Stranger Things: Season 2 – Is the Sophomore Year Stranger and Better?
A few, but limited, spoilers ahead.
For all of us sci-fi and fantasy nerds, the 2016 arrival of the Netflix series Stranger Things was a revelation, a compelling and energetic program that embraced the sense of adventure we crave while incorporating the best of the genre. For those of us who grew up in the 1980s and had our imaginations thrust into the crucible of such films as The Goonies, E.T: The Extra Terrestrial, Gremlins, The Lost Boys, and even Nightmare on Elm Street, Stranger Things proved a nostalgic reminder of a decade where any kid could (and would) find excitement lurking around every corner. It was, after all, a time where we rode our bikes freely about town, stayed out after dark without fear for our lives, and we were inspired to our own fantasy heroics by the likes of Luke Skywalker, Indiana Jones, and the popular roleplay game Dungeons and Dragons. We may have had a peculiar sense of fashion in the 80s, but we sure knew how to play. The first season of Stranger Things is a time-machine back to this nonpareil world of wonder and excitement.
Last week, Season 2 of Stranger Things premiered on Netflix and I am happy to say that all that was thrilling and compelling about Season 1 is alive and well here, with some surprising new twists, storylines, and characters to keep the adventure propelling forward. We ended last season with young Will (Noah Schnapp) returning from the Upside Down (a parallel world that is both frightful and mysterious) after a frantic search by his mother (Winona Ryder) and his friends Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) to recover the missing boy. This season spends a great deal of time focusing on Will’s post-disappearance trauma, a recurring series of haunting episodes where he shifts between two worlds and is terrorized by the “Shadow Monster” who seems to eventually possess him. What should be noted here is the remarkably mature and deeply penetrating performance that Schnapp gives as Will, especially in his moments opposite Ryder as they try to get to the bottom of why these things are happening to him. Will’s fear is palpable, distressing, and Schnapp gives a balanced turn that middles between futile control and all-out hysteria. He may not have had much screen time in the first-season, but Schnapp has certainly secured his place as a true star of this ensemble show.
Writers wisely realized how much we loved the character of Dustin (Matarazzo) in the first season, a delightfully quirky kid with a rabid sense of loyalty and a limitlessly creative mind. This season, Dustin happens upon a strange animal, unlike most anything that we would associate with this world. Dustin befriends it and tries to take care of it, only to find that is grows at an exponential rate and has no problem devouring other family pets. Matarazzo is hilarious as he tries to protect this monstrosity, seeing it as a unique oddball like himself. Only after it escapes and begins to wreak havoc on the community does Dustin begin to wake up to the possibility that maybe it’s not a sweet little creature who just needs to be loved.
There is still a question of the missing high schooler Barb who disappeared early in the first season. Will’s brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) and Barb’s best friend Nancy (Natalia Dyer) are working on solving that mystery while also connecting in a way that suggests a budding romance between the two, even at the cost of Nancy’s relationship with pretty boy jock Steve (Joe Keery). This triangle foreshadows some uneasy times to come, especially as Steve begins to lose his hold as the most popular kid in school when the mysterious new kid Billy Hargrove (played by the decidedly off-beat Dacre Montgomery) usurps his throne.
Also, new to the cast is Sadie Sink as Hargrove’s stepsister Max, who becomes an object of interest for Lucas and Dustin. She is unlike any girl they know, interested in video games and science, spunky and tomboyish. You can tell that a crush is developing for both boys, but they seem ill-prepared as to how to approach her and bring her into their fold. It makes for some momentous scenes of adolescent awkwardness, a necessary evolution for these characters as the monster of puberty enters the mix of horrors they already face.
Of course, no discussion of Stranger Things would be complete without discussing the character of “Eleven” (Millie Bobby Brown) the mysterious girl who showed up in town, considered by many to be dangerous, but an obsession for the protective Mike (the always terrific Finn Wolfhard). Mike and Eleven have a connection of psychic proportions, and when the girl goes missing, hidden for her safety by Police Chief Hopper (David Harbour), Mike doggedly does what he can to find the girl. Of course, she doesn’t like being sequestered, and is determined to find her only real friend against her guardian’s wishes. Hopper and Eleven have some intense scenes as they battle out the situation, her powers demonstrating a potential for violence that is on a plane with the title character in Stephen King’s Carrie. Harbour and Brown are terrific, driving forces of the show.
There are a lot of exciting things happening in Season 2 of Stranger Things. Fans of the first season should not be disappointed. Though the story picks up almost a year after the first season, the time is bridged seamlessly, but leaving enough mystery about the year-in-question to let the narrative reveal as it goes. Stranger Things continues to offer great performances, compelling writing, retains its urgency and intensity, and remains a love letter to all the sci-fi and fantasy geeks out there.