Stranger Things 2

What’s real, what’s not?

The second season of a hit show is always going to feel a bit like the kid sister of a standout student: it reaps the benefit of a good reputation, but is also unfairly expected to fit a certain mold. Don’t get me wrong—Stranger Things 2 ticks all the ’80s adventure monster movie boxes that made the original season so entertaining. But it’s also its own story and should be enjoyed without expectations that everything will be the same as it was. After all, the truly great movie sequels don’t simply try to recreate the recipe of the original—they expand on them, reach deep into what makes the characters who they are, introduce unpredictable new elements, and turn pre-understood notions upside down (series pun intended).

I can’t wait to see where they take their story from here. Rather than wearing out their formula, they’ve proven they can mix new ingredients without losing the magic.

It’s 1984 in Hawkins, Indiana, and one year has passed since a group of middle schoolers and their psychic friend, Eleven (Millie Bobbie Brown), helped defeat a monster from another dimension. With the first anniversary approaching, everyone does the best they can to hold onto “normal” with both hands. But for Will Byers (Noah Schnapp)—who was abducted into the Upside Down and is dealing with some pretty serious PTSD—the nightmare has never fully abated. Meanwhile, his friends and family deal with the fallout in their own ways, unaware that these visions Will suffers with increasing frequency aren’t imaginary at all.

Two excellent character actors join the original cast: Sean Astin plays Bob Newbie, boyfriend of Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) and would-be father figure to Will Byers. The clueless, out-of-touch boyfriend is a storytelling staple, but Astin reinvents the cliché in a way that only he can: with warmth and a surprising core of strength that calls to mind his best-known characters (Rudy, Samwise Gamgee). Paul Reiser of Mad about You fame plays Dr. Sam Owens, the new man in charge of the experimental government lab in Hawkins. Is he a gregarious psychiatrist, trying to help Will sort through his trauma, or an evil guy in a lab coat, much like the Hawkins people were in the first season? The fun is in the guessing.

The first season benefited from a simple high-stakes plot: Will had gone missing, and it was a race against time to save him before something from the other dimension got him first. Stranger Things 2 is more meandering—not fumbling for purpose, but certainly striking into disparate story lines that seem to lack a connection. The early episodes sink deep into the characters and their relationships, uncovering the changes the events of the first season had on their lives. Fear not—there’s a point to it all, but then, for me, that was never in doubt.

Lest I give the impression that it’s all tantrums and navel-gazing, there’s plenty of comedy and monster movie greatness to be had, invoking memories of Gremlins and the original Jurassic Park. Stranger Things creators/writers the Duffer brothers aren’t afraid to take risks with chemistry, mixing up friends and rival pairings in a way that feels natural even while they’re mining it for humor.

Plans are in the works for two more seasons before the Duffers pull the blinds on the Stranger Things franchise, and I can’t wait to see where they take their story from here. Rather than wearing out their formula, they’ve proven they can mix new ingredients without losing the magic.

Stranger Things 2 is not rated, but I would put it in PG-13 territory for scary scenes, crude language, and some implied bedroom stuff.

All eight episodes of Stranger Things 2 are available on Netflix.


All reviews express the opinions of the reviewer, not necessarily the views of Third Way.