By Aubrey Byron, News Editor
This article contains spoilers. Do not read it unless you have watched all of Stranger Things Season Two.
Last year, the debut of “Stranger Things” became a smash hit seemingly out of nowhere. The combination of 80’s pop culture nostalgia and epic monster-driven fantasy made the show a runaway success. However, few breakout hits can live up to the hype, making a sophomore slump a real concern. Yet, “Stranger Things 2” delivers with bigger, stranger storylines, a monster that truly ups the stakes, and only minimal problems.
Season one of “Stranger Things” revolves around the disappearance of Will Byers, and his nerdy friends and loving mother who attempt to find him. The mystery of Will’s whereabouts helped drive the story and the reveal of supernatural beings from a mysterious alternate world made it one of the most original new shows of 2016. Part of the magic was the constant callbacks to kid movie favorites such as “Stand By Me” and “The Goonies.” It also used practical effects when possible and based CGI on live action props. It received not just fan worship but critical success with both Emmy and Golden Globe nominations.
Netflix dropped the sequel on October 27 just before Halloween. It begins with a cold open, again on a night sky which lovingly pulls from “E.T.” as the show often does. Then, with what at first seems like an oddly-placed 80’s crime movie reference, it sets up a widening of the fantasy world which fans love. Koli is introduced as “8,” confirming a long-time fan theory that other supernatural characters exist, and that specifically ten kids were predecessors to Eleven in the strange experimentations at the iconic lab. Not only does Koli exist, but her powers vary from Eleven’s Jean Gray-esque telekinesis by instead being able to make others see what she wants them to. The set-up is unfortunately later overcast in the story by the disappointing Episode 7, which will be covered later.
The evolution of the series is firmly rooted in character development. The show creators add depth to the characters and the plot. Rather than having a “happily ever after” princess-like trope wrap-up for Will, he instead begins to experience extreme PTSD, and it is eventually revealed that he has not actually escaped the clutches of the Upside Down.
The gang evolves too, with the foursome trading in their Dungeons and Dragons game nights for the Arcade games of Dragon’s Lair and Dig Dug, the latter of which is a gentle nod to what they must defeat.
With a new season comes new characters, some of which shine more than others. Beloved fantasy and science fiction veterans Sean Astin and Paul Reiser were amazing additions.
Reiser especially, of “Aliens” (1986) fame and one of the many inspirations for Stranger Things, was a more than appropriate cast addition. His character plays with the audience and stays vague on his intentions until the penultimate episode. Even when he is guiding Bob, it seemed like he may reveal a laid trap at any moment. In the end, it turns out he was trying to help the protagonists all along and even gives Eleven’s Birth Certificate to Hopper. Meanwhile, the addition of Billy lives up to no more than an 80’s jock villain stereotype, breaking with the multi-dimensional arc the show gave Steve last season. Similarly, while cool and exciting, Max serves as little more than a plot device to drive a wedge between Lucas and Dustin and show their coming of age. Not to mention, Dustin’s crush makes him do something uncharacteristically stupid like keep a baby demogorgon to impress her (which annoyingly pays off in the end). Billy’s only redeeming quality is his set-up to let actress Cara Buono glow as Mrs. Wheeler.
Of course, the most important new character was Bob, the lovable nerd played by Sean Astin who saves the day and is predictably sacrificed. Apparently, the Duffer brothers were so impressed by Astin’s portrayal that they wrote more scenes for him than originally intended. The dopey love interest of Joyce ends up using logic and of course his knowledge of Basic to solve the water map puzzle and open the lab. His help somewhat makes up for setting off the whole possession incident when he advises Will to stand up to his nightmares. (Advice not suitable when your nightmare is a fantastical monster that wants to suck the good out of the world.) As welcome of an addition as Astin was, his death was appropriate and honestly deserved. Don’t leave the gun.
Winona Ryder and David Harbour continue to deliver incredible performances, but it was the surprising pairings that shined this season. The first was the pairing of Eleven and Hopper. With his pseudo adoption made official, Hopper continued the redemption inspired by the loss of his daughter. Millie Bobby Brown and David Harbour’s charisma together helped carry slow earlier scenes. The second was the unlikely team of Dustin and Steve, where Steve continued his good guy arc by mentoring Dustin and protecting the kids on their mission.
The season was not without its issues. The once covert 80’s references that made fans nostalgic were at times grudgingly overt. It would perhaps be appropriate for the Duffer brothers to mail Stephen Spielberg and Stephen King two blank checks respectively with the memo– “Whatever you see fit.” Season one was peppered with easter eggs such as Eleven being revealed with a flashlight on a rainy night in the exact fashion Elliott finds E.T. Even the entire character of Barb was an obvious callback to Stef from “The Goonies.”
Speaking of Barb, the character finally received the treatment fans thought she deserved. After being effectively abandoned by the storyline, her continued disappearance drove the plot in season two via Nancy and Steve’s guilt and ended with the eventual exposure of the lab. The hashtag #JusticeforBarb became a social media explosion last year when the show failed to follow up on her disappearance.
There was also the issue of Koli and her band of misfits. While the reveal of her power was exciting, her one-dimensional tropes for friends took away from the storyline. The one-off episode seemed unnecessary even in “training” Eleven since nothing was actually achieved except encouraging her to “use her anger.” The only saving grace of the episode was the emotional return of Dr. Martin Brenner or “papa” for Eleven. The actress, Millie Bobby Brown, admitting to crying after filming that scene because of its emotional weight for the character.
All in all, “Stranger Things” achieved a sophomore success with its long-awaited return. The show creators Matt and Ross Duffer have revealed that they have a four to five season plan for the series so more mystery awaits.