Stranger Things 2
Part 2: The Structure of Two Seasons
In last week’s Stranger Things 2 Podcast, we talked about the way a TV pilot starts up the engine of a series, and the challenges, especially in a TV Drama series like Stranger Things where everything changes at the end of the first season, of getting that engine started again in Season 2.
Because the main structural elements that drive the engine of the show have mostly been resolved by the end of Season 1, the first episode of Stranger Things, Season 2 ends up functioning like a new pilot, trying to get the engine started again to launch us into the second season.
But while the pilot of Stranger Things, Season 1 dropped us right into the heart of the action, and rocketed the characters into the story from the very first page, the first episode of Season 2 gets that engine started in a far less effective way.
And that’s because the pilot of Stranger Things, Season 1 is built around a rock solid Primary Structure– the way the things the characters want and the choices that they make and the obstacles they must navigate, shape characters’ journeys and push them out of their normal world from the very first page.
While the first episode of Stranger Things, Season 2 is focused mainly on the Secondary Structure– the way the audience experiences the episode.
As a result, Stranger Things, Season 1 launches us into the engine of the series from the very first page, just as you must if you want to sell a pilot for your own series, or use your pilot to get staffed on an existing show.
Whereas the first episode of Stranger Things, Season 2, for its many good qualities, starts us off with more of a whimper than a bang.
It’s a problem that the Duffer Brothers manage to correct in a big way by Season 2, Episode 2, when they finally get that engine started.
But it’s one which you, as an emerging writer, are unlikely to survive at this point of your career.
Because until you’ve got a hit series on the air that everyone loves, the chances are that if your first episode doesn’t launch us into your series with the force of a rocket, no one’s ever going to read Episode 2.
For that matter, if your first few pages don’t launch us into your series with the force of a rocket, no one is going to even finish the pilot.
So what’s the structural difference between the Stranger Things, Season 1 pilot and the first episode of Stranger Things, Season 2?
At every moment of Stranger Things, Season 1 the characters are facing obstacles and making choices that change their lives forever.
And at most moments of the first episode of Stranger Things, Season 2, they quite simply are not.
In the pilot of Season 1, the characters are living their lives for themselves. And in the first episode of Season 2, they are establishing their lives for the audience.
So let’s break it down together.
The pilot of Stranger Things, Season 1 starts with a bad ass chase sequence.
We start by panning down from the stars, and find ourselves at the lab, a location that is going to end up mattering a lot for us. We’ve got the flashing lights, we’ve got the scientist running in the wrong direction, we’ve got that horrifying scene where the scientist finally makes his way to the elevator, only to be be snatched up and out of sight just as the doors close.
And even though we’re dropped from there into the quiet, mundane world of the kids playing Dungeons & Dragons, even in that scene, The Duffer Brothers are not simply “establishing” that the kids play Dungeons & Dragons. Already the characters are facing huge obstacles and making huge choices that affect their lives and their relationships forever.
And for that reason, in Stranger Things, Season 1, we can feel the story start right away.
We meet Mike, the Dungeon Master, who wants all his friends to work as a team in the game, and introduces the obstacle of the Demogorgon to test them.
We meet Dustin, the cautious one of the group, who wants to cast a spell of protection.
We meet Lucas, the impulsive one, who wants to cast a fireball.
And we meet Will, who’s afraid to make a choice, but who ultimately risks his own life to protect his friends.
The scene isn’t about a Dungeons & Dragons game. It’s about a bunch of kids making big choices that affect each other, in relation to something they care about deeply.
And because these are great writers, they keep raising the stakes, by making sure nothing turns out the way the characters are hoping, so they have to keep making big choices that change their lives forever.
Instead of rolling a high roll that would allow him to defeat the Demorgorgon, Will rolls a measly seven… and Mike, the Dungeon Master, doesn’t see it.
Wanting their friend to survive the adventure, the other boys tell Will it doesn’t count if Mike doesn’t see it. But at the end of the scene, Will makes a different choice.
Will admits to Mike it was a seven, “The Demogorgon, it got me,” he says.
And no sooner has Will left the Dungeons & Dragons game than the real Demogorgon indeed does get him– in a terrifying sequence that we can only see in glimpses of Will’s horror.
We aren’t even at the credits yet! And we not only locked into these huge choices and changes and never-before experience for the characters, we are also locked in to the hook, the engine of the piece—the engine of a creature that you can barely see; and the disappearance of a young boy that is going to drive the entire season.
It’s not that the Duffer Brothers aren’t setting things up. In fact if you’ve listened to my two part Podcast on Stranger Things, Season 1, you know that this first Dungeon’s & Dragons sequence actually thematically sets up every aspect of these character’s journeys.
But it’s not the Secondary Structure that’s driving the story. It’s the Primary Structure. It’s Will’s choice to tell the truth, and the terrible consequences he suffers for that choice.
I want to contrast that with the opening of the first episode of Season 2, to show you how, even though they’re using many of the same elements that worked so well in Season 1, even though they’re trying to replicate the engine, the Duffer Brothers are missing the Primary Structure that started that engine so brilliantly.
In Season 2, once again, we start with the stars, and this time we pull down to a city, an unexpected Secondary Structure surprise for the audience. And this is fun. It is nice to find ourselves in a new place, and wondering how this new piece of the puzzle is going to fit.
The Duffer Brothers have a real challenge as they start this episode, which is the creature is particularly scary when it is in the shadows through the beginning of Season 1. But, once it is out of the shadows, the creature becomes a lot less scary; it becomes a lot more typical, a lot more like something we’ve seen before in other “Monster in the House” movies.
So, it is important in Season 2 to re-open the door to the danger and the mystery. And while the season could certainly have started equally brilliantly with what ends up being the first image of Episode 2, it’s nevertheless a smart and reasonable move to open to a place that we aren’t expecting, and a character that we aren’t expecting; the character of Eight, Kali, who is in her own chase sequence– mimicking the structure of the first episode.
But despite the cool chase sequence and Kali’s display of a magical power that reminds us of Eleven’s powers in Season 1– what is missing is the impact on the main characters, and what’s missing is the horror for the characters that we actually care about.
As the audience, we know that there is another “Eleven” on the loose, and that she may not be playing for the right team. But unlike in Season 1, the story of Kali isn’t going to weave through the first episode of Season 2. Instead, it is going to be left to drop there, hopefully to make us wonder what is coming next. But it’s not going to affect the characters at all.
This cool sequence really has only existed at this point for the audience. It hasn’t existed yet for the characters.
Whereas in the Season 1 pilot, we very quickly catch up to that lab again, to Eleven again, and the journey of Eleven and the baddies from the lab very quickly get woven into the lives of our story, the lives of our main characters.
And so, this is what we really want if our pilot’s Primary Structure is to come into focus:
Every element that possibly can needs to affect not just the general world of the story, but the specific world of our main characters.
Our characters have to make choices around those elements, and suffer consequences by them. Otherwise the story isn’t really started. It’s just setting up stuff for later.
From there, the Duffer Brothers once again attempt to replicate the engine of Season One by catching us up to the boys again– this time not in a game of Dungeons & Dragons, but an arcade game of Dig Dug.
And just like in the pilot, there’s an obstacle that must be navigated in relationship to something the boys care about: Dustin’s high score has just been beaten by someone named Madmax.
But the difference is– unlike in Season 1, where the boys can make structural decisions that matter to their relationships, based on the challenge of the Demogorgon, in this scene, there’s nothing they can do– not until Madmax actually appears several scenes later.
Once again, the Duffer Brothers are setting up the Secondary Structure for the future, rather than launching the Primary Structure of the now. And that’s why the stakes feel super low.
And even when Will finds himself magically transported back to The Upside Down from the middle of the arcade, the stakes still never feel like they used to feel.
Last season, we got to watch Will make a moral decision to tell the truth and then get snatched away by a terrifying creature we can’t quite see.
In Season 2, we get a high score on a video game– and then Will snatched back to a world which we have already seen. And more importantly, a world that he has already seen, and that we find out he has been seeing, on the regular, ever since his escape at the end of last season.
Now, don’t get me wrong. This sequence is awesome, and The Upside Down is created in an even more terrifying way– because this time there is a strange lightning and a strange creature in the sky. But inside the world of The Upside Down…
Last season, Will got snatched away by the Demogorgon and launched an Engine that drove an entire season of episodes, for a whole cast of characters who had to deal with it.
This season, Will got a glimpse of a world he’s already seen, and just as quickly got snatched back to the real world with no noticeable effect.
Last season, we got structure.
This season, we got PTSD. (even if we know it’s not really PTSD).
Once again, the story has started for the audience. But it hasn’t started for the characters.
And just in case we thought things were changing, we soon learn that even going back into The Upside Down isn’t new for Will, because, as we are going to find out later, he has been having these episodes again and again and again.
So, this is a recurring problem.
What we are actually doing is we are meeting the character in his current state. We aren’t launching him into a state of something new.
We aren’t actually starting the character changing. Instead, we are just establishing where the character already is.
The next sequence of the first episode of Season 2 once again mirrors the plot elements of the Season 1 pilot– but once again fails to mirror the the Primary Structural ones.
Just like last season, we go from the appearance of the “Demogorgon” (or in this case the appearance to the scary spider sky monster) to meeting Hopper the cop.
Both episodes feature a similar sequence as Hopper arrives at work, where a bunch of people are hounding him with a bunch of stuff he doesn’t want to deal with, and he is just not plain dealing with it.
In Season 1, when Hopper gets to work, the the worst thing that is happening in the town is that some old man is calling about kids stealing garden gnomes.
And in Season 2, the worst thing that is happening in the town is that someone is complaining about trouble in a pumpkin patch.
But in Season 1, by the end of Chief Hopper’s attempt to just go through his morning routine, he has been confronted with the last person he wants to deal with, Will’s mom, Joyce, and the problem of a disappeared kid, which launches him into the action of taking on a case he doesn’t want to deal with.
And in Season 2, he also gets confronted with a bit of bad news– from the PI Murray, who’s got a bunch of conspiracy theories about the Russians (which both we and he know are not true).
But unlike last season, Hopper doesn’t have to deal with this guy at all. In fact, the worst thing he will have to deal with are the pumpkins…
… which for some inexplicable reason, given what he’s been through last season, he thinks are no big deal, even though we know darn well that something terrible is happening.
Once again, the episode has started for the Audience, but not for the character. We’ve got the Secondary Structure, but not the Primary.
Which makes it super hard to feel any stakes at all in the episode– to feel like the story is actually is moving. Because, quite frankly, it isn’t.
We’ve traded a disappeared kid for a poisoned pumpkin. And that’s a hard place to start.
Catching up from here with Nancy and Steve, Season 2 once again follows the external blueprint of Season 1. But these scenes again lack the Primary Structure that made them so compelling in the previous season.
In Season 1, we got to watch the story of a new beginning, a new relationship between a kid who seems like a lot of trouble, and the perfect straight ‘A’ student. And we can feel the movie starting for those characters as they are going on a journey that changes them.
In Season 2, we find those same characters in a state of “I love you” where the stakes are very low and no big changes are happening.
And we haven’t even yet gotten to the real characters who should be driving this thing.
Because last season, by this point in the episode, we were watching these kids defy both the cops and their parents, to ride out into the most dangerous place imaginable, the road they call Mirkwood where Will first encountered the Demogorgon— riding out in search of their lost friend.
In Season 2, at this point in the episode, they are chasing around a girl who is good at arcade games.
In Season 1, by this point, we are meeting the terrifying Dr. Brenner, catching a glimpse of a new world, and experiencing a bunch of scary looking people trying to figure out what this crazy gaping thing in the wall is.
In Season 2, we’re watching a guy with a flame thrower carry out his same daily routine with a gaping wall thing we’re quite accustomed to already. That’s right, Secondary Structure of the story might be getting set up for us, but the Primary Structure of the story hasn’t even started for the bad guys!
The action of Stranger Things, Season 1 is constantly forcing characters into worlds they don’t understand.
A mother and a son in search of a lost child.
A little girl out on her own adopted by a kind cook who ends up shot by a bunch of people pretending to be social services– a child who can stop a fan, or kill a man, with her mind.
A Demogorgon who we can barely see, but who seems to have the power to vanish children and kill scientists.
A bunch of evil government operatives, who may be dealing with something they don’t understand, and who are trying to track down the little girl.
A fucked up sheriff; on a mission to find a boy, in a town where nothing bad ever happens, and a bunch of kids riding into danger to find their lost friend.
And by the end of the pilot of Season 1, those little boys have found Eleven, and we are launched into a journey and an engine that is enough to carry us through eight episodes.
Whereas in Season 2, exactly the opposite happens.
Yes, we are graced at the end of the episode…
… and there is a little spoiler ahead…
We are graced with the surprise, at the end of the episode, of finding out that Sheriff Hopper is in fact hiding Eleven.
And yes, that is a nice exciting turn. But it is still just Secondary Structure. It’s a start for the audience; it isn’t a start for the character.
Because Hopper already knows he’s got Eleven. And Eleven already knows she’s got Hopper.
It’s not until the start of Episode 2 that we actually see the structure of how they connected, and the new decisions, new choices, new journeys, new wants, and new obstacles start to matter in earnest.
In the first episode of Stranger Things, Season 2, what we are actually doing is not launching the characters into a new world, but meeting them standing in place.
Will is used to being called zombie boy and having flashbacks– and while he may be dealing with some creepy psychotherapist who may have ulterior motives, nothing is changing in his world, and nothing is as terrifying as the stuff he has already dealt with in the past season. Even the moment when he throws up the slug at the end of Season 1 is a hundred times more terrifying than anything that happens in this episode.
Yes, Joyce may be in a new relationship and that may be nice, but that relationship is in a static state where it isn’t being threatened and it isn’t changing.
Yes, a new girl is in town, and she can really play Dig Dug, but the boys aren’t chasing anything that has any real risk involved.
And so far, the only big thing that is actually happened is the death of a bunch of pumpkins.
And this isn’t a bad episode. This is a good episode. This is an exciting episode. This is a well written episode.
But this isn’t a great episode. It’s not a pilot episode.
It’s not a strong enough episode to get the engine started.
The real episode that does that is Episode 2.
So, it is important to understand in your pilot that you’ve got to start your movie moving.
You’ve got to concentrate on the Primary Structure, the meat, and not the bread you serve it on. That you cannot save the best for last, you’ve got to save the best for first.
You cannot leave your characters in their normal world treading water, you’ve got to get them changing right away. You’ve got to launch them into a journey of change. And you need every element to work together to rev that engine that is going to drive you through your season.
Episode 1 isn’t about establishing the cool stuff that is coming, because if that is all you do, no one will ever see that cool stuff.
Episode 1 is about shaking up the normal world of every single character, locking them into a big journey, a big enough change from their normal world, a big enough want, a big enough obstacle, that we can feel the horsepower that will carry us through an entire season.
If you watch the Stranger Things, Season 1 pilot and Season 2, Episode 1 back to back, you will notice that there is a big shift in tone in Season 2.
In Season 1 there is a very quiet 80’s nostalgia, whereas in Season 2, every scene’s got a reference to a song, a trapper keeper, a new haircut, a pair of glasses.
There is a need to gild every scene with that nostalgia, because, underneath the surface, nothing is going on.
If you watch the direction of Episode 1, Season 1, the direction is really quiet and beautiful, and mostly really about lighting.
Whereas, if you watch the direction of Season 2, Episode 1, you will see the over-direction, the really hard cuts, the choppy, choppy, choppy trying to create that feeling of tension where none really exists.
And it isn’t that the world that they are building isn’t beautiful, because it is.
But the first episode of any season, especially in a TV Drama like Stranger Things, where so much is changing at the end of each season, must function like a pilot to really do it’s job.
And a pilot can’t just be about building the world, or establishing the character. Your pilot must be about launching the action.
And I think that’s true even if you’re as famous as the Duffer Brothers.
Because although it’s nice to return to a world that’s good, wouldn’t it be nicer to return to story that’s great?
*Edited for length and clarity