The appeal of the original season stemmed from its uniqueness in the current landscape of television, its spine-tingling story riddled with captivating surprises and an uncanny ability to keep a finger on the pulse of ’80s nostalgia. A sequel is, by definition, no longer unique, and the terrifying beasts of the “Upside Down” are no longer as shocking because we’ve been there before. Already, two-thirds of the original Stranger Things recipe are lost. So how did the Duffer Brothers navigate the tricky situation of what they were left with for season two? They doubled down on the nostalgia and turned to a more character-driven approach, with middling success.
The first episode — or “chapter” in the show’s official terminology — sets the distinctive ’80s tone with Devo’s “Whip It” and a visit to the local video game arcade. The group of friends who refer to themselves as the “Party” (a nod to the central role Dungeons & Dragons played in their season one exploits) scrounge for couch cushion quarters to fund their outing, and after attentively watching Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) lose his very serious game of Dragon’s Lair, they discover that he has tragically been unseated from his first-place position on the Dig Dug scoreboard by a player called “MADMAX” — and that’s all just in the first ten minutes.
Many other iconic ’80s references are conspicuously scattered throughout the rest of the nine-episode season, including a theater marquee advertising The Terminator, the Party’s Ghostbusters group Halloween costume, and even Bob’s (Sean Astin) “treasure map” remark, an obvious allusion to The Goonies. These references are recognizable as well as amusing, adding to the nostalgic ambiance of the show, but they are so frequent and blatant in Stranger Things 2 that it starts to feel forced by contrast to the original’s more effortless authenticity as an ’80s throwback.
Mark Steger as The Demogorgon (IMDB)
Now that a year has passed since Will (Noah Schnapp) was rescued from his captivity in the Upside Down, he rejoins Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), Mike (Finn Wolfhard), and Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) in their adolescent escapades, but he struggles to reintegrate into normal life, still plagued by prophetic visions of the Upside Down. As the primary force driving the plot, the disturbed boy sinks deeper into darkness as he is increasingly and relentlessly haunted by these otherworldly phantoms, yet the Shadow Monster and his minions are nowhere near as frightening as their predecessor, the Demogorgon. The threat posed by the creatures of the Upside Down seems scaled back and less sinister, with only Will directly in peril, and the central plot of just doesn’t have the same sense of urgency as a result.
The side stories instead focus on how the characters and the relationships between them continue to evolve, which offers a lot more substance and depth to the series, but sometimes at the expense of narrative intrigue. The season opens, for example, with a teaser about Eleven’s (Millie Bobby Brown) childhood companion and fellow test subject, Eight (Linnea Berthelsen). Now going by the name Kali, she seems to share similar telepathic abilities with Eleven, but that’s where the similarities stop. Instead of the lovable band of misfits that welcomed Eleven into their “party”, Eight has taken up with a gang of punk rock delinquents, whose primary hobby is hunting down the people who have hurt them in the past in order to mete out judgment.
The introduction of another superpowered individual is intriguing at first, but it falls flat due to lack of follow-through. Instead of exploring the ramifications of an expanded telekinetic cohort, Kali merely serves as a stimulus for Eleven’s ongoing journey to find herself, and she does not appear again until the 7th “chapter” of this nine-episode season. When she does finally return, it’s for an odd and disconnected one-off episode in which Eleven goes on an escapade to see her nearly comatose mother, whose psychosis-fueled memories drive Eleven to seek out her “sister” in the big city. There, Kali gives her a “bitchin'” makeover and a taste of the criminal life. While Eleven does learn to strengthen her powers with anger through this adventure, as soon as she learns (telepathically) that her friends are in danger, this part of her story is concluded and forgotten as she rushes to their aid.
Eleven’s “Bitchin'” Big-City Makeover (Millie Bobbie Brown, Photo by Courtesy Netflix / IMDB)
Some new characters are introduced, with varying success. The new kids at school, quirky gamer and skater girl Max (Sadie Sink) and her sadistic step-brother Billy (Dacre Montgomery), seem to have potential as badass new additions to the cast, at least at first, but both quickly devolve into flat characters that serve stock purposes. Max is ultimately reduced to an object of romantic interest, caught in a love-triangle with Lucas and Dustin, and Billy is the vicious bully, taking over Steve’s role as the reprehensible jerk, just bigger, badder, and ultimately, blander.
The benefit of bringing in new characters to fill these archetypes is the opportunity for growth now open to the others who previously occupied those roles. Steve Harrington (Joe Keery) in particular changes in especially striking ways; no longer the one-note jock as Nancy’s (Natalia Dyer) somewhat skeevy suitor, he becomes an earnest and supportive boyfriend who genuinely cares for Nancy, despite her aloofness and hesitance in requiting those feelings.
Rebuffed by Nancy in the wake of her undeniable attraction to Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), Steve unexpectedly yet effortlessly embraces his new role as the “babysitter”, watching over the Party when things start to get serious, even single-handedly defending them from danger. He even forms an unprecedented brotherly bond with Dustin, divulging the secret of his perfectly feathered locks (Farrah Fawcett hairspray), joins in the Party’s schemes, and leaps into hand-to-hand combat with the hellish “Demodogs” without hesitation. His evolution into the charming and valiant protector is surprising yet seamless.
Steve Harrington’s (Joe Kerry) Heroics Give Neagan and “Lucille” a Run for their Money (IMDB)
Officer Jim Hopper (David Harbour) has also experienced significant growth as a character, now acting as something of an adoptive father to Eleven, taking her in and keeping her safe and hidden in a secluded cabin that they fixed up together in a distinctly ’80s-esque montage sequence. The two clash over his strict, protective rules and her desire to go out and experience the world, and their distinctively father-daughter relationship propels Eleven’s character growth through resentment, rebellion, and ultimately, reconciliation.
By far the most successful newcomer is Bob Newby, Joyce’s (Winona Ryder) doofy but sincere beau, compellingly played by Sean Astin, whose past adventures as a treasure-hunting Goonie and a hero-questing Hobbit converge into an unassuming yet plucky supporting character that seems to add exactly what was missing from Stranger Things ensemble, filling a hole that we didn’t even know was there before. At first, Bob’s presence as an apparently long-standing fixture in the Byers family feels somewhat uncomfortable, even suspicious; his behavior toward Will and Jonathan appears overly chummy, and his propensity for dorky phrases like “easy peasy” and daddish puns, such as “I hoope it dooesn’t suuuck” complete with the stereotypical Legosi lilt to match his vampire costume, make Bob seem so vanilla that he just couldn’t possibly be genuine.
Bob Newby (Sean Astin) with a classic Newbyism: “I hoope it dooesn’t suuuck!” (IMDB)
The evolution of Bob’s character is supremely satisfying, however. His adolescent status as the awkward geek makes it all the more gratifying that he’s now dating the popular girl who “didn’t even know who [he] was in high school” and his thoughtfulness and sweetness toward Joyce as well as his heartfelt, protective relationship with her sons make him irresistibly endearing. After the trauma the Byers family endured, they are plagued with fear and uncertainty, in desperate need of exactly the kind of relentless optimism, enthusiasm, and hope for the future that Bob offers. In the end, Bob is so much more than the “Barb” of Stranger Things 2; in fact, while it may have been intended as tongue-in-cheek, the epithet he gives himself is suits him perfectly, both poignant as well as utterly accurate: “Bob Newby: superhero.”
Whereas the first season of Stranger Things used nostalgia as a firm foundation of the familiar, a comforting backdrop for the terrifying twists and turns that befall the ragtag crew in their childhood adventurers, the dark reflection offered by the “Upside Down” version of the quaint all-American small town is somehow diluted in this continuation. In an attempt to make up for a diminished sense of horror and peril, Stranger Things 2 embraces a more character-driven approach, and while some characters — both new and old – fall flat, there are enough scares, laughs, and charms to keep viewers bingeing to the very end.