Stranger Things 2 and the Competing Modes of Sequels

Spoilers ahead!

I loved Stranger Things 2, even though it’s basically a sequel in the Die Hard 2: Die Harder mode. Let me explain — and please take note that there are major spoilers ahead:

Can we agree that there’s a certain, special wizardry — a kind of alchemy — that goes into making a great sequel? It’s hard to define, isn’t it? (At least it is for me.) All the same, I’d submit that there are two kinds of sequels, and only one is capable of generating a truly great follow-up. Let’s call ‘em the Die Hard model and the Empire model.

1. The Die Hard model:

Most sequels fall into this category, I’d argue, which boils down to delivering bigger, better, and more of the same. There’s also an element of self-awareness to the Die Hard sequel model, which I’ll discuss in a moment. Of the five (and presumably counting) Die Hard movies, part two, the risibly named Die Harder, is the best example of the Die Hard sequel model. The filmmakers took a little-known literary property — the novel Fifty-Eight Minutes — and used it as the basis for what is a fairly rote retread of part one.

The now-famous structure is the same — intrepid police detective John McClane is trapped in an enclosed setting overrun by terrorists — except this time, it’s a slightly larger setting (a major international airport) with higher stakes (virtually every passenger in the planes overhead is put in danger). All the major players are reassembled, no matter how contrived the situation. (Placing William Atherton’s sleazy TV news reporter on the same plane as Bonnie Bedalia’s Holly McClane remains the silliest — and yet, most crowd-pleasing — of choices.) Reginald Veljohnson’s kindly officer Powell shows up on a phone call for no other reason than the filmmakers knew it’d draw a round of applause from the audience.

There’s also that self-awareness I mentioned earlier. Die Hard-model sequels know they’re sequels. Further, they know the audience knows they’re sequels, and a lot of (legitimate, I’d say) fun is had goofing on that idea. Catch-phrases are repeated, set-pieces are revisited on a larger scale, and our beleaguered heroes may even offer some meta-commentary on their plight. In Die Harder, McClane wryly observes, “How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?”

Other examples of the Die Hard model include … well, some good movies and a lot of bad ones. Off the top of my head, just about any sequel to First Blood qualifies, as do clunkers like Another 48 Hours, Exorcist II, Speed 2, Batman & Robin, and many others. Some of the better Die Hard-model sequels include Aliens, Superman II, X-Men 2, Batman Returns, and many others.

Die Hard-model sequels are fun. They’re familiar. They’re easy.

But with a few exceptions, they’re forgettable.

Which brings us to what I see as the greater of these two models:

2. The Empire (as in Strikes Back) model:

The Empire sequel model, at its best, is a pure continuation of the first movie’s (or book’s or TV series’) chronological narrative flow — no more, no less. This means that in an ideal Empire-model sequel, we the audience can perceive the passage of time and the morphing nature of the characters’ relationships. Very often, an Empire-model sequel will cast off the form, feeling, and (most important) themes of the first entry and fixate on a new array of themes, settings, and storytelling modes.

Sometimes this means an Empire-model sequel doesn’t even feel like a sequel. Did you know Elmore Leonard wrote a sequel to his much beloved novel Out of Sight? Yep, Leonard brought back charming conman Jack Foley in the novel Road Dogs, along with two leads from previous novels, La Brava and Riding the Rap. (So to be fair, I guess Road Dogs is a sequel to all three of those books.) One of those revisiting leads is psychic Dawn Navarro, whose involvement introduces a strange supernatural element to a universe (Leonard’s world of low-level hoods, grifters, and criminals) that heretofore had felt naturalistic.

But for me, the best Empire-model sequels manage to continue the narrative set forth in the original, all while expanding the story’s universe, and — again, in the best-case scenario — deepening its themes. Needless to say, The Empire Strikes Back does all of the above, as do The Godfather, Part II, and (I’d argue) Toy Story 2.

So how would I categorize the second season of Stranger Things, aptly named Stranger Things 2? I’m afraid it’s more of a Die Hard-model sequel — for the most part — and a bit of a meandering one at that. That said, what it lacked in invention and drive, it compensated for by leaning into the relationships among its very strong cast, which expanded to include a few welcome newcomers.

I imagine I’ll get some flak for my analysis, so let me unpack it by starting with an obvious complaint: Losing the missing Will Byers as a story engine hurt ST2, and the showrunners didn’t replace it with any comparable plot device, other than a vague threat from this season’s — and presumably next season’s — big-bad, the Shadow Monster / Mind Flayer. In contrast with the first season’s headlong pace, the first half of season two primarily fixated on convalescence, both Will’s treatment at the Hawkins science lab, and Eleven’s long stay with Sheriff Hopper. There was a stillness to the first half of ST2 I wasn’t expecting.

And yet, despite these divergences from the structure and pacing of season one, ST2 is still basically more of the same — more geeky 80s references (Dragon’s Lair, the camcorder from Back to the Future, everything Ghostbusters, countless others), more 80s music, more shoutouts to tropes and set-pieces from the 80s (Dacre Montgomery’s brutish Billy was an amalgam of IT baddie Henry Bowers and The Karate Kid’s Johnny; while future demo-dog D’Artagnan recalled cute-critters like Mogwai from Gremlins), actors and characters from the 80s (The Goonies’ Sean Astin himself, making a “pirate treasure” joke; Paul Reiser playing a scientist whose dissembling recalls his turn in Aliens), with a little bit of seepage from the 90s (the set-piece in the Hawkins lab strongly recalled Jurassic Park, while Eleven’s final showdown with the Mind Flayer visually recalled Terminator 2).

Listen, I’m not even complaining. I’m so in the bag for this show, I don’t care that it’s inching away from being its own thing and starting to use pop-culture references as a load-bearing member like the novels of Ernest Cline.

But I started this review by saying I loved season two, so what saves it for me? Well, you’ll have to look far and wide to find a stronger cast — and cast of characters — than this show. They’re not perfect, and there are a few too many shouting matches standing in for legitimate character development for my taste, but all the same, the Duffer brothers grok the wild wonder of childhood, as well as the frustrations of adulthood, with the same canny eye as Stephen King or Harper Lee. Hopper and Eleven’s big meltdown reminded me of some nasty fights I had with my mom, a hardworking single parent. I was also deeply moved by Mike confrontation with Hopper after Eleven’s return to Hawkins; not only was I moved by the depth of Mike’s feeling, I was also touched at how willingly Hopper absorbed the child’s anger. It made me wish I’d had more adults like Hopper in my childhood.

And even though I question the wisdom of keeping Eleven locked up for most of the season, her storyline was my favorite part of ST2. Not only was her relationship with Hopper drawn well, but she starred in the season’s best episode, “The Lost Sister,” which followed Eleven to Chicago as she tracked down one of her fellow superpowered siblings, Linnea Berthelsen’s Eight / Kali. Kudos to the Duffer brothers for daring to venture outside the comfortable confines of Hawkins’ early-Amblin-entertainment aesthetics, settings, and themes, taking us on a trip into the wider world they’ve created. “The Lost Sister” most closely recalled the middle sections of The Empire Strikes Back, including and especially Luke’s Jedi training on Dagobah, but instead of directly recreating the imagery of Empire, the Duffers wisely opted to riff on those famous scenes, giving us the first episode of Stranger Things that felt less like an early Spielberg (or Joe Dante) movie … and more like its own thing.

It’s okay that Stranger Things is a Frankenstein’s monster of influences and tropes — isn’t that what pastiche is supposed to be? But I hope in future seasons, the Duffers will give us less fan service and more originality. They’ve got the characters to do it. Maybe they just need the confidence.