It’s hard to remember that when Stranger Things premiered last year there was little publicity for it outside of a couple intriguing trailers.
A short few weeks after it dropped to polite critical praise, the show became a cultural phenomenon with seemingly everyone enamored with its genre-bending storyline, relatable characters, and authentically retro 80’s nostalgia. The show wasn’t just a gimmick — it was a celebration of an era of filmmaking that shaped the minds and hearts of a generation, all the while telling its own effectively off-kilter horror story. The series’ creators, The Duffer Brothers, arrived out of the Upside Down and successfully created their own genre hybrid, pieced together from disparate parts and multiple styles, seemingly effortlessly. That’s quite a parlor trick for your first major project.
Because the first season’s story felt so complete (it’s a nearly-perfect 8-hour package) and because of the show’s immense popularity, many have wondered if the sequel could live up to the hype, or if it was even necessary (has any sequel ever truly been necessary?). There were arguments that the show should go the anthology route, but Netflix and the Duffer Brothers have wisely avoided that pitfall (look to the diminishing returns of American Horror Story and True Detective for convincing arguments against that model). The real power of Stranger Things doesn’t lie in its horror show elements, or its delightful 80’s style, but in its perfectly-cast and lovingly-sculpted characters. With that in mind the Duffer Brothers have delivered an oftentimes extraordinary sequel that makes us fall in love with those characters and the town of Hawkins all over again. The mystery at the story’s core this time around is just a bonus, and though there are some interesting late-game narrative missteps, Stranger Things 2 rebounds successfully off of the strength of its creators’ vision and by spending considerable time further developing its lovable band of misfits.
Stranger Things 2 picks up one year after the events of the first season with all of its characters putting up a facade of living a normal 80’s suburban life. Mike (Finn Wolfhard) is still missing his party’s mage Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), who unbeknownst to him is in hiding in a cabin in the woods with local sheriff Jim Hopper (David Harbour). Lucas and Dustin (Caleb McLaughlin and Gaten Matarazzo) dealing with adolescent hormones as they both fall head over heels for the new girl in town, “Mad Max” (Sadie Sink) whose step-brother Billy (Dacre Montgomery) is the new high school bad boy.
Nancy (Natalia Dyer) is struggling with her feelings about Steve and Jonathan (Joe Keery and Charlie Heaton) while grieving for her “missing” friend Barb (#justiceforbarb). Joyce (Winona Ryder) has a new boyfriend in the form of Sean Astin’s loveable tech guru Bob Newbie, but she is constantly worried about her son Will (Noah Schnapp) who hasn’t been the same since his trip to the Upside Down. And she should be worried. Just as it was hinted at in the Stranger Things finale, Will has not been able to truly escape, and he is having visions of a new monster about to terrorize their idyllic small town.
The smartest decision the Duffers Brothers made for this new season was hanging their entire narrative on Will. He was the catalyst for the first season’s plot, but was largely missing for most of its runtime. This time around Will is front and center and the actor is required to do much of the heavy lifting. It’s unlikely that the Duffer Brothers knew exactly what they had when they cast Noah Schnapp as he wasn’t required to do much, but the gamble has paid off here. Schnapp is remarkable in much the same way Millie Bobby Brown was in Season 1, showing an uncanny ability to tap into terrifying emotional depths while maintaining his childhood innocence. Schnapp nails the big hysterical moments just as well as the quiet reflective ones. His ability to mine those depths without play-adult fakery is a skill unmatched by most of his peers on the very same show. If the Duffer Brothers are smart, Schnapp will remain front and center for the next two reported seasons. Stranger Things began with the disappearance of Will Byers. It should end with him playing a pivotal role.
The overall casting for Stranger Things remains impeccable with newcomers (and 80’s icons) Sean Astin and Paul Reiser taking on prominent supporting roles. Having the lead member of the Goonies play Winona Ryder’s love interest just feels right and Astin fills the role with warmth and humility. It’s strange seeing Ryder so happy as Joyce after watching an entire season of acrobatic hysterics the first time around, but Ryder gets to build Joyce quietly in Season 2 before going pedal to the metal in the later half of the season. Her new relationship with Bob and the dynamic interplay with Chief Hopper keep her interesting even when the story shies away from her. Reiser is a hoot playing off of his Aliens persona as the new doctor in charge of the Hawkins Laboratory trying to keep the evil at bay. His charming, vaguely sleazy presence does a great job of keeping the audience guessing whose side he’s on.
Sadie Sink fills in nicely as the new girl Max, who’s every bit as precocious as the core group if slightly more troubled. Her brother Billy is a bit more problematic of a character, as he spends much of the season being an insufferable asshole who is vaguely racist until we see his troubling home life far too late to care. And even then, he has little bearing on the actual story. His one saving grace, and some of the season’s biggest comedic highlights, is his ongoing bad boy battle with Steve. Joe Keery nearly steals the season out from everyone with his effortless charm and revealing beauty regimen. Late in the season he teams up with Gaten Matarazzo’s Dustin for a memorable sidequest that produces the show’s funniest and ultimately most moving character dynamics.
David Harbour takes charge forcefully this time around, and his interplay with Millie Bobby Brown is heart-wrenching . The Duffer Brothers are smart not to overplay the pathos in their new father/daughter relationship, but it’s there for anyone who remembers Hopper’s story last season. Millie Bobby Brown also gets to explore a darker side of Eleven, but it comes at a cost. The narrative splinters off for her in Episode Seven, “The Lost Sister,” which is meant to expand the Stranger Things universe. Much has been made of this episode online and by the overactive fervor you would think the show had completely jumped the shark. It’s a misstep to be sure, but that is more in execution than story intention. If it had come early in the season it would be easier to forgive, but when the momentum is building and the story is hurtling toward an exciting climax it’s jarring to stop the show in its tracks for what amounts to a backdoor pilot. Stranger Things 2 is almost as tightly constructed as its predecessor, but Eleven’s late game storyline interrupts a natural story flow. Unfortunately this story tangent is instrumental for Eleven’s growth as a character and cannot be skipped. It’s a good thing the last two episodes are completely bitchin’.
Stranger Things 2 becomes a study on sequels themselves with the Duffer Brothers just self-aware enough to tick off all the necessary boxes. The show is bigger than before with even more money up on the screen. The cast has grown, but the characters we love and care about are still the focal point. Criticisms from last year (what about Barb?) are integrated into the narrative without feeling tacked on even when they are done with a wink and nudge. The Duffers continue to have fun with their creation while putting characters in new pairings and new situations. The core group that made the first season so fun doesn’t spend quite as much time together and there will be debate over whether it’s smart to keep Mike and Eleven apart for so long. But Stranger Things has become about more than just the kids, with every core character feeling like family. And after the emotionally cathartic finale set at a middle school dance, it’s hard to wait to check in on them next year, and the year after that, and the year after that.
The Duffer Brothers’ nostalgic creation remains special even when parts of the season are slightly derivative (what sequel isn’t?). The world and style they have replicated and recreated has cemented itself in popular culture. Stranger Things is still every bit as John Hughes, John Carpenter, Steven Spielberg, and Stephen King as it was last time around, while throwing Gremlins, Aliens, Stand by Me, and The Lost Boys into the mix. This grab-bag of 80’s icons and genres shouldn’t work, but it does because of the Duffers’ keen understanding of an era that continues to captivate us. It’s an era that celebrated creativity, ingenuity, and real movie magic. Stranger Things 2 is the epitome of an 80’s sequel, but most of all it’s a whole lot of fun — and just like its predecessor, it’s likely one of the most entertaining and best things you will see all year.