Warning: This binge review contains spoilers for the first six episodes of Stranger Things Season 2. Not got that far yet? Read our spoiler-free look at the opening two episodes here.
It’s no small feat for a new show to be so thoroughly ingrained in the public consciousness after just one season that it feels as though it’s been with us forever. As Halloween costumes, burger bars, and theme nights spring up, all based on Stranger Things’ now familiar mythos, the Duffer Brothers have, with Season 2, confidently demonstrated that this is no flash-in-the-pan success. While overall it was a slightly patchy experience, most of us will be left with the memories of those final two thrilling, spellbinding episodes, which delivered an emotional punch more than equalling the high-octane action.
For many viewers, much of the joy of the programme comes from a kind of post-modern, meta understanding of it, and again, in this respect, Stranger Thigns 2 didn’t disappoint. While Season 1 clearly pulled on many sources, its main aesthetic was that of Stephen Spielberg’s early films. This year, as things got darker, and as a study of trauma, it veered much more towards Stephen King, via dePalma, with a bit of William Friedkin’s Exorcist thrown in for good measure. This made it a somewhat less innocent experience than the first season, evidenced by the increase in swearing, the violence, and the gory death of that poor Newby, Bob (more of whom later). Aptly, the themes seem to be maturing along with the young actors.
And they remain outstanding – one of the most deserved awards at this year’s Emmys went to the Stranger Things casting team. Each of the original characters are played to perfection, no mean feat for actors so young. The core four (and El) are astounding, although one quibble with this series is the sidelining of Lucas, who, disappointingly, didn’t have much to do.
The older characters more than pull their weight too. Joyce remains highly strung, but Ryder has dialled down the nervous tics and upped the empathy for a more naturalistic performance. As Hopper, David Harbour is the epitome of the gruff, hard-worn, hard-living sheriff with a heart of gold, his own trauma ever-present in the background. Joe Keery’s Steve brings a kind of everyman heroism to his role, and his is the character who has been on the most obvious ‘journey’ since his first outing as the typical jock bully of the John Hughes variety. As Nancy, Natalia Dyer’s sweet-hearted innocent is maturing into a thoughtful young woman, along with Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), the unpopular, soulful ‘weirdo’ who gets the girl in the end.
But even the peripheral characters are marked by their memorability – everyone from Randy Havens as Mr. Clarke the science teacher, to the two Hawkins sheriff deputies with a sideline in off-the-cuff wisecracks. Even the blink-and-you’ll-miss-them roles were beautifully rendered, from Keith (Matty Cardarople), the Cheetos-eating nerd of the Palace arcade (creepily obsessed with getting a date with Nancy) to Lucas’s little sister, Erica (11-year-old-Priah Ferguson), who effortlessly managed to steal each small scene she was in.
This season saw a widening of the Stranger Things Universe, as new characters were introduced, and some worked better than others. Max (Sadie Sink) had the thankless task of trying to fit in to a tightly knit friend group with a secret they didn’t want exposed, and did the best she could within limited parameters. As Billy, Dacre Montgomery wasn’t given much time to expand, although we’ll go out on a limb and say he was worth it if only for his scene of outrageous, hot-and-heavy flirtation with Mike’s mom, Karen (Cara Buono) – in seconds, it was clear what all those high school girls saw in him. Paul Reiser (who we were all expecting to be as corporately emotionless as he was in the similar role he played in Aliens) emerged as an unexpectedly decent guy, opting in those last episodes to stay in the lab to guide Bob and the others out of the facility. He also comes through, in the end, with a birth certificate for El – and with it, the promise of a normal life.
The less said about Episode 7 the better – slowing the action down as it did only made us itch to get back to Hawkins – but it’s not the fault of Linnea Berthelsen as Kali, another deeply damaged result of the laboratory’s child experimentation, who is now using her powers to get violent revenge on those who have wronged her. She served to show us the deep humanity El has discovered through her small-town relationships, and that the bonds of true friendship are greater than those of the past.
But the real coup de grace this series was the casting of Sean Astin as Bob Newby. For viewers of a certain age, there was an immediate jolt, as we reconciled the older Astin with his baby-faced Mikey of The Goonies, as intimations of ageing and mortality merged with more metaphysical questions of how it’s possible to exist in the same time period in two such differing forms. But there was something so satisfyingly circular in this casting, as though Bob was Mikey all grown up – the spunky, adventurous, warm-hearted kid who is now thrilled to be dating someone like Joyce, and who has an unforced connection with Will. It doesn’t take much of a stretch to imagine his Goonies gang and the Stranger Things kids teaming up on a search for hidden pirate treasure, in a literal parallel universe.
Bob’s dream of taking Joyce and her family to start a new life in Maine should have been warning enough that things were not going to work out well for him, and yet, in the world of Stranger Things, it still seemed inconceivable that someone so wholly, uncomplicatedly good could be dispatched in such a horrible manner. His heroism came about because he was the only one who knows computer code, but he was unhesitating in his valour, making Hopper promise to leave him in order to get everyone else out of the laboratory. And, of course, he almost made it. But his fate upped the stakes – no one, it seemed to suggest, is now safe. The post-script – as Mike tells the others that it was Bob, in fact, who had set up the beloved AV club, teaching Mr Clarke every he knows – secured the late Bob’s position in the canon.
Although it may seem crass to suggest, given that we are genuinely heartbroken over Bob’s untimely demise, it does leave things open for Hopper and Joyce to perhaps explore their simmering sexual tension, as evidence by their sad embrace outside the Snow Ball. These final scenes sum up everything that is so loveable about Stranger Things. You’d have to have a heart of stone not to be touched by Dustin – Farrah Fawcett hairspray hair and all – standing at the sidelines of the dance floor, for all the world a pre-pubescent Duckie from Pretty in Pink. The nostalgia of the teen dance is, for most of us, a false nostalgia borne not from real life but from the many filmic representations of American high school, and yet it still managed to speak straight to the heart of our younger selves. As Cyndi Lauper’s Time after Time segued into the Police’s Every Step You Take, and Nancy notices Dustin’s tears and takes matters into her own hands, joining the other couples – El and Mike, Lucas and Max, Will and some random – and as Joyce and Hopper wait outside, it’s a reminder that ultimately Stranger Things is about friendship and belonging, about looking out for the people you care about, and making a home among those you love – and who love you.
The Duffer Brother have created that home for their viewers, and you can tell it’s been built with love. But, of course, there is that final reminder that the Upside Down is always there, just under the surface, ready to erupt and tear everything apart all over again…
Stranger Things 2 is available on Netflix, as part of a £7.49 monthly subscription. Watch along with our spoiler-filled reviews of future episodes here.