Stranger Things 2
The second season of the Duffer brothers’ sci-fi series is hugely enjoyable – we just wish it was a tad more original (warning: spoilers)
It’s one year on from the events of Stranger Things, but all is not well in the sleepy town of Hawkins, Indiana. Middle-school kid Will Byers is still haunted by his experience in the Upside Down, the dark dimension he was taken to in the first series by a terrifying creature that his three geeky pals (Dustin, Lucas and Mike) dubbed the Demogorgon. Mike isn’t doing much better: he’s pining the loss of Eleven, the strange girl with the shaved head and extraordinary telekinetic powers who sacrificed herself to slay the Demogorgon at the climax of season one. Dustin and Lucas, meanwhile, are having their friendship tested when they both fall for the new girl at school – Max, an auburn-haired badass skateboarder from California – who the boys find even more dreamy due to her arcade game wizardry. As if things couldn’t get any worse, America is about to re-elect Ronald Reagan for a second term.
Like the first season, Stranger Things 2 swims in nostalgia for the 1980s, and that’s partly why we love it. The show’s creators, twin brothers Matt and Ross Duffer, have once again filtered the sci-fi images (mostly from Steven Spielberg movies) and horror stories (mostly from Stephen King novels) that they grew up on as kids to create a compelling sci-fi/coming-of-age/horror hybrid, but this time round they’ve ramped up the horror elements. Reaganomics isn’t the only dark force on the horizon: there’s also a huge shadow monster who’s haunting Will’s dreams.
While the creepy atmosphere and dead-on period design are still a joy to behold, and the plot to defeat this new, much more dangerous foe is just as moreish as in the first season (it’s easy to gobble up these new nine episodes in one or two sittings), Stranger Things’ most appealing aspect remains its cast of characters. They're a heartfelt bunch who make time for romantic imbroglios, epiphanies about life and goofy banter in between saving their town.
Jonathan and Nancy, the older siblings of Will and Mike respectively, are back playing will-they-won’t-they detectives in a fun paranoid-thriller subplot in which they try to get justice for Barb, Nancy’s friend who became Demogorgon chow in the first series. The Byers household has once again been turned into a macabre art installation by Joyce (Winona Ryder) in a bid to get to the bottom of why her youngest son, Will, appears to have a psychic connection to the giant creature in his visions. Meanwhile, police chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour) has gone full Indiana Jones as he tries to figure out what sinister force is turning the town’s pumpkin patches to fly-infested mulch.
The most pleasing aspect of season two is the way in which the more expansive story has allowed characters to be shuffled around the pack, creating some interesting new dynamics. Eleven, it turns out, didn’t perish in season one, but has been hiding out at Hopper’s secluded cabin in the woods, and the pair's father-daughter routine proves heartwarming but uneasy; it turns out it’s difficult to ground your moody ward when she can throw you and half the furniture around the living room with the raise of her eyebrow.
When she’s not fretting for Will, Joyce at last has a bit of respite in her life in the form of a sweet romance with Bob the Brain (Sean Astin), a doughy RadioShack clerk. Their scenes together are funny and tender, and allow Ryder for the first time in the series to do something other than tear her hair out.
The most joyous surprise pairing of the new series, however, is the unexpected throwing together of Steve, Nancy’s bouffant-haired jock boyfriend, and Dustin, the most adorkable of the adolescent characters, who seeks the older teen’s help when the cute creature he finds in the trash turns out to be a baby Demogorgon. “How do you know it’s not just a lizard?” asks an exacerbated Steve when the lad drags him back to his house and tells him to bring his nail-strewn baseball bat. “Well, cause its face opened up and it ate my cat,” comes Dustin’s sassy reply. As well as Demogorgon hunting, the mismatched pair bond over girls (both have recently been rejected), the best place to store the carcass of a new species, and hairstyling advice, with Steve imparting the guarded secret on how he creates his voluminous do.
Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Steve (Joe Keery) in Stranger Things 2
This character shuffle does have a few downsides, however. Pint-sized telekinetic Eleven ends up sidelined for much of the series on her own adventure of self-discovery, which feels like set-up for future seasons. Eleven's absence, meanwhile, results in her bae Mike – played by It star Finn Wolfhard, the most soulful of the young actors – being left with little to do beyond playing nursemaid to Will. And while Max proves a spiky new addition to the young team, her psychotic stepbrother Billy (Dacre Montgomery) is more one-note, playing the type of mulleted bully-boy a young Kiefer Sutherland used to specialise in (think his roles in Stand by Me and The Lost Boys), but with little of Sutherland's menace.
And sometimes you do yearn for the surprise of an image or idea that hasn’t been cribbed from elsewhere. In season one, the Duffer brothers' ardour for all things 80s felt like genuine homage but in season two it starts to whiff of pure larceny. Images and film grammar from older movies are still woven into the tapestry of the show, but the Duffers have started to include other films' sequences wholesale. A disastrous mission by a group of gun-touting government agents into some slimy catacombs under the town is a beat-for-beat repeat of a scene from James Cameron's Aliens, while Dustin’s adventures with the baby Demogorgon is Ridley Scott's Alien by way of Joe Dante's Gremlins – the Duffers even have the cheek to throw in a few bars of Gremlins' score for those who haven’t made the connection.
Filmmakers like Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Brian De Palma have made whole careers out of taking the cinematic language of earlier filmmakers and filtering it through their own sensibilities to create new, distinct flavours. The Duffer brothers seem to miss this crucial process: they don’t create anything new, only imitate. Don’t get us wrong, the cover version they do come up with is artfully put together and we enjoy it immensely, but hopefully by season three they might start playing their own tune.
Stranger Things and Stranger Things 2 are streaming now on Netflix