Stranger Things 2 (2017) review

Following an incredibly successful and critically acclaimed first season is not an easy feat. Fan and critical expectation is high, as are the stakes to try and capture the same magic that made your initial creation so well loved. Evolution is also important; you can’t just re-tread the same beats from the previous season. Change is important for both character and plot to move the story forward in a logical, but fresh way. What I’m trying to say, is that it’s very difficult to keep momentum going and create a second season as strong is the first. Stranger Things 2, in my opinion, is not only as strong as the first season, but exceeds it.

Very rarely do I get so connected to a cast of characters on my screen that I actually feel like they’re legitimate, real people going through fantastical and horrific experiences. Stranger Things 2 builds on their characters in a way I never thought possible and manages to deliver emotional gut punches multiple times throughout the season with the Duffer Brother’s masterful knowledge of how real people act and react to trials and tribulations. Development and change is a risk managed wonderfully; as an example, if you’d told me at the end of season one that Steve Harrington would be my favourite character by the end of the sequel season, I’d offer a snort of derision. Many characters here have wonderful arcs that help them progress as people and at the core of this is the relationship between fan favourite characters Eleven and Jim Hopper. These two absolutely steal the show for me this time around and their evolving father-daughter relationship reaches a moment of absolute poignancy in the final episode that I’m not ashamed to admit had me wiping tears from my crusty, cynical eyes. Also strong is Noah Schnapp, who gets much more screen time this season as Will and is able to show off some serious acting chops. His facial expressions provide some of the most disturbing moments we’ve seen yet, but you also just feel for the kid and his family so much and truly root for Will to get through it.

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Another difficult aspect of a second season is introducing new faces into an already well loved and established cast. Delightfully, the four new main characters of this season are woven in carefully and with slick precision. Sadie Sink’s ‘Mad Max’ is a welcome addition to the ever growing cast of talented younger actors and her psychotic brother Billy presents a great foil to now antihero and all around good guy, Steve. Sean Austin also joins as Joyce’s boyfriend Bob and instantly oozes likeability. He’s goofy, warm and the antithesis of Hopper, who seems to be being built up as her ultimate love interest. If there’s one character who suffers this time around, it’s previous male lead Mike, played by Finn Wolfhard. Wolfhard’s performance remains strong and you feel all the raw pain associated with the death of a loved one, but without Eleven, he’s mostly a damp squib. He doesn’t do much until the final two episodes and plot driven moment are largely handed over to Lucas and Dustin. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s certainly great to see two great characters take more screen time, it just means Mike is slightly short changed as a payoff.

While the characters may be all change, what haven’t changed are the fantastic tone, the creepy atmosphere and the brilliantly woven homages to classic 80’s media. If the first season owed its horrific imagery to James Cameron’s ‘Aliens’, then ‘Stranger Things 2’ owes its shocking and disturbing moments to ‘The Exorcist.’ The horror is amplified this time; the feral, animalistic and survivalist instincts of the Demigorgan gone and instead replaced by the overbearing and unknown presence of The Mind Flayer. The idea of this creature being more methodical rather than just being driven by instinct, coupled with the complete lack of information of what exactly it is and what it wants, creates a much more terrifying foe for the gang to tackle. One that it doesn’t seem likely will be leaving the fictional town of Hawkins alone any time soon. The stakes have been well and truly raised so it will be interesting to see the continued expansion of the unknown lore of ‘The Upside Down’ in future seasons.

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The show also continues to be a love letter to films and pop culture of the 80’s. The fact that the show is able to blend different elements of such vastly different source materials is a credit to the different directors working on it. There are countless references, but the pieces that came to mind while I binged it over a week included ‘Halloween’, ‘The Exorcist’, ‘Flight of the Navigator’, ‘Aliens’, ‘Close Encounters’, ‘The Wizard’ and even ‘The Last of us’ video game. The gorgeous synth soundtrack could be pulled straight from a Sega Megadrive game and the 80’s songs used to support key moments work really well. The use of ‘Ghostbusters’ is particularly fun and is a great example of the wonderful humour and childhood nostalgia that blends so surprisingly well with the darker elements.

I have only one complaint and it’s one that the internet has been pretty unanimous about, so I don’t mean to beat a dead horse. It really bothered me while watching, however, so I must mention it. There are some bad choices in terms of episodic structure. The opening scene presents a group of new characters including a tease of a connection to Eleven that isn’t followed up until the now infamous episode seven, ‘Lost Sister.’ While the episode is dull and the characters even more so (bar the always excellent Eleven), it could’ve been forgiven easier had it been placed within the first few episodes. Episode six ends on a huge cliff-hanger and it’s a strange move to then completely ignore that for  what is essentially a single character episode, with the rest of the cast entirely absent. I’m sure that this is meant to be foreshadowing some season three content, but to have it as the pre title sequence in episode one and then place it in this way was an odd choice that didn’t pay off. I hope not to see more of Eight or the other gang members in the future; they do not work for this show.

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Despite this, ‘Stranger Things 2’ is wonderful on the whole. It builds on already rich and developed characters and makes them pop out of the screen with realism. The nostalgia, themes, tone, atmosphere, soundtrack and writing all blend together to create one of my favourite pieces of television in a long time. It does exactly what a sequel should do and builds on its source material while adding in new elements (nearly) seamlessly. I wanted to give this another 10/10, but sadly, ‘Lost sister’ was a real weak point and acts as a blackhead on an otherwise beautiful face.

9/10

And now we have to wait HOW long for season 3?

Oh God.

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