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SEASON REVIEW: “STRANGER THINGS 2” TURNS IT UP TO ELEVEN BUT DOESN’T RESONATE AS LOUDLY

We live in increasingly stranger times and that has been reflected on US television since the first season of Stranger Things dropped on Netflix in July 2016. The likes of PreacherAmerican GodsLegion, and that maestro of the mental, Twin Peaks, have sent viewers on such a far-out trip subsequently that the return of Stranger Things feels considerably more quaint this time. However, this only serves to heighten the fact that the “stranger” in Netflix’s hit show has always been a misnomer for a series that actually trades exclusively in familiarity as its core appeal.

It was extremely canny of the streaming platform to move the release of the second season forward to coincide with Halloween – a time of year when the general populace revels in fantastical cliches – to exacerbate the show’s strengths. We can see straight away with names of series newcomers Paul Rieser and Sean Astin cropping up in the perennially sublime opening titles that Stranger Things is still hopelessly in love with its period setting of the mid-1980’s.

And yes, Stranger Things 2 still regularly engages in those 80’s tropes of innovation via household objects (Wynona Ryder’s Joyce Byers yet again proves herself to be a veritable MacGyver of arts & crafts) and transforming pop culture experiences into life lessons and skills. But, after the first season rarely moved out of its comfort zone of the tutelage of the two Steves (Spielberg and King), Season 2 does expand its palette of influences as it seeks to do likewise with its scope and mythology.

* Spoilers Ahead *

 

THE ROAD WARRIOR

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Stranger Things 2 opens on a heist in Chicago with a band of punks robbing a bank that instantly brings to mind the teenage motley crews of Joel Schumacher’s 80’s movies. Amongst their number is another girl with extra-sensory powers that foil the pursuing police before we catch a glimpse of “008” tattooed on her arm. After the titles raise acres of goosebumps (No, I won’t shut up about the most effective title sequence since Star Wars), we return to Hawkins, Indiana as Will, Mike, Dustin, and Lucas head to the local arcade only to find their high scores have been bettered by someone going under the handle “Mad Max”. It doesn’t long to find out who this Road Warrior is, however, as a Trans Am with Californian plates roars into the school parking lot the day after.

Contained within are Maxine (or “Max” as she prefers) and her stepbrother, Billy, who are the two new additions to the high school contingent of Hawkins. Max instantly becomes the focal point of Dustin’s and Lucas’s affections despite her spiky attitude towards them, whereas Billy quickly establishes himself as the new uber-bully by setting up a rivalry with that doofus supreme, Steve Harrington, who is still inexplicably dating Nancy. Max is very much the typical disaffected Gen X female who persistently jibes and digs at the nerdiness of The Party all while getting increasingly drawn into their world and Billy could have stepped right out of a Stephen King novel – what a shocker! – as an antagonist replete with an undercurrent of racism directed at Lucas that’s never as explicit as it needs to be (another of many parallels it shares with this year’s It).

The new arrivals do much to shift the group dynamics of the first season. By drawing the hormonal attention of The Party, Max pushes the boys into John Hughes adolescent territory and leaves behind the E.T. apeing adoption of Eleven (more on her later) in the first season. Billy, however, is uncharacteristically two dimensional for the show with little to him beyond the terrorizing of his peers and no character arc in sight for him currently. This somewhat betrays the Duffer Brothers’ formula for success in embellishing stock characters with genuine emotional depth but, fortunately, amends are made elsewhere.

 

THIS TIME IT’S WAR

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Despite its near painful adherence to all things 80’s, Stranger Things has primarily always been a story of all about how a boy’s life got flipped-turned upside down. For the most part, this remains the case for the second iteration as Will is still haunted by visions of the realm where he was trapped in Season 1 and the Hawkins Lab continues its exploration of the shadowy world. The lab is now run by Paul Rieser’s Dr. Owens who is helping Will work through his troubled past in regular sessions. While Owens initially seems to be a straight swap for Matthew Modine’s evil scientist – especially with Rieser occasionally echoing his most famous role as the slimy company man, Burke, in Aliens – it’s quite refreshing to see his character develop into a more transparent and responsible overseer. This does not mean, however, that he’s got everything under control. Far from it, in fact.

When Will takes the classic advice of his mom’s new squeeze, Bob (Sean Astin), in how to deal with scary entities by standing up to them, it entirely backfires when the Cthulu-like beast that haunts his visions uses this opportunity to take possession of Will. In a neat twist, it seems that man is not the warmest place to hide for this denizen of the Upside Down as Will unwittingly becomes a double-agent for the monster who likes to keep things as cool as possible with Will becoming adverse to any kind of heat. Elsewhere, Dustin finds a cute little bug creature in his trashcan that he nicknames “Dart” (after Dartagnan from the Three Musketeers nougat that the bug takes a liking to) and you won’t win many points for guessing what Dart is eventually going to turn into.

The Upside Down has been spreading under the foundations of Hawkins as is rotting away the local vegetation, namely pumpkins as a nice seasonal nod, and this time there is a small army of demagogs in play. Of course, this is the classic “upping the odds” of the transition between Alien and Aliens but it also lessens the threat carried by the beasts and, ultimately, the fear factor is impacted by this. Far more effective is Will going all Regan MacNeil as he succumbs to his overbearing guest and writhes in excruciating agony and expletives whenever his family and friends attempt to remove the entity. This sets up a tense scene in the climactic episode when the usually doting Joyce must go against her mothering instincts to get Will to literally sweat out his hijacker.

Overall, this central plot is ostensibly business as usual and does feel slightly routine. Even more frustratingly, we learn precious little of what the Upside Down mechanisms and motives really are. This could be attributed to the guarantee of two more seasons to follow Stranger Things 2 so this may prove prudent in the long run. However, the final cliffhanger seemingly resets the threat, so it falls to another sub-plot to give us any real sense of progression.

 

I AM NOT A NUMBER

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By far the most satisfying aspect of Stranger Things 2 is the further adventures of Eleven. After seemingly being condemned to the Upside Down at the climax of Season 1, Eleven finds a gateway back and goes into hiding in the local woods. This section of the story is neatly told in bite-sized flashbacks interspersed throughout the first few episodes to stop the sequence becoming monotonous in the same way that a similar arc infamously did in the penultimate Harry Potter movie. After being lured out of hiding by Sheriff Hopper with Eggos, he adopts the telekinetic youngster in his abandoned cabin in the woods. It is a testament to the strong writing that this development never feels as inherently creepy as it could as the two take on a typical father and teenage daughter relationship, i.e. – a dysfunctional one.

Eleven is still using her powers to visit the outside world but remains frustrated by a lack of genuine interaction with it. Her psychic journeys lead her to discover that her mother is still alive and she escapes her isolation to go find her. It turns out that Eleven is actually called Jane and she was snatched from her mother, Terry, at birth by Brenner (Matthew Modine) to be a lab rat. Terry resides with her carer in a vegetative state mumbling a constant stream of numbers and rainbows that are, of course, a code for Eleven to follow. This leads her to discover that she has a spiritual sister, Kali, who she promptly sets off to find.

This leads to an episode exclusively focused on Eleven’s expedition to Chicago to team up with Kali – the “008” girl from the season’s opening scene – and her band of miscreants. It’s an episode that’s an excursion in more ways than one as it interrupts the flow of the multi-stranded plot and shatters the illusion of Stranger Things as essentially an eight-hour movie. It is a chapter that is bound to be divisive among fans as it shifts the season both in location and tone with a harder edge to proceedings that strips away the warm fuzzy nostalgia of events so far. That it also concludes unresolved means we will likely be revisiting this again, but whether it will be welcome or not remains to be seen.

Still, Eleven/Jane’s return to Hawkins to save the day is immensely welcome and her entrance at the annual Snow Ball dance is as pleasing as it is predictable. It also feels unfair to single out a particular player in the universally excellent young cast, but Millie Bobby Brown is still a revelation as the troubled telekinetic and she lends undeserved weight to the patently obvious subtext of her psychic freakouts as a metaphor for raging hormones. Let us hope she becomes more intertwined with proceedings in future as Eleven remains the most compelling aspect of Stranger Things.

 

BARB LIVES MATTER

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For a show that takes such unfettered joy in declaring its influences, it was somewhat inevitable that Stranger Things 2 would begin to reference itself. There is no better example of this than the introduction of the local conspiracy nut, Maurice Bauman (Brett Gelman), who is an affectionate nod to the show’s more obsessive fans. With his walls adorned with news stories of Barb’s disappearance, it’s clear that Stranger Things 2 wishes to make amends for the first season’s most glaring oversight. Indeed, for most of this season, Nancy and Jonathon dedicate most of their “more will they than won’t they” relationship trying to pull back the curtain on Barb’s fate.

It’s a sub-plot that’s initially very engaging, but crash lands in the final episode with a rushed conclusion (at least we finally get a funeral for our beloved Barb, though). Further demonstrations of this developing self-awareness also occur when Lucas regales Max with the events of the first season to which she comments on the derivative nature of his tales with more than a sly wink to the audience. Some may appreciate this meta-humor, but there is a case to be made that the Duffer Brothers are preening a little too much here.

Returning to the subject of Barb, however, and there is definitely a dowdy-shaped hole left by her absence with none of the new cast additions matching her immediacy as a character. Sean Astin’s Bob (who, of course, gets a big fat Goonies reference, duh) certainly gives it go with a charmingly naive nice guy act that plasters “Demagog Fodder” across his forehead early on, but his unsurprising fate lacks the subversion of Barb’s demise that gave her so much resonance among fans.

It’s actually quite difficult to pinpoint any real talking points that will keep Stranger Things 2 in the spotlight beyond its initial launch. Yes, it’s still thoroughly entertaining stuff and its doting authenticity to the 80’s will warm many Gen X hearts, but there is a strong argument that Stranger Things needed to be considerably stranger on its second outing to match the impact of the original.

GRADE:

 

B

 

An increase in scope and the planting of seeds for later seasons blurs the pin-sharp focus and self-containment that defined the show’s first run. With an almost embarrassing awareness of its potent strengths and a refusal to acknowledge its slight weaknesses; Stranger Things 2 is ultimately just bigger, not better, than its predecessor.

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