Lightning strikes twice in a winning return to Hawkins, Indiana.
***This review contains spoilers***
In 2016, Netflix ushered in a new cult phenomenon to its global network of users. The arrival of Stranger Things was, well, pretty damn groundbreaking for the streaming service; providing the perfect platform for binge viewing, thanks to its rich banquet of wonderful characters, all entangled in one captivating mystery. It’s growth with audiences was almost entirely organic, too – gaining traction from word-of-mouth recommendation, and water-cooler chatter.
The big question on lips however, was whether showrunners Matt and Ross Duffer could capture lightning in the bottle twice. Season One climaxed in a manner which was both tantalising and satisfying – begging the question of whether a return to Hawkins, Indiana was really necessary. However, the twin brothers have announced intentions to run Stranger Things for at least four outings, and the second dropped in its entirety on Netflix last Friday (27th October).
Suffice to say, the return is a real winner; providing nine episodes jam-packed with fantastic character growth, a deeper sense of scale, and a heightened cinematic approach to craft. Very few shows – regardless of platform – truly have the power to inflict that insatiable urge to “play next episode”, but Stranger Things thrives from it; leaving the spectator’s appetite whet, and interest peaked, with each passing hour.
We pick up about a year following the events of the first season. Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) has vanished; believably taken to The Upside Down after destroying the Demogorgon. Meanwhile, Will (Noah Schnapp) has been safely returned to mother Joyce (Winona Ryder), and elder brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), but is suffering with a series of traumatic episodes, thought to be induced by PTSD according to Hawkins Lab medics. Mike, Dustin, and Lucas (Finn Wolfward, Gaten Matarazzo, and Caleb McLaughlin) soon begin to notice Will’s strange behaviour, as does Hawkins Chief Hopper (David Harbour), whilst a punky new kid, Max (Sadie Sink), grabs attention thanks to her staggering arcade skills.
However the joysticks are soon abandoned, and the friends find themselves embezzled in otherworldly territory when Will’s “episodes” become significantly more dangerous than reflections of his past. They’re rather indictions of what’s to come, as he’s revealed to be serving as a host for an evil force which commands The Upside Down. The devastating news means unlikely bonds have to be made, and extreme measures must be taken to not only save him, but indeed everyone.
An episode longer than its predecessor, Stranger Things 2 (as it’s stylised) is undoubtedly a bigger beast. The singularity of its introductory narrative is no more, and evidence of a desire to expand is clear pretty early on. Much like the Demogorgon serving as the original core villain, it is but one piece of The Upside Down’s evolving puzzle; a cog within a thriving, deadly network. A richer array of camera techniques are employed here, as are set designs and filming locations, making this season a more aesthetically progressive piece.
Occasionally, this ambition to blossom – particularly outside of Hawkins’ tightly-knitted fabric – is a little wayward. Already the internet is flooded with commentary surrounding the seventh episode (“The Lost Sister”), which is rather peculiar to put it politely. This “journey” episode as we’ll call it, eliminates practically all meaningful characters, and side-lines key narrative progressions for little purpose. That’s not to say the episode is “bad” because it isn’t – it does sort of serve a point (in the end…), and it is entertaining – but steps away from the season’s rhythm, especially when the vast majority of viewers will be watching the whole thing rapidly, isn’t entirely wise.
Tiny fumbles aside, the season rarely puts a foot wrong. The scripting is consistently captivating – a fantastic mix of horror, humour, and Rubik’s Cube twists – whilst the expanding cast is uniformly brilliant. By-and-large, most people’s favourite character following Season One would rightly be El, but viewers are bound to have a newfound admiration for Steve (Joe Keery) after gorging on the sequel. He is, quite frankly, the unlikely hero of Season Two, and has wandered a beautifully humane path of progression. The initial badboy love interest for Nancy (Natalia Dyer), Steve renders into a caring and vital guardian figure here. He’s still a bit angsty, and thinks most of what Dustin in particular says is nonsense, but it’s clear his involvement goes way beyond trying to impress a cute girl.
The newbies are collectively beneficial, with Max’s slick-haired scumbag brother, Billy (Dacre Montgomery, of Power Rangers fame) providing the show with a required human antagonist, meanwhile Joyce’s new man – loveable oaf Bob (Lord of the Rings‘ Sean Astin) is a delightful addition, and arguably amongst the season’s brightest highlights. The emotional and psychological turmoil Joyce has faced, played exquisitely by Ryder, is comforted thanks to his presence, and he lends an everyman approach to the unfolding supernatural mayhem. Max herself too is excellent – offering jagged wit which eases the bruises of El’s vacancy. Admirable too, that neither the Duffers nor producer Shawn Levy attempt to make her the gang’s new female replacement; rather a compliment to an already fully functional dynamic.
Much like Dustin and Steve’s odd-couple friendship, a principal pairing in Season Two is Hopper and Eleven, who breaks free from The Upside Down’s clutches and is found scavenging in the surrounding woodland. She’s cooped up in Hop’s shack, bored watching daytime television and forbidden to contact Mike. The creative choice to place two major sources of power together within a confident space makes for some riveting exchanges; particularly as El begins to resent her newfound “home”. Much credit is due to Harbour’s tender yet assertive performance – he’s able to provide pain, compassion, and frustration simultaneously – whilst Bobby Brown’s physical control continues to stun. Such maturity and emotional complexity can be found in her focused stares, and jagged frame.
There are some major reveals in this second season, not least of all El’s true identity (Jane), Nancy and Jonathan finally hooking up, and new species spreading from The Upside Down (charmingly titled “Demodogs” by Dustin), but perhaps the biggest shock is Will’s connection to the alternate universe. He in essence becomes a spy in the real world for “The Shadow Monster” beneath; a hive-like intelligence if you will, which powers the many tunnels and portals between the insidious realm and our world.
Unlike the rest of the boys, the vast majority of Season One meant Will wasn’t able to develop as fondly or profoundly with the viewer, because he’s pretty much always off-screen. In Season Two, he is a really serious player – both actively and narratively. Schnapp gives his character a thunderous boost; delivering a performance of truly dark magnitude. The longer he is infected by the parasitic body, the more possessed and controlled he becomes. He starts forgetting those surrounding him, becomes progressively more aggressive and unpredictable. A number of scenes really push the buttons of demonic horror, and the young actor completely gives himself over to that evil force. It is most impressive…
One’s personal favourite episodes from the season are: Episode 3 – “The Pollywog”; Episode 6 – “The Spy”; Episode 8 – “The Mind Flayer”, and Episode 9 – “The Gate”. The final two in particular are some of the best television of the year; pulling out all the stops to create an unforgettable climax to a consistently excellent sequel.
The Duffer Brothers have stated they hope audiences are divided over which Stranger Things season they think is superior. Regardless of preference, it is impossible to deny the level of ingenuity, creativity, and above all else, unadulterated entertainment which is stuffed into these nine episodes. Just like El’s beloved Eggos, Netflix’s latest is delicious and moreish; nothing short of a goddamn treat.
Stranger Things 2 is now available to stream on Netflix worldwide.