Synopsis – When terrifying supernatural forces once again begin to affect Hawkins, they realize Will’s disappearance was only the beginning and so the adventure continues.
Episodes – S02E01 to S02E09
My Take – A year ago, this quirky little show that no-one had heard much about debuted on Netflix to an unexpected bona-fide sensation that soared almost by word of mouth alone, cementing its status as one of the best TV shows to premiere on the streaming giant. With an intriguing mystery, an eclectic and immediately endearing cast of characters, and a Stephen King sensibility that harkened back to the works of filmmakers Spielberg and Carpenter, the series quickly proved itself to be one of the best pieces of media to come out of pop culture’s current fascination with the age of ’80s film and TV classics. The impeccable trick the series pulled off in its first season was how seamlessly it wove together the opposing qualities of comfort and fear. Set in November 1983, the Netflix show quickly entranced viewers last summer with its aesthetic and conceptual familiarity—the kids on bikes fighting a monster, the throwback cultural touchstones, the childlike sense of wonder, this was, by design, a kid’s series for adults, due to its nostalgic ambience was cozy, but real terror peeked through in flashes: the alien invasion of Will’s tiny body, the psychological torture of Eleven, the cruel end of Barb. Without a doubt, a second season was guaranteed, and now 15 months later, the series returns with almost all the familiar elements in place – colorful characters, charming cast, soothing soundtrack, excellent humor, the nightmarish imagery, and the references. But with the series’ main mystery practically solved by the end of last season, and with most of the series’ leads having completed their character arcs already, can this new season push the story forward in meaningful ways? When the series creators & occasional directors Duffer brothers announced that the second season would operate as a sequel to the show’s first season, rather than a simple follow-up, skepticism ran rampant and after watching all nine episodes of this new season, it’s evident that the Matt and Ross Duffer won out on their high-stakes bet, well mostly! As I personally felt the second outing was sometimes better and sometimes worse than the last season. As this is a full blown, stand-alone sequel to the show’s first season, rather than plugging in more puzzle pieces, season 2 abandons many of the first season’s setups to focus on a new direction. There are obvious connections between the first and second season, as there would be with any sequel, but here the whole set up deviates from the attitude that defined the first season. What it also lacks, naturally enough, is the novelty value, and some of immediate charm of its predecessor. But it compensates, mostly successfully, by expanding the world established in the first eight episodes.
The monsters are even scarier, the friendship between the kids gets even deeper, and the new characters add wonderful elements to the stew. Plus, rather than feeling overstuffed, Hawkins seems like a much more real town than it did last time, which raises the stakes also we get to see more of Eleven’s past, and delve a bit more into the shadowy secrets of Hawkins Power & Light, and yes, we get to go back to the daunting Upside Down. The story takes place a year after the events of the first season in the town of Hawkins, where all the surviving characters has resumed their normal lives after all the craziness they went through. Mike (Finn Wolfhard) despite returning to his routine, has been secretly still been pinning for the mysterious telepathic, Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), who has been missing ever since they confronted the Demagorgon. Unknown to everyone she has been hiding a few kilometers away in a secret cabin owned by Sheriff Hopper (David Harbour), where he has been caring for her & protecting her from the eyes of the government. Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) has grown his front teeth, and he and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) spend their days playing Dig Dug at the arcade, but their friendship comes into question with the arrival of the new girl, the tomboyish Max (Sadie Sink), who not only has been toppling all their high scores, but also has an aggressive brother Billy (Dacre Montgomery) right behind her. Nancy (Natalia Dyer), Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), and Steve (Joe Keery) are struggling with their teen feelings, while also coping with the pressure of hiding Barb’s death (from the first season). Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) has finally found a man who respects & adores her in the form of Bob (Sean Astin), a RadioShack employee. But all this time, Will (Noah Schnapp) has been struggling, though he’s now home safe, something is clearly very wrong with him, after his stint in the Upside Down, he’s been having visions of an even greater threat approaching. A mystery that leads the gang into a battle with new invasive force, more powerful, more terrifying and much, much harder to defeat than the Demogorgon. In my opinion, Season two although objectively very good and still likely to be one of the best things you see on TV all year, does pale somewhat in comparison to the high benchmark set by season one. The follow up was always going to be hard – whether it is the weight of expectation, the high profile Netflix hype machine, or sequelitist, is open to debate. The main mystery also takes much longer to get moving, leading to stretches in the beginning where it feels like the characters are just biding their time in weaker subplots until the story finally kicks in. That is not to say the overall story of this season is bad, just that its lacking some of the magic that made the first season as magnetic as it was. However, what holds all this together is the strong writing. Just as the show’s first season fixated on the horror of a mother nearly losing her child, the second season lends similar nuance to characters reeling from the deaths of friends and the fear of their own mortality. Showrunners Matt and Ross Duffer lend a tremendous sense of gravity to the physical and psychological toll of the story’s fantastical circumstances. They deeply understand the realities of healing from horrific trauma, and how the process can actually make one susceptible to more hurt. Throughout the new season, nearly every character’s emotional wounds seem to fester in tandem with the otherworldly virus that slowly rots Hawkins from within—an infestation that the boy almost seems to will upon himself following a series of strange happenings that see pumpkin patches obliterated by a mysterious poison and nearby trees covered in a thick, slick slime. While it is true that many of the characters completed their arcs last time around and do not have much new to do, the show sidesteps this by pushing those characters into a supporting role to give previously under-utilized characters such as Dustin and Steve more room to develop on top of introducing new members to add some new perspectives to the main group (Sadine Sink’s portrayal is a particular highlight). This works well for the most part, even if some of the new cast members do not work quite as well as intended. The sequel/season 2 works because the Duffer brothers know what the DNA markup of the series looks like. They’re not going to tamper with the core of what makes the storyline work as a series, but they’re willing to rejigger some pieces of the puzzle to see if they can build a more impressive picture as the second season builds upon everything the first season did right and, for the most part, greatly improves it. There are a few hiccups along the way, but everything that made the first season a joy to watch is back in full force, clichéd tropes and all. The Goonies-vibe that coursed through the first season is alive and well in the second, only this time that camaraderie is even more apparent. These aren’t just a group of young friends who are facing down an unknown beast; these are seasoned warriors who are banding together once more to protect their best friend.
If the monster and horror-driven aesthetic define the ambience of the season, it’s the show’s main party — and the various teenagers or adults who help them along the way — that acts as its beating heart. Again, like before, the second season is almost impossible not to fall in love with. The ‘80s nostalgic is back in full force (the local arcade plays an important role in the season) and the remarkable innocence that existed in that era protects the delicate characters that make it precious. This is a time when kids could ride their bikes through all hours of the night and disappear for an entire day without people worrying about what had happened to them. It should be noted that the series second time around is far more frightening than the first season, but it isn’t scary. There are more jump scares and grotesque imagery, but this isn’t The Conjuring. This one is still rooted in the traditional, almost trope-like ‘80s sci-fi genre that inspired the first season. That means elements of the season are lifted from the horror of ‘80s films, but it doesn’t ever devolve into a traditional scary movie. To be frank, the horror elements of the series are some of the least interesting, and it was a wise decision to incorporate it as a minor theme. Unlike the first season, which focused on the arrival of the strange girl named Eleven, Will’s disappearance and the Demogorgon that haunts Hawkins, season 2 is a tale of resilience. Taking its cues from movies like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Independence Day and Red Dawn, season 2 tells the heroic, folk like legend of a small group who take on the monstrous creature threatening their very existence. While season 2 deserves credit for taking a big risk and pulling it off (for the most part), there are some problems with its pacing. The fact that it’s modeled after a sequel acts like a double-edged sword. Storylines that can be contained within one episode are dragged out across an entire season, while other storylines that need more room to grow fester in the show’s underbelly. If there is one character I had a problem with: Mike Wheeler. He was such a huge part of the first season and was a character that basically made the show. He didn’t have much to do in this season. Even though Mike delivers some delivers some sharp outbursts which Finn Wolfhard executes with aplomb, the writer’s didn’t really know what to do with the character besides giving the character Eleven a love interest. In fact, Will effectively replaces Mike — as the emotional core of the show. Having been stuck in the Upside-Down for most of the last season, it’s nice to see the little guy get a chance to shine as the story goes full horror. Eleven also goes on a journey, both literally and metaphorically. Millie Bobby Brown further cements her status here as one of Hollywood’s most exciting new talents in a season that drags her to various emotional extremes, even if the continued exploration of the Upside Down and its various terrifying inhabitants is far more intriguing than El’s investigation into her own personal history.
Eleven is still unmatched when it comes to depicting Eleven’s tendency to evaluate every lesson she’s taught. Her acting convinces us of Eleven’s difficult position of being ignorant of the real world, yet also knowing more than anyone else about the darkness within Hawkins. Brown holds her own and doesn’t lose that kernel of what makes Eleven a survivor: her curious, cautious, but occasionally violent stubborn streak. Which brings me to Episode 7, ‘The Lost Sister’, which is the season’s only major misstep – taking place entirely outside of Hawkins, it removes us from the action and the characters we love at a pivotal point in the narrative, for a standalone outing with Eleven and a gang of youths led by the similarly super-powered Eight aka Kali (Linnea Berthelson). The episode feels like an Eleven bottle episode and also feels like a backdoor pilot to a spin-off no one wants or needs. By virtue of the “011” tattooed on her wrist, we know Eleven isn’t the only one. Did we need a whole subplot about it? Eleven, is an actual, central character, and removing her from the Hawkins storyline makes her a worse character. Similarly, once Eleven is out of Hawkins, Hopper starts spinning his wheels, too, because his whole arc depends on her. By not solving the problem of what to do with Eleven when she’s not using her powers, two main characters flat line mid-season. And it’s not like the writers didn’t see the problem, because a new girl arrives in town to fill the void left by Eleven as Max provides a nice foil to the boys, especially Dustin and Lucas, who both like-like her, and have to deal with each other and her as they figure out their feelings. Season 2 really gets at the feelings and angst of first crushes, and the first time you fight with a friend over a crush—actual emotions, not nostalgia! Max is a perfectly likeable character, but she is only here because Eleven isn’t. David Harbour’s Hopper is more invested than ever in his town’s safety, and he’s trying to keep the story behind Barb’s disappearance quiet alongside Dr. Owens (Paul Reiser), the official put in charge to tidy up the mess caused by Hawkins’ Lab in season 1. Their efforts are being slightly curtailed by Nancy’s guilt – unsurprisingly, she isn’t over Barb’s death – who’s having trouble keeping what happened bottled up, and Natalie Dyer does a great job at showing just how on-edge Nancy is. Plus, the Jonathan/Steve/Natalie love triangle is back, yet Charlie Heaton’s Jonathan nicely avoids the teen angst he was slightly susceptible to in the first season. But the cover-up isn’t all they, or the rest of Hawkins, has to worry about. The side quest however frees up Steve to have an Adventures in Babysitting-style plot with the younger kids. It was refreshing in season one when Steve turned out to not be a total Blane, and it’s even more refreshing in season two to see Steve struggling with his pending graduation, the potential loss of Nancy, and all these monsters in Hawkins and to top it all off, he also has to deal with Max’s psychotic step-brother, Billy, who is a straight-up Eighties movie bully. Everything about Steve is an utter delight this season, most especially his relationship with Dustin, with whom he shares the secret of his Farrah Fawcett hair. Seriously, Joe Keery as Steve is the best. The fresh faces in season two are also a bit of a mixed bag – having introduced several newbies, the creators doesn’t seem to know what to do with them. Most successful is Sean Astin‘s Bob Newby – an amiable sad sack who proves himself by being in a heroic situation and has a particularly delightful relationship with Joyce (Winona Ryder continue to be brilliant). The character’s fate might be obvious from the moment he first appears, but Astin‘s so naturally charming that you still find yourself rooting for poor, unfortunate Bob. This season was overall a successful addition to the series. On the whole, ‘Stranger Things 2’ is a solid follow-up which despite a few missteps is able to ride the same successes of its electrifying original, and then mold itself into something unique and truly incredible. Season two has really evolved this show into something more unique and more epic. Season three is under a lot of pressure, but I am sure it will be just as successful as the second season.
Status – Season 2 (Completed)
Network – Netflix