How do you keep the momentum going after the first season of your show becomes a pop culture craze? If you’re in the shoes of the Duffer Brothers and you’re developing Stranger Things: Season 2, you make the stakes larger, add a slew of new characters and the antagonists as horrifying as ever. What’s more, older characters have more varying stories to tell, and the series’ mythos gets a massive expansion that could provide all sorts of fresh concepts for many seasons to come.
These elements are anchored by the great performances from the cast that we expect at this point, and because of that, it’s still the emotional connection our heroes have that makes the show such an easy watch. At times, some of the episodes do steer into “Stranger Things: Greatest Hits” territory in how hard they push the nostalgic references and callbacks to prior big moments, but they’re not to where they feel overwhelming, or detract from the plot progression too much.
Everyone in Hawkins, Indiana, especially friends Will (Noah Schnapp), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) and Mike (Finn Wolfhard) would ideally love to emotionally move on from the events of the first season. But when dealing with monsters and parallel universes, one year isn’t much for recovery time. Will’s mother Joyce (Winona Ryder) copes in the form of her new boyfriend, the lovable dork Bob Newby (Sean Astin, falling back on the kind of charm that helped make Samwise so memorable), but neither of them are pleased when Will begins to have visions of a giant, spider-like monster in the sky.
Meanwhile, Chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour) keeps in touch with Will’s doctor Sam Owens (Paul Reiser), and his investigation what he thinks are just some poisoned farm crops turns out to be something far more sinister. Nancy (Natalia Dyer) contends with guilt over the death of Barbara last season, and it gets to the point where it takes a toll on her and her boyfriend Steve (Joe Keery)’s relationship.
And though he tries to put up a brave front, her brother Mike’s still shaken over the loss of her superpowered friend Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), who vanished after vanquishing the Demogorgon monster in the season one finale. But our favorite telekinetic lab experiment can’t be contained, and she gets a fun arc as she strikes out on a journey to find her missing mother, leading into her discovering secrets about the program that created her- and events that test her principles.
Different characters are paired off at points, leading into some fun development. While Will’s frustration with the town’s intense spotlight on him is understandable, it’s clear how much his friends, family and others around care about his well-being. Little touches, such as Mike’s look of concern as his mother picks Will up or when Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) gives his little brother a pep talk, wind up meaning a lot. Lucas’s arguments with her sassy sister Erica (Priah Ferguson) are hilarious, and the crush he gets on new girl Max Hargrove (Sadie Sink) is insanely cute.
The banter between Dustin and Steve regarding dating advice is funny, and Steve himself easily becomes a breakout character as he fends off creatures with a spiked bat in the later episodes. It only seems too appropriate Max’s stepbrother Billy (Dacre Montgomery), who seems to be filling in Steve’s prior role as the resident jerk, would blast Ted Nugent as loud as possible when he tries to terrorize the boys with his car, to Max’s chagrin. Despite some rocky interactions with the main group to start, she eventually opens herself up more and eventually blends in seamlessly with the others.
On top of expanding its mythology and the threat of the Upside Down, Stranger Things has a knack for balancing intense drama and scares with a sense of fun. Much in the vein of the first season, these latest episodes continue the trend of putting its characters through harrowing, frightening experiences, but the events don’t descend into what I’d call poor taste. It’s all quite scary, but even with an uptick in violence and bloodshed onscreen, it’s more exciting than it is morbid.
Many of the more heartfelt moments are a good counter to all the mayhem- Lucas’ acceptance of Max, Joyce and Bob’s relationship, a new mysterious friend Eleven makes on her trip, and Mike’s efforts to save Will- which is helped in a major way by some powerful acting on the part of Finn Wolfhard.
The 1980s pop culture references are as prevalent as ever, which not only include Reagan/Bush signs on neighborhood lawns and the boys’ embarrassment dressed as Ghostbusters for a Halloween party that lacks costumes, but also shades of Aliens when an army of Demogorgons hound the protagonists, and even Indiana Jones when the kids trek through a tunnel into the Upside Down (which features some cool effect work). And as a long time Don Bluth mark, I always appreciate a Dragon’s Lair shoutout.
There might be a few hiccups in terms of rehashing prior elements a bit too hard at times, but Stranger Things’ second season is generally as fun as the first. Adding new faces to an established formula is always a gamble, but most of the newcomers to the show are interesting, likable and add to the story- on top of having entertaining chemistry with the original cast.
None of that would amount to much if it didn’t feel like the originals’ characters had developed well, but the season one cast Is not only still incredibly charming, they still feel believable. Even after having weathered the insanity of the past year, they’re still ill-equipped to combat the new threats and are always at a clear disadvantage, so as a viewer I was almost always on the edge of my seat. I can easily recommend another trip into the Upside Down, whether you’re a veteran fan or a newcomer to the show.