During summer 2016, it seemed like everyone was glued to their TV, phone, tablet, computer, Apple Watch, or smart refrigerator to check out Netflix’s nostalgia-driven Stranger Things, the first show to make you run out and buy Eggo waffles. After more than a year’s wait, season 2 debuted to excited fanfare just before Halloween. But now that the hype has died down, what’s the verdict? Quite simply, it’s bitchin’.
Note: This review reveals a few plot details not shown in the trailers, but no true spoilers.
The self-professed party members are all back together—a year older, a year wiser, but still the awkward geeks we love. Most of them are overprotective of Will (Noah Schnapp) as he tries to get back to normal. Of course, normal will never return to Hawkins, Indiana. Will keeps having visions as his mind temporarily flashes into the Upside Down, causing enormous distress. In the meantime, Mike (Finn Wolfhard), still reeling from the loss of Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), spends most of the season entering his “whiny tween” phase. And Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) begin a private competition for a new student’s attention. It’s easy to think of these boys as mature-ish characters, but their individual story lines prove just how young they really are.
The newcomers on the cast are headed up by Sadie Sink, who plays Hawkins implant Max. Sadie and her step-brother, Billy (Dacre Montgomery), have a mysterious and sinister back story that never really gets resolved. Billy is added to the story as the new human foil, now that Steve Harrington (Joe Keery) has left the dark side (more on that later). Billy is super creepy as he bullies Max, Steve, Lucas, and just about anyone else who crosses his eye line. We also see both Lucas’s and Dustin’s families, including Lucas’s spitfire younger sister, Erica (Priah Ferguson). The biggest “names” added to the cast are Brett Gelman as a quack investigative journalist, Paul Reiser as the new head of the Hawkins Laboratory (an homage to Aliens), and Sean Astin as grown-up nerd and Joyce’s new boyfriend. Bob (another homage to The Goonies).
Beyond the monsters and magic, Stranger Things keeps us interested because of the strong relationships along the way. Sean Astin brings a quirky but lovable persona to the adults on the show; he’s the kind of happy-go-lucky nerd many of us think we would have been in 1984. Joyce (Winona Ryder) gets some sense of peace with “Bob the Brain,” but you constantly wonder whether she and Hopper (David Harbour) will ever get together. The Nancy–Steve–Jonathan triangle gets even more complicated but is so compelling in its nature. Steve Harrington was the non-monster bad guy of season 1 who ends up helping the group take down the Demogorgon—you’re okay with him being alive but can’t believe Nancy continues to date him. This season, we have a complete reversal of character. Steve actually evolves as a person, and you quickly grow to love him. Too often in shows, character development is just lip service, giving someone a new attitude or job but not actually showing a genuine change. Joe Keery does a wonderful job actually changing Steve.
There are a million and a half geeky references and Easter eggs throughout the season—far too many to list here. (Den of Geek has rounded up a ton of them.) However, Minnesotans were quick to notice Dustin’s awesome Science Museum of Minnesota sweatshirt in the first episode, and the response was so strong that the Science Museum has resurrected the shirts, which are now available for purchase online, plus a limited number in the museum gift shop.
All of this awesomeness does not mean Stranger Things 2 is not without its flaws. They do exist, the biggest being episode 7, the—minor spoilers here—standalone Eleven adventure that serves as the only real connection to the mysterious opening scene of the premiere. This is clearly a backdoor pilot episode for a spinoff series about Kali and her band of merry miscreants. The great buildup of suspense and story at midseason is broken up here, throwing off the pacing of the show. If you want to keep your groove intact, I’d suggest skipping the episode and watching it later, just knowing Eleven became a bit of a rebel, learned a little about her strength, and ultimately remains the caring, family-seeking tween she is. Additionally, as any good Dungeons & Dragons player knows, you never split the party! Yet, the show runners are forced to do this to try and fit in a ton of different arcs. Mike has his own story, Eleven and Hopper have their own, Nancy and Jonathan, Joyce and Bob, Steve and the kids, Billy and his car—so many!
Overall, Stranger Things 2 still gets a solid A grade due to its fantastic ability to combine jokes, frights, family, and fun. The further you get into the season, the more you remember how much the show can really be a horror series. So grab a blanket and snuggle in for this great season.