Warning: This story contains some spoilers for episodes 1-3 of Stranger Things‘ second season.
For returning fans of Netflix’s surprise hit Stranger Things, it likely only took roughly 54 seconds for the second season to feel like a success. As soon as the familiar intro sequence hits—vintage synths pulsing as a kodalith technique nails the ’80s horror-thriller mood—you’re happy to be in Hawkins, Indiana, again. The first instances of a nervous Joyce Byers doting on her sons or Chief Hopper barging into the office only seal the sentiment.
Thankfully, the first three episodes of the new run reveal that many of Stranger Things’ strengths have returned. The Duffer Bros. and co. again nail the emotions and aesthetic of the “kids-on-bikes-have-an-adventure” genre many know and love. Life in Hawkins still has enough unsettled peculiarities story-wise to propel another round of thrills. And new additions to the cast feel largely organic to this world and not like one-note story fodder.
If this qualifies as the Stranger Things-version of a sequel—and not merely a second TV season—we may be in for more of an Empire Strikes Back experience and mercifully not Teen Wolf- or RoboCop-like sequels.
Same faces, new feelings
Stranger Things S2 doesn’t seem to be a straight-up reboot of the first, its cast simply shuffled a tad and placed into a new adventure (see Ghostbusters 2 or Temple of Doom). Stranger Things instead effectively allows the life-altering events of S1 to play out in logical ways for each of the main characters. Joyce has become an extreme helicopter parent because she wasn’t watching when some otherworldly spirit snatched her kid in S1. Hopper’s own PTSD from the tragedy of his lost daughter and torn family leads him to be over-protective out of fear of losing Eleven, and he similarly tries to be as “heroic” as he was in S1 by handling the supernatural elements of Hawkins in quiet while projecting tranquility to the town at large.
The major kids all behave differently because of their various interactions with the Upside Down. Mike, Dustin, and Lucas speak in hushed tones about whether Will is OK as they look out for him both explicitly and when he’s not around. Jonathan spends more time with his brother, too, and he encourages Will to lean in to his uniqueness as a defense/coping mechanism (“Being normal never accomplished anything in this world,” Jonathan says after advising him to be weird like David Bowie). Nancy hasn’t brushed off guilt over Barb’s disappearance, either.
Perhaps the best bits early on are when these effects of the Upside Down adventure mingle with typical growing pains. Not only are Dustin and Lucas growing more interested in their female classmates, but they have to balance how much to fill newcomer Max in on their prior adventures (and how much to integrate her into the group as Mike clearly deals with withdrawal over Eleven’s absence). Life will force Nancy and Jonathan to move forward with high school graduation somewhat looming, but their day-to-day now involves uncovering more about what happened to their best friends. Joyce understandably wants what she views as a normal relationship again, but how much can new beau Bobby (aka, Rudy’s Sean Astin returning to Indiana!) learn of the Byers’ prior experience before she comes off as unhinged?
Is it good or merely nostalgic?
If Stranger Things battled the existential question of “is this good or do I merely like it because it’s familiar” in S1, the stakes there only elevate with a sequel. Luckily, the show appears to have plenty to offer even if you caught S1 only as an accomplice to some loved one’s binge.
Plot-wise, Stranger Things S2 again doesn’t reinvent the wheel. New students (literally skateboarding in from California) come to Hawkins’ middle and high schools to shake things up (see Remember the Titans). Eleven isn’t the only human experiment now roaming the streets with unusual abilities (pick your favorite X-Men instance of this). The kids stumble across what’s clearly an otherworldly being, yet despite literally coming face to face with a Demogorgon and having a permanently shook best friend, they instinctively want to secretly shepherd this thing (E.T.). Mike even explicitly acknowledges how dumb this late decision is in light of S1: “Just because you’re from the Upside Down doesn’t mean you’re necessarily bad,” Dustin says to defend his new pet. “That’s like saying someone from the Death Star isn’t necessarily bad,” Mike retorts.
Such storytelling ideas have proven track records, and there’s every reason to believe they’ll work out in satisfying ways when paired with this engaging world and these likable characters. Thus far, those long-term arcs also get balanced well with single-episode storylines that, for the most part, work, like the boys needing to find out who usurped Dustin at the local arcade’s Dig Dug. (Personally, I could have done with a little less back story on how Hopper and Eleven’s secret hideout came into existence, but a lot of TV nowadays tends to do this “show-your-work”-style extended flashback storytelling. See Tyrell Wellick’s journey on the most recent Mr. Robot season as just the latest example.)
Early on, the show weaves some very 2017 themes into 1984, too. Bobby dealt with bullying as a kid and empathizes with Will over how the town/school treats him in light of his Upside Down abduction. The kids still champion knowledge and understanding in an era long before #fakenews becomes a thing (bless those paddles for your curiosity adventure, Dustin).
Our big bads in the Hawkins federal lab seem to be ramping up to factor heavily into this modern theme. These authorities use the fear of others to try to force compliance (“We’re all patriots in this house,” a lab officer tells the Wheelers in a flashback to the search for Eleven). And the labs’ agents subtly engage in mass surveillance through CC cameras and local phone line monitoring. They even work behind the scenes with other institutions (sadly, including Chief Hopper’s office) to promote a message of tranquility. “I get what you went through last year, I get it,” Paul Reiser’s nefarious Dr. Owens tells Joyce and Hopper early on. “But those people are gone. We’re on the same side—you need to trust me.” The period setting and separation makes such touches feel less preachy (and perhaps more effective) compared to, say, Mr. Robot S3 explaining why the 2016 election played out the way it did.
In typical Stranger Things fashion, it’s done smartly. Nancy and Steve’s seemingly comfy relationship has this traumatic event shaking everything to the core (remember, Nancy chose a moment of romance and intimacy and had a monster devour her friend as what could be perceived as some kind of “consequence”). They have regular dinners with Barb’s mourning parents, and they disagree about how to deal with the emotional fallout. Barb, most certainly, is not done factoring in to Hawkins life.
Fan service elements by and large serve as mere color for this world—there’s some Dragon’s Lair and digs at Dig Dug in an arcade; our favorite tweens dress as Ghostbusters (with Lucas logically dismissing being typecast as Winston: “He joined late, he’s not even a scientist—no one wants to be Winston”). Our big takeaway from S1 still seems to hold water in S2: media like Ready Player One and The Force Awakens rely on nostalgia as a narrative center; Stranger Things simply unleashes it in the background to further the show’s real-world feel.
So if you’ve also managed to avoid the Internet spoiler machine thus far, Stranger Things S2 has absolutely offered enough in the early parts of S2 to propel this watcher (quickly) through the mysteries ahead in these nine episodes. I’d likely happily watch along just for more artistic moments like the quiet Survive score as Mike calls out for Eleven into the great nothing over his Walkie Talkie or the Ghostbusters outtro of Episode 2, but learning how these characters I enjoy are going to further navigate the Upside Down fallout (and inevitably handle its re-emergence into their lives and town) certainly feels worth my time. Seeing Hopper’s relationship with the lab play out or discovering more about the unusual 008 or this pumpkin pollution should only add delicious nougat to this TV 3 Musketeers treat.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, Eleven just decided to abandon her hideout, and some roaring, quickly growing pollywog-thing has escaped to roam wild around Hawkins. It’s time to hit “next episode” (we’ll pick this conversation up again later in the season).