Sequels are such dangerous things, especially when you’re trying to follow up on something that was more or less a cultural event. One runs the risk of being too different or, even worse, being more of the same. So there’s a lot riding on ‘Stranger Things 2’, aptly titled as these seasons have felt more like movies than episodic television. But let’s get the big question out of the way first: “Is it as good as the original?” No… It’s better.
‘Stranger Things 2’ picks up roughly one year after the events of the first season/story. It’s 1984, but before we return to the small, scary town of Hawkins, Indiana, we take a little side trip to Pittsburgh, where the cops are in a high-speed chase with a gang of young hoodlums. As the van they’re driving speeds toward one of the city’s noted tunnels, a woman in the van, who we’ll later learn is named Kali (Linnea Berthelsen), creates an illusion with her mind that makes the cops believe that the tunnel has collapsed in front of them. Pulling up her sleeve, we see the digits “008” on her forearm.
Things seem relatively back to normal in Hawkins, although the disappearance of Eleven, a.k.a. “El” (Millie Bobby Brown), has left young Mike (Finn Wolfhard) with a big gap in his life… and his heart. His older sister, Nancy (Natalia Dyer) is still dating Steve (Joe Keery), which means that Jonathan Byers (Charlie Heaton) is still pining after her affections. Jonathan’s younger brother, Will (Noah Schnapp), has now spent a whole year outside the mysterious Upside Down (perhaps best described as an evil mirror universe), but as we learn in the very first episode, he’s still having visions of it – along with a large, serpent-like creature that seems to want Will for its dark purposes.
Meanwhile, Will and Jonathan’s mom, Joyce (Winona Ryder), has a new beau named Bob (Sean Astin), a computer geek known as the “Brain” who even knows how to code in BASIC. (Hey, this was considered borderline genius in 1984!) As for Sheriff Jim Hopper (David Harbour), he’s been keeping a big secret of his own. He found and has been taking care of Eleven, essentially raising her as his daughter in a cabin outside of town. Yes, the government facility in Hawkins, how headed up by Dr. Sam Owens (Paul Reiser), is still looking to get its hands on El, telling the townsfolk that she’s actually a Russian spy so everyone in Hawkins will be on the lookout for her without revealing who she truly is or the psychic powers she possesses.
As for Dustin… well, remember that slug that came out of Will’s mouth in the final scene of the first season? It’s grown and found residence in the trash can outside of Dustin’s house, and he brings it inside as a pet. The more he feeds it (3 Musketeers candy bars are its early food of choice, before it moves up to other menu options), the bigger it gets, until it becomes a very large problem. Meanwhile, Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) finds himself enamored with a new girl at school: Maxine (Sadie Sink), a redhead from California who arrives in town with a skateboard, a skill at playing ‘Dig Dug’, and older brother named Billy (Dacre Montgomery), who gets the role of the kid you love to hate in this new season (replacing Steve, who actually turns out to be one of the heroes in Season 2).
Unlike many other reviews of ‘Stranger Things 2’ you’ll see online, I’m not going to spoil the fun by giving away all the plot short of the last few episodes. I will say that the Duffer brothers have remembered the three most important things about realizing a sequel: characterization, characterization, and characterization. So many second chapters give us the same characters, but forget to grow them in any meaningful or significant way. That mistake is not made here. Everyone’s learning more about themselves and life in general in this second chapter, be it the kids or the adults. This is a sequel with a lot of heart, and the creators aren’t afraid to take the necessary screen time to have some of our favorites work out their inner angst. The young actors have gained skill in their craft as well, and two of the best performances of this season are given by a couple of the kids: Noah Schnapp as Will and Millie Bobby Brown as El.
The season delivers the scares and the fun, and the series continues to borrow concepts from other popular movies from the 1980s. From just 1984 alone (the year this season is set), we get playful nods to ‘Ghostbusters’, ‘Gremlins’ and ‘Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom’. There’s also a lot of ‘Close Encounters’ here, ‘Aliens’ (as if Paul Reiser weren’t an indication), and even a throwaway joke by Astin’s character that’s a direct reference to ‘The Goonies’.
As I mentioned in my review of the first season, while I enjoyed it a great deal, the story felt a little stretched out. This time around, the season length adds an episode (nine instead of eight, with one being a standalone that only features one of our returning Season 1 characters), but it actually feels shorter. I didn’t want the show to end. ‘Stranger Things 3’ can’t get here fast enough.