Creators: The Duffer Brothers
Starring: Winona Ryder, David Harbour, Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobby Brown, Gaten Matarazzo, Caleb McLaughlin, Natalia Dyer, Charlie Heaton, Noah Schnapp, Sadie Sink, Joe Keery, Dacre Montgomery, Sean Astin, Paul Reiser
Original Airdate: 2017
★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)
The verdict is in: The Duffer Brothers clearly know what they're doing and there are strong indications they have a long-term plan in place that doesn't involve making things up as they go along. While this seems to be pointing out the obvious, it was far from a guarantee they'd be capable of delivering a sophomore season as strong as the first. In fact, it was extremely doubtful. But wherever you land on Stranger Things 2, everyone could agree that the only major factor missing this time around is the shock and awe accompanying a new series without expectations. The thrill of discovery surrounding a project that was shopped around to every studio before Netflix took a calculated risk that paid off hugely. These guys had years to hone that first season so it was just right, and couldn't have anticipated they'd be writing any beyond that. Now, the game's changed. It became a worldwide sensation and the kids are superstars. The real challenge begins.
|Stranger Things 2 Title Card|
So, yes, second seasons can be really tough. And it's important to point out just how creatively trying they can be in order to truly appreciate what's done here. Yes, they've essentially replicated the same formula, but isn't that what we wanted? By expanding the scope of the universe we were blown away by last year, they raise the stakes, further developing characters we grew attached to while even incorporating purposeful, intriguing new ones into the fold.
In its own way, this follow-up is as much of success as could be hoped for, and a good cause for relief and excitement that this wasn't the one-trick pony some skeptics had assumed. That for all its 80's influences and Spielbergian touches, it isn't just some trip down nostalgia lane. While opinions will vary as to how well it stacks up against its preceding chapters as it heads toward the finish line, it's still as tight and meticulously plotted as anything else out there. Logically continuing what preceded it while whetting your appetite for more, it's a real stretch to find any source of disappointment in the thrilling nine episodes of a series that quite literally turned the sci-fi genre upside down last year.
|A traumatized Will returns to school|
As the lovesick Mike mourns El's absence, the boys have turned their attention to the new girl in town, a red-haired, skateboarding, arcade champ named Max (Sadie Sink), who's moved to Indiana from California with her sociopathic step-brother Billy (Dacre Montgomery). He also steps on the turf of Hawkins High School's reigning alpha male and returning hero, Steve Harrington (Joe Keery), whose relationship with Mike's sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer) is again on shaky ground as she becomes obsessed with exposing Hawkins Laboratories' role in Barb's death, enlisting Jonathan's help.
|Dusty, Joyce and Max express concern for Will|
This season is all about tandems, with our already well-established favorites and some newcomers pulled in different directions, often opposite characters you wouldn't expect. El and Hopper. Steve and Dustin. Joyce and Bob. Nancy and Jonathan. Max and Lucas. Max and Dustin. Max and Lucas and Dustin. Dustin and a slimy pet Pollywog. Once again, after being absent for most of the first season due to his abduction into the Upside Down, Will is the odd-man out, as his friends have attempted to resume their lives while realizing something is still very, very wrong with him. Whether this is entirely psychological (in the form of some kind of PTSD) or physical or something else, it forms much of the groundwork for these nine chapters.
We do find out what Eleven has been up to since she single-handedly saved Hawkins and Hopper was leaving Eggos in the woods. While she spends nearly the entirety of this season cut off from the whole crew, it isn't without a purpose, as the El/Hopper story is the most successful of many overlapping plots. The thrilling results come every time David Harbour and Millie Bobby Brown share the screen together in a makeshift father/daughter relationship that complicatedly manages to be both adversarial and loving at the same time.
|Eleven "channels" Poltergeist in Hopper's cabin|
What's even more impressive and expressive about Brown's performance this time around is how she starts to become this angry adolescent, and El isn't exactly someone you want to make angry, regardless of her age or size. One of the season's best scenes involve her and Hopper arguing and the viewer genuinely fearing for this tough, no-nonsense sheriff's life as she dangerously hurls objects at him with her mind, as the show completely reimagines the stakes of a father disciplining a child. The subtext here, of course, is that she's filling void left by the passing of Hopper's own daughter, infusing the encounter with twice the emotion. El discovering how and when to use these "gifts" is at the crux of her journey toward understanding her true self: Jane Ives.
Locating her comatose birth mother and unraveling the mystery of her time spent at the lab leads to the polarizing self-contained episode, "The Lost Sister," where Eleven tracks down childhood labmate, Eight, A.K.A. Kali (Linnea Berthelsen) and discovers she's been using her powers more nefariously, leading a NYC street gang in crime sprees. While the episode's objective is pretty clear in guiding El to discover her true purpose and return to help her friends, it's a narrative and stylistic detour for a show that hasn't taken one up to this point. Sure, it was a risk, but not as enormous of one as some have been claiming and occasionally even bemoaning. While you could question whether this deserved a bottle chapter and contend it vaguely resembled a lost Heroes episode, it hardly curbed any of the momentum of the main storyline back in Hawkins.
|"Chapter Seven: The Lost Sister"|
The episode works largely because of the turns from Brown and Berthelsen, whose Eight will almost surely return down the road. This effectively plants the seeds for that eventual story but you have to wonder that if the reaction to this one episode was so inexplicably harsh, how game the Duffers are going to be to take what will need to be even bigger risks if the show continues for multiple seasons. Or more importantly, whether this affected how much rope Netflix will give them to do it.
Of that action back in Hawkins, there's so little to complain about that we're basically just checking off boxes in terms of the varying degrees to which everything clicked. But what impressed most was how creatively the four new characters were weaved into the series. Seamlessly, purposefully, and without distraction, they each added important components in driving the story forward, but special mention should be made of new girl Max and the incomparable Bob Newby, as both Sadie Sink and Sean Astin respectively knock their roles out the park.
As the closed-off tomboy crush of both Lucas and Dusty, Max essentially becomes El's stand-in for the season, much to Mike's disdain. It's a role that could have easily been thankless, with attempts at adding her to the group possibly drawing as much scorn and skepticism from viewers as it does Mike. But Sink's a natural, masking "MadMax'"s recent history of verbal and possibly physical abuse at the hands of stepbrother Billy with a tough, seemingly impenetrable exterior the boys need to break down. Once they do, it's fun to watch Lucas and Dusty battle for the attention of the latest female recruit to the gang without a number to her name.
|Sean Astin as Bob Newby|
The enthusiasm and sincerity Astin brings to the role and how it so thoroughly subverts our expectations of what we assume the character will do is possibly the season's greatest accomplishment. Whether dispensing incorrect but well-intentioned advice to Will or selflessly making a fool of himself to make others smile, the RadioShack manager is this year's Barb, but even better, as Astin seems to accomplish all of it by seemingly just being himself.
While casting nostalgic stars like Ryder, Modine, Reiser and Goonies alum Astin in an 80's set sci-fi series could have reeked of the worst kind of satiric self-awareness, his work here proves why it doesn't. The writing and performances deliver the goods, with the actors' histories serving as merely the cherry on top, adding a clever meta-subtext to what they do. And it's the only middle-aged Winona Ryder role that's come close to recapturing her trademark weirdness and unpredictability she displayed early on in in films like Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands. If we know one thing about her, it's that the odder the material gets, the better she is.
|Steve and Dusty team up|
The kids' sharp-witted, hilarious argument concerning who should be Winston when they dress up as Ghostbusters for Halloween represents the series at its best in nailing those small details. Or even just the character of Billy, who comes across more as a full-blown psychopath than your typical schoolyard bully, until the realization dawns on us that this is exactly what constituted a bully back then. His inexplicable hatred toward Lucas has us wondering whether he's also a racist, but by letting that possibility sit there as his actions speak for itself is more frightening than any outright acknowledgment would be. In a way, we don't want to know.
Whatever the root of Billy's anger (and we're given many indications), a lot of it is misdirected at Steve, whose redemption arc at the end of last season was one of the series' more surprising rewards. This season finds him thrown into kind of a big brother role that not only suits the character well, but gives us some priceless scenes of him mentoring Dustin as only Steve can. It's small treasures like that and even Nancy and Jonathan's trip to see wacky conspiracy theorist Murray Bauman (Brett Gelman), who offers up some shockingly sound and smart advice on how to properly expose the danger in Hawkins.
|Eleven and Mike reunite at the Snow Ball|
Getting these nuances right wouldn't mean as much if the big stuff didn't also work just as well the second time around, like new shades of Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein's 80's electronic score and the use of practical effects in conjunction with CGI in an effort to stay true to the period. Whatever they've done, it's worked again, as everything looks and sounds great. They basically took what they did in the first season and amped it up, in some ways making it bigger and better visually without losing so much of the character development that initially hooked viewers onto the show. And too think at one point we doubted they could even have a second season, much less one that nearly equals its first.
Now, the new problem will be producing more at a rate of quality that can sustain three or four additional seasons of story. What will this even look like when the kids get older? Could we get a time jump where we see them as adults? Is the series' style and story so entrenched in the 1980's that it couldn't possibly leave that time period and survive? Every season can't end with El defeating the Demogorgon, can it? These are questions that will likely necessitate a lot of pondering in Netflix offices, and I'm not sure those even scratch the surface in terms of mapping out a future for this show. The good news is that these nine episodes bring with it considerably more hope that they can.