This is a spoiler-free review.
Stranger Things returns this week. Netflix’s break-out hit of last year, it relied on old-fashioned word-of-mouth to make its mark on popular contemporary culture, but with a foot firmly in the recent past. Creating its own distinct mythology by way of pastiching the films many of us grew up with, its look, sound, and genuine warmth stole the hearts of even the most cynical of viewers.
From the outset of this second season, the Duffer Brothers set up their stall as confidently and swiftly as they did in Season 1. After a cold opening, which introduces a mysterious new character, the familiar opening credits music segues into the evocative 80s synth, as we find our fabulous foursome – Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Will (Noah Schnapp), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) – still communicating over their giant walkie-talkies, as they search for quarters down the backs of sofas to try to get enough money to hit the Palace arcade.
It is, aptly, the run-up to Halloween, one year since the events of the first season. In the sheriff’s office, Hopper (David Harbour) is dealing with reports of pumpkins being poisoned by vengeful neighbours (a “pumpkin conspiracy”, “Hawkins’ very own Chinatown”, as his sheriff office sidekicks deem it). He also has to contend with a freelance reporter, who has sniffed out that something suspicious has gone down in the town, and hopes to blow the story up. Thinking it’s some sort of Russian invasion, he can, for now, be easily dismissed as a paranoid conspiracy theorist, yet the grain of truth in what he’s saying makes Hopper uneasy.
But he’s not the only one trying to deal with the repercussions of the events of the previous year. In the opening episodes of Stranger Things 2, everyone is coping with the fallout in different ways. Will, trapped in the Upside Down for much of the first season, is now front-and centre, with Noah Schnapp’s giant eyes and gentle expression, seemingly haunted by what he went through. He’s suffering from flashbacks, what has been diagnosed as PTSD, and yet the gang have their own theories about what’s going on. Separated from Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), meanwhile, and not knowing what befell her, Mike has a serious case of the doldrums, trying in vain to make contact. Nancy (Natalia Dyer) is feeling delayed guilt over the fate of the otherwise near-forgotten Barb (in a knowing nod to #JusticeforBarb, she at one point exclaims “It’s like everyone forgot! Nobody cares!”), and still in her relationship quandary over the two men in her life, Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) and Steve (Joe Keery). Will’s mum, Joyce (Winona Ryder), meanwhile, can’t let her son out of her sight, and has started seeing the manager of the local Radio Shack, played by 80s star Sean Astin.
Paul Reiser, another alumni of that decade, has also joined the cast, and, as he’s wearing the White Scientist Coat of Evil, it’s rather difficult to trust him. There are, too, a couple of other new additions – new girl at school Max (Sadie Sink), who immediately impresses the gang with her high scores at the video arcade and her skateboarding ability, and her older brother Billy (Dacre Montgomery), a terrifyingly aggressive classmate of Steve’s.
As far as action goes, Stranger Things’ sophomore run gets off to a slow start, but it’s the small details that make Season 2 like stepping into a warm bath of nostalgia – everything from settling down to watch a VHS tape of Mr. Mom for family night to the gang’s Ghostbusters halloween costumes and the arguments over who should be Venkman. Mr. Clarke’s science classes are still as brilliant as ever, and the little gems of understated one-liners are enough to produce proper belly laughs. By the end of Episode 2, though, it’s still very much suffused with melancholy, guilt and trauma, with genuine emotion buried behind the exuberant sylistics. Stranger Things has returned – and oh boy, is it good to have the gang back.
Stranger Things 2 is available on Netflix, as part of a £8.99 monthly subscription. Watch along with our spoiler-filled reviews of future episodes here.