After the runaway success of the first season, the highly anticipated second chapter of Stranger Things hits Netflix in nine binge-worthy episodes of 80s nostalgia sci-fi horror. Once again the question, in the face of blanket coverage, is does it live up to the hype? The answer, second time around, is almost.
Set one year on from the events of the first series, Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Will (Noah Schnapp) are back into their old routine. Hanging out in AV club, camping out in the video arcade and preparing themselves for Halloween. They are joined by newcomer, Max (Sadie Sink), who has moved to the area under mysterious circumstances. While Detective Jim Hopper (David Harbour) is protecting Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) by hiding her out in his remote woodland cabin.
Against this backdrop, Will Byers is plagued by visions of his experience in the Upside Down. He is haunted by a gigantic cloud monster whom he envisions laying waste to Hawkins and the wider world. The sinister government lab on the outskirts of town has undergone a makeover. Headed up by kindly Dr Owens (Paul Reiser, who assists Will and Joyce with their P.T.S.D. whilst surreptitiously trying to close the rift between dimensions. The lab keeps out of the town’s business in exchange for the townsfolk keeping quiet about the events of season one. But in the course of his police rounds, Hopper starts to discover that the lab does not have as much control over the Upside Down as they think.
Season two of Stranger Things, although objectively very good and still likely to be one of the best things you see on TV all year, does pale somewhat in comparison to the high benchmark set by season one. The follow up was always going to be hard – whether it is the weight of expectation, the high profile Netflix hype machine, or simply ‘difficult second album syndrome’, is open to debate. What isn’t up for debate, however, is the slow opening pace of season two. Season one moved with a relentless urgency; with the clock ticking in the race to find Will, we never once felt like we were treading water. Season 2 takes its time, re-introducing us to the characters and establishing their individual journeys for the episodes ahead. While all this sounds like a wise move, we end up a little waylaid. The first few episodes conclude without an awful lot having actually occurred and things only start to ramp up in episode 7.
Perhaps the key missing ingredient for Stranger Things 2 is the lack of a principal villain. Sure, the Upside Down, the shadow monster and the Demagorgon are all present and correct, but Matthew Modine’s ice cold Dr Brenner was a perfect bad guy. A hard act to follow, no doubt, but it’s a curious choice not to follow him at all.
One could well be forgiven for thinking that having no human villain is an interesting and different approach to take. And often this would not be wrong. Take Matt Smith’s first season as Doctor Who, for example, which eschewed a predictable season ending Dalek/Cyberman skirmish in favour of an exploding T.A.R.D.I.S. disaster. However, for a programme like Stranger Things, a series whose raison d’être is based on repurposing beloved 80s TV staples, we need a villain to boo and hiss at. We need a focus for our outrage at the treatment of our favourite Hawkins residents, or the plight of poor boggly-eyed, bowl-haired Will Byers.
It’s also a little strange how ambivalent the townsfolk are to the events of the previous year, and the shady lab that still sits on the edge of town. Only Nancy (Natalia Dyer) has a fire burning within her, as she tries to prove what happened to her best friend (and fan favourite), Barb.
But let’s not get caught up in the less successful aspects, because there is still a lot to enjoy in the Duffer Brothers sophomore season. The second half is very strong indeed.
Of the main characters, the principal gang are all on top form. Newcomer Max throws a spanner into the group dynamic, as Lucas and Dustin compete for her affections, leading Mike to become jealous in an ironic switcheroo of the cause and effect his relationship with Eleven had in season one.
Dustin gets a bigger chance to shine this time around. Whether he’s breeding junior Demagorgons in a terrarium or forging an unlikely action/comedy friendship with Steve (Joe Keery), Matarazzo
tends to steal the show whenever he gets the chance. And on the subject of Steve, his redemption in season two is complete, having swivelled a solid 180 from sneering school bully to immaculately coiffured monster hunter. You would not be alone if you secretly wished Nancy would stick it out with him.
Of the new characters, Max’s brother Billy (Dacre Montgomery) is a heavy metal-listening, hod rod-driving, cigarette-smoking bully who manages to traverse the entire series as a bit of an enigma. He has no bearing on any main plotline, yet somehow manages to shoehorn his way into all of them. He’s like a background character that suddenly gets thrust into the limelight. This is no bad thing however, as his volatility means he’s an unknown quantity whenever he’s around. And his outrageous mullet provides strong competition to Steve’s back-combed wonder for the ‘best hair’ award.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Joyce’s new boyfriend Bob (played by the marvellous Sean Astin) supplies a dorky nice-guy charm to the Byers family, who all deserve it, having been put through the ringer continuously in season one. And it should go without saying that Winona Ryder is, again, infinitely excellent as Joyce.
It’s also great to see Paul Reiser prised away from sitcom hell and doing some great work as Dr Owens. He’s superficially a nice guy, but considering how authentically 80s Stranger Things strives to be, when he starts talking about the lab and the organisation behind it, one can’t help but think about his performance as company slime bag Carter Burke in Aliens.
Which leaves us with Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) and Detective Jim Hopper (David Harbour), whose surrogate familial relationship, after a year of hiding out in the woods, is an absolute joy. They bond over Eggos, Hopper ‘dad dances’ to old records, and they find the missing piece of their family in each other.
Otherwise, all of the ingredients we came to know and love in the first season are accounted for. The perfectly realised retro aesthetic plants us firmly back in the 1980s, with pleasing stylistic flourishes. While the Upside Down is the same bleak, sepia mirror world, with vine-infested buildings and its gross, flaky atmosphere.
Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein deliver the goods once again on the soundtrack, providing the same pulsing, synth-y, Carpentarian ambience as on their beloved season one score. In fact, we even get some genuine John Carpenter this time around as episode seven, The Lost Sister, uses The Bank Robbery from Escape From New York to tense things up a bit.
Although it’s a shame it takes Stranger Things 2 so long to kick in to gear, to its great advantage the last few episodes are very strong. There are some exciting payoffs and some of the best character moments of the series so far. While it’s not quite the revelation that season one was, season two is still a satisfying and tidy piece of sci-fi; one that, once again, qualifies as essential viewing.
THE REEL SCORE: 8/10