There’s no question that the first season of STRANGER THINGS was a phenomenon. The Netflix original series appeared out of nowhere for most viewers; its enticing surface blend of early ’80s Steven Spielberg, John Carpenter, and Stephen King surprised many with how well it used those core elements as a jumping off point to tell a involving story featuring characters an audience loved following for 8 hours. A HUGE audience, as it turned out. Netflix inevitably greenlit a second season not long after, and here we are in late October 2017 as the second season drops, right before Halloween — perfect timing if there ever was. The question most viewers have going in is this: will this second season be able to perform the same sort of alchemy that the first did, marvellously using its influences to tell another story that will captivate the audience while bringing these now beloved characters to fresh places without being hackneyed or repetitive — are we talking about a trick or a treat here?
For this reviewer, the answer is a resounding yes, because this is one hell of a treat. Creators Matt & Ross Duffer have done it again by not only living up to the potential of the superb first season but following through on their promise to deliver something much more akin to a sequel (hence the titling of this second season as STRANGER THINGS 2) in the approach.
(NOTE: This review will be spoiler free, but does assume a familiarity with the original season of the show. If you haven’t seen it — really, what the hell are you waiting for?)
A year has passed since Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) was rescued from the Upside Down and it’s now October 1984 in Hawkins, Indiana. His friends Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarrazo), and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) are doing their best to move on from their interdimensional adventures. Some, like Mike, have a less easy time of this — he’s still hurting deeply after the disappearance of Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) and has become rather angry over the last year. Will himself feels treated with kid gloves by his friends and especially his family — even if we the viewers understand why his mother Joyce (Winona Ryder) and brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) would be so protective of him, Will just wants to be treated like any other kid. Mike’s older sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and her boyfriend Steve (Joe Keery) are still together, but there’s difficulties there, too; Nancy in particular is suffering from a crushing guilt over the death of her friend Barb and in trying to pretend that everything’s totally fine, she’s drowning as she attempts to play the part of a normal kid.
Speaking of “normal”… Chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour) has his own facade to keep up. By day, he’s responding to the usual small town bullshit that law enforcement typically has to deal with yet by night, he’s hiding a dangerous secret, one that was hinted at in the last act of the first season’s finale. As Will struggles to deal with the fallout that was also hinted at in said climax — what exactly has he brought back with him from the Upside Down and what connection to it still lingers there within him? — the story begins to open up. New dangers are introduced along with a slow, steady expansion of the show’s universe (conceptually as well as literally), including new characters like the badass new-girl-in-town skater chick Max (Sadie Sink) and her asshole brother Billy (Dacre Montgomery), Joyce’s new boyfriend Bob (Sean Astin), and Dr. Owens (Paul Reiser), the current representative of Hawkins Lab to viewers.
Oh, and there’s an awful new monster trying to get into our world from the Upside Down, and it’s a TOTAL asshole. So that sucks for everybody.
One of the first things you notice about this season is that as it kicks off, virtually every character is dealing with some form of PTSD and/or shared trauma from the events they experienced a year prior. The repercussions of that thread their way through the whole endeavor, and it’s handled expertly by the Duffers and their writing staff. On that note, it does in fact feel so much like a sequel that it becomes hard to ignore, in that (as the best sequels usually do) things that worked so well before aren’t simply regurgitated this time around but rather built upon in a logical, inevitable yet surprising way. This is a brand new narrative that continues on from where we left these people before, but elaborates upon everything we know and accumulates over the course of these nine episodes to a HELLACIOUSLY satisfying conclusion and I’ll just say that right now (real talk: I found myself smiling and laughing through tears). The writing is at the same high level and each character benefits greatly, having grown and changed, as people do; also, as was done magnificently before, everyone is allowed to actually be human beings. By that I mean that some of them will disappoint you at times and behave less well than you’d want them to, while others may surprise you by rising above what you expected from them and being better than you could have hoped them to be. You know, just like real people. That’s a sign of quality writing and it’s all over STRANGER THINGS 2.
The directions this new story takes will definitely catch certain viewers by surprise. The group dynamic has changed quite a bit, especially with the kids — each one has their own particular subplot to explore (each of these are uniformly great, for my money) but the result of this is that it’s not always about the group of boys working together. Sometimes they’re paired off in ways new to us (we get a look at the strong bond between Mike and Will, for example) and other times they’re on their own following an individual path. Often they end up in a way hugely pleasing to the viewer — I, for one, loved seeing Jonathan and Nancy working together again, investigating these new mysteries and figuring out exactly what their relationship is to each other along the way. The sense of discovery for every participant in these increasingly crazy goings on gets more and more exciting as the story progresses. This holds true even as an outstanding sense of humor is flawlessly deployed throughout while never compromising the inherent emotional core of the piece. The added characters (Max is a personal favorite of mine) liven things up and go a long way toward keeping anything playing like a retread of what came before; this extends to the new faces we meet, likable or not (fuck you, Billy), but also to the threats coming from the Upside Down as well. It’s not particularly shocking to learn that the Demogorgon was not the only bad thing that dimension had going down, but it sure is gripping to discover as you watch.
One of the first things I thought upon watching the first full trailer for STRANGER THINGS 2 (the one set to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” which does NOT appear in any actual episodes and is thus my main complaint about this season) was that they seemed to be amping up the horror aspects of the show this go-round. In the early going it felt like perhaps I had assumed too much, as the overall tone felt very similar to what had come before (not a complaint, merely an observation) but as the story drove things to its conclusion I realized that yes, I would absolutely say there’s more of a horror element this time. Then again, if there’s anything we’ve learned as horror fans lately, it’s that the definition of horror is VERY subjective (some people will tell you that a movie about a supernatural clown demon-monster-thing that lives in the sewers and feeds on kids isn’t fucking actually horror, so who goddamn knows anymore). I can say this, however: even if you may not feel that it hasn’t raised the volume on the horrific nature of the story, to my mind it’s really difficult to argue that this isn’t more suspenseful than last year’s story at the very least. Shit gets INTENSE is what I’m saying. This is not to say that these genre components outweigh any sentimental parts necessary to the tale, which run from heartwarming to devastating in equal measure.
Coming at this from a technical standpoint, it’s executed in just as stellar a fashion as the first season was. The period details remain top notch (to the degree that it burns my ass a little that this can have a kickass Michael Myers mask while some of the actual HALLOWEEN sequels struggle with that, even ones I love) — in fact, Chris Trujillo’s production design is immersive as hell, period, whether we’re looking at “normal” Hawkins and its familiar neighborhood cul-de-sacs, recognizably normal schools, and dense woodlands or the Upside Down, with a shitload of foreboding atmosphere and gently rotting landscape. Everything is presented just as beautifully cinematic as what we’ve experienced in this story beforehand, except perhaps to an even greater degree. The Duffer Brothers appear to have grown even more as directors in a year (I specifically found some of the scene transitions in their early episodes damned effective and their framing is remarkably vivid), and have brought back returning director and executive producer Shawn Levy while adding director Andrew Stanton (you may know him from his work with Pixar or perhaps his underappreciated sci-fi fantasy epic JOHN CARTER) for a couple eps as well as relative newcomer Rebecca Thomas. Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein — collectively known as the Austin-based synthwave duo SURVIVE — are back to provide another utterly fantastic score that is only to happy to hand your ass to you, starting with that powerfully evocative main theme and expanding into more excellent scene cues that complement the onscreen doings perfectly, be it a quiet moment or an “ALL HELL IS BREAKING LOOSE” nightmare. Speaking of, there’s a lot more music cues this time out, and if the ’80s songs annoyed you last time (seriously, though — who the fuck even are these people who know nothing of a good thing), you might wanna have your finger hovering over the mute button, that’s all I’m gonna say. Except for that you bastards would have been outright insufferable if the internet had existed when, say, something like AMERICAN GRAFFITI was released; this concludes the “get off my lawn” portion of the review and I thank you so much for being present for it.
Regarding the acting, I have this to say: Every single one of them, to a person, is as flawless in their role as they were originally, regardless of what the story asks them to do (and this goes for the members of the ensemble unique to this season as well). The boys are as wonderful as ever; Wolfhard has new shadings that illustrate just how strong a performer he’s becoming (between STRANGER THINGS 2 and last month’s gargantuan blockbuster IT, it’s very easy to see a bright future for this kid). Matarrazo & McLaughlin not only recieve singular arcs of their own to play, but we get to see their families for the first time this season, which is a delight to behold. Dyer, Heaton, and Neery play their tentative triangle for all it’s worth (which is considerable, given what they’re provided to work with) and they once again make it very easy to care about each of them. Ryder would appear to have less to do as the story begins but a few episodes in we are treated to the return of Joyce the Fierce, and Ryder nails the determination and resolve yet makes it look just as easy as she did previously. I can only speak for myself, but I’m SO very happy to have her on my screen again doing terrific work. To me though, the two heavy hitters of the first season would be Harbour and Brown, no question; it would seem that the Duffers recognized this and reacted accordingly, putting these two powerhouse actors together to form a complex and affecting relationship that they make into pure magic. It’s amazing to see them play this material and I could have watched hours of just the two of them bringing the absolute best out of each other. The newbies in the cast are just as first-rate as the vets, with special attention given to Astin (playing to his strengths as an honestly decent and kind man) and Sink (she’d better come back as a regular, is all I’m saying, because if not I will burn things and send the bills directly to the Duffers). Brett Gelman (playing a conspiracy theory spouting investigative journalist) is only featured in a few scenes over a couple eps, but fully inhabits the role and helps to propel the plot — rather hilariously in moments. Attention must also be paid to Noah Schnapp, who is both returning to the series yet also somewhat of an unknown commodity; while last year’s story revolved around the focal point of his disappearance, he was only actually in very few scenes. In STRANGER THINGS 2 he is asked to do considerably more and while I can’t say if he was cast knowing that he’d be asked to carry such weight farther down the road, I can certainly attest that this young man is extraordinary here and gives a splendid performance.
At the time I am writing this, I have worked my way through the first season of STRANGER THINGS exactly 10 times in its entirety. I have been nothing if not vocal about my love for it as my favorite entertainment in any medium for a long, long time — I’m talking YEARS. From the first time I saw it, it felt like it was made just for me. STRANGER THINGS 2 has provided this exact same reaction, but more extensively. To be honest, it would be physically impossible for me to give less of a shit about whether or not this season is better than the first; I’ll leave that to others to argue (as I know they will ad nauseum because the internet). What I do know: I LIKED this season even better, as it is deeper and richer for me personally. That involvement is what appealed to me so much every time through season one. The 1980s genre trappings were what drew me in, but what hooked me was phenomenal storytelling and characters I would follow right off a cliff without regard. This is exactly that — but moreso.
So how could I possibly ask for anything more? I can’t, and I won’t when I watch STRANGER THINGS 2 again and again…probably twenty times through.
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Tags: Brett Gelman, Caleb McLaughlin, Cara Buono, Charlie Heaton, Dacre Montgomery, David Harbour, Finn Wolfhard, Gaten Matarazzo, Joe Keery, Matt & Ross Duffer, Millie Bobby Brown, Natalia Dyer, Noah Schnapp, Paul Reiser, Sadie Sink, Sean Astin, Stranger Things, The 1980s, Winona Ryder