Words: Stranger Things 2, Episode 9 Microblog (Much Spoilers, Etc.)

The Good: An awesome ending to an awesome show. I’m really not sure what to say about it that wasn’t great. In some ways, it reminded me of The Lord Of The Rings, with El and Hopper going into the Gate to seal it while the rest of the gang takes on the role of Aragorn and company by distracting the evil forces with various forms of fire. And unlike the previous season, we are not left with much of a cliffhanger.

The Bad: If you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m a natural quibbler, so before reading this, understand that none of this makes the show less than good. It irritated me from the start that no one tried heat on Will before this. As Joyce says, why were they giving it what it wanted for so long? Also, I wish the tension between Max and El had been more resolved in a more concrete fashion. That just felt as though it was left hanging.
One thing I meant to say in a previous post and forgot to, about Max and her douchebag older brother:

The tension that had been building around their origin and appearance was both weirdly heightened and killed by the appearance of their parents. Brother’s father had the weird effect of making me want to cheer him on by smacking around his son who desperately needed a smacking around, but also to want to shoot him because the odds are that he’s the reason his son is such a douche in the first place. We still don’t know exactly why Brother blames Max for the move from California, and until seeing the parents arrive, I thought these two were actually on their own. I leave it to the writers to wind this up in Season 3, but for now it feels flat.

And oh, gods, please PLEASE don’t really drag us through the stomach-twisting awfulness of an affair between douchey Brother and Mike and Nancy’s mom. Just barf.

Further Questions: Is Brenner alive? How and what is he doing? Obviously, the Thing in the Upside Down s still very much alive and wanting to get back to our world. Can it without some sort of assistance? We’ve met Eleven and Eight, which means there are potentially at least nine other Gifted we could encounter. Will we ever?
And is Steve really okay with where things ended up, or is he plotting something in that mind of his…

Final Thoughts: I’d really love to have some more indication on what the real nature of the Upside Down is. So far, the whole thing really has read as if it were D&D come to life, which is cute, but ridiculous. I keep wanting  better explanation, such as that it is an alternate timeline where Something Bad Came To Earth. I just find it hard to believe in a universe where things are built by no one and are always decayed.
In the course of this blog, I have seen a bit of fan speculation that Mike may be (or should be) killed off. I hope not. I think that would be the absolute wrong move. It would feel like a very artificial way to torture El and make her less human. The love story between El and Mike, and its innocence, is the heart and soul of this story. To delay it is certainly legitimate: it has to be laid on the line to make it worth something. To destroy it is to destroy the work.

Words: Stranger Things 2, Episode 8 Microblog (Much Spoilers, Etc.)

The Good: I really love what they did with Bob’s character in this episode. Here’s a man who has every reason to run from the strange situation he’s been thrust into, to refuse to believe what’s going on, and yet he sticks with it every step of the way. He steps forward to place himself in mortal danger not because he wants to prove himself, but because he knows he’s the only one who can do what needs to be done: resetting the computer system. One of my favorite lines in the series has to be: “Well, teach me BASIC.” “Oh, sure Sheriff. How about I teach you German to go with that. Or French; would you like to learn French?” Likewise, Paul Reiser’s character lays it on the line, becoming a true leader. These guys are men. Real men, who do what real men ought to do.
I love — more than I can say — the fact they did something with the creature’s mind control of Will that is so rarely well done: giving him agency down to the very last, figuring out how to send the coded message to his friends. That kicked ass, being very well-established and reasonable.
And finally, there was the return of El, which was everything it should have been.
The Bad: I really hate what they did with Bob’s character in this episode. First of all, the whole “Somehow, he forgot his gun in the control room” thing was just stupid. Especially given that how he died, that gun would have been 100% useless. It was incredibly predictable that Bob would die, which is the major reason I wish they had not killed him off. Frankly, it felt like they did that just to make Joyce more miserable, and I am really tired of seeing Joyce miserable. It is taking a character who is in many ways admirable, if understandably overbearing and needy (who wouldn’t be?) and hammering her flat by never allowing her a single moment of relief from loss.
Further Questions: How will El close the Gate? And how many more will we lose? And please, please, please, don’t kill El for reals this time.

Words: Stranger Things 2, Episode 7 Microblog (Much Spoilers, Etc.)

The Good: At the risk of repeating myself, I just want to reaffirm how much I love the way this show is handling its characters. In this episode, we have El, encountering her long-lost sister, Kali (008). And while El is drawn to dreams of revenge, she does not alter her fundamental character to go on a journey through a dark side, which in some ways seems preordained in fiction these days, because nothing can stay pure. Honestly, I’d have preferred that El have articulated it, but it’s quite plain that she, unlike Kali, understands that she must spare, not her torturer’s life, but his daughters’ lives. Their father. Their childhoods. That the cycle of revenge must end.
More than that, Kali does not vow instant revenge on El. Whatever her other faults, Kali and El part on friendly terms, much as they may have chosen different paths. That’s complex and unusual. I admire deeply how this series avoids the easy tropes and answers in favor of the complex.

The Bad: I have little bad to say about this episode. And since writing this post I have discovered that there was enormous pushback against it. I thought it was really well done, and if it was hard to watch, it was because El, who we care about, was being pulled really hard toward making revenge the center of her life.
If I have a criticism, though, it’s in what others have said: the utter lack of backstory for the other members of Kali’s tribe. If they aren’t like Kali and El (Hmmm. Kali-El? Superman?) then what did they have to do with the Hawkins Lab and the people who ran it? Or are we to assume there are several groups of people being avenged upon, here?

Further Questions: Will we see Kali again? And when will El arrive back in Hawkins? Before, or after the Demodogs have had their feast?

Words: Stranger Things 2, Episode 6 Microblog (Much Spoilers, Etc.)

The Good: Steve really comes into his own here as a leader, even when little is to be gained by it. If there’s something I love about this series, it is its unflagging insistence that no one is disposable. Every bit of struggle against the common enemy is necessary. Every bit of betrayal is wrong. I just about applauded when one of the scientists suggests — from a very sound strategic basis — that they have to burn the infection out, and if it kills Will Byers, then he has to die. And Paul Reiser’s character just fixes him with a stare and says “Say that again.” I was almost expecting the Dr. to show his true, evil colors here. That he did not made me love the series even more.
The only reason anyone in this series is disposable is because they choose to be: to take the side of the evil for their own selfish reasons. Dustin comes perilously close to that, far closer than I think he realizes, by placing Dart’s welfare and his wish to impress Max at a higher level than the welfare of his friends. And Max, I think, sees this, and is quite understandably more attracted to Lucas, who took the chance to tell her the truth, regardless of how stupid it sounded. That Dustin tried to make these two violations of “Law” equivalent, shows that he really doesn’t understand at all.
Also, we finally see Will’s fear realized. Yes, the Thing inside him can spy through him and can compel him, although I really like that it can’t just access his memories, and it doesn’t really seem to have a handle on human behavior.
The Bad: While on some level the Thing would be able to spy through Will, it was awfully predictable that this would happen, and the betrayal is incredibly reminiscent of the fight on C-level in Aliens when most of the Colonial Marines get their faces eaten. If this was intended as homage, it really came off as unimaginative. It’s maddeningly unclear how vulnerable the Demodogs are to gunfire, and it feels very much like they are killed only at the speed of Plot.
Further Questions: Are they all going to die? And where is El??

Words: Stranger Things 2, Episode 5 Microblog (Much Spoilers, Etc.)

The Good: This episode felt very much like a filler episode for me, but there were some excellent details. I loved seeing how Will grows into, but is also scared of, his role as a spy. Perhaps my favorite bit of this was the idea that Nancy and Jonathan actually discover a halfway sane conspiracy hunter. Yes, he’s obsessed, but he’s not stupid, and he has a scheme to release just enough truth to do the good that needs to be done. Brilliant. Also, I really like that Steve Harrington has not decided to retreat into being any kind of a dipshit, but is growing into a man enough to do what needs to be done, even when there is no real reward for it.
And we finally get our answers for what happened to El’s mother, and it’s heartbreaking. Bob begins to play a very useful role in the series, despite Winona Ryder screaming at him.

The Bad: You know, I have all the sympathy in the world for Will’s Mom, I really do, but I would really love it if she could do something beyond be hysterically shrill most of the time. I still want to kick Dustin’s ass. And the long-unresolved sexual tension between Nancy and Jonathan finally comes to a conclusion, but it’s taken so long that it was almost anticlimactic.

Further Questions: Will Dart’s escape have long-term consequences. Well, duh. Is Will going to die? Be back next episode? He seems to be losing a lot of ground, here.

Words: Stranger Things 2, Episode 4 Microblog (Much Spoilers, Etc.)

The Good: From the beginning of this episode, what worried me was that Will was going to come back from his (well-meant but) ill-advised attempt to confront the Thing In The Upside Down as completely possessed. The fact that he did not was a great relief. Such a thing, making Will a possessed victim, would have been a bad choice for two reasons: firstly, it would have been far too easy. The possessed child trope has been overdone in horror because it’s a gut-wrenching paradox: the evil that is at the same time innocent. It’s sort of the opposite of the zombie trope: rather than the enemy you get to kill with no moral qualms, it’s an enemy you have to kill despite the moral horror of it. It’s a spiritual hostage crisis.
Secondly, Will’s role in the series up until now has been almost exclusively that of the victim, despite his attempts to survive. Giving “Will the Wise” the agency of spying on this “thing” is a way to make him truly a member of the party rather than its quest, and makes him a better character.
I’m also amazed at the way they handled Nancy and Jonathan’s plan to reveal the truth behind Hawkins Lab’s cover-up of Barb’s death. It’s becoming plainer that Paul Reiser’s character is not a reprise of Burke from Aliens, but rather a sensible man who is being as honest and kind as he can while at the same time being as deceptive and hard-nosed as he needs to be. Most series would portray anyone in government service as being evil by default, but once again, the writers refuse to take the easy way out. I love it.

The Bad: I have to admit that I found it really weird that, given the way Will is talking, his friends and family did not come to the conclusion that heating Will up, with or without his cooperation, would have been a good idea.
Also, Hopper not telling El the whole story about her Mother seemed to me rather gratuitously clueless.
But the worst part of the series is also showing up here because I find Dustin to be uncharacteristically dishonest and clueless about Dart for no real reason other than to build up tension. It’s the sort of cliché the series has done well to avoid: The Protagonist Keeps A Secret He Shouldn’t.

Further Questions: What will El find when she goes to see her mother? What will Nancy and Jonathan do with their knowledge. And most importantly, what is up with Max and her weird brother and why does he think it’s her fault that they are stuck here rather than in CA?

Words: Stranger Things 2, Episode 3 Microblog (Much Spoilers, Etc.)

The Good: Sigh. This episode, I thought, was about the weakest we’ve seen yet. The only good thing I can find to say about it is that it’s cool that Mom’s Boyfriend, Bob (played by Sean Astin) is actually an okay guy trying to do his best to be something resembling a father figure to his girlfriend’s obviously troubled son. Generally, this is what I like best about the series: I’ve always been a sucker for the ‘Okay, but what would it REALLY be like to be an ordinary person living through this bizarre plot’ stories.

The Bad: Except. Oh, except. This episode is pretty much a classic Idiot Plot. “Look, I found this mysterious thing in the trash like no other creature I’ve ever seen! A year after we did battle with a mysterious creature from The Dimension Of Eeeevils! I’m sure it’s just an undiscovered, COMPLETELY NORMAL species! Which I will now protect and lie to my friends about!” Aaargh.  I mean, yes part of this is understandable because Dustin is about 12 and stupid (but I repeat myself) but really?

Further Questions: The only one is when (not if) keeping Dart will turn out to be a Big Mistake. Oh, and of course what has really happened to Will Byers when the Thing In The Visions grabs him?

Words: Stranger Things 2, Episode 2 Microblog (Much Spoilers, Etc.)

The Good: I think the thing I really loved about this episode was the humanity of the relationship between Steve and Nancy. It’s a classic case of people being truly out of their depth, and taking it out on one another. The guilt Nancy feels about her role in Barb’s death, having essentially shoved her lonely friend outside to be eaten by the Demogorgon is understandably significant, if misplaced. It’s not, after all, as though she knew (or could have known) that there was a Barb-eating monster around. Barb herself could have saved her life by just getting in her car and going home. But that’s the way people think. It’s tearing her up, and she wants to tell Barb’s parents (who are still looking for their daughter and spending their life savings doing so) the truth.
When she confronts Steve about this, he quite reasonably points out that talking about what they know is likely to a) get them in a lot of trouble with the government and b) not really help, because after all, what are they going to tell Barb’s parents? “We know your daughter’s dead because she was taken into a parallel dimension by a monster we both fought and our psychic friend who disappeared told us she died?” No parent with any sense would believe such a thing.
Factually, Steve is right. Emotionally, he’s completely wrong, but it’s expecting a lot of an 18 year-old to successfully navigate the right response to his traumatized  17 year-old girlfriend, just as it would be asking a lot of Nancy not to blame Steve for his unhelpfulness. Neither of them are bad people, but they are acting in a very human way, which destroys them as a couple when Nancy finally lets the blame out all over herself and Steve.
Also, it was good to get the backstory on how El ended up with Hopper.

The Bad: There wasn’t much bad about this, except for Hopper’s real lack of understanding what he’s doing to El by keeping her in a state of permanent cabin fever. But again, he’s dealing with his own shit, obsessed with saving a girl that he can to make up for the daughter he couldn’t.

Further Questions: Not many in this episode except for what is that thing Will keeps seeing that looks like Great Cthulhu?

Words: Stranger Things 2, Episode 1 Microblog (Much Spoilers, Many Wow)

So, I’m going to take some time to talk about each Episode of Stranger Things Season 2 as I remember watching it, discussing some of the techniques from a writer’s and a viewer’s point-of-view.

The Good Stuff: In the last season’s finale, the fate of El was left very open-ended. We are unsure if she has died killing the Demogorgon or not. As an aside, I hated that El appeared to die. I reserved judgment on it, but it was one of the very few times I felt like this series dived into cliché really hard: young lovers admit their love for one another just in time for her (and it is always her) to die.
That said, I really appreciate that the series showed us El’s survival from the first, and didn’t try to extend the cliffhanger. Extended cliffhangers have become a form of literary torture in genre-fiction for the last twenty years (I’m looking at you, ghost of Robert Jordan) and I am sick to death of it.
Another thing that was left up in the air was Will Byers’ fate. Was he really unaware of his flashes into the upside down? Was that really Will Byers in that body? The answer to both of these questions was clearly revealed (No, and yes) with Hopper and Will’s mom, and Will acting like rational, but terribly confused human beings. As they should be. The series brilliantly continues to straddle the line between whether Will’s visions are flashbacks or real. Bringing up the horribly enticing question: how would you know?

The Bad Stuff: The new Lab Director seems very reluctant to even reassure Hopper that he takes his suspicions of leakage seriously. This just comes off as obtuse.

Further Questions Introduced: Is the new Lab Director really any improvement on Brenner? Or is he just more subtly evil? What is the story behind Max and her brother the new Keg King? Are they as much of a part of what’s going on at Hawkins as the mysterious “8” we see in the prelude?

Words: Stranger Things (Lots Of Spoilers), Part II

So, yesterday, I talked a lot about why I liked Stranger Things. Now we come to some of my criticisms of the show. None of these spoiled my enjoyment of the show as such, but here we go:

Minor Idiot Plots: So I have to modify what I said earlier. There are a few minor instances of the Idiot Plot. The subvariant, in this case, is People Don’t Tell Each Other They Know Things: Jonathan doesn’t tell Mom he’s figured out that she’s seeing and hearing real things, and when Nancy very reasonably asks if they shouldn’t tell her, says something like, “No, she’s been through enough.” Well, yes, and a very large part of all she’s been through is nobody believing her. It should be obvious to anyone that telling Joyce she’s not crazy is the best thing you could do for the poor woman.

Toxic Atmosphere: This is one of those writing moments that truly baffles me, because there was absolutely no reason for it. When Hopper and Joyce are prepared for their trip into the Upside Down, Evil Dr. Brenner tells them the atmosphere is toxic. Um, no. Will has survived there for something like three or four days. I’m assuming he found water somewhere, because he’d be in a lot of trouble if he didn’t. He probably didn’t find food, but he wouldn’t die in four days. Hypothermia would be a bigger problem, but there’s probably a temperature cold enough to be uncomfortable but not cold enough to kill. But breathing a toxic atmosphere? For four DAYS? Or even three? Really dumb. I can only assume that the writers did this so they had a reason to show everyone getting dressed up in those scary, scary HAZMAT suits. Which frankly, was pants-on-head idiotic, as the risk of catching a disease from an entirely alien biosphere would have been enough to justify that.

The Creature: I think, for me, the development of the Creature (Demogorgon) was one of the most irritating things, because it was an example of a) a mistake I typically see from new writers, not professionals, and b) it would have been very easy to solve. Here was the basic problem: The writers wanted to give Nancy, Jonathan, and Steve a victory over the Creature. The writers also wanted to make the Creature something that only El could defeat. Something, to be exact, that El would have to apparently die to kill, because it would be immune to Human weapons. And the writers also wanted it to kill Brenner the Evil Scientist.
You can easily see what they did, and I used to make this mistake as a new writer, and I’ve seen new writers make that mistake many times: they wanted their Creature to have mutually contradictory qualities, and they tried to make that work. The result was that we have a Creature that is banished back to the Upside Down by kids armed with a spiked bat, a pistol, a bear trap, and some fire, but an episode later shrugs off hundreds of rounds of assault rifle fire at point-blank range like they were Super Soakers.
Now, the solution to this was pioneered as far back as Beowulf. All you needed was for Nancy, Jonathan and Steve to kill Grendel, and then have that draw the attention of bigger, badder Grendel’s Mom. This would have necessitated a bit of explanation, but certainly nothing too difficult.