The famously binge-worthy Netflix original series “Stranger Things” returned with its second season Oct. 27. In nine hour-long episodes full of creepy imagery, romance, suspense, friendship and ‘80s music, “Stranger Things 2” successfully leaves as strong of an impression as its predecessor.
Taking place exactly one year after the end of the first season, episode one opens on the seemingly-normal Hawkins, Indiana, preparing for Halloween. The four eighth grade boys at the center of the show, Will (Noah Schnapp), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) and Mike (Finn Wolfhard), seem to have recovered from the traumatic events of season one, and they’re back to riding bikes and hanging out at the arcade together. Will and Mike are the only ones who still show signs of trauma from last year’s dangerous adventure — Mike misses Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) so much that he’s been calling her on his walkie-talkie every night since she disappeared. Meanwhile, Will is having hyper-realistic “flashbacks” to his time in the dark, toxic dimension known as “the Upside Down,” which were more serious than anyone could have predicted.
Will and Mike’s older siblings are also still recovering from last year. Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) tries to support Will as much as he can, despite Will’s insistence that he doesn’t want to be treated any differently. Nancy (Natalia Dyer), Mike’s sister who’s still dating pretty-boy Steve (Joe Keery) but might be harboring latent feelings for Jonathan after their experiences together last year, has dinner with the hopeful parents of her dead friend Barb (Shannon Purser) every month while hiding her knowledge of Barb’s death from them.
Will’s protective, anxious mother Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) and police chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour) aren’t exempt from post-traumatic stress either. Hopper remains suspicious and hostile toward the scientists at Hawkins Lab and listens to leads that other cops in his department brush off, thinking they might be evidence of more wrongdoing from the lab. Joyce remains hyper-vigilant of her younger son and takes him to “therapy sessions” at Hawkins Lab after his “episodes,” which are happening more and more frequently.
Eleven isn’t forgotten, of course. In fact, she plays one of the largest parts in “Stranger Things 2,” even getting an entire episode centered around her. Her main struggle this season is finding out who she is and whether or not there’s a place she can truly call “home.” Her relationship with Hopper is one of the most interesting aspects of the new season and watching it develop is an emotional roller coaster.
As much as audiences will love seeing these familiar faces, “Stranger Things 2” introduces a few new ones, such as Murray Bauman (Brett Gelman), an eclectic former reporter from the Chicago Sun-Times, and Kali (Linnea Berthelsen), another girl with supernatural powers who also grew up at Hawkins Lab. One of the more central new characters is Bob Newby (Sean Astin), Joyce’s kind and loveable — if not sometimes awkward — love interest. His skills as a technologically savvy Radio Shack employee are incredibly useful at some points in the season, and his love for the Byers is genuine and unconditional — a pleasant change for them.
Arguably the most relevant new character is tomboyish redhead Maxine “Mad Max” Hargrove (Sadie Sink), a new girl in Hawkins Middle School’s eighth grade class. She’s a rough-around-the-edges, skateboarding arcade wiz who endures abuse from her new older step-brother, Billy (Dacre Montgomery). While Dustin and Lucas warm up to her immediately, it takes Mike somewhat longer — he feels the other boys are using Max to replace Eleven in their friend group.
There are themes in “Stranger Things 2” that carry over from the first season, such as mistrust of the government scientists at Hawkins Lab, concern for Will and the unbreakable friendship between the four boys. However, some elements that were subtle undercurrents in season one are now at the forefront in season two — for instance, romance plays a much larger role than it did before, though it thankfully isn’t the focus of the show. Additionally, the child actor’s skills have clearly improved this season. Schnapp, 13, is particularly talented, delivering diverse emotions with such believability that he’s both heartbreaking and genuinely frightening at points.
Despite these upsides, not everything is perfect with “Stranger Things 2.” The new characters remain vastly underdeveloped until the final episodes of the season, particularly Max. Also, Will once again spends most of the season either unconscious or in severe emotional distress, simultaneously showcasing and wasting Schnapp’s considerable acting skills. The love triangle between Steve, Jonathan and Nancy is also an overdone cliche that, while executed pretty well in this case, isn’t necessary to the plot.
A whirlwind of shadows, suspense and classic ‘80s tunes, “Stranger Things 2” is a worthy successor to the original season and will no doubt have viewers sitting through nine straight hours of episodes because they can’t stop watching.
“Stranger Things 2” is available to stream now on Netflix.