When Stranger Things first premiered on Netflix, it did so with little fanfare. But slowly, more and more viewers started to realize that the series had an unusual alchemy to it. It was nostalgic and reminiscent of any number of creature features, but it was also unique enough to bring something worthwhile to the genre. It balanced its three narratives well (the kids, the teens, and the adults) and made the ultimate defeat of the Demigorgon a group effort — the most satisfying kind of win. What could have easily been just a charming and finite love letter to the 80s instead ended on something of a cliffhanger with the promise of another season, one that this time carried with it an almost insurmountable pressure to be great.
It’s rare for a TV series to come out of the gate as self-assured and as well-received as Stranger Things did, and even rarer for it to be able to maintain that into a second season. But somehow, The Duffer Brothers have again managed to wield their particular alchemy and create a follow-up worthy of the hype created by its predecessor. Stranger Things is not reinventing television, but it does once again provide a highly entertaining, extremely bingeable, and even surprisingly heartwarming viewing experience.
Season 2 picks up a year after the events of the Season 1 finale, with Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) attempting to forge a normal life out of the shadows still left behind by the Upside Down, which includes flashbacks (of sorts) to that setting and the terrifying creatures within. His friends remain as loveably goofy as ever, although Mike (Finn Wolfhard) is fairly mopey as he copes with the disappearance of Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown). There’s a new girl, Max (Sadie Sink), who creates some tension between Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) about who can impress her first, and all of it plays into the side of Stranger Things that seeks out normalcy, one that balances the craziness that the Upside Down, shady government labs, and kids with extraordinary abilities bring.
The teenagers are caught up again in a love triangle, as Nancy (Natalia Dyer) continues to be haunted by the coverup of Barb’s (Shannon Purser) death, driving a wedge between her and Steve (Joe Keery), and pushing her in Jonathan’s (Charlie Heaton) direction. At the Byers’ house, Joyce (Winona Ryder) is seeing someone new — Bob (Sean Astin), a sweet and dorky Radio Shack employee — and the home itself again plays a key role in unraveling the mystery of the season. That mystery starts off slowly, in small reveals that suggest that the Upside Down might be breaking into our world in new ways, something Hopper (David Harbour) begins investigating as he also hides a particularly important secret.
One of the most successful things the Duffer Brothers have done with Stranger Things is allowing the investigation to move steadily along and to never be held back by people not communicating simple facts, or obviously ignoring important things. Hopper, Joyce, Mike and his gang, Nancy, and others start off with each holding a piece of the overall puzzle, but they come together and share their information in a way and at a pace that works. Everyone learned something from the events of Season 1, and that knowledge helps put them in a position to credibly collaborate in order to fight Season 2’s new threat.
The new threat is an effectively spooky one, with Will again at the center of things. There are genuinely tense moments and a systemic expansion of that dark force’s reach into our world (I’m staying vague to avoid potential spoilers), and there are some refreshing practical effects scattered in among the CG. It is, once again, a puzzle to unlock, and many of the most satisfying moments come when our heroes start to put those pieces together. Some of those collaborations lead to fantastic new pairings, like Dustin and Steve’s unexpected alliance (those two might actually be the MVPs of the season), and some decent material finally for Lucas. And of course Dungeons and Dragons again proves to be an important roadmap into understanding new creatures of darkness.
But the show once again injects a lot of humor into its proceedings, and no matter how intense or fantastical things get, the focus is always on our world. And while saving the world is important, it might not come together at all if not for the devotion these alienated characters show for their family and friends; ultimately, everything always comes back to that. Even as the younger set start to grow up and the teenagers and adults are forced to face hard truths, their actions always come from a place of love and trust for the families they have or the one’s they’ve built. It’s what holds Stranger Things together, and gives it a coziness even when dealing with such dark forces.
There is one strange digression the series takes late in the season that makes sense for one character’s narrative journey (again, I can’t reveal anymore details than this yet) but also feels like something of an ill-conceived departure. In the end it comes together, and possibly sets up a Season 3 narrative, but also takes us too far from Hawkins to feel like it fits. It mirrors another misstep regarding a new character who — while sometimes uproariously entertaining — too often slips into a parody that Stranger Things (itself already a pastiche of so many 80s archetypes) would be better off avoiding.
But unlike other zeitgeist-dwelling series that suffered tangible sophomore slumps (True Detective, UnREAL, Mr. Robot), The Duffers have managed to recapture what made Season 1 so good while still moving the story forward in necessary ways, with a smartly written and cleverly-plotted script. Like that first season, not everything works perfectly, but its cumulative effect is one that is again joyous, emotional, satisfyingly spooky, and most of all, makes us care deeply about the fates of these outsiders who band together as heroes.
Rating: ★★★★ Very good – A delightful return
Stranger Things premieres Friday, October 27th on Netflix.