Strange doings are still afoot in the small town of Hawkins, Indiana, when we pick up the narrative thread a few days prior to Halloween in 1984, and a year on from the events of Stranger Things Season 1. With the first four episodes under our belt, we can tell you that everything you liked about that first run is here, present and correct: the ’80s nostalgia (heightened), the otherwordly, alien menace (broadened), the sinister government conspiracy (deepened).
Also back are the cast of characters who are, let’s face it, the real key to the show’s success. That whole “what if Stephen King wrote The Goonies” vibe is fun, but it’s the anchoring, committed performances of David Harbour as grizzled town top cop Hopper and especially Winona Ryder as frazzled, brave single mum Joyce that make it work, along with the seemingly bottomless charm possessed by Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobby Brown and co. as the party of prepubescents at the centre of the whole thing.
This second go-round they’re joined by a passel of newcomers: Sean Astin (an actual Goonie, lest we forget) as Joyce’s pleasantly basic new boyfriend; Paul Reiser as Dr Owens, the avuncular, nebbish face of Weird Science now that Matthew Modine’s more amoral lab-runner is out of the picture; and, most interestingly, Sadie Sink as Max (actually Maxine, but don’t call her that), the tomboy new kid on the block who not only manages to smash Dustin’s (Gaten Matarazzo) high scores at the arcade, but, in attracting the awkward attention of both Dusty and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), hints that childhood will soon be coming to an end for our heroes.
But not just yet – our nerdy protagonists still turn up to school for Halloween dressed as the Ghostbusters, complete with an argument over who gets to be Venkman. The exception is poor Will Byers (Noah Schnapp), who was sucked into the dark alternate dimension of The Upside Down last season and is still haunted by his experiences a year later, suffering apocalyptic visions and, thanks to his weird return from the “dead”, social alienation. Once again the poor kid is the vector for unimaginable evil to infect our world.
It’s actually impressive how many threads from the previous season are picked up and followed – take poor, dead Barb, whose parents we learn are going broke paying a dubious private investigator to look into her disappearance, a turn of events that weighs heavily on lovebirds Nancy (Natalia Wheeler) and Steve (Joe Keery, still perfectly coiffed), with the former particularly guilt-wracked. Meanwhile, Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), outsider older brother to Will, meets a girl who dresses like Siouxsie Sioux – good for him.
Showrunners the Duffer Brothers are also smart not to keep fan fave Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) offstage for too long – her return was shown in the marketing material, after all, and you don’t keep a gun like Brown in its holster for longer than you need to. The circumstances around her return are an enjoyable surprise, and we’d be remiss going into them here. It must be said that her return does undercut her sacrifice last year, but the pay off is, well, more eleven – which would you rather?
Indeed, the less plot disclosed, the better – Stranger Things 2 is wonderfully structured, and even the smallest reveals and moments are delivered for maximum impact and enjoyment. Hell, even the reveal of the Don Bluth arcade game Dragon’s Lair is built up perfectly (If you remember that coin-devouring beast, that scene will have you grinning. You’re also old.). The series is, even after last year’s revelations, still a mystery at heart, even if it’s a mystery couched in familiar tropes and symbols from both the period and the genre.
The genre does skew darker this time out, though – Season 2 is much more of a horror story than Season 1 (and S1 was no slouch in that department). The influence of the great John Carpenter, never far away thanks to the show’s retro-electro score, is even more prominent, coupled here with some Lovecraftian vibes. There’s more gore, more body horror, more of a sense of menace.
More of everything, really. If Season 1 was proof of concept, Season 2 is pedal-to-the-metal Stranger Things – more confidently plotted and staged, darker, with deeper referential cuts and a firmer hand (or two) on the tiller. If you dug the first outing – and a hell of a lot of you clearly did – your weekend is well and truly sorted.