Spoilers for all of Stranger Things to follow.
There’s a scene in the first season finale of Stranger Things in which Eleven kills a bunch of people by crushing their skulls inside of their heads. It’s a scene that might have derailed the tone of the series, which for seven episodes and change had balanced perilously, yet seemingly effortlessly, somewhere between E.T. and Poltergeist. The scene worked because Stranger Things, so willing to subvert some of the tropes of its 80s source material, had kept one: bureaucratic bad guys that were light on humor and heavy on hubris, slender and thin-lipped and grim-faced, and, naturally, employed by the federal government.
Stranger Things 2 is a darker season, and it knows it. Its turn from action to horror is mirrored in Eleven’s hair, which has gone from an Aliens buzz cut to an Alien set of curls. But there’s at least one way in which Stranger Things 2 feels more like the action-horror Aliens than the pure horror of Alien, and that’s in its newfound sympathy for its authorities and bureaucracies. For all its newfound darkness, Stranger Things' second go-round is not a season in which Eleven is allowed to go around killing anonymous government employees.
And they would all be anonymous to her: as you might imagine, there has been a lot of turnover at Hawkins Lab since the events of Stranger Things. The evil Doctor Brenner and crew are out, and the smiling Doctor Owens is in. At first, Owens seems to be the perfect new bureaucratic villain for the series: kind to Will Byers but distrusted by Jim Hopper and loyal to the lab, he briefly comes across as a craven, smiling government creep.
And maybe he is, but that’s no longer an unforgivable thing in the Stranger Things universe. Owens gets the season’s most satisfying redemptive arc, revising his position as his systems fall apart and showing a willingness to sacrifice himself to help the locals. On second viewings, Owens’ early loyalties seem less like the single-minded villainy of Stranger Things’ season one baddies than they do like the natural consequences of working within systems. The fed and the local cop don’t get along, sure—that’s just how it is. Stranger Things has grown up, and the world just isn’t that black and white anymore. Owens is working within rules he can’t (or won’t) change to solve a problem that he had no apparent role in creating.
The same goes for the soldiers, who have transformed from Star Wars stormtroopers into Star Trek extras: they still die in droves, but now they count as human deaths. The new season’s sixth episode does away with a crew of rifle-toting soldiers not unlike the one that had its brains pureed by Eleven in season one. This time around, though, they’re the good guys, ambushed and killed by the monsters as helpless protagonists look on via monitors—an apparent homage to the similar scene in Aliens.
By the time the original bad guys are re-introduced in the new season’s seventh episode, everything has changed. They are weak and conflicted and, inevitably, have children of their own. The episode may be the weakest in the series, because is seems to have missed the shift in the season that will entirely sap its drama. Eleven is asked to kill these men, but we know she won’t: they’re people, now. “I’ve killed,” she reminds viewers in this episode, but the fact that she has to remind us proves that, for the purposes of the story, she hasn’t. Back then, the baddies weren’t people at all, not in the way they are in Stranger Things 2. Other than Brenner (who Eleven did not kill and, from a storytelling perspective, could not have), they were individually anonymous and collectively synonymous with the authority of their employer.
It’s not just the people: Stranger Things 2 has new visions of systems and authority throughout. The new season is bigger, messier, and uglier than the first, and its characters seem more jaded. Characters that once tried to make others believe them now hide their knowledge and work within norms and structures. This season finds Jim Hopper, who once broke into Hawkins Lab to investigate it, covering up the lab’s work in exchange for his town’s protection. Nancy Wheeler and Jonathan Byers, who bonded over something impossible to believe, end up writing fake tips to newspapers, winning justice for Barb through cynical manipulation. Joyce Byers, archetypal Mom Not To Mess With, is now the person most equipped to torture her son’s body to save his soul. There’s nothing idealistic about this crew, not anymore.
But even as Stranger Things 2’s characters embrace realpolitik, the shift breathes life into the series’ most one-dimensional characters. What Steve Harrington and season one did for every jerk 80s boyfriend in cinema history, Stranger Things 2 as a whole does for the authorities: for all of the NOVA Labs employees in Short Circuit, for all the enlisted men on the Death Star, and for all of those cops in E.T. that had guns and then walkie-talkies and then guns again.
Stranger Things 2 doesn’t always work. At times, it feels like they’ve knocked down a load-bearing trope. But when it does work, its characters feel more complex and its weird and cynical empathy rings true. Stories are simpler when people are synonymous with the systems they represent, but that’s not how it is–not in life and not, anymore, in Stranger Things.
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Featured still from "Stranger Things" via Netflix