There is always a danger when a show comes back for a second season.
Stranger Things has been on a roller-coaster ride since its debut in 2016. The first season was received with a positivity and an overwhelming love that you wondered whether the second season would live up to the hype and expectation.
Whilst season one was the slightly better season (by the finest of margins), season two is definitely worth the wait, the excitement and fun. Rest easy folks.
Beverly Hills Cop II, Aliens or Back to the Future Part II – like most 80s sequels, they rely on the familiar. It’s like comfort food for the mind, repeating traits and scenarios that established the original and Stranger Things S2 is no different. The spot on pop culture references are ramped up with the inclusion of Ghostbusters, Alien, Aliens, Stephen King’s IT, The Goonies, Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, The Lost Boys, Assault on Precinct 13 and The Exorcist. The nostalgia and the aesthetics of the entire season is designed purposely to get you up to speed. But as much as everything wants to feel the same (as if the show was bottled up in a time capsule) things will never go back to being normal.
Like most sequels, this is the darkest timeline and season two manages to develop and deepen the mystery whilst retaining all the fun, laughter and natural chemistry you loved from the first. But the most important factor…it is still easy to binge watch!
Set one year later after Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) defeated the demogorgon, Hawkins is very much a changed town in an expanded universe. The villains are not as straightforward as before. The conspiracy, the paranoia, the spying, the doublespeak and the real world context of the 80s Cold War still looms and yet there is a powerlessness when it comes to the real truth. Hawkins lab still maintains an active presence, still cleaning up the mess from the previous administration. Hopper (David Harbour) gives them access to do so to protect the town and one other secret. Everyone else in the know is sworn to secrecy as if Pennywise the clown was busy hoodwinking the town into a perceived normalcy. They want you to believe that the first season never happened.
But the cracks are seeping through. Whether that is explored through Nancy’s (Natalia Dyer) guilt about her friend Barb, Mike (Finn Wolfhard) feeling incomplete without Eleven or the strange destruction of the local pumpkin crops, they all point to the bigger picture. The problem they thought was under control could lead to the very destruction of Hawkins itself. Once again, it is up to the kids to find a solution with Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) taking centre stage.
The change in dynamic makes sense. Given that Will was largely absent due to his disappearance in the first season, the aftermath had to be explored and explained. Diagnosed with PTSD (a new terminology for the 80s) with his apocalyptic visions of the new threat crossing over into his reality, Will carries the emotional weight of the season and that is a full and deserving credit to Noah Schnapp. As it slowly consummes his life, every episode adds a new complication to his condition, which is terrifying for a child to go through and for his mother to witness. The frantic energy that made Joyce (Winona Ryder) so memorable in the first season returns full force to protect her child from further harm.
Season two fully embraces the idea of The Losers’ Club from Stephen King’s IT. The characters of Will, Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) and Mike get a dynamic shake up in the form of Max (Sadie Sink). As the new girl in school she draws the geeky attention from Lucas and Dustin. She is the personification of Beverly from IT, an outsider who wants to fit in but has emotional baggage in the form of her verbally abusive step-brother.
That’s the confidence The Duffer Brothers have in Stranger Things S2. Whilst it could have gone down the easy route by maintaining the status quo, by introducing new characters they still manage to keep the balance. It also showcases a growth in these characters as growing teenagers as they deal with school life, love, family and identity. Over the course of the nine episodes, their beautifully explored arc takes them into new directions and new partnerships. It cements an unbreakable bond of protection and shared belonging against bullies, monsters, the government or the simple notion of the truth. Not only does that bring a freshness to the season but a proof that the show can grow beyond its means. That belief is extended to the introduction of Dr. Owens (Paul Reiser) and Bob (Sean Astin) who prove to have an invaluable contribution to the new season.
The first season was not a fluke – this show is the real deal and that’s what makes it so entertaining and largely satisfying. We simply love these characters and as a cast, it is performed with an integrity and a tender honesty.
There is a slight weakness to Stranger Things S2 and it is how one particular character is explored in one episode. It’s a catch 22 scenario because it is an experiment that catches you slightly off guard. On one hand it develops the character and confirms what we’ve long suspected. However its inclusion may feel slightly out-of-place and jarring, disrupting the natural momentum of the season. It is there for an obvious reason and purpose. Like a teaser, it opens the door for further possibilities whilst dangling threads for the growing mystery. But it also comes across as rushed, resolving quickly just to get back to the main story. Maybe if Stranger Things S2 had an extra episode to tackle the new environment it would have settled better but otherwise it could have been saved for season three entirely.
But thankfully the change of pace doesn’t spoil the overall enjoyment for Stranger Things S2. There is too much to love about this season because any negatives are immediately cancelled out by positive areas of nostalgia, music, gaming, heroism and that carefree attitude of the 80s that was symbolic of our idolised youth. As always, there’s plenty of discussion points that will keep us busy until the next series comes around.
This was a near perfect season and Stranger Things will only get bigger…and stranger.