“Don’t you think it’s weird…that we only seem to hang out when the world’s about to end?” – Nancy, aka Nance
The residents of Hawkins, Indiana have been through a lot. At least the ones we got to know back in Season 1 of Stranger Things: the Netflix show that unexpectedly became a meme-generating, merch- selling phenomenon last summer (#justiceforbarb). Whether it was losing a best friend, getting trapped in a supernatural underworld by a demonic presence, or having their very first crush on a girl, these characters endured some heavy stuff.
And that’s where Season two picks up. Enough time has passed (almost a year, or 353 days to be exact) so that it feels like things should be back to normal in this small Midwestern town. But “should” doesn’t always line up with reality, especially when trauma is involved. And that incongruity is highlighted from the first episode of this surprisingly strong sophomore effort. On the surface, it seems like Will Byers has settled back into his old life after having almost died in the Upside Down. Remember how we barely ever saw Will in Season 1, except in flashbacks or as an unconscious prisoner? Well he’s now a main character, with the 80s bowl haircut that all of our moms really should have had the good sense to avoid. But in truth neither his mental nor his physical health have fully recovered – he’s secretly coughing up strange things into the sink and losing time to what appears to be flashbacks to the dark world he was caught in for so long.
I’ve seen other articles praising Noah Schnapp, the young actor who plays Will, and I agree that his impressive performance holds so much of this season together. From the minute he appears on-screen, there’s a specter of sickness and foreboding that hangs over Will, even as he tries so hard to fit back in with his family and friends. As much as they care and worry about him, they can never really understand what he’s experienced, so his isolation from them becomes another heartbreak he has to endure.
Of course Will may be the most traumatized of everyone – if that’s the sort of thing you can even measure – but he’s certainly not the only character dealing with grief, confusion and shock. Nancy (Natalia Dyer) seems happily coupled up with Steve (Joe Keery), but can’t get past her guilt at losing Barb (yes, Barb, she was a thing, RIP Barb and just fyi that Shannon Purser is on Riverdale now). Will’s mom, Joyce (Winona Ryder) has a wonderful new boyfriend named Samwise, I mean Bob (Sean Astin), but can’t feel safe whenever Will’s not in her sights. And Chief Hopper (David Harbour), who never tried to hide being a screw-up, is having secret rendezvous with someone in the woods. And then there also are plenty of new characters, all of whome seem just as damaged as everyone else.
And I haven’t even talked about Will’s brother, Jonathon(Charlie Heaton), Will’s friends, Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Lucas(Caleb McLaughlin) and Dustin(Gaten Matarazzo), and this Eggo-fiend with a shaved head, you might remember she went by Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown). One of the strengths of this show is that with an ensemble cast so big, you figure you’re bound to get stuck with a few dud characters or storylines that drag. But in the world of Stranger Things, every subplot or side character is moving enough, endearing enough, or at least has ridiculous enough hair, to keep you interested. And Season 2 plays to that strength by mixing things up and pairing people off in new ways. Ever want to see a buddy comedy starring John Hughs-esque heartthrob Steve and the adorable moppet/smart aleck Dustin? You will after this. And while none of the new characters really steal the scene (good luck with that with the incomporable Millie Bobby Brown around) – Paul Reiser’s suspicious doctor, the very sweet Bob and Max, the new kid in town, all come close – none of them diminish the amazing chemistry the original cast already established.
If the show – and particularly this season – has a weakness, it’s in the recycled feel of the scifi elements in some storylines. Why did it feel so fresh last year to see a bunch of rag-tag kids taking on all kinds of evil – real world and supernatural – as they biked through the 80s, the decade perfectly recreated with every shoulder pad and hair metal band on the soundtrack? Maybe because we weren’t yet in the middle of a Stephen King-assaince? (Seeing Finn Wolfhard in this and IT definitely blurs the line). Maybe just cause this season was bound to feel like a call back to itself? Anyway, it’s not the perfect pop culture reverence that bothers me – put an ET doll in a scene where a character feeds his new alien pet some candy any day – I get it and I love it. But some of the plot starts to feel like a paint-by-the-numbers for anyone who’s followed sci-fi movies or TV for the past 30 years. The aforementioned “cute” alien pet that quickly gets not so cute. Check. A ragtag group of rebel youth, some with special powers. Check. A bitter father-figure and precocious but violent child who team up to battle evil. Ugh, Logan was great though, wasn’t it? Let’s just say there were times when I wanted the show to surprise me and it didn’t get quite there.
But that’s not to say I was ever bored. I binged the entire thing in one day, and sure, maybe that’s partly because I was on deadline for this, but the truth is I would have done it anyway. Once things really start rolling at the end of episode two – and that’s the Halloween episode, so get ready for some throwback costume perfection – I was along for the ride. And I suspect you will be too. The Duffer Brothers – who created the show and write and direct a good percentage of the episodes – are just too good at getting you hooked, at making you care. You’ll notice in the first few paragraphs of this review I mention a lot of words like “trauma”, “foreboding”, “heartbreak” and “isolation”. So you might have been asking yourself if you were gonna have any fun watching this. Absolutely you are – it’s also a riot – with the jokes and callbacks you’ve been dying for since you binged season 1 last July. And that’s what gets you – that combination of so many great, original characters, who go through some really interesting and serious emotional development, plus all the meme-able dad jokes you could want. All that makes Stranger Things a highly addicting TV show and thoroughly satisfying way to spend nine hours on your couch, even if the world will be ending soon.