The following is a full review of the second season of Stranger Things. Available now on Netflix.
When I published my short review of the first season of Stranger Things five days after Netflix had released all eight episodes, I had no idea how big of a mainstream hit it would be. Although House of Cards was the first streaming show to appear as more than just a blip on the radar for television aficionados, Stranger Things seems to be the first Netflix show to hold the attention of western audiences the way the biggest AMC and HBO dramas have in previous years.
Although the first season ended on somewhat of a cliffhanger (in Chapter Eight: The Upside Down), I was never really sure if they were going to make this an anthology series or actually continue with the same set of characters. Ultimately, they did decide to continue the story of the people of Hawkins, Indiana, and that was probably the right decision. Because Stranger Things: Season Two is every bit as interesting, charming, and referential as the first season was. I loved it.
At the beginning of the second season of Stranger Things, Will Byers (played by Noah Schnapp), Lucas Sinclair (played by Caleb McLaughlin), Dustin Henderson (played by Gaten Matarazzo), and Mike Wheeler (played by Finn Wolfhard) are as thick as thieves. But all is not as well as it seems. Will is still severely shaken from the events of the first season, and when we meet up with him here he is still experiencing these so-called ‘episodes’ now and again. He’s not okay.
The rest of Will’s friend group has stuff going on too. They’ve got other stuff to do, at the beginning of the season, than just spending time at the video arcade to play Dragon’s Lair. For example, they start stalking the new girl in school — Maxine (played by Sadie Sink) — because she seems to have beaten Dustin’s record in Dig Dug.
While Lucas and Dustin become interested in Maxine, Mike still very much misses Eleven (played by Millie Bobby Brown) and Mike’s sister Nancy (played by Natalia Dyer) is desperate to expose the truth about what really happened to Barb — her friend who was killed inside ‘the Upside Down’ last season.
That is about as specific and spoiler-filled this review will be. For obvious reasons, I’m trying to keep the plot discussion to a minimum. Obviously, I will have to discuss some elements of the plot, but I’ll try to stay spoiler-free as much as I possibly can.
I am of the opinion that this second season is, at the very least, just as good as the original first season. It is the farthest thing from a disappointment. But I will say that the season didn’t initially grab my attention as much as I expected it to. Although it was nice to see these beloved characters again and meeting some new ones along the way — including Bob Newby (played perfectly by Sean Astin) — it wasn’t until the third episode of the season (Chapter Three: The Pollywog) that I was ‘hooked,’ so to speak.
But once the season has its hooks in you, good luck walking away from it. Sean Astin and Sadie Sink are great new additions to the show, and I loved how this season continued to flesh-out and develop some of the more overlooked supporting characters. For example, I was shocked, at one point in the season, when I realized that Steve Harrington (played by Joe Keery) had suddenly become my favorite character on the show. As you’ll see, pairing Steve up with Dustin is a fantastic decision.
As I started bingewatching this season of the show, I was, admittedly, a little bit worried that the writers of Stranger Things would make the second season spend too much time only on Mike and Eleven considering how popular Finn Wolfhard and Millie Bobby Brown have become since their breakout performances last year.
And, although I do think they actually misuse the Eleven-character somewhat (I thought the way they reintroduce her could’ve been handled better), I was pleasantly surprised by how well-balanced this season was. They all got their moments to shine in, and characters that I thought might be overlooked with the addition of new characters — like Steve and Lucas — are actually given a good amount of things to do.
They could’ve also run into a little bit of a The Hangover-like problem, which is to say that I didn’t really know how well this season would work with Will as more of an active character in the story than he was last season. I liken the situation to that of Justin Bartha’s character in The Hangover series of films.
In The Hangover, the central characters are looking for him for the entirety of the first film, and once the sequels come along they seemingly didn’t know what to do with Bartha’s character. Thankfully, Will Byers is played excellently by Noah Schnapp in season two, and he proves that he can be just as good as the characters we fell in love with last year. The Duffer Brothers ask a lot of Schnapp this season, and he knocks it out of the park each and every time he’s given something tough to do.
But what do we know Stranger Things for? The obvious answer is the way they mix references and nostalgia into a final product that is exhilarating, charming, and, at times, even a little bit scary. The show’s harshest critics would agree with one character this season who, in the show, calls the story of the first season ‘derivative’ and ‘unoriginal.’
Don’t you worry, things haven’t changed. There are Halloween costumes based on Ghostbusters, musical references to Gremlins, ‘training’ sequences resembling The Empire Strikes Back, and entire episodes dedicated to paying homage to James Cameron’s Aliens. The Aliens references are particularly satisfying, especially considering Paul Reiser is a part of this season.
But here is the one problem that I think this season really suffers from: for some reason they separate the season’s two best episodes — Chapter Six: The Spy & Chapter Eight: The Mind Flayer — with the weakest episode of the series yet — Chapter Seven: The Lost Sister.
Barely anything really works about The Lost Sister. It looks completely different than the rest of the show, and I honestly think you could’ve removed this episode from the season, inserted a training sequence for Eleven into another episode, and thus make the season work much smoother.
The Lost Sister almost seemed like a backdoor pilot to a Stranger Things spin-off that I don’t want to see. It, quite frankly, isn’t the same show in this episode, and it is a huge misstep and roadblock for an otherwise exhilarating and intense final half of the second season.
I liked this new series of chapters in the Hawkins story just as much (if not more) as I liked the first season. The second season of Stranger Things is totally tubular. Sure, it runs into a significant roadblock, so to speak, in the seventh episode, but it is just a tiny blemish on another excellent season from the Duffer Brothers and Netflix. Bring on season three, please.
– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen