This review is based on all nine episodes of Stranger Things season 2.
Fans only want to know one thing when searching for a spoiler-free review like this one: “Is Stranger Things season two as good as or better than the first run?” The truth is nothing could equal the sense of discovery and nostalgia that the first season captured, but this new instalment beautifully expands upon the existing tale, adding a few additional characters and answering some lingering questions. Although Will somewhat supplants Mike as the emotional core of the show, the existence of parallel storylines, including both familiar pairings and unexpected allies, reminds us of the best storytelling from season one.
One such parallel storyline involves El’s journey, and those who are looking for a dive into her back story and the development of a more distinct personality for the girl we know as Eleven will not be disappointed. Previews have hinted at El’s escape from the Upside Down, but the Eggos that Jim Hopper left in the woods in the season one finale paint a picture in one broad stroke of her existence for a good portion of Stranger Things season two. One year has passed since the events of last season, and how El spends that time informs her search for what “home” means and allows her to choose her own path as she never had been able to before, and that path will definitely not be what viewers expect.
The year that has passed also allows many of the characters to slip into a state of denial, pretending that the events of season one never happened, or at least that there’s nothing to be accomplished by revisiting that horrible chapter in their lives. Even Will, who is truly haunted by his time in the Upside Down, is treated as someone suffering from post traumatic stress (a new term in the 80s). The passage of time creates a sense of rebirth in the initial episodes, which makes it appropriately light-hearted and fun for viewers who have waited over a year for Stranger Things to return, but there is a sense of foreboding lingering in the background even from the start.
It’s mainly the Wheelers who hold on to their sense of loss, as you might expect. Nancy feels a sense of obligation to the memory of Barb, and her guilt puts her on an investigative route that, just as in season one, has her making discoveries separately from the main plot in a way that will please viewers with its familiar narrative structure. Mike also holds onto the idea that Eleven might not truly be gone, and although his sense of loyalty takes some time to affect his actions, there’s a pervasive sense that he is not complete without her.
One of the few problems, in fact, that Stranger Things season two might be said to have is a lack of things for Mike to do. He spends a lot of his time at Will’s side, and although he makes some important discoveries here and there throughout the season, he’s far from playing the central role he had in season one, which is unfortunate given Finn Wolfhard’s amazing acting chops. There are definitely some emotional peaks for Mike, but he’s in the background far too often.
However, this does allow his other friends, Dustin and Lucas, to step into the limelight, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, they each get their own storyline, bringing their already strong personalities to the forefront. A big part of the pair’s story centres around Max, played by Sadie Sink, a new classmate who gains varying levels of acceptance into the group. Max has a hard-edge but plenty of nerd cred, and fans will find it much easier than the boys do to embrace her as a friend and co-conspirator once things get going. She has plenty of mysteries in her own back story for viewers to ponder, too, and the difficulties she has being accepted are a big part of the season’s success.
Max helps us find out more about Lucas, arguably the most under-developed character from last season. A few family scenes are particularly endearing for the Sinclairs and help to round out Lucas’ character. Dustin was already a standout character last year, but this season his foibles really help him go in a new direction that will please fans. In fact, not only will some of his choices in opposition to his friends both horrify and amuse viewers; his unexpected pairing with a character no one would expect will also serve to spice up Dustin’s arc.
Max’s brother Billy, played with mullet-wearing magnificence by Dacre Montgomery, steps into the school bully shoes left behind by Steve Harrington, who appears to have mellowed somewhat in Stranger Things season two, owing much to Nancy’s influence. The shift provides an interesting dilemma as the viewer must choose whom to root for in Nancy’s life, the soulful but unassertive Jonathan or the reformed but wrongly-matched Steve. The outcomes on all fronts, for jerks and heroes alike, will definitely please the ‘shippers’ in the audience as well as those who like to see justice served.
An unexpected gem comes in the form of Bob Newby, a new love interest for Joyce Byers, played by Sean Astin. The idea of having one of the original goonies in the very Goonies-like Stranger Things was already pretty cool, but having a very humdrum, ‘normal’ guy around provides a surprisingly exciting, practical twist to the life of the Byers family, even if they (or we) don’t realise it at first. His eventual influence on the story is huge, and that’s saying something in such an established ensemble cast.
There is a slight change in the villain formula in Stranger Things season two, but it’s an easy adjustment to make. Whereas season one found equal enemies in the secret government group run by Matthew Modine’s Dr. Brenner and the demogorgon in the Upside Down, this year the greater balance goes to the humongous shadow creature that haunts Will’s dreams. Although Paul Reiser’s Dr. Sam Owens certainly keeps his secrets from the Byers family, the new residents of the Hawkins Lab are more hapless scientists with a need for secrecy than they are malicious exploiters of children with special abilities.
Overall, Stranger Things season two hits just the right mark, and rabid fans are sure to binge all nine episodes with fervour when they drop on Netflix on October 27th. Although there are huge plot points that must go unmentioned in this review to avoid spoilers (including a few weak points of the season), it can be stated with confidence that the new storyline will please fans and critics alike. The moments of horror will induce screams, the tender scenes will elicit tears, and the sense of fun in the carefree 80s remains strong. And of course, the ending will give viewers plenty of puzzles and hanging threads to discuss endlessly long after the final episode leaves the queue.
Stranger Things season two arrives on Netflix on Friday the 27th of October.