this writing, it's been roughly 48 hours since I finished the second season, which I started a month ago. Die-hard fans may find this an appalling amount of time, but I would like to remind them that it took me two damn years to watch the first one, so relatively speaking I basically raced through the followup. And as I got through it I found myself more and more confused about the sentiments I was seeing on Twitter when I tweeted that I was finally watching it, that S2 was a letdown, S3 got things back on track, etc. Because if anything, I saw this season as an improvement over its initial run.
To recap for those who didn't read the aforementioned piece, I liked the first season but found it slow-going at first, taking half its run of eight episodes to start to really gel for me. Granted, this season didn't have to deal with the introductions, so the Duffer Brothers could more or less hit the ground running (at least, once they got us up to speed with what's changed since we last saw everyone - it picks up just under a year later). Interestingly, the marketing heavily focused on the boys in their Ghostbusters Halloween costumes, which for whatever reason I took to mean that this season would be a build-up TO Halloween (especially since this no-brainer setting was skipped over in the first season, which began about a week *after* October 31st), so I was surprised to see that things basically kicked off with the event and the season largely focused on its aftermath, leaving the Proton packs behind.
In fact, this cute tribute to one of 1984's signature calling cards is one of the few times the boys are having fun, or even all together. Will's trying to get back to a normal life when he starts getting sick, as it turns out the monster has a link to him and is basically a virus for Will's host body - he comparatively got off easy in season one, simply being MIA for most of the time. Because of this immediate threat, there aren't a lot of scenes of the quartet hanging out after the first episode, but this was actually to its benefit - it allowed the kids who weren't Mike (Finn Wolfhard) to have their own time in the spotlight and get relationships of their own to explore. In the earlier episodes, they set up a bit of a love triangle as both Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) and Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) set their sights on Max (Sadie Sink), a new girl who has beaten their high scores at the arcade, but after a few encounters it's clear that Lucas will be more proactive about it, as Dustin gets distracted by "Dart", a lizard-like creature that you know will ultimately grow and become a monster.
As Dart wreaks havoc and Dustin tries to keep him under lock and key, the lad eventually crosses paths with Steve (Joe Keery), and the two basically become best bros - this might be my favorite thing the series has done so far, in fact. Steve was introduced as the jock asshole boyfriend of Nancy (Natalia Dyer), and naturally you were just waiting for him to be out of the way so that she could be with Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), i.e. a character that might be offed or just be phased out of relevance as the show went on. But at the very end of season one, we saw his human side come out, even helping Nancy with a gift of a camera to Jonathan (replacing the one he himself broke earlier in the season), and the show's writing team clearly saw that as the start of a full-on shift for the character. While he's at first rolling his eyes at Dustin's stories, before long he's fully invested himself in helping him out, as well as Max and Lucas once they join the fray, becoming a surrogate older brother to them all (Max's actual older brother, Billy, is basically the asshole Steve could have easily been).
As a bonus, when Nancy does indeed stop fighting her feelings for Jonathan, he takes it like a champ, telling her it's OK and continuing his current task, which at that moment happens to be finding heaters to help cure the little brother of the guy who just essentially stole his girlfriend. MY MAN! So he's like a full-on member of the group by the end of the season, though he continues to be best bros with Dustin, even driving him to the school dance and giving him advice on how to attract the attention of the girls he may want to dance with. I've been informed this continues into season 3, which has reignited my desire to watch it sooner than later (a drive that was partially deflated upon learning that, despite David Harbour's claims, it was NOT inspired by Fletch). As everyone packs into theaters to see Hobbs & Shaw, where the latter man has been promoted to hero without answering for killing Han (or countless people in a hospital that he seemingly rampaged through), it's nice to see a real redemption unfold naturally. I also enjoyed Hopper still taking special care of this group; when Eleven returns and Mike freaks out upon discovering Hopper has known she was alive all this time, he takes the kid aside to talk to him "man to man" (and lets Mike push him around a bit, knowing he needed to blow off steam). It's really quite sweet.
Another nice surprise was seeing Paul Reiser's character turn out to be a good guy, despite more or less taking Matthew Modine's place as the guy in charge of the secret evil lab. Given that his most prominent genre role was that of the traitorous Burke in Aliens, I figured it was stunt casting, and kept waiting for the inevitable moment when his seemingly genial behavior would cease and he'd turn against our heroes. But that moment never came; if anything he's more evil at first than he is by the end - he has his secrets and issues stern warnings to Nancy and Jonathan re: exposing the lab (Barb's parents still don't know she's dead, so that's their mission). But about two-thirds through the season, when some other government assholes suggest a plan to destroy the monsters that will also kill Will, Reiser's true colors shine through: he tells the guy, essentially, to f himself. Then he's helping everyone escape the lab as the "demo-dogs" slaughter the place, and even pulls some strings and gets Eleven legally adopted by Hopper. He's the anti-Burke!
So what exactly is the cause for these cooler takes on the season? Eleven's role in the sophomore outing seems to be one reason why some folks were down on it, in particular the 7th episode, "The Lost Sister", which ditches pretty much everyone else and focuses exclusively on her as she runs away from Hopper's after a fight (he won't let her out of the house for her safety) and reunites with Kali, aka "008", a girl she was with in the lab in their younger days. Kali now runs with some petty criminals in Chicago, and Eleven temporarily joins up with them, her powers being quite helpful as they rob convenience stores and such. But the group has also been tracking down lab employees to get revenge, and Eleven can't bring herself to harm one of them when she sees that he has daughters. That, along with a vision of Hopper and Mike both in danger back in Hawkins, has her splitting from this group.
Again, I haven't watched Season 3, but it appears Kali does not show up again in that one, and thus I can assume the other gang members do not either. The standalone nature of this episode makes it easy for me to see why people might have been down on it (perhaps even more in retrospect), but the idea of it ruining the season is absurd, especially when y'all binge the damn thing anyway. If it was a network show and you had to wait a week for it, and then another week to pick back up with Will and the others, I could see the frustration, but not when the next one was right there waiting for you already. Add in the reveals about Eleven's history (which meant the brief return of Amy Seimetz as Becky, yay!) and at worst the episode was an unusual detour, but an essential part of Eleven's journey thus far (not to mention a fine showcase for Millie Bobby Brown).
Ultimately, I think the real culprit for this recent "season 2 was bad" sentiment is people bingeing its nine episodes in one day and not really remembering it two years later. There's plenty of data to show that watching an entire season of a TV show at once (as many proudly admit to doing) will leave you with minimal lasting memories of it as time goes on, and I suspect these claims (none of which I recall hearing at the time of its release in October of 2017, mind you) are the result of a single "off" episode being the main thing some of these folks specifically remember, coupled with the high expectations for season 2 versus the out of nowhere success of the first. To each their own of course, but if you ask me - the pacing was much improved, the characters grew in smart and enjoyable ways, the danger actually got real (with Joyce's poor boyfriend, Bob, getting eaten by the monsters after becoming a major character throughout the season, unlike Barb who was a goner by the beginning of episode 3), and it contained one of the greatest double entendres of all time thanks to Brett Gelman's "So, Jonathan, how was the pull out?" What's not to love?