This review contains spoilers. Our spoiler-free review is here.
Considering their affinity for the punk rhythms of The Clash, the creative team behind Stranger Things would have been very aware of the trickiness of that ‘difficult second album’ following a smash-hit first season on Netflix that earned the show rapturous critical and commercial praise. After all, Difficult Second Album Syndrome is a real thing, (it has to be, I’ve already started capitalising it now… at this rate it’ll be an acronym before long) and there are many bands out there, The Clash included, who found it impossible to deliver on the promise of their breakthrough success second time around. For a series in the vein of Stranger Things, where homage and intertextuality are part of the very fabric of the show, the self-awareness of a ‘sophomore slump’ must have been pretty deafening. Think about it: Ghostbusters, Indiana Jones, Gremlins, three beloved franchises that Stranger Things’ second season borrows from, all of which suffered from DSAS. (Yep, definitely an acronym now…) With that in mind, it makes the decision of the Duffer Brothers to lean so heavily into sequel-style elements, those same elements that have been portents of… well, if not doom then at least diminished success, for so many iconic franchises that have come before, all the more praiseworthy. Somehow, Stranger Things has emerged triumphantly with a second season that in lots of ways, improves upon the first. Sophomore slump? What sophomore slump?
So, with its newly-christened title a shoutout to all things sequel, Stranger Things 2 landed with Vincent Price’s spine-tingling laughter from that Comic Con trailer still ringing in our ears, promising the same as all second instalments: to be bigger, badder and louder… and true enough, it is all of those things. The threat ramps up, as do the cast with a host of newcomers to Hawkins, Indiana; the stakes are higher as the entirety of the Upside Down, led by a sentient and shadowy menace, threatens to break through into this world whilst Nancy and Jonathan’s leaking of key evidence to the national press meant the show’s finale revealed parts of this information to the outside world, widening the stage significantly and reshaping the playing field for season three.
Of course, Price’s macabre guffaws featured in the trailer because Stranger Things 2 channels the horror genre with which he was synonymous: perhaps realising that much of the show’s initial charm relied on a spellbinding sense of nostalgia, Stranger Things 2’s autumn rescheduling doubles down on that as we revisit Hawkins during Halloween and the slower-burning structure of this season, (especially in comparison to the first) means that the Duffers really give the town and its inhabitants time to breathe during this creepy holiday season. As for the audience? We simply enjoy the opportunity to simply revel in experiencing a childhood that may not be our own, but in many ways is equally familiar, as we’ve experienced its transcendent power through endless movies, books and TV. For some no doubt, the slower pacing in season two may have been an issue, but getting to see Mike and Nancy squabble like normal siblings, the boys hanging out at the Palace Arcade playing Dragon’s Lair, (the perfect video game to foreshadow a couple of season two’s key plotlines) and cosplaying the Ghostbusters on a schoolday when nobody else at Hawkins Middle School bothered to dress up was lots of fun, especially because it wasn’t overshadowed by a missing friend or a rampaging alien beastie from another dimension.
Going back to those horror roots for a moment though, the opening episodes successfully used visual tropes of the genre to great effect, slowly building up a simmering sense of atmosphere. From porch shots and forest sequences that evoked the splatterhouse classic, The Evil Dead to the maggot-ridden rotting pumpkins that were visually redolent of the slightly less celebrated Halloween III: Season Of The Witch, the creeping sense of dread was cleverly managed, by riffing on an iconography that we all instinctively understand. As one would expect, Halloween didn’t turn out too happily for anyone, as Will’s connection to the Mind Flayer began to fully manifest itself and Eleven was once again left marooned and starved of companionship. Speaking of the Mind Flayer, this Lovecraftian entity served as a more than able antagonist for the show’s second season, its insidious, shadowy nature acted as a natural counterpart to the more feral Demogorgon of season one. As for poor Eleven, you probably noticed the sweetest Halloween reference was her heartbreaking attempt to disguise herself as a white-sheeted ghost so she could enjoy Halloween like a normal kid. It’s now two seasons in a row that we’ve seen Eleven resort to disguises lifted straight from Spielberg’s E.T. and whilst it’s fun to see, it’s also a crafty visual reinforcement of Eleven’s otherness, the alien nature of her powers that separates her so distinctly from the very people she craves to be with.
Given its focus on paying homage to sequels in general, Stranger Things’ return was always going to follow The Empire Strikes Back model; after all, it’s the first example that most of us spout when quizzed about a sequel that’s superior to its predecessor. Largely, it works for the second season of Stranger Things too, and in part, that’s due to the presence of the Mind Flayer. The real key to The Empire Strikes Back’s success was that it achieved that brilliant paradox of widening the conflict, yet making it that much more personal; the use of the Mind Flayer was crucial in achieving this. Rather than one directionless but savage beastie running around as in season one, we now had a subversive creature hellbent on realising a much more diabolical goal, whilst operating on a much, much grander scale: seeking to replace the entirety of our world with the twisted hellscape of the Upside Down. Conversely, the creature’s use of Will to achieve this personalised the conflict for both our heroes and us, his intimate connection to the creature’s fate providing a face to all of the pain and suffering to which we could relate. And how could we not? If Millie Bobby Brown’s Eleven was the standout performer last season, young Noah Schnapp is undoubtedly the breakout star of Stranger Things 2, his mesmerisingly haunting performance as a gradually-possessed Will Byers easily finds itself on a par with other great performances in this genre.
Aside from the Mind Flayer, the show’s other antagonists perhaps fare slightly less well: Paul Reiser’s Dr Owens certainly has an interesting narrative arc: at first glance, it seems a case of epic stunt-casting, a seemingly nice guy with a hidden agenda being an opportunity of course to reprise his role from Aliens, (the other movie you might mention when recalling a superior sequel) but as it turns out, his conflicting loyalties do make him a more nuanced character. The choice to ally the Hawkins National Laboratory with our heroes is certainly an interesting one and makes sense narratively; Owens’ swerve though, interesting as it may be, leaves the story without a human adversary, a role that the leviathan-like Mind Flayer can’t quite fill. That task is left up to Dacre Montgomery as Billy, who whilst a fun character, (his high school rivalry sequences with Steve Harrington are great, not to mention that scene with Mrs Wheeler,) he seems fairly rudderless as a foil. Both his motivations and his goals seem fairly limited given the lack of a human antagonist anywhere else in the story and when compared to Brenner’s nefarious presence in season one, it made his absence all the more notable. I’m calling it here first: as Billy is clearly modelled on Stephen King’s semi-mythic Castle Rock bad boy, Ace Merrill, I’m wagering Billy does an Ace and teams up with the supernatural forces next season à la King’s Needful Things (not his best novel by any means, don’t go and read it based off the back of that little namedrop) because after all, what other path could there be for an angry, directionless young man than to be consumed by a hive mind alien that tells it exactly how to think, feel and act? It would give him exactly the kind of purpose he’s lacking whilst allowing him to go darker, maybe wear a little eyeliner or something.
Speaking of Brenner, his appearance in episode seven (The Lost Sister) and the revelation that reports of his death may have been greatly exaggerated were the highlight of an otherwise wheel-spinning instalment. Eleven’s sudden transformation into what Hopper termed ‘an MTV punk’ and her sudden acceptance into Marvel’s New Mutants (or whatever they were called) was the weakest aspect of the show. We’ve seen in The Walking Dead over the last few years how episodes focused entirely on a character or two can drain a series of its momentum and although the shriek-inducing necessity of waiting another week for an episode wasn’t an issue here, it still felt like at best, a lost opportunity, and at worst, a ham-fisted attempt to remove Eleven from the intertwining narrative, the better to create impact when she did finally arrive to save the day at the climax of the following episode. A good idea on paper, but in execution, not so much and certainly not worth a precious whole episode.
Still, episode eight followed (The Mind Flayer) and probably resulted in the best instalment of Stranger Things to date, so all was promptly forgiven. The escape sequence from the Hawkins Laboratory was breathtaking and gave Bob Newby, superhero, a chance to step forward into the limelight. Naturally, his death at this point was all but assured but the manner of it was both heartbreaking and horrific. A mop! A stupid, flippin’ mop! The casting of Sean Astin here proved masterful. He plays that loyal everyman archetype with a guilelessness that Stranger Things needs: as a post-modern homage that sometimes can’t help but (albeit affectionately) wink at the audience a little, Astin’s utter sincerity gave his death both the pathos and the payoff that the episode deserved. Bravo Samwise!
Going back to those knowing little winks for a second, this reviewer’s personal favourites were for the Temple Of Doom references: (that sequel that fewer of us mention when talking about better follow-ups!) Lucas dropping the ‘we are going to die’ line and Hopper going back for the hat as he leaves the Upside Down? Classic Temple Of Doom, not to mention the hilarious crosscut bedroom scene at Murray’s place between Nancy and Jonathan that paid tribute to Indy and Willy’s burgeoning romance in Spielberg’s classic. Their close encounter of the intimate kind led to the show’s best joke so far, a masterful double entendre deployed as Murray’s knowingly questioned Jonathan on the morning after the night before: ’How was the pullout?’ He was of course referring (at least in part) to the pullout bed but the faces of the two teenagers were a sight to behold.
Whilst the character of Murray seemed to swerve a little too far into zaniness at times, his interactions with Nancy and Jonathan was a strength of the show’s second half. Seeing the two teenagers reunite was heartening but it was actually some of the new character dynamics that really added zest to the proceedings. Pairing Hopper with Eleven seemed like a natural fit: the girl without a papa and the father without a daughter, but in reality it was their other similarities which made this such a fascinating relationship. The anger, grief and loneliness consuming both of them created a power struggle which was perhaps the most interesting aspect of the season’s first half. The two of them reuniting for the finale to close the gate to the Upside Down was a cathartic moment for both the characters and the audience… and the moment at the zenith of her efforts when Eleven’s feet left the ground was an electrifying hint at the limitless potential of her powers.
The introduction of Max was great and the way she upended the comfortable group dynamic was wonderful to see. Whilst the growth of Lucas and Max’s relationship was sweet (and the introduction of Lucas’ sister was pitch perfect) it was the emergence of Dustin and Steve’s budding friendship that proved most interesting. Steve’s (almost) effortless cool (it’s all down to the four hits of Farah Fawcett spray) juxtaposed against Dustin’s outcast nerdiness was perfectly counterbalanced by the older teen’s jock-centric mind not quite being the equal of the Dustin’s. This developed wonderfully throughout the last few episodes with Steve’s confusion over Germans and Nazis (and Dustin’s subsequent correction) being a particular highlight. Despite Nancy’s fading affections for him, Steve’s insistence on making sure Dustin at least, got the girl of his dreams was another telling moment in one of the least predictable character arcs in the world of Stranger Things. All of this of course, led to the dance, after a thrilling final episode that was a tad predictable but enjoyable nonetheless as the three converging efforts to defeat the Mind Flayer succeeded, perhaps a little too easily.
In true sequel fashion, even the show’s epilogue was bigger, badder and louder. There were reunions, moments of heart-wrenching catharsis and kisses, and all of it set to Cyndi Lauper. The Dance was a treat to see, especially watching Dustin’s beefed-up storyline pay off . With the world assuredly saved… and now aware of at least some of the goings on in Hawkins, the National Laboratory shut down, where we go from here is anyone’s guess. Brenner is out there somewhere, as is the Mind Flayer, seemingly trapped in its own dimension. As sequels go, Stranger Things 2 largely hit all the right notes, and in doing so dealt well with that ‘difficult second album’ problem. The only real disappointment is that we have to wait another year for more…