As the show's conceit falls apart, the second season's monster has become a self-portrait.
Photos courtesy of Netflix
Some spoilers for season 2 of Stranger Things ahead.
You've experienced some version of the feeling I am about to describe: You are with your gaming group, and everyone is pretending to have a good time, but they aren't having a good time. Something about the game isn't working, but no one can admit they want to leave. After all, what would this group be without its cleric? What would happen if a player dropped from Pandemic Legacy? The group dynamic might change. The gaming group might split or splinter into different forms. The thing you have could turn into the thing you had. It's a terrible feeling.
Season 2 of Stranger Things is a strained experience, because of its attempts to remain related to games in some way. As a show, it is already actively bursting at the seams and trying to be several kinds of shows at once: It's a coming of age story for preteens; it's a high school drama; it's a show about an actor doing their best impression of Kiefer Sutherland in Stand By Me; it's an adaptation of the first 15% of a dozen Stephen King novels; it's a story about parents and how they learn to let go of their children; it's an X-Men knockoff; it's a stolen John Carpenter script that he forgot he wrote; it's a Lovecraftian action show. Trying to manage its metaphorical relationship with games, which the first season truly depended on, makes it all the harder to pull together.
When I wrote about the first season of Stranger Things, and its use of D&D, I said: "Dungeons & Dragons does narrative work in this show. It functions as the primary metaphor for how these young nerdy boys are able to communicate and cooperate with one another and how they contextualize the challenges they face."
The second season of Stranger Things moves beyond the Demogorgon as its primary Dungeons & Dragons metaphor. In this season, we are treated to another creature as the primary antagonist: the mind flayer. The mind flayer is a D&D creature with a few specific characteristics. One is that it is a psionic enemy; its attacks and modes of subjugating their enemies mostly depend on attacking the mind itself. Another is it has a form of shared consciousness via Elder Brains, a kind of queen bee to the rest of the mind flayers who attend it.
It is also insatiable: The mind flayer wants to expand and envelop everything. It dominates creatures and pulls them into a network of forced labor, feeding mechanisms, and gladiatorial fights. It is a hubristic creature, and it likes to be entertained.
The danger in Stranger Things S2, then, isn't just a singular creature who attacks and eats its victims. This isn't a slasher show anymore. Instead, it's about the fear of total domination and the swarming, nightmarish possibilities that await you when your enemies finally get their shit together as a group. There is no mere Demogorgon here; there is simply a huge cohort of flesh-eating dog creatures who are constantly flowing from an alternate universe of pure evil. They're all connected to each other, and they are even able to grab protagonist (and eternal victim) Will Byers to add him as yet another node in this system of control.
If most of the first season's gaming metaphor falls out here, it's not for lack of trying. The language of that first season is peppered throughout these scenes. The young boys who make up much of the key resistance to the big baddies are still a D&D party. There is a longform plot about whether a girl should be allowed into their inner cloister (and some gestures to the enduring nightmare that awaits these children when they fully enter puberty); they talk about their character classes and what they mean to each character; they discuss the stakes of casting a spell of True Sight.
Yet despite the references to that fundamental structuring metaphor of the first season, these references feel much like all of the other visual, audio, and cinematographic nods in the rest of the show: They seem more like a reference than a serious engagement with theme and story. It's a hangover from the first season, a kind of generic callback reference so you remember what show you're watching. It's an attempt to pull together some kind of identity for this massive, sprawling show that seems to go in a thousand directions at once.
It is the end of all things, even its own narrative threads and metaphors. It is the primordial soup of 1980s adolescent fear. It's Ready Player One with more shame and a more maniacal mind.
Think back to that gaming group I mentioned before. That feeling of spiraling chaos started for me somewhere around episode 7 of Stranger Things S2. It's that horrible feeling, the sinking one, when I could feel that things weren't going as planned. This group of characters, this whole show, is barely holding together. It takes an entire episode off the main plotline to focus on Eleven, her mother, and a gang of 1980s stereotype rebels to do some knockoff John Carpenter stuff. It meanders. It's that tabletop group who hates every minute of playing but lives in fear of not playing.
The game metaphor doesn't work in the second season of Stranger Things. It provides no grand structure. It doesn't help these characters understand their world any better, and the mind flayer is introduced mostly as a way of talking about the creature with no name that haunts the second season. After all, the metaphor is mostly abandoned in favor of a viral one (with its convenient references to The Thing's fear of open flame).
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Yet despite the creakiness of its metaphors this season, the mind flayer is a fitting analogy for this season of Stranger Things, with its interweaving, competing threads of references, lifted shots, and conceptual borrowings. This is a show that takes Close Encounters of the Third Kind and John Hughes movies and staples them together in clunky, fast-moving ways.
It eats everything it comes into contact with and turns it into a smoothly operating hive mind of 1980s references all moving in harmony with one another despite their differences in framing, action, desires, and content. It is the end of all things, even its own narrative threads and metaphors. It is the primordial soup of 1980s adolescent fear. It's Ready Player One with more shame and a more maniacal mind.
When I watched the first season of Stranger Things, I thought it offered a pathway. It seemed less cynical about the world, and more invested in understanding how people can bond together in times of struggle. Now, in the wake of the second season, it only seems like it cares about the kind of bonding an epoxy would do. It welds the world into shape, a morass of 1980s references in lockstep with each other, with all of the ironies or inconsistencies between genres ironed out. A vast, smooth space over which nostalgia can frictionlessly glide.
Stranger Things may have found the limits of its conceit, or maybe even the limits of slavish devotion to the idealized cinematic childhoods so many of us remember, but never actually lived. But like that group of friends gathered around the table for a night of fun that's somehow gone sour, Stranger Things needs to acknowledge that times have changed, and the spell is broken. No one has to return here, over and over, to feed a nostalgia that only gets emptier. Perhaps, that's the only way to truly defeat the mind flayer. If you kill the host, the virus has nowhere to go.