Tuesday, November 7, 2017

REVIEW: 'Stranger Things' - Everyone Strikes Against the Shadow Monster and the Upside Down in 'Chapter Nine: The Gate'

Netflix's Stranger Things - Episode 2.09 "Chapter Nine: The Gate"

Eleven makes plans to finish what she started while the survivors turn up the heat on the monstrous force that's holding Will hostage.

The second season of Stranger Things was bigger and better in a lot of different ways. The scope of the narrative was more expansive. The show was doing more things with more characters. It pushed the story outside of Hawkins. The characters were facing many different things from the Upside Down and not just one demogorgon. New dynamics were introduced that proved just how original and inventive the series can be. Yes, there was the massive misfire in the pointless seventh episode. And yet, this season had an even more compelling main narrative that more than proved that the sequel could be just as good if not better than the original. Of course, that doesn't mean a third season would be even better. The final note in the epilogue leaves me a little worried. But that's speculation for the future. Right now, it's best to highlight all of the greatness that happened this season. Of course, this finale isn't as thrilling and effective as the penultimate hour. It's still a strong conclusion for the season that brings everything to a close while offering the kind of emotional moments the audience has been waiting the entire season for. But there are some frustrating details as well. El has just reunited with the group. It's important to see how Mike reacts to the news that Hopper was keeping her from him and to see how Dustin, Lucas and Joyce embrace her. But the plot keeps moving forward and the group needs to split up once more in their final battle with the shadow monster. It's very effective, emotionally earned and very compelling to watch. It just encompasses some of the more frustrating details of the season as well.

It was clear early on that the creative team decided the backbone of this season would be the relationship between El and Hopper. The writers saw the great performances that Millie Bobby Brown and David Harbour delivered in the first season and correctly thought they would be even better acting opposite each other for most of these new episodes. That parental struggle was a compelling story this year. And it's so crucial that the show doesn't feel the need to spell everything out to the audience about how Hopper is trying so hard to succeed this time around after tragically losing his daughter, Sara. It had trust that the audience remembered that detail and that Hopper wouldn't just immediately open up about that painful past. Sara isn't even mentioned until this finale. It sparks such a strong conversation between the two of them as well. Hopper sees this as his second opportunity to be a father. And yet, he keeps making mistakes that send El further and further away from him. In actuality though, El does believe in Hopper. She chose to return to Hawkins because Hopper and her friends needed her help. She was the only person who was capable of defeating the shadow monster and closing the gate to the Upside Down. She opened this gate in the first place. It's fitting that she closes it. It just took a long time for her to find that courage and strength to do so. She is able to make that emotional journey because of her time with Hopper and away from the friends who showed her what it was like to be a kid.

Of course, it's still disappointing how little El actually interacts with the main group of friends during this season. But the intensity of the narrative is high in this finale. Every single character has importance. That's a remarkable thing. Sure, there are a couple series regulars who have questionable use in this narrative. Billy truly never amounted to much in this story. He was just this one-note bully whose threats kept escalating over the course of the season. It was a story that highlighted that monstrosity didn't just reside in the Upside Down. It was out in the real world as well. But the final moment where Steve and Billy are fighting only for Max to knock Billy out and demand him to treat her and her friends better is mostly just lackluster. It's a plot thread the show introduced and needed to pay off eventually. It just didn't have much use in the actual stakes of this narrative. It mostly just knocks Steve out for a little while so that he can't object to Mike, Dustin, Lucas and Max traveling to the tunnels underneath the pumpkin farm in order to create a diversion for the shadow monster. Steve was against it until Max was horribly driving the car to the location. Once there, he truly took on the mantle of being the protector of these kids. It really is great to see how much of a hero Steve ultimately became in this story. That's so much a part of his personality that all of the love triangle angst is mostly secondary with it only barely being touched on.

And so, this finale lays out a three-pronged attack against the shadow monster. It's not something that these characters coordinated ahead of time in order to give themselves the best chance for success. Joyce, Jonathan and Nancy took Will to Hopper's cabin in order to heat the parasite out of him. They had to do that before El closed the gate to the Upside Down because closing it meant killing anything in this world connected to the shadow monster. But it wasn't designed as an attack in order to distract the shadow monster as El prepares to do this momentous thing. Meanwhile, the adventure down in the tunnels is this very spontaneous thing because Mike couldn't bear to sit on the sidelines as everyone he cares about is risking their lives in order to seal off these attacks. He believes he needs to do something as well. But it's ultimately a story about Dustin and Dart. That creature grew up to be something that Dustin could never really control. He lied to his friends about it. He risks getting eaten by getting too close to Dart again in the tunnels. But that friendship allows the group to make it safely back to the surface. And then, it's incredibly tragic that Dart is killed just to ensure the safety of the humans. That's surprisingly moving. Meanwhile, it's great that the show uses exorcism-based imagery in order to frame the sequence that rids Will of the virus inside his body. It's a moment that shows just how far everyone needs to be willing to go in order to find peace in their lives. Joyce is more determined than ever to get her son back. It's then rewarding once she's the first person he remembers after being set free.

But all of this is nothing if El can't get the gate to the Upside Down closed. She's been on this remarkable journey this season where she has learned so much. Her friends have some clarity on the journey she has been on as well. Of course, none of them have the full details of what happened in Chicago. That's still incredibly pointless. But El having an understanding of everything that happened both to her and to her friends and family is what ultimately motivates the anger she needs to be successful in this endeavor. It's clear right away that this is a daunting task. It's perilous long before the demodogs start attacking the elevator as it dangles in midair in this shaft. It's a very intense sequence. One where Hopper is still amazed by all of the craziness happening in this world. But he still has a job to do in protecting El from the threats that are coming to destroy her from this alternate dimension. He needs to fend them off while she closes the gate. Sure, it's odd that the show frames all of this as the lesson she learned from Kali about tapping into fear to use her powers. That was apparent in the story long before it was actually outlined to El and the audience. But seeing those reminders of the pain and loss she has experienced in her short life is enough to power through this barrier and defeat the shadow monster. It's thrilling to watch. It ends up being a really compelling climax to the story.

And then, everything once again goes back to normal. It's so important for the show to feature these epilogues at the end of each season. If the season just ended with the defeat of the big, supernatural force, then it would just feel like the show was driven by plot instead of character. The audience can still ultimately make that criticism as well. Do we really have a better understanding of any of these characters by the end of this season compared to the end of last season? But it is still rewarding to see this epilogue and the simple joy and enthusiasm that accompanies a simple middle school dance. For the young cast, it's such a daunting life event. It's their chance to be normal in a world they know is anything but. It's an opportunity to just be normal kids again. It's moving to see that the friendship between Dustin and Steve extends beyond just needing to save the world from vicious creatures from another dimension. Dustin listens to Steve's advice and heads into this dance with confidence. It's tragic that none of that makes much of a difference. But then, it's heartwarming to see Nancy take pity on him and give him his moment to shine on the dance floor. It's not the show setting up a new love triangle for Nancy. But it's just a sweet, genuine and simple moment that highlights how these characters have gone through so much together and have come out of it with a new respect and appreciation for one another. Dustin has that moment to shine. And then, it's so uplifting that El is able to enjoy the simple pleasures of being a normal kid. That's ultimately what she wants most out of this world. She just wants to go to the dance and be with her friends. She is given that and so much more here. Owens is able to give her a new identity which officially names her as Hopper's daughter. That's a sweet development. But it's even more rousing to see her walk through that door and reunite with Mike. It's not with any of the pressure of the world about to end. It's just two friends at a silly school dance. But it's so meaningful for the two of them because they are finally able to be together in a way that is just simple and sweet. And that is just a perfect note to end on - with the awareness that the show curiously decides not to end there but rather on what's possibly a tease for the third season.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Chapter Nine: The Gate" was written by The Duffer Brothers and directed by The Duffer Brothers.
  • Everything is going so well for everyone at the school dance. The show gives everyone their chance to shine. And then, the camera flips over to reveal the school in the Upside Down with the shadow monster looming over the building. It's a tease that reveals that the shadow monster is still alive and a clear and present danger to these characters. That connection is apparently still there. And yet, does the show really need to spend a third season focusing on an escalating threat from the same place? If it does that, then it may really be repetitive and seem like a one-trick show.
  • There is no update on the status of Dr. Brenner either. That appears to be another dangling thread that would need to be dealt with in a third season. Of course, is it really a mystery the audience is invested in? Yes, it would be terrifying to see him return because of his painful and traumatic past with many of these characters. But a return would need to have purpose and allow him to be a part of a story that is different than what has happened so far.
  • I'm still completely baffled as to why Cara Buono is a series regular on this show. She was in about three scenes total this season. Sure, the show saved the best for last with that amusing moment where Billy puts the charm on in order to get the information regarding Max's location. But she serves no grand purpose in this world whatsoever. And so, it ultimately feels like a waste for Buono who is a really capable actress as well.
  • Hawkins Lab is shut down after the report from Murray, Nancy and Jonathan is released about toxic waste killing Barb and the government covering it up. That's a way for the show to seemingly provide justice and closure for Barb. And yet, it was never really a story about Barb. It was a story about Nancy and her developing connection with Jonathan. Still, this is a moment that needed to occur as well.
  • It was surprising how big of a hit Stranger Things was at the Emmys this past year. It got multiple nominations and a couple surprising wins in the technical categories. I fully expect that trend to continue next year because these episodes were an improvement in many ways. I'm also curious if the show could get even more acting nominations. David Harbour and Millie Bobby Brown were the very deserving nominees for Season 1. Noah Schnapp really should join them because he had the most surprising but rewarding performance of this season as well.
  • The Duffer Brothers are already planning a third season. This show will continue as long as the buzz surrounding it is high. That seems to be the metric that Netflix cares about the most these days. If the show hits in the zeitgeist, then it must be continued. I don't think the renewal is actually official though. But it also seems inevitable at this point. I'm just curious how the writers will make the third season different - especially after the second ends with so much resolution for all of the characters.

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.