What Is Season 2 Really About?
Season 2 taking all of the cast and giving them similarly weighted arcs means we get a web of complicated, conflicting relationships (heck, there's a trio of love triangles). The result is a deep dissection of how friendships - and the people within them - develop and change with time and pressure. Of course, front-and-center there's the heartfelt message of being yourself. Season 2's core emotional set pieces hinge on the sense of being an outsider - Will fears being "weird", Max's integration into the group - who, lest we forget, are the nerds of their class - and, of course, Eleven's entire arc to find a place where she belongs - and their resolution is always acceptance. "Friends don't tell lies" et al.
But that was in the first season too - what the second adds to its exploration is a growing awareness of maturity. This isn't a perfect world where simply admitting you like Dungeons and Dragons sorts everything, nor does repenting previous ills set you on a conflict-free track. Look at Steve. Once the school tough guy, he not only goes introverted about the flaws in his relationship with Nancy, but also has to become a punished protector figure for the younger heroes; an entire episode is dedicated to him and Dustin form an unexpected double act.
Dustin is a revelation on his own. Given prominent positioning in reaction to his popularity after Season 1, with him we get both a look at how tight-knit groups can fray and the brutal truth of romance; Max (a perfect example of exterior cool making way to winsome and how external presences alter existing situations) is the apple of his eye, yet he gradually begins to see flaws in the infatuation and loses the love triangle to Lucas, at the ball dancing with Nancy after further rejection. And in those last moments, with a little help from his dancing partner, he grasps how the passage of time will alter everything.
We could be here all day, but suffice to say each of the characters has such a natural yet thematically clear arc - Will comes to terms with being Zombie Boy, Nancy decides who she really wants to be with, Eleven realizes it's normality she craves, Joyce and Hopper share one more cigarette behind the school, Max stands up to her brother and finds comfort in her new friends - that all plays into the melancholic real world of Hawkins. You could never get that with all the nostalgic hangups - you needed the show to, like its characters, be happy with what it is.
The final words of the season are between Eleven and Mike. He asks her dance, she says she doesn't know, to which he responds, "I don't either. Do you want to figures it out?" Obviously it's a lovely cap to their arc that sees them fighting to be together, but at the end of everything we've discussed (especially considering how the pair's relationship was achingly in the background) speaks more of the whole uncertainty of life. Things don't always stay in their rigid status quo, and we find ourselves spinning off in completely unexpected directions with people we never thought; a lesson that pretty much every character learns in some form. It's an honest approach to growing up at any stage of life that frames the supernatural season in a wistful light.
The compounded result is just amazing. It's one thing to have a group dynamic that reminds you of Stand By Me. It's another to, purely within the childhood setting no less, present that film's recollective conclusion. But, damn, does Stranger Things 2 do it.