Monday, October 30, 2017

REVIEW: 'Stranger Things' - Everyone Wants to Be Normal But the World Won't Let Them in 'Chapter Two: Trick or Treat, Freak'

Netflix's Stranger Things - Episode 2.02 "Chapter Two: Trick or Treat, Freak"

After Will sees something terrible on trick-or-treat night, Mike wonders whether Eleven's still out there. Nancy wrestles with the truth about Barb.

Many of the characters of Stranger Things experienced something unexplainable and supernatural in the first season. Their lives have been changed as a result. Even though a year has passed since those events, they are still traumatized by them. They are still struggling to move on. They view the anniversary of these events with a sense of impending trauma. They believe that everything is at risk of happening all over ago. The show has provided a mysterious sense that not everything is alright in Hawkins, Indiana a year later. The physical proof is there with whatever is going on with the fields of pumpkins. Apparently, the farmers in Hawkins only grow pumpkins because there's a lot of farms of them. That's distinctive while still being destructive and mysterious. Hopper doesn't know what's going on but it's something that he can physically see and experience. The proof is right there that the world is disrupting the natural order of things somehow. But not everyone has that release of knowing strange things are happening over again. For the majority, it feels like lingering psychological trauma. Will is having experiences about his time in the Upside Down. Nancy is spiraling because she can't tell Barb's parents the truth about what happened to her. Mike is holding onto the idea that Eleven is still alive somewhere. There's the sense that there is more going on with these various stories than the initial perception - especially with Will. But there's also the desire to make things normal even though it's impossible to return to the lives they were all living before any of this happened.

As such, it's fascinating that "Chapter Two: Trick or Treat, Freak" is set on Halloween night. It's the one day out of the year where people dress up and embrace the spooky and supernatural. For the main characters though, that's every day of their lives because they experienced it firsthand. They've dealt with things that they literally can't tell anyone. This hour reminds the audience of the punishment waiting for anyone in Hawkins should the government's secrets be outed. That's seemingly the only motivation for Nancy and Steve keeping the truth about Barb a secret. It's just something that is tearing them up inside. There is the desire throughout this entire episode to just pretend to be normal. If one can pretend it, then normal will become their reality after awhile. It's the advice that Dr. Owens gave to Joyce in the premiere. Will's experiences are bound to intensify around the anniversary but she should try to treat them as normally as possible in order to help him recover. It sounds like sane and rational advice if this truly was PTSD. But there's also the understanding that it is so much more than that as well. So even though characters are trying to be normal, they still stand out as freaks in this world. Mike, Will, Dustin and Lucas are the only four at school who dress up for Halloween. They stand out in that environment and their night includes even more trauma when they try to just move forward with their lives.

Will wants to return to his normal life. He doesn't want to be looked after by Jonathan all the time. He wants to just be a normal kid hanging out with his friends going trick-or-treating. The desire to just be normal again is easy to understand. And so is Jonathan's willingness to allow Will to have a normal night. He wants to be the good older brother who actually listens to Will. But leaving Will is a mistake. That was clearly going to be the case the moment Jonathan did it. Because as hard as Will wants to be normal, he's not. The world still sees him as a freak who came back to life. That's his identity at school now. It's the way the other students are bullying him. All it takes is for him to be startled by a group of older boys for him to be immediately transported back to the Upside Down. Again, it's still a mystery if this is a memory of his from a year ago or if he has this connection to the alternate dimension that he can access every now and then. Right now, it's just important that he is isolated in these thoughts. The world of the Upside Down is vast and desolate. He is the only person there. When he's there, he's terrified by the monsters that tower above him. He goes off running as soon as he sees the new creature rise across the horizon to block out the sun. It's a scary sight. But Will still has the comfort of his friends in the end. Mike is able to bring him back to this dimension. He's able to care for him once this new trauma emerges.

Mike is able to do all of this for Will because he's struggling to move on with his life as well. He can't understand how Dustin and Lucas can be so fascinated with the new girl at school, Max. He views it as them trying to welcome a new girl into this social circle. He sees it as an attempt to replace Eleven and forget that she even existed. He doesn't articulate things in those precise words. But it's definitely how he is feeling. He is lingering on thoughts of Eleven. He wants to believe that she is still trying to connect with him too. The audience knows that to be true. But it's an ongoing struggle for Mike. He wants to believe it but has no proof that she is actually there reaching out. Meanwhile, Will is there and needs his help because of what happened to him. As such, it becomes such a strong and poignant friendship. The two want to be normal. But they are crazy. They are crazy because of the things they've seen in this world. And sometimes when one can't be normal, the next best thing is to have someone to be crazy with. That's what the two of them have with each other. It's a moving scene between them. One that allows them to understand and accept the other's trauma without judgment. It's just a sense of compassion and empathy that this crazy thing happened and the desire to be normal just isn't good enough.

Trying to be normal is the overall theme of this episode. It's the advice Steve gives to Nancy in the hopes of moving on from Barb and the damage they are inflicting on her parents. He's hopeful that they can just be stupid teenagers going to a stupid party on Halloween. It seems easy and simple. It's stupid but fun. It's a chance for them to just be themselves. But it instead highlights how Nancy isn't doing well at all. She gets drunk from the spiked punch and goes off on a tirade to Steve about how everything in life is just bullshit. It's bullshit that she needs to keep all of this a secret. It's bullshit that this happened to her. It's even bullshit that she and Steve are trying to be in love. And yes, it all has the sense of being nothing more than propping up the love triangle between Nancy, Steve and Jonathan. Steve runs away after Nancy says this in her drunken state. It's Jonathan who makes sure that she gets home safely. He's still the good guy even though he left his brother who then had another traumatizing experience while out with his friends. He's still suppose to be the guy who is noble and kind because he drives Nancy home and tucks her into bed. It's pure love triangle drama and nothing more than that. But it works because it is well informed by the actions that occurred last season and how they are still affecting everyone.

And finally, being normal for Eleven just means being able to leave the cabin and just go trick-or-treating. It's what she wants to do. She is a fugitive but she's also just a kid. She wants to go out into the world like all of the other kids. She wants to put on a costume and ask for candy. It's an experience she has never had before. She sees it as an opportunity to have fun in her life once more and reconnect with her friends. It's tragic that Hopper cuts down these dreams - even before he fails to deliver on his compromise in the end. This hour even shows the life she was living in the immediate aftermath of the events of Season 1. She was stuck in the Upside Down but was able to escape quickly because a portal still existed and she could use her powers to widen it. She could still break through in time to return to Mike just as he was being questioned by the government officials. But the outside threat had invaded the life of safety and love she had known. After that, she was all alone in the woods. She could survive but it was traumatic and terrifying as well. That's how she formed this connection with Hopper. He was the one leaving waffles behind for her. He's the one showing her that compassion. But in the present, he's proving to not be all that better as a father the second time around. He's still struggling to maintain his promises. That's even worse now because Eleven needs that structure and love in order to feel safe and secure in this new life. She needs him to break up the boring mundanity of just being stuck in that cabin watching TV.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Chapter Two: Trick or Treat, Freak" was written by The Duffer Brothers and directed by The Duffer Brothers.
  • Dustin and Lucas are stalking Max. There's no easy way around that. It's what they are doing. Their advances shouldn't work at all. Max does call them out for it repeatedly too. And yet, it's then somewhat easier for the audience to accept that she's trick-or-treating with the group because of the clearly abusive relationship she has with her brother. Billy is crazy and almost kills the boys. So, that makes her sympathize with them more.
  • So, Billy and Max moved here from California because of something that happened out there. They each blame the other for the move. It's probably Billy's fault because he initially comes across as the more crazy, unhinged one. That has traumatized Max in its own way. It's just a story that will need some more explaining very soon.
  • It's nice to see brief glimpses into the home lives of Dustin and Lucas as well. Last season it was apparent that the show just didn't have the budget to build those sets and cast their parents. But the breakout success of the show now means that they can do that. And so, Dustin has a mom and cat while Lucas has a mom and a sister.
  • And yet, Mike and Nancy's parents are just missing for the second half of the episode. It's not so much a problem that Mike and Will come back early and hide out in the safety of the basement. But Jonathan is able to bring Nancy home while drunk and tuck her into bed without running into her parents at all. That feels slightly weird.
  • Based on Dustin's reaction at the end of the episode, the creature that is hiding out in his trash can is going to be more intriguing than threatening. That's good. It also gives Dustin more agency in the main story besides just chasing after the new girl. It means he'll be connected to some grand mystery of this world as well.
  • The scientists at Hawkins Labs are still venturing into the Upside Down. They are still trying to understand what is going on in this other dimension despite everything that happened last season. Right now, that story is all about one man reconnecting the system on the other side. But it's bound to become more complicated than that eventually.

As noted in previous reviews from this show, every episodic review was written without having seen any succeeding episodes. Similarly, it would be much appreciated if in the comments, the conversation would only revolve around the show up to this point in its run.