Stranger Things 2 is a slayer of pedestrian sequels.
Ducking and weaving past the sophomore curse like a demogorgon on the hunt – or you’re Dustin Henderson (Gaten Matazrazzo), a “demo-dog” (yeah, no, it didn’t catch on) – the sequel to the Duffer Brothers zeitgeist-busting, watercooler-overwhelming show of 2016 is back, building on what came before with alacrity and engrossing ease.
It’s a rare feat given the propensity of shows that bestride the pop culture consciousness to lose their way in spectacular fashion, and end up a bloated, directionless mess when they serve up a second serving. (True Detective anyone?)
Granted Stranger Things 2, which sees the threat from the Upside Down, tethered to and channeling itself through poor Will Byers (Noah Schnapp), go from a simple though traumatic case of kidnapping with sinister supernatural tones to full-blown, the world-is-ending menace, is a little more stuffed to the gills with plot, character development and ’80s references than its predecessor.
But that’s to be expected – it is a sequel after all and referencing your own mythology is something you fully expect the Duffer Brothers to do; the thing is they do it in such a way that it doesn’t feel awkward or messy or overdone, simply the pleasing continuation of a gripping storyline with characters we know and love and a few extra thrown in for good measure.
The “party” of course are back.
While we don’t see them playing Dungeons and Dragons this time around – there simply isn’t time, what with saving the world and all; the manual however does get a workout especially when it comes to identifying the Big Bad of the piece – it is referenced again and again, as a way of making sense of the inter dimensional threat that once again visits Hawkins, Indiana, this time with steroid-laced bells on.
No, what Mike (Finn Wolfhard), still pining for Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) who is supposedly “missing”, Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), Dustin and Will are doing, to varying degrees, is trying to save Hawkins from tumbling into the Upside Down, or perhaps simply becoming an extension of it.
That is, of course, as things start to heat up.
In the first few episodes, we are treated to a long, slow, artfully-constructed build-up as the four guys, Will’s mom Joyce (Ryder) and brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), Mike’s sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer), Nancy’s boyfriend Steve (Joe Keery), and sheriff Jim Hopper (David Harbour), do their best to act as it everything is normal.
It’s anything but, of course; Barb (Shannon Purser) who – SPOILER ALERT! – died in season 1 at the hands of a hungry demogorgon, continues to weigh heavily on Nancy’s mind, Joyce, though happy in her relationship with the dweebily sweet Bob Newby (Sean Astin), can’t ignore that Will is still “off”, his sessions with Hawkins Labs’ new head honcho Dr. Sam Owens (Paul Reiser) not really helping to stop his “episodes” – he keeps seeing himself in the Upside Down; flashback or premonition? – and newcomer Maxine aka “Max” (Sadie Sink) upsetting the dynamics of the “party” in a way that Eleven never came close to achieving.
Really, it’s a case of SNAFU (Situation Normal All F**ked Up), as everyone, signed as they are to confidentiality agreements, tries to smile and act as if the terrifying intrusion of the Upside Down made absolutely no lasting impact on their lives.
(One bright shining moment in all this portentous existential angst is the relationship between Sheriff Hopper and Eleven, who receives a considerable fleshing out of her character via backstory and one key episode where she hits the road to find her “sister”, which is heartwarming, real and fractious at times. It is emblematic of one of the great strengths of Stranger Things which is it focus on key relationships between characters such as Hopper and Eleven, the emergent brotherly bond between Dustin and Steve, and of course Nancy and Jonathan.)
As events begin to build though, and the ratcheting up of the tension is deliciously on point every step of the way till the inevitable hell, which involves a great deal of slime, slithering snakey things and blackened, fly-swarmed pumpkins, it becomes apparent that there is a lot below the surface ready to break free, which is duly does as the Upside Down’s revived presence cracks everything open.
What makes Stranger Things 2 works so well is that the Duffer Brothers have taken the time to weave in what made the first season work so well – fully-formed, compelling characters you love spending time with (yes even you Steve, played by Joe Keery, who it turns out is a kickass “babysitter”), a beguiling premise, bang-on perfect music selections (Oingo Boingo? Yes!) and a distinct sense of time and place (1980s small town midwestern America) – without being endlessly derivative of themselves (even if, you could well argue, Stranger Things is creatively derivative, as Star Wars before it, of a million different pop culture influences).
So we essentially get the best of what came before, with some brilliantly-conceived new characters – Max, Dr Owens, and Bob Newby all work beautifully; Max’s brother, the snarling, angry Billy (Dacre Montgomery) not so much – a host of pop culture touchstones such as Aliens, Ghostbusters, The Exorcist and Stephen King, more Eggos product placement (c’mon yum!), and a narrative that neatly builds on the lingering set up of season 1 – Will coughing up a slug? Trust us, it, like so much else, is important – as it very much becomes it’s own hugely-engrossing storytelling animal.
The key through all nine riveting episodes – it bests season 1 by one episode, the extra hour of storytelling used brilliantly well as we learn more about Eleven – is how much we care about these people.
Being more Spielbergian than the great master himself at times – this is in no way a criticism; they have sat at the feet of the king and learnt well – Stranger Things did a brilliant job in season 1 of balancing moments of big epic action with intimate character moments that really mattered.
Even better, these moments didn’t stop the show or slow it down but were woven seamlessly into a narrative which balanced the big and the small with grace and pleasing elegance.
This very much continues in season 2 with the emotional resonance scale turned up, to devastatingly moving effect, to maximum; you can’t help but weep a little as Eleven finds herself lost once again, as Joyce justifiably agonises over what’s happening to her traumatised little boy, how Hopper seems a thousand kinds of world weary and disillusioned yet still committed to the fight, Mike’s twin worrying over Eleven’s fate and the changing dynamics of their friendship circle, and on and on.
Every character gets their moment, has their voice amplified, grows and develops all while the overwhelming threat to Hawkins, Indiana grows and grows and grows until we have full-on, full bore action, the kind that has you on the edge of your seat.
Thing is, none of that epic, spectacular storytelling of this would be worth a damn if you didn’t care about the characters; and you care, you care deeply, and it invests Stranger Things 2 with such a richness and fulsomeness that the twin endings – the action one and the character-driven one – are satisfying in every possible way.
Stranger Things 2, which is never less than engrossing, is very much a product of a multitude of ’80s references and pop culture antecedents, but my lord they use them affectingly and well, delivering up TV so captivating and emotionally-involving, and so original in its own way, that you’ll wish you could go back to Hawkins immediately and do it all over again (which, of course, you can; thank you Netflix).