(This review contains spoilers)
Stranger Things is a show that is unique in as many ways as it is emblematic of an era that cinema can’t quite seem to let go of: the 1980s. Since I can barely call myself a 90s kid, watching this show’s first season was a mix of wonder, intrigue, and curious nostalgia for a time I had never experienced; the euphoric glow of box set televisions, scrunchies, dungarees, and ‘Africa’ by Toto masterfully offset the show’s monsters by giving us a sentimental hook to keep returning to. So, when Netflix announced a second season, billed as ‘Stranger Things 2’, it had some lofty expectations to live up to.
What Stranger Things’ somewhat-sequel does just as well is capitalise on that 1980s nostalgia. Echoes of season one’s most iconic moments appear at every turn: Eleven’s muttered diss of ‘mouthbreather’; Joyce Byers (played fantastically again with maternal frenzy by Winona Ryder) decking out her house with Christmas lights to communicate with her son; Mike, Lucas, Dustin and the rest of the youngsters playing video games or irritating their science teacher. Most of this feels like a welcome retread into old territory which has been updated onto a broader scale, with bigger villains and a wider perspective on life outside of Hawkins, Indiana.
Sometimes, though, it did just feel like shameless fan service. I loved the Duffer Brothers’ courageous dive into small-town American sci-fi in season one, mostly because they weren’t hampered by millions of viewers’ expectations. Compared to this, filming a second season of a cultural and media phenomenon is a much more difficult balancing act, and even filmmakers as skilful as this pair fall for the bait. Pairing Nancy with Jonathan was cute yet felt rushed, and most notably, Barb’s storyline was left to linger for too long. Sure, she was a good character for all twelve-ish minutes of screen time she had; but she was also a very blatant plot device used to shine light on the Demogorgon’s monster-factor. Plus, considering how ruthless the Duffers have been with other characters on the show (see: Benny the diner owner, and Sean Astin’s Bob Newby, who actually did deserve much better), it’s hard to figure out why exactly they lingered so long on a cold, dead case.
Much does have to be said, though, for the sheer scale of everything in season two. Not only is the cinematography frankly breathtaking, but the effects feel sharper, and the stylistic choices they make in the last few episodes achieve an immersive climax that outdoes season one’s finale by miles. The only area of the show which suffers due to this broader scale is the monster itself. Placing the new ‘Shadow Monster’ at such a distance to the main characters can never achieve the same paranoid suspense as the Demogorgon’s threatening presence around every corner.
The same could be said for the way the group is scattered across Hawkins – and even further afield – for the majority of season two. Compared to the tight-knit groups that formed in the first season, we now find Nancy and Jonathan straggling along on quite an underwhelming mission of their own, whilst Finn Wolfhard as Mike Wheeler is rendered basically useless for an entire eight episodes until Eleven returns. Whilst I am enthused about adorable nature of the Mike-Eleven romance as everyone else, I also feel like relegating a child actor as good as Finn Wolfhard to the sideline role of a lovesick kid really squanders what energy and force he brought to the first series. Of course, this does mean that Noah Schnapp was able to showcase his talent – and he delivers at every turn. I think the Duffers would be hard pressed to find a better child actor out there, past or present, especially for such intense scenes as his.
There was one character dynamic that I was glad changed: in two words, Steve Harrington. Thanks to Joe Keery being such a charming actor, season one’s sort-of villain became one half of season two’s most endearing and unlikely duo: Steve and Dustin (Dusteve? Stustin?). In fact, I spent most of the season resenting Nancy for treating Steve so harshly. As far as other duos go, I could write a whole article about the feelings that Hopper and Eleven gave me – but suffice to say, seeing those two finally achieve a kind of happiness was one of the most poignant moments of the new series.
Overall, what Stranger Things 2 lacks in cohesion it makes up for plenty in ambition. The last two episodes are arguably the best the show has ever delivered, creating situations of sheer suspense that remind me of certain iconic raptor scenes in Jurassic Park – but at no moment does it feel like pastiche. And, ultimately, the relationships between characters are what remain the core priority at the heart of the horror and drama. In fact, it’s the deep connections we have to these characters which has made the show a success in the first place, and I’m glad the Duffers realised this when expanding their second season. Stranger Things 2 might take place in the 1980s, in a fictional town, and deal with grow-your-own Demogorgons and alternate universes, but never does it feel anything less than real.