TV REVIEW: ‘Stranger Things’ Season 2 is creepy, ambitious and utterly binge-able

 Joe Keery and Gaten Matarazzo as Steve and Dustin in  Stranger Things .

Joe Keery and Gaten Matarazzo as Steve and Dustin in Stranger Things.

By their own account, Matt and Ross Duffer dodged a bullet during the production of the second season of their hit show, Stranger Things. As they reveal in an episode of the “after-show-that’s-not-really-an-after-show”, Beyond Stranger Things, the Duffers didn’t have to worry about living up to high fan expectations while writing the new season, as they started blocking it out before Season 1 got a green light. In this way, they weren’t burdened with the knowledge that the fans liked certain characters more than others, or that we all wanted #JusticeforBarb. They had the freedom to expand on their concept and see where it took them.

In many ways, this serves the Duffers well. Season 2 of Stranger Things is marked by a willingness to diverge from some of the things that made the first season so addictive. The nostalgia for 80s pop culture is less pronounced. There’s very little (if any) Dungeons and Dragons. The dynamics of the core group of kids are in flux. But this doesn’t reduce our craving for more; in fact, the show keeps us clicking the “next episode” button by folding in character development and narrative experiments, all to test what Stranger Things can be.

Dimensional travellers beware: minor to moderate SPOILERS lurk below!

We pick up nearly a year after the events of the first season. As far as Mike, Dustin, Lucas and Will are concerned, Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) is still missing, having disappeared after their fight with the Demogorgon. School continues, but their interests are changing. D&D is being replaced by new video games in a local arcade. Will’s mother Joyce (Winona Ryder) is dating a local man named Bob Newby (Sean Astin), the manager of the local RadioShack.

 McLaughlin, Matarazzo, Wolfhard and Sink dive into a new mystery.

McLaughlin, Matarazzo, Wolfhard and Sink dive into a new mystery.

But Will (Noah Schnapp) has never been completely normal after returning from the Upside Down. He’s tortured by visions of the netherworld where he was trapped, some of which feel as real as waking life. And he senses a monstrous presence looming closer to the town of Hawkins, a force that only their missing friend may be able to stop.

With these pieces in place, the team of friends certainly isn’t as carefree or blindly adventurous as they were in the first season. They don’t instinctively hop on their bikes and poke around in the forest as they once did – now they have a sense of potential consequences that only comes from a first brush with deadly supernatural forces. Even so, it’s not as though the kids are moping around: their new priority is finding out who beat Dustin’s high score at the arcade, and when it turns out to be the new girl at school (Sadie Sink), it sets off a rivalry between Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin). Meanwhile, Mike (Finn Wolfhard) still misses Eleven, and he’s getting more and more worried about Will’s visions.

So while the party is (slightly) divided and they don’t have a shared project in the way they once did, the decision allows the show to dive deeper into the characters, splitting them off into new pairings. Dustin and Lucas, who in a lesser show could be relegated to sidekicks without inner lives, are allowed to shine. Lucas tries to get closer to the new girl, Max, and offer a sympathetic ear to her frustration over her dysfunctional family. Dustin learns to be a little more independent, and picks up some (albeit flawed) relationship advice from Steve Harrington (Joe Keery). Steve himself is no longer just the jerk boyfriend of Nancy (Natalia Dyer) but begins to take responsibility for the kids and look to a life outside of the high school bubble. In many ways, it’s how these character dynamics evolve that keep us just as hooked as the supernatural plot.

Meanwhile, David Harbour continues his dominant performance as Sheriff Hopper, only this time Hopper’s taken on an unexpected challenge. He’s decided to become a de-facto father to Eleven, who resurfaces from the Upside Down but is still on the lam from the government scientists who raised her. Like the other character pairings, the Hopper/Eleven scenes are full of potential. The creative team deliberately paired two powerful characters: Hopper is physically imposing and quick to anger, while Eleven’s telekinetic gifts mean that she doesn’t get pushed around easily. The drama between the two is some of the strongest this season, especially since it draws on the sharp feelings of abandonment that fuel both characters.

 Nancy (Dyer) and Steve's relationship changes in Season 2.

Nancy (Dyer) and Steve's relationship changes in Season 2.

One of the first things you may notice about the new season is how the genre influences have shifted. The first season blended far more horror into the episodes – remember the scene of the Demogorgon invading the Byers home, with the power surging and the walls stretching inward? This kind of tension is replaced with more of an action-adventure vibe, especially now that we’re not dealing with full-grown Demogorgons that snatch you into the Upside Down. Instead, the characters face off with younger, faster-moving “Demodogs”, as christened by Dustin, which tend to just rip you up like the Jurassic Park raptors. It’s not a bad choice, but it may not be quite as spine-tingling as the largely unseen monsters of Season 1 that were left for the viewers make worse in their imaginations.

One aspect of the first season of which we see a lot less in the new episodes is the town of Hawkins itself, and this omission was one thing that disappointed me. Season 1 often showed the main characters in the context of the average residents (often making our heroes look crazy). While we do get a few scenes with the kids’ science teacher Mr. Clarke (Randy Havens), we don’t get as clear of a picture as we should of how the events of the new season affect the town. We do see the shadowy presence detected by Will infecting the crops of several farmers, but other than that the main characters often feel like the only residents.

 Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven.

Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven.

Then there’s the now frequently-cited solo episode, where Eleven slips free of Hopper’s overcautious rules and travels to Chicago, seeking out her real family and the truth behind her time in the lab. The creative team decide to drop this episode fairly close to the end of the season, and some viewers felt it distracted too much from the raising stakes back in Hawkins. However, Eleven did need a journey of this kind to establish some boundaries for her character (will she throw away her new life for the sake of revenge?). Should the entire episode have been about Eleven? Probably not - a few cutaways to Hawkins could have helped the flow. But the fact that the Duffers could include an episode like “The Lost Sister” without breaking the show suggests some strong possibilities for future episodes.

Certain key parts remain constant: the sense of fun is as infectious as ever (all hail Dustin and his random purring!) and the synth soundtrack by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein is super-listenable, even now as I play it on Spotify while I write. As the season comes to a close with the Snow Ball school dance, I got the impression that Stranger Things has even more changes in store: how will the tone (or the timbre of the leads’ voices) change when the hormones start to flow in earnest?

The Duffer brothers clearly sense that keeping the show static would be fatal mistake, so even if it means investing a little more patience, I’m all for rolling that 20-sided die (or dropping in more quarters, as the case may be).

Stranger Things Season 2 gets three and a half stars out of four.

 
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Stray thoughts

  • The Hopper dancing meme is one of my favourite things on the Internet this week.
  • When Joyce began covering her house in vine drawings, I knew the season had hit its stride.
  • Any odds on famous people being cast to voice the Mind Flayer in the future?
  • I sort of wish they shot a scene of Billy (Dacre Montgomery) waking up from the fight in the final episode, opening the fridge and having that dead Demodog fall on him.