Stranger Things Season 2 Review: Slow to Start, But With a Strong, Emotional Finish

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Being that the first season of Stranger Things is one of those Netflix shows that ended up feeling more like one long movie rather than eight episodes of television, it’s no surprise that season two immediately strikes the tone of a sequel. The show picks up almost a full year after season one, in the days leading to Halloween 1984. Old favorites are brought back in unexpected ways while new characters are introduced in a manner that can only be described as cinematic. As far as what sequels the sophomore season embodies, there are a number from the era it pays homage to. Overall, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom comes to mind, with the show’s tone leaning a little darker this year, as well as the addition of some very annoying new characters (Sean Astin’s Bob, Joyce’s new boyfriend, is stomach churning). In terms of the actual plot, the first half of the season plays like Jaws 2, which is to say not offensively bad, but definitely a little rote. The second half, however, is full-on Aliens, with the show evolving into a big, exciting, rewarding expansion on the slow-burn of the first season.

With Hawkins seemingly back to normal in ’84, the first episodes are mostly about showing the gang back together, minus Eleven, and slowly building toward the ways the town is going to descend into Hell again by the end of the season. Will is part of his friend’s group Ghostbusters costume, though his visions of the Upside Down not only still terrorize him, but are getting worse. What the Duffer Brothers nail right off the bat is how Mike, Dustin, and Lucas, being in middle school, still aren’t equipped to handle these big emotional problems, especially when some new distractions enter the fold. Maxine, or Max (Sadie Sink), has since moved to town, and she’s beaten Dustin’s Dig Dug high score. While Mike is averse to her joining the group, the wound Eleven left upon “dying” still tender, Dustin and Lucas enter something of a love triangle. A lot of time in season two’s front half is spent showing the boys arguing about, well, everything. The problem is, while authentic to how kids act their age, these arguments don’t necessarily lead anywhere narratively satisfying.

The characters outside of the group are also subjected to too slow of a build. Hopper spends at least a couple episodes at the start investigating dying pumpkins across Hawkins. It’s related to the Upside Down’s resurgence, but we didn’t need multiple episodes to get there. The stalling here seems to be present for one of the season’s early pleasant surprises: Hopper took Eleven in after season one, and while it’s too dangerous for her to go out into the world at the moment, there’s a genuine sweetness to this ultimately destructive relationship that’s been built. Eleven is on a quest for answers this season, and Hopper just isn’t the guy who has any of them.

Though while the front half of the season is slow, continuing Netflix’s inability to perfectly measure out how long a season should be, to harp on it would do Stranger Things a major disservice. Episode five starts to pick up, and from episode six on, the season isn’t just relentless, it’s downright epic. Episode seven, “The Lost Sister,” an Eleven-focused entry I won’t spoil here, is the show’s best episode yet, and the two that follow make season one’s climax pale in comparison. So while the first episodes of season two are undoubtedly worse than season one, the last four or so I’d argue constitute the show’s strongest section. I wouldn’t even say it’s close. In these episodes, season two finds ways to root the series’ sci-fi/horror tropes into legitimate emotional character growth. You’ll remember how Eleven, Mike, Dustin, and Lucas became such icons out of the gate last year, and it’ll give you reason to not only root for them, as the threats against Hawkins suddenly seem insurmountable, but to feel for them and with them. And there’s a whole new slew of iconic moments, characters, and yes, Eleven costumes that will pervade the culture all the way through next Halloween.

If there’s one thing I want fans to take away from this review, it’s to be patient. Season two’s bumpy start is undeniably a disappointment. But it not only reaches season one’s highs but blow past them if you get there. And you should get there. The Duffer Brothers have created a cast of characters worth following. After how tough 2017 has been, Stranger Things still provides a warm, thrilling, and emotional dose of nostalgic escapism. But as season two develops itself, the show breaks free of its nostalgic draw to solidify the series as very much its own thing worthy of being iconic. It just takes the scenic route. Grade: B+

By Matt Dougherty

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