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Bigger, Bolder, and Still Beloved: Stranger Things 2 Review

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD

In the summer of 2016, Stranger Things, created by the Duffer Brothers, was released on Netflix and almost instantly gained a cult following. Within Packer, polls show that Stranger Things was the most popular show of the summer among students. Viewers were drawn in by the sci-fi mystery, the ‘80s movie references, and the endearing host of characters, played largely by brilliant child actors who are now all too famous for their own good. When creating Season 2, then, the Duffer Brothers had much to live up to.  The second season of Stranger Things opens, briefly, in the city of Pittsburgh, a far cry from the tiny fictional town of Hawkins, Indiana that the first season is solely set in. This is only the first indication that Stranger Things 2 was trying to be different. The Duffer Brothers said that they wanted Season 2 to be bigger and more cinematic, and in that there is no doubt that they succeeded.

The cast expanded, adding the extraordinarily lovable “Bob Newby, superhero,” Kali, the Eight to Millie Bobby Brown’s Eleven, Maury, the conspiracy-theorist drunk who is almost too insightful, Max, the arcade master, love interest, and newest member of the party, and her mullet-rocking bully of a stepbrother, Billy, the “human villain” of the season. Hawkins is bigger, too: there is now an arcade, a rich neighborhood, and houses and families for the once-neglected Dustin Henderson and Lucas Sinclair. The biggest change from Season 1, though, is in the form of the supernatural evil the town is forced to face. In the first season, the scariest threat was a singular bloodthirsty Demogorgon from an alternate dimension, the Upside Down. Season 2? Try a massive horde of half-grown “Demodogs” and a gigantic, elusive, dark entity called the “Mind Flayer,” that attempts to harm Hawkins from the growing Upside Down through the body of local victimized boy Will Byers.

While it can be established that Stranger Things 2 is definitely bigger, that does not necessarily mean that all the growth is good. The Mind Flayer doesn’t seem to have any real motive that we can tell except to terrorize Will or to spread through the town killing pumpkins or to just look terrifying. Some of the new characters seem slightly pointless: for instance, Chapter Seven: The Lost Sister, a stand-alone episode that introduces superhuman Kali/Eight and her band of misfits to Eleven, feels utterly out of place despite its importance to Eleven’s character development and the redeeming factor of her “bitchin’” makeover. Eleven’s roving storyline, too, means that Mike Wheeler (played by rising star Finn Wolfhard), one of the most important characters in the first season largely due to his connection to Eleven, is left without a purpose on the sidelines for much of the season.

The best aspect of the first season of Stranger Things was, arguably, the characters. The best parts of the second season, then, were the ones that played on the strengths of the first. Watching the development of many of the characters established in the first season is just as good as being introduced to them in the first place, and was the true growth that made Season 2 good.

Eleven, of course, becomes self-sufficient and badass, honing her powers and finally harnessing her anger to save the entire town. Her new relationship with Chief Jim Hopper as he steps into a paternal role is simultaneously hilarious and wonderful and heartbreaking to watch as they struggle and thrive together. And, of course, she finally makes it to the long-anticipated Snow Ball with the newly invigorated Mike; their reunion is enough to bring even the most stolid viewer to happy tears.

With Will finally back home from the Upside Down, communicating through speech instead of Christmas lights, the show is able to explore the acting capabilities of one of the youngest members of the cast, Noah Schnapp, and the intricacies of Will as a character. We now see Will interacting directly with his family and friends – especially Mike, who steps in to support him this season – and grappling with PTSD from the Upside Down, violent possession by the Mind Flayer, and an overprotective mother.

The most drastic and satisfying character arc was that of Steve Harrington, former shallow horny jock turned role model, babysitter, and bat-wielding protector once ditched by his ex-girlfriend Nancy Wheeler. Steve goes from being a clueless antagonist to one of the most loved characters of the second season as he helps the kids of the show fight the Demodogs and the Mind Flayer, eventually saving the day just as all seems doomed. His unexpected pairing with Dustin, complete with witty humor and advice on girls and hair, is one of the best parts of the entire season.

The relationship of Nancy Wheeler and Jonathan Byers was fraught with sexual tension from Season 1, and Season 2 saw that pairing play out away from the barrier of boyfriend Steve. The two of them head off on a mission together to expose Hawkins Lab for its role in the death of fan favorite Barb, the short-lived best friend of Nancy, and end up together by the last episode. While this is enjoyable to watch – Nancy seems her happiest and most understood with Jonathan – the Barb storyline feels slightly contrived and thrown in as a favor to the fans. Barb finally got justice, just what so many viewers begged for (#JusticeforBarb), but it doesn’t make that much sense that Nancy only decides to take so much action a full year after Barb’s death, especially after the incident was almost completely swept by in the first season. Nonetheless, the hilarious dynamic between Nancy, Jonathan, and Maury, who they go to for help chasing Hawkins Lab, makes up for the strained manner of that plot thread.

It is difficult, almost impossible, to follow up such a fantastic and loved first act with an equally good second season, but in many ways, Stranger Things 2 succeeded. The second season of Stranger Things could never replicate the novelty and mania of the first, but for such a daunting feat, it did quite well. Season 2 still managed to capture the same sentiment of the adored first season, and despite its flaws, was just as bingeable, thrilling, and enchanting.

Check out Spotify’s Stranger Things 2 playlist:

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