Stranger Things Season 2 Review: Harder, Better, Faster, Stranger
With the second round of bizarre events in the town of Hawkins, IN, Netflix and the Duffers have done the improbable: they improved the formula.
When Strangers Things arrived last summer, most didn’t see the viral sensation coming. Netflix dropped it as they do most of their first seasons of in-house productions: with little fanfare and less marketing. But the Spielbergian 80s pastiche proved that word of mouth can still work in this day and age of television oversaturation. What was first conceived of as an anthology series has quickly become a serial conceived as the 1980s American Midwest answer to Harry Potter, one story per year, as the show’s protagonist kids grow up.
The road to the second season hasn’t been a smooth one. The original titles for the episode were teased in October of 2016, with filming beginning in November. But, by the Duffer’s own admission, once filming began, they realized they had made a very large error. Almost the entire season was reconfigured, and large swathes were rewritten, causing most of those titles to shift backward in the lineup, or change completely.
Moreover, filming took far longer this year, running nearly eight months, in comparison to the original season’s three-month filming schedule. That meant the problems of puberty hitting some of the main characters over the course of the process had to be worked around. (It’s only obvious in a few scenes here and there, and in one or two cases, the show actually takes brilliant advantage of it.)
And yet, for all these pitfalls, these new nine episodes — all of which were made available for review — are damn near a triumph. Those fretting about a sophomore slump can rest easy, there’s none to be found. What the Duffers have done instead, somehow, incredibly, is taken the microcosm world of four nerdy boys in the middle of the nowhere suburbs, and deepened and expanded the universe. They even the time to solve some of the more problematic issues originally baked into the text along the way, before people started calling them out for them. And all of it works.
It’s been eleven months since the events of Stranger Things Season 1. Like last year, this adventure takes place over the space of a week, beginning a couple of days before Halloween on a Monday, but ending before Reagan’s landslide victory on the following Tuesday, November 6th. Like last season, it ends with a “One Month Later” coda, set the week school returns after the Thanksgiving break.
Will Byers (the now series regular Noah Schnapp) is still having trouble adjusting back to the real world after last year, and his PTSD style flashbacks are getting worse. At least the new doctor in charge at the lab, Dr. Owens (Paul Reiser) insists they are PTSD flashbacks. Joyce (Winona Ryder) isn’t so sure what her son’s experiencing isn’t actually real.
At the same time, she can’t talk to the new man in her life, Bob Newby (Sean Astin) about it, since she, like everyone else, was forced to sign NDAs the size of phone books after last season. Astin and Ryder are a delight, and Astin’s attempts to play father figure to Will and his brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) are adorable, even as he proves mostly hapless. That is when his advice isn’t downright dangerous.
Bullying in middle school for Will is worse this year, as the “official” story is that the boy was “lost in the woods” for a week, but most of the kids aren’t going to let him forget they went to his “funeral” during it. Will’s friends, Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) are still rallying around him though. But how long will it last? The party, as they still call themselves, have new problems. Girl problems, in the form of new kid Max (Sadie Sink.)
Mike, who still pines for Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), takes more of a backseat this time to Lucas and Dustin, allowing both to expand their characters, and their home life. Lucas’ entire family is downright fantastic, especially the mouthy kid sister. Dustin’s cat-loving single mom, we would like to note, is the only person in the entire town with a Mondale sign in her front yard.
Over on the high school campus, Mike’s sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer) is still dating school heartthrob Steve Harrington (Joe Keery.) But with his senior year and college apps not going well, and her connection to the far more intelligent Jonathan growing stronger, the feasibility of this relationship long term is starting to come under question.
Steve also has competition in other areas, as Max’s older brother Billy (Dacre Montgomery) waltzes in and snatches that “King of the School” crown right from off his head. Slowly Maturing Steve is one of the more brilliant character arcs this season, and Billy provides both one of the better moments of pathos and quite possibly the funniest moment of the entire season in a one-two punch towards the end.
The addition of more female characters of all ages is welcome, even if the Duffers still have problems figuring out how to make more of them be friends instead of rivals. There’s also more characters of color as well, and not just Lucas’s family.
Meanwhile, Chief Hopper (David Harbour) is also struggling to keep everything on a nice even keel, despite a conspiracy theorist Murray Bauman (comedian Brett Gelman) who’s totally got the wrong end of the stick about Eleven and the events of last year, but is asking just enough questions to make the rest of the police force wonder. He’s also been hired by Barb’s parents to ask questions about the whereabouts of their daughter since they were never looped into what happened last year.
To top it off crops are starting to fail — of all things, the pumpkin crops — right when it’s time for the farmers to be selling. Is it sabotage by one disgruntled crank? Or by trying to keep the Upside Down under wraps, are the lies beginning to poison the land?
As for Eleven… well, that would be getting into spoiler territory, but suffice to say, she’s back, and with about a year’s worth of hair to boot. The show does a great job at keeping her near the action while teasing out the inevitable reunion as long as possible. For those who have a lot of questions about her from last year, some get answered. But just as many new ones get asked in the process, pushing the series towards the already-greenlit Season 3.
Let’s hope when that next installment arrives (of a possible 4 or 5 seasons altogether), it continues Stranger Things upward trajectory. The bar has been set high, but stranger things have happened.
Stranger Things Season 2 arrives in full on Netflix on Friday, October 27, 2017.