Stranger Things: Season 2 – a review

 

strangerthingsmindflayer

Stranger Things is a show for pop culture enthusiasts (a fancy way of saying “nerds”) created by pop culture enthusiasts. Since nerds are currently ruling the zeitgeist, it’s no wonder this Netflix original series has been a success. The second season did not disappoint.

Season 2 introduces several new characters to the show, and all are welcome additions. There are three major teams of characters in the series: “Adults,” “Young Adults,” and “Kids.” An argument could be made for a fourth team: “Monsters.”

Sheriff Jim Hopper (David Harbour) and single mother Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) are still our leads in the “Adults” column, with a nod to Mr. Clarke (Randy Havens), our AV Club leader and all-around exposition guru. This season, they are joined by several new cast members: the new chief of Hawkins Lab, Dr. Sam Owens (Paul Reiser); Bob “The Brain” Newby (Sean Astin), Joyce’s new love interest; and, Murray Bauman (Brett Gelman), a paranoid conspiracy theorist who isn’t wrong about everything.

The young adult lead triumverate remains Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer), Jonathan Byers (Charlie Heaton), and Steve Harrington (Joe Keery). Barb, of course, is still dead, but there is a new kid in town, Billy Hargrove (Dacre Montgomery), who is the bad boy that Steve Harrington thought he was. Outside of Hawkins, there’s also Eleven’s lab sister Kali (Linnea Berthelsen) and her gang of punk miscreants.

What about the kids? Well, the kids are all right, and are the main focus of this series, in my opinion. The old D & D party is still here: Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard); Dustin Henderson (Gaten Matarazzo); Lucas Sinclair (Caleb McLaughlin); and the boy who returned from the dead, Will Byers (Noah Schnapp). Oh, and, of course, Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown). They are joined by bad boy Billy Hargroves’ stepsister, Max Mayfield (Sadie Sink), a California girl who plays video games and rides a skateboard.

Matt and Ross, the Duffer Brothers, know what they’re doing. All of the new characters add something to the series or serve important purposes in the plot. Bob Newby prevents Joyce and Hooper from becoming a romantic couple (for one season, at least) to prolong that Sam & Diane/David & Maddie sexual tension. As a Radio Shack employee [editor’s note: the author was employed by Radio Shack during his college years] Bob also has nerd credentials and is another adult, along with Mr. Clarke, who can relate to the kids. Murray Bauman serves the plot as an adult who Nancy and Jonathan can approach to help them do something about Barb; Brett Gelman plays a slightly off-center character better than just about anyone these days, and it shows in all the acting jobs thrown his way. The real surprise to me was the introduction of Dr. Sam Owens, who replaces Matt Modine’s evil Dr. Brenner as head of Hawkins Lab. Paul Reiser naturally brings an avuncularity to the role that I assumed, at the beginning of the season, was just masking evil intentions. At the end of the season, it seems he may not be such a bad guy after all. Or is he? We’ll find out next season, maybe.

Billy Hargrove brings the same menacing aura that Keifer Sutherland brought in Stand By Me, which is just one of the many classic movies this show is an homage to. He also looks a little like Rob Lowe circa St. Elmo’s Fire. So, he’s bringing that dangerous bad boy sex appeal to Hawkins, Indiana—even Nancy and Mike Wheeler’s mom, Karen (Cara Buono), seems to like him—but, more importantly, he’s assuming Steve Harrington’s place as biggest asshole in town, which allows Steve to become a more likeable character this season, while he’s in competition with new arrival Billy and less so with Jonathan Byers. Nancy and Jonathan finally become a romantic item this season, but I’m not sure that Steve is completely out of the picture.

Billy’s stepsister Max fills the gap left by the absent Eleven, changing the dynamic of the kids’ group a little since she is not initially welcomed by Mike, who is still pining for Eleven. Gradually, Max becomes Lucas’s love interest, but not before being seen with Mike by Eleven, who is jealous of the new girl.

The introduction of new characters adds new permutations and combinations to the drama. Even without all the otherworldly elements of the show, I would find this interesting to watch.

But…

Throw the otherworldly elements into the mix of deft characterization, and I am hooked as a viewer, as are all of the show’s fans. This season, the Upside Down comes to the Rightside Up. A Cthulhu-like villain called the Mind Flayer in-show (and the new, improved Smoke Monster by me) begins to haunt the perennial victim Will Byers, eventually making rotting inroads into real-world Hawkins. A cute little slug is adopted by Dustin and named Dart (short for D’artagnan, because he likes 3 Musketeers candy bars), but Dart turns out to be a baby demogorgan. A Demogorgan was the Big Bad of Season 1, if you will recall. The threat is multiplied many times over this season, as the demogorgans—or demo-dogs—are the footsoldiers of the Mind Flayer. Eleven, who has been spending the last year in hiding with Hooper, uses her ever-growing powers to locate her birth mother and then her “sister,” another girl who escaped Hawkins Lab who uses the name Kali. Eleven’s experience finally gives her a real name—Jane—and a better grasp of her abilities, which she must use to end the current threat, which she inadvertantly caused escaping from the Upside Down. She also replaces Hopper’s deceased daughter.

By now, you realize that I enjoyed this season. In fact, I think I liked it more than the first. This is just good television (or internet streaming, or whatever I should call it). As someone who came of age in the ’80s, it appeals to me in ways it may not to millenials, but I’m certain the series has fans who don’t even understand all of its references and homages to what came before. And that’s great, too.  It means the show entertains on many different levels.

I’ve read that the Duffer Brothers have plans for two, maybe three, more seasons before wrapping up the story. I’m looking forward to what comes next.

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