Spoilers for Stranger Things 2, up through Episode 4, "Will the Wise," below
The effects of Will's encounter with the Shadow Monster were less immediate than one might have thought from watching the giant smoke-spider violently invade his body at the end of Stranger Things Season 2, Episode 3. That's a symptom of this season of Stranger Things' larger ailment up to now: It's slowed down considerably since its blast of an opener.
Granted, at Season 2, Episode 4, "Will the Wise," we're just shy of halfway done. But where Stranger Things Season 1 had a desperate urgency in every episode past the series premiere, Season 2 is a much slower burn. There's no single catalyst driving its various plots and subplots forward, like Will's disappearance in Season 1. In turn, there's less of an impetus to keep watching--that "just one more" fishhook that sinks deep into our brains with the best the age of streaming has to offer.
In other ways, Stranger Things Season 2's more deliberate pacing can be a strength, as it gives the show room to breathe and develop things more fully. The Shadow Monster's effects on Will are growing, and the visions he's seeing now may only be a precursor to what's coming. They may also prove useful, especially as Hopper puts spade to soil and leaps down into the tunnels.
Something down there is "growing, spreading, and killing," according to Will. Hopefully it doesn't get Hopper, although the show is hinting at the possibility. Halfway feels early for a major character death, but who knows? Either way, Stranger Things 2 gets extra points for its creative use of certain sets, especially the Byers house, which once again seems in danger of being totally trashed.
In psychic brat land, Eleven's foray into the wider world unfortunately didn't last long, and in "Will the Wise" she found herself back in the cabin once more. It's great that Stranger Things is building anticipation toward her reunion with the rest of the cast, but by now her cabin fever is getting contagious--I'm starting to feel it too. Unless they're really going to drag it out until the very end, it's time to get her back into the main story.
Unfortunately, that's looking less and less likely. Comparing Hopper to Dr. Brenner--"Papa"--did nothing for her relationship with her makeshift guardian, and their paths are clearly diverging. Hers is taking her toward her mother, and his is taking him underground, possibly to a gruesome death by Demogorgon or worse.
By the way, wasn't the camera slowly spinning upside-down as he lowered himself into the tunnel a fantastic touch?
Elsewhere, Dustin continues to act incredibly stupid with his "pet." The rest of the kids are convinced that finding d'Artagnan might enable them to help Will--or at least provide some clues--but Dustin is being unrealistically stubborn. Not to mention, he's breaking the rules of friendship: "Friends don't lie." That's not working well for Hopper and Eleven, and it's not going to end well for "the party" either. Poor Mr. Mews.
One last complaint: The Billy and Max subplot has, so far, yielded nothing of substance. Steve vs. Billy is becoming the real rivalry of the season, but what purpose does Billy actually serve in the larger story? With zero character development, is he really just a pure villain? Dr. Brenner and his government spooks served that purpose last season, but they were actually sinister, not to mention relevant to the plot. Billy is just an a-hole.
And is he racist too? What's his issue with Lucas? "There are certain types of people in this world that you stay away from," he tells Max. "That kid is one of them." So, yeah. It seems like he's racist, too.
Sadie Sink is trying her best as Max, but the show is simply giving her nothing to work with. Given that we still know literally nothing about her, she seems to exist less as an actual character and more as a plot device to cause strife among the group.
Stranger Things Season 2 has spent an abundance of time setting certain things up--the poisoned pumpkins, Will's visions, Eleven's situation--with little payoff so far. In other ways it's totally failed at set-up, like the one-dimensional new characters Max and Billy, who both feel wedged into the story with inadequate context or characterization.
On the bright side, these waves have to start crashing soon. With Hopper underground, Will infected/possessed by the Shadow Monster, Eleven digging for answers, and Dustin forced to acknowledge that d'Artagnan is a monster, Stranger Things Season 2 might finally get moving again.
Oh, and Nancy and Jonathan were smarter than I gave them credit for. What can they accomplish with that recording? Hopefully we'll find out soon.
Best reference or easter egg:
The brief basketball face-off between Steve and Billy is straight out of an '80s cheese-fest high school sports drama. Loved it.