Stranger Things premiered its second season last Friday, just in time to binge for Halloween. I talked about Stranger Things before as being part of a tradition of American Gothic fiction, and this season certainly continues in that. There are new characters, new combinations of characters, and surprising standouts that absolutely made the season. I’ll try to be as spoiler-free as possible, as not everyone had nine hours to spend doing nothing but watching TV and not everyone has finished the season yet, but as with any review, proceed at your own risk.
It’s been a year since Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) has disappeared and things in Hawkins, Indiana have more-or-less returned to normal. That is, everything has returned to normal except for Will Byers. Will has been having “episodes” where he seems to be back in the Upside Down and a giant creature (later called the Mind Flayer) is looming over the Upside Down’s version of Hawkins. Meanwhile, Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer) learns that Barb’s parents have hired a private detective to try and find out what happened to Barb, who was killed in the first season by the Demogorgon. Nancy teams up again with Jonathan Byers (Charlie Heaton) to bring down the people that unleashed the Demogorgon and caused Barb’s death. At the same time, Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) is not quite as gone as the others think, and is on a hunt for the truth of her past, and Dustin Henderson (Gaten Matarazzo) has found a strange creature in his garbage can.
The plot is a bit everywhere this season, and not nearly as unified as the first. In the first season, all three plot threads were caused by the inciting incident of the disappearance of Will Byers. In this season, there are multiple inciting incidents, almost one for each subplot, and there are subplots that I haven’t even mentioned yet involving the new characters Max (Sadie Sink), Bob (Sean Astin) and Kali (Linnea Berthelsen). Some are resolved this season, some are not, but there’s a lot of set up for the upcoming seasons that weren’t promised when the Duffer Brothers were writing the first season, so it makes sense. It’s not too terribly distracting depending on the viewer– though some might take issue with the slower pacing and the set up for future seasons. The closest comparison I can think of is Babylon 5 (mostly because I’ve been working through that recently as well), as there are things that are definitely treated with importance but the payoff is going to be a few seasons down the road. It also helps that there are things in every episode that set up the season finale, and there’s a lot that wraps up the previous season. #JusticeforBarb
Almost everyone from the previous season is back, and they all have stepped up to add new depth and sympathy and excellence of craft to their performances. Stand outs for me include:
- Finn Wolfhard as Mike Wheeler — fresh off the set of It, Finn Wolfhard brings a new maturity to Mike, as well as a new immaturity. Mike is very upset over the loss of Eleven, and lashes out at almost everyone this season, from his friends, to Max, and to Hopper especially in a fantastic scene towards the end of the season. He was also key in getting the Duffers and Netflix to allow the middle school kids to actually talk like middle school kids. That is, like middle school kids that have just discovered swearing. A lot of foul language from the teenage cast this season.
- Winona Ryder as Joyce Byers — continuing her excellent performance from last season (she got robbed at the Emmys), Winona doesn’t have quite the same moments that she did, but is every bit still the desperate mother that just wants her sons’ safety. Despite the fact that Jonathan basically disappears for half the season to help Nancy. That being said, Will’s issues were a lot more severe this season, and Joyce’s great moment from the trailer (“What is wrong with my boy?!?”) is entirely justified. She also gets a lot of great moments with Hopper and Bob.
- Joe Keery as Steve Harrington — I did not expect going into this season that I would end the season with Steve Harrington as my favorite character of the show, but he is absolutely wonderful. Steve’s growing maturity from the end of the previous season is continued in this season, and he’s shown to be a somewhat responsible young adult. His relationship with Nancy is on the rocks this season, but he actually spends most of his screen-time with Dustin, the other kids, and the nail bat. Joe and Gaten have fantastic brotherly chemistry and Steve does his best to make sure the kids all make it out safe. Steve also gets several moments with newcomer Billy (Dacre Montgomery), who has taken Steve’s spot as the top dog of the high school, and the resolution of that arc is immensely satisfying.
- Noah Schnapp as Will Byers — Will is phenomenal in this season, and his acting is key to the believability of the entire conflict, but saying anything more about it goes into massive spoilers. Just know that he’s really fantastic.
There are several great new characters this season.
- Sean Astin as Bob Newby — Bob is Joyce’s new boyfriend this season, and of course is played by Samwise Gamgee. If you’re a Goonies fan, you’ll appreciate how Bob helps with the main story of Will’s illness. There’s not a lot about his character that I can relay without major spoilers, but I can say that my initial reaction to him was wrong.
- Sadie Sink as Max Mayfield — Max is a very angry girl, and justifiably so. She’s angry about moving to Hawkins from California, she’s mad about how Billy treats her, she’s mad about how Mike treats her, and she’s mad about all the secrets that the boys are keeping from her. She’s introduced as “Madmax” (yet another 80’s reference), a name on a video game high score list. She’s really great at DigDug. She also takes on the class title of “zoomer”, to try and match the rest of the kids D&D roles of “bard”, “mage”, “paladin”, etc. Max is also the center of a subtle love triangle with Dustin and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), which is only about 1% of the content of the season and not nearly as annoying as most TV love triangles, which is a relief to most people who are tired of the same kind of love triangle writing in everything (hint: me).
- Dacre Montgomery as Billy Hargrove — Billy is a complete and irredeemable jerk. He’s a fantastic character, but an absolutely terrible human being. Some interesting behind-the-scenes development show that Billy is what Steve was supposed to be initially, a jerk jock in the vein of Stephen King’s human monster characters. In particular Montgomery studied Jack Nicholson’s performance in The Shining for inspiration. Montgomery is almost unrecognizable in the role (fans of Power Rangers might remember him as the red power ranger in the recent movie), totally embodying the role. His screen-time is mostly with Steve and Max, and he works off of both of them very well, his character getting right to the heart of their insecurities and fears.
- Linnea Berthelsen as Kali aka “008” — Kali is actually one of the first characters introduced in the series, in a thrilling chase with her gang and the police. The audience is shown the “008” tattoo on her wrist and then she doesn’t show up for several episodes. I almost thought that they weren’t going to bring her back this season, but an entire episode is spent developing a relationship between her and her “sister” Eleven. Her name, derived from the Hindu goddess of destruction and chaos, is completely appropriate and also possibly another 80’s reference (Temple of Doom, anyone?). She is a very destructive and chaotic influence in Eleven’s growth, but much like how the goddess Kali is not as evil as Indiana Jones would have you think, she also give Eleven some advice that helps in a key moment in the climax.
Production Design/Cinematography/Technical Aspects/Everything Else
This season is just as gorgeous as the previous one. We see much more of the Upside Down here, with characters finding several entrances to it, and many more monsters– including the Mind Flayer and a pack of Demodogs (Demogorgons that look like dogs). There are also moments and scenes in places that are not Hawkins, Indiana, which are very effective at pulling the viewer out of the now-comfortable locations that we remember from the previous season. There’s a new building that serves as the lab and Will’s doctor’s office, and of course the Byers home gets trashed once again. The dedication to 80’s nostalgia is also still present, from the boys dressing up as the Ghostbusters, Eleven and Kali sporting 80’s Punk looks, the numerous 80’s songs on the soundtrack, and an appearance of Don Bluth’s Dragon’s Lair arcade game. Even in subtle details, like a period-accurate Greyhound bus or television set, the crew strives to make sure that the production is far more than “good enough”. That attention to detail permeates throughout the entire production.
The show uses more CGI special effects this time around– while the previous season demonstrated a masterful use of practical effects, the limitations of such effects would have made some of the more impressive scenes entirely impossible. The scope of the season is also larger, with the Mind Flayer having a more Eldritch motivation and methodology. The fact that the Mind Flayer has a motivation at all is a big change from the Demogorgon of the previous season, which was more of a mindless monster. The design of the Mind Flayer is also appropriately Eldritch– a giant shadow, obscured by storm clouds, lit by red lightning, with a totally unfamiliar anatomy.
Stranger Things is an excellent show and you should watch it. But in all seriousness, season two tries very hard to be bigger and more ambitious than the previous, and it succeeds in many aspects of that. Most of the issues with this season and with the show are down to opinion and subjectivity– if you don’t like anything in the Horror genre, you probably won’t like the show; if you like your plots to be laser-focused, the second season might drag for you– but overall, this is a great show (and very bingable) and even if you don’t have Netflix, season one is available on DVD, and future seasons will probably be available for purchase. I highly recommend it.
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