When Matt and Ross Duffer announced that Stranger Things 2 would operate as a sequel to the show’s first season, rather than a simple followup, skepticism ran rampant. Stranger Things may have found its grounding in 1980s sci-fi movies and adventures starring kids, but to claim that it would follow in the footsteps of those films instead of traditional TV was nothing short of a confident proposal.
After watching all nine episodes of Stranger Things 2, it’s evident that the Duffer brothers won out on their high-stakes bet. Stranger Things 2 is a full blown, stand-alone sequel to the show’s first season. Rather than plugging in more puzzle pieces, Stranger Things 2 abandons many of the first season’s setups to focus on a new direction. There are obvious connections between the first and second season, as there would be with any sequel, but Stranger Things 2 deviates from the attitude and generic makeup that defined the first season.
Like a shift in winds, Stranger Things 2 just feels different. There’s a somber maturity the party of Hawkins carries around with them. Those who know about Will Byers’ experience trapped within the Upside Down are keenly aware of the topsy-turvy world they now live in. Nothing has been the same since Will went missing. And as Chief Jim Hopper says throughout, like speech before a big game, “nothing ever will.”
It’s within this newfound understanding of the dangerous, nonsensical town they live in that Stranger Things 2 finds its pace. Unlike the first season, which focused on the arrival of the strange girl named Eleven, Will’s disappearance and the Demogorgon that haunts Hawkins, Stranger Things 2 is a tale of resilience. Taking its cues from movies like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Independence Day and Red Dawn, Stranger Things 2 tells the heroic, folklike legend of a small group who take on the monstrous creature threatening their very existence.
While Stranger Things 2 deserves credit for taking a big risk and pulling it off (for the most part), there are some problems with its pacing. The fact that it’s modeled after a sequel acts like a double-edged sword. Storylines that can be contained within one episode are dragged out across an entire season, while other storylines that need more room to grow fester in the show’s underbelly.
Ironically, it’s this conundrum that cements Stranger Things 2’s identity as a sequel. The second season is frozen in its own Upside Down, with one foot in reality and the other in a confusing, less friendly realm. Stranger Things 2 grapples with trying to remain faithful to its predecessor season, as a linear TV series needs to do, while also reimagining itself as separate spiritual successor. The writers have imprisoned themselves in this self-imposed labyrinth that, for the most part, they manage to navigate around successfully, adding to the complex storyline. When they do stray from the path, however, and attempt to introduce a secular arc that doesn’t fit within the confines the Duffer brothers created, that’s when Stranger Things 2 fails.
Stranger Things 2 isn’t unnecessarily complicated, but it does add numerous details that answer questions we’ve had since the first season. It’s impossible to talk about any of these details without spoiling the majority of the season, so I’m not going to discuss any major plot points. All you need to know is that the Upside Down is still proving to be a contentious force in Hawkins, the party (made up of Dustin Henderson, Lucas Sinclair, Mike Wheeler, and Will) is getting themselves into trouble, love triangles are abound and, as for Eleven, you’ll have to wait and see.
The one thing that Stranger Things 2 continues to do well is character development. The Duffer brothers and their writers know how to make you fall in love with a character — or eight characters. Even newcomer Sean Astin, who plays a local RadioShack employee named Bob, becomes a godlike hero that you’ll root for time and time again. The reason Stranger Things 2 works isn’t just because of the tantalizing monster story, which is a fantastic addition to what was done in the first season, but the characters that gallantly carry the weight of the drama.
The Stand By Me-vibe that coursed through Stranger Things’ first season is alive and well in the second, only this time that camaraderie is even more apparent. These aren’t just a group of young friends who are facing down an unknown beast; these are seasoned warriors who are banding together once more to protect their best friend. If the monster and horror-driven aesthetic define the ambience of the season, it’s the show’s main party — and the various teenagers or adults who help them along the way — that acts as its beating heart.
Again, like Stranger Things, Stranger Things 2 is almost impossible not to fall in love with. The ‘80s nostalgic is back in full force (the local arcade plays an important role in the season) and the remarkable innocence that existed in that era protects the delicate characters that make it precious. This is a time when kids could ride their bikes through all hours of the night and disappear for an entire day without people worrying about what had happened to them.
Stranger Things 2, moreso than in its first season, relies on this relaxed mentality to drive home just how horrific the scientific experimentation is. If the general mindset is that nothing could ever go wrong in a town like Hawkins, a town where nothing ever really happens, than when something horrific does occur, it’s far more frightening.
It should be noted that Stranger Things 2 is far more frightening than the first season, but it isn’t scary. There are more jump scares and grotesque imagery, but this isn’t Halloween or Hellraiser. Stranger Things 2 is still rooted in the traditional, almost trope-like ‘80s sci-fi genre that inspired the first season. That means elements of the season are lifted from the horror of ‘80s films, but it doesn’t ever devolve into a traditional scary movie. To be frank, the horror elements of Stranger Things 2 are some of the least interesting, and it was a wise decision to incorporate it as a minor theme.
Stranger Things 2 works because the Duffer brothers know what the DNA markup of the series looks like. They’re not going to tamper with the core of what makes Stranger Things work as a series, but they’re willing to rejigger some pieces of the puzzle to see if they can build a more impressive picture. Stranger Things 2 builds upon everything the first season did right and, for the most part, greatly improves it. There are a few hiccups along the way, but everything that made the first season a joy to watch is back in full force, cliched tropes and all.
Like Stranger Things, Stranger Things 2 is a massive homage to a world that many of us don’t remember or couldn’t partake in. The sci-fi and storytelling elements are familiar, but it still feels distant enough that sinking into the series and marathoning all nine episodes transports you to a different place. Stranger Things 2 is a trip, a celestial journey rooted in a time period many of us are obsessed with, but it’s grounded in the real relationships and friendships we have today. Stranger Things 2 is a convergence of the fantastically extraordinary we wish we would experience and the understandable reality that we exist in; the combination of which creates one hell of a television experience that’s very much worth your time.
Stranger Things 2 will be available to watch in full on Oct. 27.