Now on Netflix: Stranger Things 2
Warning: Spoilers for both seasons of Stranger Things follow.
The one thing I keep reading in all of the reviews of Stranger Things 2 is how the first season of the Netflix series "came out of nowhere." I remember first seeing the trailer when it landed in the middle of summer 2016 and thinking, "This has everything I love." The completely unsubtle parallels to E.T., the "kids on bikes" trope, wasn't lost on me. At the time, Netflix was still more or less sharpening its teeth when it came to original content. House of Cards may have confirmed their seriousness to be competitive, but Stranger Things solidified the streaming company as a powerhouse contender.
Soon, everyone was watching and talking about Stranger Things. It was a sleeper hit, the kind of pop-culture phenomenon that no matter who you were, you could get behind it. There was a lot of to-do about the nostalgia of the series, and the way creators Matt and Ross Duffer (The "Duffer Brothers") used familiar 80s references to appeal to an entire generation of millennials who grew up in the 80s and 90s. But to me, the best part of Stranger Things was how it paid homage to what came before it while still managing to feel fresh and original.
That, and the adorable middle school kids at the story's core who perfectly captured the essence of adolescence and friendship in the midst of danger and terror.
So, if it's not obvious, I loved the first season. A lot. When it was over, I was a mix of feelings. I thought it completed the arc of the disappearance and return of Will Byers from the Upside Down so perfectly that they should stop while ahead. I liked the idea of an anthology show, of a second season exploring a completely new town or part of the world and strange happenings there. But I also really, really wanted to spend more time with these characters again.
So, there was a lot riding on Season 2. I was trepidatious going into it. But I'm glad to say that the show mostly succeeds again where the first one did, by advancing their young protagonists not just into new stages in life but into fresh dynamics as well. In Season 2, which feels much more like a sequel (notice the word "series" is absent from the title), Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) has returned from the Upside Down to live a seemingly normal life. But as we know from the end of Season 1, not all is well with Will. His experience of being trapped so long in the Upside Down has haunted him. He sees things, visions of the Upside Down spilling over into the real world, complete with a towering monster that threatens to kill everyone he knows.
Meanwhile, Will's friends are experiencing traumas of their own: the traumas of growing up. Mike (Finn Wolfhard) pines for Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), the telekinetic girl who saved their lives a year earlier. Eleven hasn't been heard from since (or so Mike thinks). Dustin (Gaten Marazzo) and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) deal with the introduction of a new girl, Max (Sadie Sink), into their midst that they both develop a crush on. The high school students further complicate their love triangle. Mike's older sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and Wil's older brother Jonathan (Charlier Heaton) find themselves working together again, this time to take down the mysterious laboratory that was responsible for the monster that claimed Nancy's friend Barb (Shannon Purser). But it's Steve Harrington (Joe Keery) who goes through the greatest transformation, from full "bad boy" to an affectionate and caring guy who's scared for what comes after high school.
With so much going on, you almost don't need more supernatural shenanigans to keep you invested, but it wouldn't be Stranger Things otherwise. Dustin is more or less responsible this time, when he finds a curious lizard-like thing in his trash and decides to nurtures it in order to impress Max. As it turns out, in a town still reeling from an interdimensional monster killing several of its citizens, that's not such a great idea. Chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour), who has been keeping Eleven a secret in a cabin in the woods, visiting her regularly and treating her like a surrogate daughter, investigates some strange "roots" that are affecting some local Hawkins crops. Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) struggles to not be so protective of Will and tries to imagine having a "normal" life with her new boyfriend, Bob (the great Sean Astin), but she's worried about Will.
Stranger Things 2 feels more uneven and a little less tightly paced and structured than Season 1. The introduction of several new characters gives the show a little more bloat that it struggles to carry. Max, in particular, feels like a character who's there solely to cause tension between Lucas and Dustin, rather than a full character in her own right. Similarly, the choice to keep Eleven separate from the middle school boys for so long, while it makes narrative sense, robs the show of some of the interactions that made the first season so fun. Thankfully, the Duffers give her very own hero's journey of sorts. The much-maligned episode 7, while my least favorite for sure, didn't upset me as much as it did others. Her burgeoning relationship to Chief Hopper was a great touch.
But there's still a lot to like here. Steve and Dustin's new mentor/mentee relationship is particularly touching. Will is more front and center here, and I think he portrays the effects of PTSD with nuance. The stakes here feel lower, but it's to the Duffer's credit that they built such solid characters the first time around that we're invested so much this time around. If I get a few more years of Stranger Things around Halloween, I'll be a happy man.
And there will be more. With seasons 3 and 4 both "strong likelihoods," we'll get at least a few more years of Hawkins before we know what will eventually befall our beloved Indiana town. The Duffers challenge, then, will be to continually push the show into new territory while not losing the emotional bond that makes it so compelling in the first place. Many, many other sequels have failed in this arena in an effort to keep getting bigger and bigger. If Season 2 is any indication, they are capable of the task, but heading into dangerous territory. I, again, remain cautiously optimistic.