How do the Duffer Brothers top their almost overnight retro pop sensation homage that had millennials shaving their heads and dressing up as Eleven for Halloween cosplay?
The answer is in the very American adage of “bigger, faster, more.” Which about sums up the consolidated arc of a storyline for the nine new episodes of Stranger Things Season 2. Even as we return to the same old Anytown USA of Hawkins, Indiana, the stakes are higher, and the enemies are literally bigger and faster than any of the ones we’ve seen before.
You know what? The formula really works. So well, because the creators know just enough to pile on the excess and stop before it becomes total debauchery. Credit the Duffer brothers for knowing their craft and their 80s incunabula.
Save for a few ill-advised tangents that make you suspect they wanted to make full use of their new budget (reports say each episode now has an US$8 million budget, form the previous season’s US$6 million), I thoroughly enjoyed the hell out of the layered storylines of the ensemble cast. Plenty of season one’s hanging plot threads are resolved, too: where the heck is Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown)? Is Barb really gone? And, most pressing of all, will Nancy and Jonathan ever hook up?
The teens are still living out some kind of Stephen King meets John Hughes storyline, while the tweens are still living out their life ala Goonies and Gremlins, while the adults are caught in something out of Cocoon, The Fly, or a Romero flick.
It’s October 1984, approximately a year has passed after the events of season 1, and we open with the same gang of loveable, bike-riding misfits trying to play Dragon’s Lair at the local arcade.
Despite the overhyped crap of the game, the growing young men seem to be back to normal. Dustin Henderson (Gaten Matarazzo) still has the same baseball hat, Lucas Sinclair’s sister is still ragging on his nerdiness (Caleb McLaughlin), Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard) is still the younger brother of the town hottie, and Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) looks like he’s aptly recovering from his harrowing, extended time spent in the Upside Down.
Until we learn that it’s becoming easier and easier for Will (and, really, Schnapp is riveting and front and center this season) to slip back into the that gloomy alternate dimension, and what it’s showing him is the vision of a huge monster—I mean five Godzilla sizes-huge—towering over the town of Hawkins with its multiple, spider-like legs and exuding total menace.
Like mad chefs with their multi-tiered Escherian cake, The Duffer Brothers have layered even more 80s fan service, from a magnificently curated retro soundtrack with some original score from Michael Stein and Kyle Dixon, to tons of American, era-apropriate pop culture references. If you can name everything on the trivia list of each ep here then kudos to you, buddy. Like I mentioned, story parallels as homages to 80s movies abound, from Speilberg to Stephen King, enough to fill several trunks worth of polaroids for the nostalgic Baby Boomer and the young hipster.
Each episode is now dedicated to advancing character development and maximizing how to present more dimensions for each, which is not an easy task at all for an ensemble. But we do have scenarios where each of them get to spend time with another character we never thought would bring out certain aspects of their personality. A nice surprises of television writing craft, that.
While one divergent episode may piss off purists, I did like it for the cementing of one major character’s moral code. Even the new characters are truly written is as support for the recurring ones. There’s Max (Sadie Sink), the spirited and adept videogame (high-score respect in Dig Dug!) and skateboard girl, who is a true monkeywrench in the party of the boys ow that they’re fast discovering the approach of adolescence.
There’s Sean Astin, as Radioshack salesman and computer repairman Bob, who represents the tech support and love support for Winona Rider’s Joyce Byers in the truest bit, his nerdy know-how foreshadows the looming tech changes in the 1990s.—with his love, Winona becomes more than a screaming caricature of a mother in distress and blooms into something to rally around.
Then there’s the mysterious and strangely, suspiciously upbeat Dr. Owens (Paul Reiser), who lends gravitas to the proceedings. But what is his connection to the continuing experiments of the Department of Energy in Hawkins? Is he friend or foe? And does he know about the giant monster that Will sees in his visits to the Upside Down?
Speaking of, the sci-fi threats from that dark dimension are mutliplying like crazy. And thus do the gang’s adventures get even more dangerous as they try to decipher the portent of Will’s visions, that are becoming a clearer whole as they get more fragments of the puzzle to fit together. Will the gang’s smarts, their experience battling the Demi-Gorgon, and their improving RPG skills be enough to save the town again?
There isn’t much more we can tackle that won’t spoil the season for you, so suffice it to say that the Duffer Bros do top themselves here, even if it isn’t all a smooth-sailing, tight-as-can-be affair throughout. Season 2 is now something beyond cool, it’s a creature of both the 80s and the 2010s confronting current issues with a retro, if slightly sentimental lens.
Stranger Things is still everything you’ve come to love about it, telekinetic nosebleeds and all: a superbly written investigative drama that delivers the goods into a package you could fit into a proton pack of all your 80s memories and fandoms. Expect excellent twists. Expect awesome adventures. Expect to binge it.
Season 2 of Stranger Things is now streaming on Netflix