Stranger Things 2 is now streaming on Netflix.
The Villain Problem in Stranger Things 2
The quirky kids captured the hearts of audiences everywhere during Season 1 of Stranger Things, but they weren’t the only elements that made the show an explosive phenomenon. An underrated but integral element that also contributed to the success of Season 1 were the villains. Manifesting in the creepy Dr. Martin Brenner and the vicious Demogorgon, both characters cemented themselves as formidable threats. Their full capabilities and in Dr. Brenner’s case his motives were slowly revealed piece by piece. The gradual development of each character’s monstrosity made them mysterious and therefore more terrifying.
Unlike Season 1, Season 2 struggles to create compelling villains on both the human and supernatural fronts. The lack of mystery surrounding the Mind Flayer and absence of a worthy human opponent thereby creates a villain problem for Season 2.
Lack Of A Human Threat
Warning: Stranger Things 2 spoilers ahead.
Matthew Modine may have chosen to play Dr. Brenner as a largely stereotypical mad scientist in Season 1, but he did so in a brilliantly disturbing manner. The character’s calm, patient tone clashed beautifully with his brutal actions. This was established immediately when on Dr. Brenner’s orders, Hawkins Lab employees killed the kindly cook Benny on the hunt for Eleven. Each of Eleven’s flashbacks and Dr. Brenner’s present actions showed what he wanted and the cruel lengths he’d go to achieve those goals. Audiences had a constant reminder that there was a major threat in addition to the Demogorgon.
Season 2 never answers whether Brenner really died at the end of Season 1 and no worthy human villains appear to fill the void. Making the new head of Hawkins Lab — Dr. Owens — another mad scientist type would’ve been a poor decision as the character would only amount to a pale imitation of Brenner. On the younger side, Max’s brother Billy Hargrove serves as an antagonist, but only as a bully towards the kids and teens, and certainly not as a mastermind villain.
There appeared to be potential for Sean Astin’s Bob Newby to be a surprise villain given the ending of “Chapter Three: The Pollywog”. Bob’s advice allowed the Mind Flayer to possess Will. Replaying Bob’s advice as the Mind Flayer takes control of Will seemed to suggest that their conversation in the car was more malicious and complicated as opposed to the two characters bonding. It could’ve been intriguing for Bob to be a spy from a group that wanted to explore and possibly weaponize elements of the Upside Down, using Will as an unwitting test subject. Instead, Bob is just a supportive, nerdy, tech-savvy boyfriend of Joyce and hopeful father figure for Will and Jonathan. From Mikey in The Goonies to Rudy and Sam in Lord of the Rings, audiences inherently trust Astin’s loyal, likable characters. This could’ve been the perfect twist, with the group Bob works for leading to a larger threat in Season 3.
The show can fix this error in Season 3 by capitalizing on the mystery of Brenner, and brief teases of his fate in Season 2. Matthew Modine resurfaced as Brenner via flashbacks revealing the truth behind Eleven’s mother, and later is conjured by Kali to convince Eleven to continue on a vengeful path. When Eleven and Kali nearly killed a former Hawkins Lab employee who played a role in torturing Eleven’s mother, he begs for his life by saying Brenner is still alive and he will take them to Brenner.
Capitalizing on many of the successful beats of Season 1, Season 2 featured a lot of predictable moments. This is one of the few moments that was unpredictable, raising many questions about whether Brenner is still alive, and if so, what he’s biding his time for and why he’s hiding. Considering all these teases and that his demise wasn’t fully shown, Brenner is definitely still alive. Brenner likely waited to resurface until the gate to the Upside Down closed so he can continue his real work with controlling children like Eleven. Season 3 needs to bring Brenner back into the core of a show, providing the viable human threat missing from Season 2.
A Weaker Supernatural Threat
Without a formidable human villain, Season 2 cast all its eggs into the Upside Down. They couldn’t do the Demogorgon again, so they created the Mind Flayer and its army of Demodogs. In the trailers, the Mind Flayer seemed to have potential to become just as fearsome as the Demogorgon. Ultimately this doesn’t happen, though, as too much of the Mind Flayer’s abilities are revealed too soon. Audiences see the monster in its true form and see it take control of Will. This leaves little mystery about what the monster looks like or what it’s capable of, something that was done incredibly well with the Demogorgon as it was slowly unveiled what the beast looked like and everything it could do. The giant, spider-like blob of smoke is less frightening than the reptilian Demogorgon. Audiences learn too soon that the Mind Flayer’s powers largely revolve around controlling Will and the Demodogs.
The Mind Flayer’s army of Demodogs were creepy, but despite Dart’s Gremlins-esque transformation and as smaller versions of the Demogorgon, they fail to be truly terrifying. The creepiest parts of the season manifest through Will when possessed by the Mind Flayer. The monster may be the true villain there, but Noah Schnapp’s phenomenal acting sells the creepiness. It’s difficult to feel as sold on the blob of smoke being the source of the creepiness, and the one brilliant enough to lead everyone in Hawkins Lab into a deadly trap. Despite Eleven closing the gate to the Upside Down and her awesome display of power, at least some version of the Mind Flayer is still out there. Hopefully it can become a more frightening villain in the future.
Stranger Things still maintains the heart and retro 80’s feel of Season 1, but the villain problem of Season 2 prevents the show from reaching greatness again.