Massive, massive spoilers ahead. First spoiler: ‘Stranger Things’ season 2 is amazing.
Ever since last year’s stunning premiere of the Netflix Original hit, one question was on everyone’s mind: will Stranger Things season 2 live up to season 1? How in the world could they top that?
For those somehow not in the know, Stranger Things was something of a dark horse in the world of television. Created by relative unknowns, the Duffer Brothers, Stranger Things is a sci-fi action-adventure pseudo-horror steeped in ’80s nerd nostalgia that took the nation by storm. Following a Goonies-like pattern, the series features a group of small-town kids as they try to solve a cross-dimensional mystery involving government secrets, literal aliens and a now-iconic experiment-turned-badass psionic bald girl who apparently loves waffles.
With its cinematic eye and its nail-biting storytelling, the show was a tremendous success. But soon after Stranger Things season 2 was green-lit, fans started to wonder: Will the show stay good? Netflix Originals have been known to sometimes peter out after a bang (ask me about Daredevil season 2), and this new show was definitely at risk. Rarely is a sequel as good as or better than an initial work.
Stranger Things season 1 had been delivered as a complete package, with a solid beginning and end and a bit of a cliffhanger. But while I and many others were admittedly skeptical that writers could add another season to such a finished product, the Duffer Brothers proved the show had more to give.
And goodness, did it give.
Producing a successful sequel is a balancing act. It has to walk between staying true to the form of the original and giving the audience something new. It can’t be too different, but it can’t rely on the same tricks.
Stranger Things season 2 was true to the spirit of the original, following the kids we’ve grown to love and sticking to the ’80s nerdy adventure theme that drew us in. But the season builds on the themes, keeping things exciting.
For me, a favorite touch was seeing more context for the kids less featured in season 1: namely Dustin, Lucas and, most importantly, Will. And while we learned more about Will, considering his virtual absence last season, it was the greater understanding of Lucas and Dustin that most drew me into Stranger Things season 2. We know more about their families, their personalities and how the adventure portrayed in the last season affected them. The kids who’d gone pretty underutilized before were now featured heavily, and of course with great performances from these miracle boys.
Another expectation of a sequel is raised stakes. Easy enough to accomplish with an action/thriller about an alternate dimension full of monsters, or so one might think. A major problem with sci-fi is the constant need for bigger threats that either trump themselves too quickly or don’t offer credibility. Stranger Things season 2 managed to pull it off with ease.
This season built on the promise of introducing a monster much more frightening, deliberate and villainous than the first season’s Demogorgon. We learned more about the Upside Down, enough to make it seem like an even bigger, more threatening place than we’d imagined. But while we moved away from the themes of the Upside Down as a place to get lost, we were introduced to the concept that the place itself is gaining sentience and trying to breach into our world.
Definitely raised stakes.
But I was, of course, pretty nervous toward the midseason explanation of the Shadow Monster (or the Illithid). Harkening back to classics like Doctor Who reminded me of times stakes were raised too high and we were given too big of a threat too quickly. And at only the second season of what would probably be a much longer series, the Shadow Monster seemed perhaps a little too big.
But by the end of Stranger Things season 2, it becomes fairly clear that this is really only the first appearance, the first threat presented by this particular big bad. In hindsight, we the audience were presented with a threat that was as frightening as it was nebulous. It was tangible in that it was threatening to consume our dimension, but intangible in that we still really knew nothing about it by the end of the series. And as much of a sucker as I am for lore and world building, I was very satisfied by that. It’s a guaranteed way to secure something to build on in future seasons, while simultaneously presenting a real threat to us now and raising the stakes from the first season.
There were many other perfect nuggets of accomplishment in Stranger Things season 2. One of the most understated, and perhaps controversial, feats has to go to the use of the series’ favorite character, Eleven. While last season she quickly became the icon of the show, rounding up a heavy heap of cosplayers, fan art and merchandise, by the first episode of this new season, the audience quickly sees Eleven take a backseat to the rest of the characters.
And it’s necessary. Focusing on her primarily for another season would have been overkill, for all that it would’ve benefitted commercially. It’s good to see the Duffer Brothers resist the marketing hype, and while Eleven did have a prominent character arc, it was understated compared to the larger arcs of characters like Will Byers.
In addition to bringing new things to the table, Stranger Things season 2 kept the spirit of an ’80s sci-fi adventure, which showed in another stellar soundtrack and continued allegories to popular films of the era.
While the first season harkened back to popular flicks like It and Stand By Me, in Stranger Things season 2 we see more movies coming into the mix, particularly in one episode that plays mostly as an homage to The Warriors. Both seasons reference the same quintessential films of E.T. and The Goonies in major ways. Dustin’s character arc, which involved the little alien Dart, felt like a darker twist to the E.T. story line we saw in the first season with Eleven. And of course the biggest Goonies reference of the season has to fall to the new character Bob Newby, played by Mikey himself: Sean Astin. Who, by the way, was not only an excellent casting choice but a fantastic addition to the cast.
Newby was also joined by newcomer Max (or Mad Max), who brought the gritty, realistic plot of a dysfunctional family to the otherwise heady and phantasmic season.
So with all my praise, it may be pretty obvious that Stranger Things season 2 gets two big thumbs up. While there were occasional moments of stumbled pacing, mostly featured by the oddly placed episode 7, the season pulls together in a way that builds on the success of the first, while not springboarding too far or staying too safe.
In my review of the first season of Stranger Things, I called the show the future of television, a bold and cinematic experience that perfectly utilizes the episodic nature of TV and the binge-enabled stream of Netflix. And after the second season, I’ll stand by it. But with the emergence of a sequel, I need to make an addition:
The first season played like a movie. But with Stranger Things season 2, the show feels like something different now. It doesn’t suffer the cinematic problems of sequels; it doesn’t suffer the problems of continued seasons of TV. Stranger Things shows the potential of a new form of streamed content, somewhere between a movie and a show that, like the original, will keep you on the edge of your seat.