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Stranger Things 2 watchthrough: Episode 1 — ‘Mad Max’

Your complete walkthrough


If you’re a Stranger Things devotee, you’re probably someone who spends their time digging into the nook and crannies of every episode, looking for clues and theorizing about what’s to come.

Luckily for you, Stranger Things 2 provides plenty of opportunities for theorizing.

Stranger Things 2 carries on the story introduced in the first season, but differs just enough that it accomplishes its goal of acting as a stand-alone sequel. That means there are more characters introduced, twisty plots and, yes, more time spent in the Upside Down.

To help you navigate the tangled web of events the Duffer brothers have spun up for the second season of their series, Polygon is going to be walking you through each one, step-by-step. It’s not a recap, but not quite a guide. Ergo, the watchthrough.

We’ll be releasing two watchthroughs a week, starting with the season premiere and second episode. The first will run today, and the second tomorrow.

Episode One: “Mad Max”

Stranger Things 2 Netflix

Major returning players

  • Will Byers
  • Dustin Henderson
  • Lucas Sinclair
  • Mike Wheeler
  • Nancy Wheeler
  • Steve Harrington
  • Jonathan Byers
  • Joyce Byers
  • Chief Jim Hopper
Dacre Montgomery as Billy in Stranger Things 2. Netflix

Major new players

  • Bob Newby
  • Maxine “Mad Max”
  • Murray Bauman
  • Dr. Owens
Stranger Things cast in season 2 Netflix

Major locations

  • Arcade
  • Grade school
  • Hawkins National Laboratory
  • Byers’ house
  • Wheelers’ house

Stranger Things 2, episode 1: “Mad Max” watchthrough

It’s important to remember that Stranger Things 2 is supposed to be a sequel to Stranger Things, not just a second season. Confused? We don’t blame you, it’s a confusing concept. How does the second season of a show exist without connecting to the first? For Stranger Things, it all begins with acknowledging the terrifying, parallel universe that haunts some of Hawkins’ citizens: the Upside Down.

Before the credits

The camera pans down from the sky, reminding us of the world that exists beyond the stars, and gives us our first bit of information. We’re not in Hawkins, Indiana but Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It’s Oct. 28, 1984, almost one year to the date of Will Byers’ vanishing, which took place on Nov. 6, 1983. This is an important detail that will become more apparent as the episode progresses. What should be noted is how closely the Duffer brothers want you to pay attention to dates.

Stranger Things season 2 episode 1
A van in Stranger Things 2
Stranger Things 2 episode 1
The newest girl with psionic abilities

So on Oct. 28, 1984 — three days before Halloween and nine days before Will’s disappearance — a high-speed chase between a group of misfit teens and local Pittsburgh police occurs. We don’t know anything about these teens other than they’ve committed a crime and are driving recklessly through back alleys. It’s not until they lead police down the road toward a tunnel that things start to get interesting.

The most intriguing character within this group is a young woman who sits in the passenger seat at the front of the van. She’s the one giving directions, telling the driver where to go. With the police hot on their tail, the woman, whose name we don’t know, raises her fist, clenching it, and uttering the word “boom,” causing the bridge to collapse.

Or so we think. It’s not until after the dust clears and the police officers, who swerved to avoid being crushed, get out of their cars and realize that the bridge hasn’t collapsed at all. It was all a figment of the driver’s imagination — something the mysterious woman was able to do. Her tiny nose bleed and the “008” tattoo etched on her wrist confirm she is connected to our other favorite psionic child from the first season, Eleven.

Stranger Things 2 episode 1
A collapsed bridge
Stranger Things 2 episode 1
The bridge that they thought was collapsed is standing just fine.

What we can infer from this scene is there are more children like them out there. Somewhere, there’s a 002 and a 010, but we don’t know who they are or the powers they possess. 008 has the ability to change what people are seeing, warping their perceptions of what is real. Eleven, as we know, has the ability to move, levitate and control objects using her mind. It’s evident that the tests conducted on 008, Eleven — and the various other children we have to assume were part of the study — resulted in different psionic abilities for each.

The boys are back

The heart of Stranger Things, like Stand by Me or It, is in the young cast who carries the story. In Stranger Things 2, that’s Dustin Henderson, Lucas Sinclair, Mike Wheeler and Will Byers. Having returned from the Upside Down, and comforted by his friends, Will is trying to lead a regular life. He’s got it tough, trying to deal with quarrelsome pubescent ordeals and attempt to forget about everything that’s happened to him.

So, like his friends and the vast majority of kids his age, Will finds solace in the arcade. The first season of Stranger Things began with a game of Dungeons & Dragons; this season introduces the world of Dragon’s Lair and Dig Dug. The boys, who have collected loose change from around the house or worked for a couple of dollars during the day, meet at the arcade. It’s during their time in the noisy space that two important moments happen: “Mad Max” is introduced and Will is transported back to the Upside Down.

Stranger Things 2 episode 1
A Dig Dug arcade cabinet that displays the top score

To be clear, we don’t actually meet Mad Max, but we learn that they’ve captured the interest of our party. This “Mad Max” person has beaten Dustin’s high score in Dig Dug, with an impossible 750,200 points. Fun fact time! As of March 28, 2013, the actual world record for the highest Dig Dug score was granted to Ken House of Oregon. He managed to score 5,225,260 points. Someone who could beat Dustin’s score, in their eyes, has to be pretty cool — and that’s just the beginning of it.

What’s more important, however, is Will’s transportation back to the Upside Down. While the boys are arguing with Keith, the arcade employee, about revealing who “Mad Max” is, Will is pulled into the Upside Down. He ventures outside and sees a giant, ominous cloud in the sky, frozen in spot as he watches it spread across the sky. The key word here is “frozen,” and it’s something that we’ll hear throughout the episode as a reference point to this moment.

Stranger Things 2 episode 1
Will in the Upside Down just inside the arcade

Will is only pulled from his place in the Upside Down when Mike comes outside, where Will has ventured to in real life, and repeatedly calls his name. Will tries to shake it off as if nothing has happened, but it’s clear that whatever he went through last year has returned.

It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown

It just wouldn’t be halloween — or spooky — without pumpkins, and pumpkins play a big role in this episode. But before we get there, we have to explain how we got to the pumpkins. It all begins with an erratic, strange fellow named Murray Bauman. Here’s what we know about Murray: He’s managed to irk just about everyone on the Hawkins police force and has found a tormenter in Chief Jim Hopper.

We gather from their conversation that he’s someone who likes to report on aliens and their possible existence, but this time around he has questions about a strange Russian girl with psionic abilities who was reportedly staying with Mike Wheeler. Bauman believes that this girl, who we know to be Eleven, is still in Hawkins somewhere and wants the police to help track her down.

Stranger Things 2 episode 1
Murray Bauman makes his debut

Now, we know that Hopper is aware of who Eleven is, but Bauman doesn’t. He’s heard rumors of the girl, but he can’t confirm that she’s real. Hopper, meanwhile, is on edge. Hopper knows all about Eleven, which is why he’s mocking Bauman and trying to convince him that she doesn’t exist. As Bauman drones on, Hopper gets more irritated, irking Bauman when he tries to bring up that Eleven may be connected to the unsolved disappearance of Barbara “Barb” Holland. It would appear that even Bauman wants to get justice for Barb.

Luckily for Hopper, he gets a call that a local farmer suspects a fellow rancher of poisoning his pumpkins a few days before Halloween. Later in the episode, Hopper goes to visit Merrel up on his farm, where he discovers they’ve all rotted.

Stranger Things 2 episode 1
A farmer (L) and Hopper look at rotten pumpkins.

There’s no explanation for it, but a rustling from within a cornfield catches Hopper’s attention. Hopper decides to venture in, recalling an absurd amount of horror films that have all enacted the same scene, and wanders around, jumping when a crow appears out of nowhere, landing on the scarecrow in front of him.

Stranger Things 2 includes a few homages to popular horror tropes and stereotypes, like the cornfield scene. They jump right out at you upon playing, but the cornfield may be the most obvious of them all.

Three’s company

Remember Nancy Byers and Steve Harrington? The sweet couple so throughly in love with each other and bound by the death of Nancy’s friend, Barb, that they can never really part ways? Well, they’re back.

The return of Steven and Nancy, who sit in his car talking about their futures together as she tries to help him with his application letter to Notre Dame university, coincides with the introduction of two new characters. The first is a boot wearing, cigarette smoking, mullet-sporting guy who appears to be one of the tougher characters we’ll meet in the Stranger Things universe. We don’t know his name yet, but we know he’s from California, thanks to a closeup of his license plate. The second is a younger, tomboyish girl, who we can assume to be his sister. But more on them later.

Stranger Things 2 episode 1
Nancy and Steve in his car
Stranger Things 2 episode 1
Jonathan (L) and Nancy in Hawkins high school

Let’s get to the all important trio: Nancy, Steve and the lonely Jonathan Byers. Remember, Steve doesn’t trust Jonathan because of the connection Jonathan shares with Nancy. That connection is still there. Nancy invites Jonathan to a Halloween party, which he tries to get out of by claiming that he wants to go trick or treating with his younger brother, Will, which she refuses to let him do.

Jonathan and Nancy’s chemistry has always been an interesting part of the series, but the second season premiere really plays into it. There’s clearly a spark between the two characters, but like all stereotypical high school kids in Hollywood movies, they’re from separate worlds.

The awkwardness of Jonathan’s character — the Kurt Vonnegut reading, Talking Heads fan that Nancy declares him to be — is a key component of his markup. During a conversation with Will later in the episode, Jonathan talks about how he’d rather be a freak, which is something that Will refers to himself as, then a normal kid. Jonathan talks about how they can connect through their weirdness and, he explains, why he’d rather be weird with his brother than be normal and be accepted by the kids at their school. The theme of connection is one of the biggest in Stranger Things 2’s premiere, but we’ll get to that.

Hey, new kids!

So just who are the mysterious new residents of Hawkins? Unfortunately, we don’t get to learn too much about the aforementioned stud, but we do figure out a few things about his younger sister.

Stranger Things 2 episode 1
Our mysterious unknown dude
Stranger Things 2 episode 1
Newcomer Max

Max, who goes by Maxine, is quickly discovered to be the new girl that Dustin and Lucas are taken by. She’s everything to them: A girl who skateboards and has an interest in video games is enough for Dustin and Lucas to wait outside the arcade after school with a pair of binoculars to confirm her status as the best Dig Dug player in Hawkins.

We don’t learn much more about Max by the time the episode comes to an end, but we do get a tease of her terse relationship with her brother.

What about Bob?

Considering just how much Stranger Things owes to Goonies, it’s no surprise that Sean Astin would fit comfortably into the world of Stranger Things 2 as Bob, our new favorite character.

Bob, or “Bob the Brain” as Hopper would later call him, is the type of kindhearted nerd you want to root for from beginning to end. The manager of a local RadioShack, Bob is over the moon dating Joyce Byers, a girl he had a major crush on in high school.

Stranger Things 2 episode 1
Bob, played by Goonies’ Sean Astin

When he’s introduced to us in the first episode, we catch him making out with Joyce in the back room at her store, before coming over to her house afterward to watch movies with the boys. Although Bob is a little kooky and kind of a dweeb, we also know that Joyce is trying to move past her former relationship and find someone to act as a father figure to Jonathan and Will. The Byers boys seem to understand that, too, and while Bob may not be their first choice for a pesudo-father figure, they both appreciate that Bob makes their mom happy.

Treatment time

It was only a matter of time before Will was brought to the Hawkins National Laboratory, where all that is queer and supernatural is investigated. Will’s trip to the lab coincides with his most recent visit to the Upside Down, when he was frozen in place while outside of the arcade.

It’s during Will’s trip to the lab, accompanied by his mother and Hopper, that they meet Dr. Owens. After being strapped to a chair and having various machines attached to his body, Dr. Owens, a psychiatrist or neurologist of some kind, begins to ask Will difficult questions about what he experienced. How did he feel upon seeing the Upside Down world he had escaped from one year ago?

Stranger Things 2 episode 1
Dr. Owens
Stranger Things 2 episode 1
Will Byers at Hawkins National Laboratory

This is an important part of the episode. Will talks about how he felt frozen in place, like he couldn’t move. He wasn’t frozen to touch — a question that Dr. Owens asks repeatedly — but frozen in terror. Will admits that he could sense the feeling emanating from the Upside Down, alerting Dr. Owens to the connection he has with the monster. Will says he could sense the monster wanted to kill everyone around him, but not Will himself.

Perhaps the most crucial line in the episode — Will admitting that he has a shared bond with the monster — is something we’re going to want to pay attention to going forward.

Stranger Things 2 episode 1
Will talking about what he experienced in the Upside Down

Not only did Will see the cloud, but he felt the monster and knew exactly what the creature was thinking. Remember the end of the first season, when Will puked up a nasty looking slug, teasing that this wasn’t the end of his journey?

Yeah, there’s definitely something strange going on here. Will may be more connected to the Upside Down than ever before.

Burn baby, burn

After Will, Joyce and Hopper leave the lab, we get to go behind-the-scenes, checking in with the other doctors and agents as a man suits up in a yellow hazmat suit. Once we’re in the proper bay, just beyond a pair of sliding doors, we get a look our first look at a pulsating, vibrant, red and black entity. It’s alive and massive; and based on the reaction from the agents to its presence, evil.

Stranger Things 2 episode 1
A Hawkins lab agent dressed up in a hazmat suit
Stranger Things 2 episode 1
The strange entity

Even more importantly, however, is the entity’s reaction to being burned by fire. It screeches, loudly. We know that this beast can be burned and hates the feeling of fire on its skin (who doesn’t?), but here’s what we need to remember: Dr. Owens kept asking Will how he felt. When Will said he felt “frozen,” Dr. Owens kept pressing whether he meant he felt cold.

Does Dr. Owens know something about how the monster operates that we don’t? Obviously, but we have to imagine that the concept of heat and fire as a weapon will play a big role this season.

Justice for Barb

Before the second season began, the Duffer brothers confirmed that Barb would get her due. She wouldn’t actually return — she is, in fact, dead — but we wouldn’t forget about her.

Remember Murray Bauman, the investigative journalist looking into Eleven? He was hired by Barb’s parents to look into the case of their missing daughter, as we learn during an awkward dinner. Nancy and Steve learn about Murray during dinner with Barb’s parents, which leads to an emotional moment for Nancy in the Hollands’ bathroom.

Stranger Things 2 episode 1
A shrine to Barb
Stranger Things 2 episode 1
Nancy in the Hollands’ bathroom

Riddled with guilt and unsure of what to do, Nancy and Steve are left to deal with this major wedge in their relationship. Barb may no longer be around to warn Nancy about Steve, but Barb is still a part of Stranger Things in spirit.

Eleven, where art thou?

Mike’s friendship with Eleven is one of our favorite aspects of Stranger Things, and the season two premiere plays into that pretty heavily. Although Mike and Eleven never meet up in the first episode, Mike’s numerous attempts to connect with Eleven via walkie talkie and make sure she’s okay are heartbreaking.

Stranger Things 2 episode 1
Mike trying to connect with Eleven

We do know that Eleven will return this season and Mike will stop at nothing to be reunited with her. Is this the start of something more for him?

Late night scares

Dr. Owens told Joyce and Hopper that the “flashbacks” Will has of the Upside Down would become more frequent. That proves to be true when Will wakes up late to use the bathroom, only to be once again frozen in place by the Upside Down appearing outside of his house.

Stranger Things 2 episode 1
Will Byers in the Upside Down once again

The most intriguing aspect of this scene is the raised skin on the back of Will’s neck. Like he said before, he was frozen in place out of fear, and fear would certainly lead to goosebumps breaking out over his skin. That said, we also feel goosebumps on our skin when we’re cold. This connection between Will’s fear and an actual feeling of being frozen is a theme we return to time and time again during this episode.

She’s back

The episode ends with Hopper driving out to the middle of a forest and walking up to a house in the woods. He avoids a trip wire, marching up the steps of the creepy house that recalls scenes from The Evil Dead, and uses a patterned knock on the weathered door. It opens, barely, and he walks through the tiny house, removing his utility belt and sitting down at the kitchen table.

Stranger Things 2 episode 1
Jim Hopper walking up to a creepy house
Stranger Things 2 episode 1
Hopper inside the house
Stranger Things 2 episode 1
Hopper (L) and Eleven sharing a meal

We see a half-eaten Eggo sitting on a plate, signaling the confirmation we’ve been waiting for: Eleven is here. She appears a little later, scolding Hopper for not being home by 5:15 when he said he would, as Hopper scolds Eleven for eating an Eggo before her dinner.

The remarkably homely vibe the two have is shocking, but lets us know that Hopper has been taking care of Eleven for quite some time. Her hair has grown and she’s wearing new clothes. There’s a familial vibe throughout the house, which we can assume means they’ve been with each other for quite some time. Eleven is comfortable with Hopper, and Hopper cares very much for Eleven.

The ending leaves us with more questions than we had going in, but at least we know that Eleven is safe — and eating semi-healthy, microwavable dinners.

General thoughts

Stranger Things 2’s major theme is connection; everything is connected. Barb is connected to Eleven. Will is connected to the Upside Down. The decaying pumpkins are related to everything else that is happening.

The season is going to explore the strange connections that are occurring in Hawkins and, hopefully, explain why these are important. None of these random occurrences are, well, random. They’re happening for a reason and we are going to figure out why that is.

Stranger Things 2 builds upon the themes and arcs introduced in the first season, but introduces just enough new characters and settings that it deviates into a full blown sequel. That means anything is possible and, hopefully, some of our biggest questions will be answered.

Stranger Things 2 is available to stream now.

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