The problem with catching lightning in a bottle is catching it a second time. Some things are right place, place time, and attempting to replicate the success in a second round often proves impossible—just look at the scores of inferior sequels and second albums that little the halls of pop culture.
Stranger Things certainly felt like a lightning in a bottle situation. The now hit show came seemingly out of nowhere last year, hitting Netflix like an atomic bomb of 80’s nostalgia and Kingian horror. The Duffer Brothers had created something made of pure magic with relatively little hype or expectation, and the reverberations of its impact still echo the culture today. With the announcement last year that would could expect more from the surprise hit, the unspoken question lingering in the air was, “can they do it again?”
Yes they can, is the answer.
Any trepidation you might’ve felt before returning to the world of Hawkins, Indiana proved to be unfounded, almost right from the start of the second season of the The Duffer Brothers’ horror pastiche. Stranger Things was no fluke, and season two was a brilliant expansion of the world and mythos introduced last season.
Included in that is the laying of groundwork for future seasons of the series (which Matt and Ross Duffer have previously said will end after season four) with the introduction of new characters and plotlines that are ripe for further exploration. Most notably Kali (Linnea Berthelsen), aka Eight, another child victim of Hawkins Lab who has an entirely different set of powers from her counterpart, series favorite Eleven (Millie Bobbie Brown). Though far away from Hawkins, it seems like a surefire bet that we’ll be seeing more from Kali in the remaining seasons of Stranger Things, allowing us even more explanations for all the, well, strange things occurring in this small town.
Things are indeed strange, and getting stranger, in Hawkins, Indiana. It was never going to be as easy as just rescuing Will (Noah Schnapp) from the upside down—the monster filled alternate dimension that figures heavily into the overarching plot of the series. His experiences last season have left him changed, and stricken him with the ability to see inside the horrifying alternate world, giving him glimpses of a new danger from that world that threatens our reality.
This “shadow monster,” as it’s called by the kids (who all return in top form in season two) represents the crux of this season; though it exists mostly unseen, its tendrils have, quite literally, made their way throughout Hawkins. The veil between reality and the upside down is thinner than ever, and the stakes feel significantly higher.
That’s the case with all good sequels, and with the new season being billed as Stranger Things 2, it’s best that we look at it through our sequel lenses. Like all the best sequels, the Duffers keep things familiar but bigger. This isn’t just a rehash of the original, but the elements you enjoyed are still there. The closest comparison you can make is the difference between Alien and Aliens. Indeed, that feels intentional.
Where Stranger Things dealt with a single monster (like Alien), Stranger Things 2 deals with a host of them, all being controlled by one huge monster (like Aliens). Often, the similar imagery between this season and Aliens is striking. You couldn’t quite confuse the shadow monster and the xenomorph, but the shadow monster’s head shape is awfully familiar.
The connections aren’t hurt by the casting of Paul Reiser, either. Reiser joins the series as Dr. Owens, the Hawkins Lab replacement for Dr. Brenner (Matthew Modine), who died at the end of last season (or did he?). Reiser plays a character who, initially, doesn’t feel too far from Burke, his character in Aliens. They’re both company men, and they both feel untrustworthy—too close to the company to be anything but a mouthpiece.
Sean Astin also joins the cast as Bob, new love interest for Winona Ryder’s Joyce. Bob’s role in the series is an interesting one; he’s a goober in the way that only potential stepfathers can be. His tech-obsession would get him far in today’s age, but back in 1984, he was the weirdest of weirdos. Astin channels every would-be stepfather you’ve ever met, his bumbling attempts at bonding with Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) and Will often eye-rollingly sappy, but kind of endearing in a “look at this asshole” sort of way.
While they’re both welcome additions to the Stranger Things world, Maxine, aka Max (Sadie Sink) is the real breakout this season. With Eleven absent from the party for much of the season (they still think she’s dead, though we learned from the first trailers that she was, in fact, quite alive), she’s the de facto replacement for the boys. Whereas Eleven was the mage (keeping with the Dungeons & Dragons motif) Max is the rogue. Her alliance with the party is tenuous, but she plays along inasmuch as it suits her interests, and she brings an interesting dynamic to the group at large.
The group’s dynamics play heavily into the narrative this season, and at times it seems as though the party might fracture under the weight of all they’re carrying. They’re deep into adolescence now, and the pains of growing up cause their share of strain among the party. Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) have their first fit of jealousy over Max. Mike (Finn Wolfhard, fresh off his turn in IT) is pained by the events of last season and the loss of Eleven.
The Duffers do a remarkable job, as ever, balancing this drama with the horror of the situation, weighing the themes against each other so that they work in tandem rather than in opposition. That’s one of the greatest things about watching Stranger Things. The scripting and storytelling is tight and exhilarating. Things are balanced and planned, creating a tautly drawn narrative that is as engrossing as it is entertaining and delightful.
Stranger Things is now batting a thousand with two seasons under its belt, and two more promised. It’s almost too bad that this show is so infinitely bingeable; with all nine of the new episodes now out of the way, the wait between now and next season will only feel longer. Hopefully the loose threads from this season get picked up and tied together next. If they can stick the landing over the next two seasons, Stranger Things will definitely go down as one of the best series of this era.
Stranger Things season two is now streaming on Netflix.