Season 1 of Stranger Things rocketed its young cast and oddball directors to fame. The Duffy brothers script was nostalgic yet sci-fi. The horror was campy; the friendships were syrupy; Lucas refused to let go of his common sense. It filled you with dread. It was perfect.
We needed watching suburban life in the ’80s to remind us that you really can get through anything. And although being witness to Barb getting snatched left us shook, watching Will Byers fight to stay alive while his friends tore through time and space to look for him was enough to keep you going. Eleven was the young female superhero we deserved. Punk as can be, those nose-bleeds gave away that she was special. An act that lent pre-pubescent bleeders everywhere cool-cred no one could have imagined.
We all know what happened next. And, now, season 2 is finally upon us, set a year after the first, with Will Byers back in town, and events set to never to be the same. Get ready to binge!
Chapter One: MADMAX
The hype is real. Can Netflix and the Duffy brothers find a way to make season 2 as memorable as season one?
A robbery is taking place. A bunch of teens has stolen something valuable. The cops are on their tail. Then, suddenly, the dark-eyed character in the passenger seat casts an illusion. She raises her fist, says “boom” and the road over the bridge they’d just driven under collapses in front of the eyes of the speeding cop chasing them. He plunges his foot into the brake and swings out. The car behind rear-ends him as his partner screams. The camera pans to the smokey-eyed robber’s wristband where it reads “008” as blood drips from her nose. Another Eleven!
The brothers tend to begin each episode with some kind of action sequence that’s either physical or emotional, and we begin to catch up with the rest of the crew thereafter. Will is back but haunted by visions of the Upside Down. His friends are still budding teens: The show’s writers resisted the urge to age them up inappropriately because of their trauma, thank God. But there are a few hints to a past that’s now a secret: Mike is exhibiting behavioral problems at school and at home and Will is tired of everyone treating him like something fragile, even as the episodes come on stronger.
But what about Eleven? We see her come to in the Upside Down with the feds after her. She makes her way out and back to Mike, but their gaze gives her away. Millie Bobby Brown’s emotional range continues to astound. The crack in her voice when she shouts for Mike is so heartbreaking you feel almost unworthy of it. There’s also a new girl in town named Max— a tom-boyish loner who skateboards and crashes top scores. Dustin and Lucas are enchanted. There’s also a new investigator in town. The table’s been set.
Chapter Two: Trick or Treat, Freak
Being a kid with trauma is its own in-between.
You’ve got to commend Stranger Things for sticking to story when they could have easily ramped the action up to 11 (snort) and given in to the spectacle. Instead, the show is still careful. Chapter two finds itself exploring each character’s trauma. How they intersect and splinter, giving way to growth. The foursome dresses up like the Ghostbusters for Halloween, of course. But no one else in the school does, making the guys look like dorks as prepubescence gives way to adolescence. Lucas’ sister cracks jokes as he slowly realizes he’s enjoying his costume way too much. His mother snaps pictures because the aged know how fleeting unabashed joy is. Mike is over it. He’s moody, missing Eleven so badly he sneaks under his make-shift fort at night and plants signals to her on his walkie: “We wish you were here,” he says. Love has him showing out.
Jim was as shaken by the events of season 1 as everyone else. Don’t let the mean mug fool you. He’s a ball of emotions these days. He’s taken in Eleven and is playing dad to a young girl with telepathic powers. He’s also pining after Joyce (Winona Ryder) with the longing of a George Michael classic as she cozies up to Bob (Sean Astin aka Samwise Gamgee forever). I feel sorry for Bob, because he’s essentially a deus ex machina, providing tension where there already is a ton for seemingly no reason whatsoever.
Nancy and Steve get dark, too, as the guilt of Barb’s abduction nicks cracks in them. Nancy gets drunk at a party and starts pushing Steve for being phony about Barb; for always thinking about himself even when he tries to think about others.
Max, played by a lithe Sadie Sink, have Dustin and Lucas head-over-heels after stealing Dustin’s high score at the arcade, but she’s got a brother whose wild antics puts everyone in danger to deal with and a dark secret of her own. The episode winds down with Dustin and Lucas sheepishly inviting Max out to trick-or-treat. While out, Will gets literally scared back into the Upside Down, and this time he looks the shadow beast nearly in the face before he jets. Mike finds him cowering behind a house. Then, an ashamed Jim comes home late to a promise he made to Eleven about eating candy together and watching TV. A “com-promise” he called it; a half-happy. No kidding.
Eleven puts a black headband —Chuck Norris style— over her eyes and adds some white noise for ambiance as she dives into the black space where she can visit her guy. She finds Mike calling for her just in time to see him skunk away. Being a kid is hard, y’all.
Chapter Three: The Pollywog
The worst advice.
“This time I said ‘Go Away!’,” Bob said, giving Will literally the worst advice he’d ever gotten in his entire life.
The first two episodes saw the pot simmering, but, this time, the damn thing begins to run over. Everyone’s fed up. Eleven is tired of waiting around for things to go all-clear so she can see Mike. Jim is all over the bureaucrat trying to clean up the mess around Hawkins after some thing’s been dipping in and out of the pumpkin crop, leaving gunk in its wake, and Nancy can’t keep silent anymore about her guilt around Barb. But the name “Pollywog” gives it away. See, Dustin found himself the bug that Will coughed up at the end of season one. He’s been digging through garbage cans looking for food, a nascent little monster in training. Dustin takes the little guy to school where he shows the others. That’s when Will comes clean. The thing makes a similar sound to the one he hears when all around him turns gray and becomes the Upside Down.
Meanwhile, Eleven is charging up to the school herself only to catch Mike smirking at a Max who’s trying to be accepted into the crew. She uses her powers to trip Max off her skateboard. This after the pollywog had escaped, sprouting legs out of nowhere and flopping into a bathroom where it’s found by Will. Which is where things get terrible. See, earnest Bob told Will he could get rid of his visions if he just faced whatever was in them. So, transported once again after hearing D’Artagnan (the name Dustin gave the pollywog) scream, he finally turns to face the shadow monster chasing him through dimensions. He screams, “Go Away!” with the kind of hope, the kind of belief, that only youth could provide. It does not “go away.” It takes him over instead. And now we have a story that is both campy survival horror and Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Chapter Four: Will The Wise
Bill is a terrible, awful, no-good villain and so fun to hate it’s unbearable.
The plotting and pacing in this show are starting to frighten me. Why have they hidden Eleven away this long without her character gaining depth? Where is the woman in the beginning of the first episode? And what is Stranger Things without the fraught relationship between Eleven and the gang? Sigh, ahem.
Maybe, when the young girl you’re taking care of has telekinetic powers, you don’t scream at her. Maybe you talk to her calmly, the way you’d whisper to a puppy because she can hit you with books she suspends in the air, then a couch, then blow all the windows out of your cabin. You can’t keep her cooped up in there forever, Jim. That’s what I want to say. But what options does the man have? Things are getting way out of control in Hawkins.
Dustin, too, is changing. He’s betraying his friends over a creature from the Upside Down. He was always the cavalier of the group but now he’s Max crazy and he’s hiding a monster in his room and he’s not at all worried that the beginning of the episode saw Will convulsing on a field while they all watched.
Now, the shadow monster lurking in Will’s bones, he’s a host. He can’t stand the heat, just like D’Artagnan. The thing’s got Will sporting a temperature of 95 degrees. Talk about cold-blooded. Not only that, the monster swimming in him is infecting him with memories. All as Winona Ryder’s over-acting —really, like, a meme from the 90s happening before our eyes— gives way to Noah Schnapp’s most brilliant acting job of the season. The confusion he portrays here is palpable, almost making up for Ryder’s feral eye movements. Actually, I take that back. They’re really a lot of fun.
After asking him to draw what he feels instead of expecting him to have a Ph.D. in the Upside Down, Will sets to furiously inking vines spreading, well, everywhere.
Note: A quick aside about Bill, the hotshot new quasi-villain ruining Max and Steve’s life. He’s doing his best Jared Leto here and I’m not sure how much longer I can stand it. He’s either driving his navy blue Camaro really fast or smoking or peeling out of a school parking spot and he might, hi-key, be racist.
But back to the episode. Max has a falling out with the team. They can’t tell her what they’d gone through last season and she doesn’t understand. Dustin comes home to his little pal chomping on the entrails of his cat. And, Hopper has figured out what vines Will was talking about. Headed back to the farm, he digs straight down until he hits, well, the Upside Down, right under his very nose. Eleven, while cleaning up the cabin, finds a box with documents that leads her back to her birth mother.
Nancy and Jonathan have teamed up again to dupe the witless investigators at Hawkins lab. They get caught and are sent in for questioning. The affable Paul Reiser thinks he can get away with not being cruel so he tells them the truth. The ones that killed Barb and others are gone. He, a scientist, is what’s left. The kids get it all on tape! How’s it all connected? See you next time!
Chapter 5: Dig Dug
You shouldn’t have done that.
Hopper’s dug himself into a hole, dear friends. And guess who’s the only person who can save him? Bob, the Radioshack guy! With a little help from Will and his mom, of course. Don’t you wish you had that kind of nerdy expertise at your fingertips? He figured out the vines were a metaphor for the string of pumpkin patches turning up rotten. He digs and digs until he strikes paydirt, slips down into the tunnels and promptly gets sprayed with something otherworldly. He wakes up to find his way in covered back up with tentacles and no way out.
The things we do for love are sometimes silly-as-hell. And Lucas made the cardinal mistake of telling someone he shouldn’t have the truth about his clan. Namely, Max dropped off at the arcade by her ridiculous kind-of-brother and into his waiting arms. He spills the beans and she thinks he made it up to win her back. Wouldn’t you? All that talk of the Upside Down and a Demogorgon would have had me tripping, too.
Not tripping as much as Dustin, who, after getting his cat eaten by his monster friend, traps him in a cellar with baloney and goes out to find his crew.
None of that stops Eleven from hitching a ride to see her mom. She finds her, makes her way in and proceeds to notice mama has nosebleeds, too. She enters the mind-space to speak with her, but her mother has painful memories to share instead. The man who kidnapped her at birth zapped her mother into a recurring nightmare. It seems revenge is on the menu.
Nancy and Jonathan Byers have also got revenge on their minds and maybe a little romance. She’s hell-bent on burning the lab to the ground and Jon’s going to help her. At the sleazy motel, Nancy asks what happened to him. After what they went through he just disappeared. Things get testy before Jon says something stupid and it’s lights out. The next day, they pay a visit to the investigative reporter Barb’s parents hired in episode one. Played by Brett Gelman, the painfully paranoid Murray Bauman stumbles on to the biggest scoop of his career. I’m envious.
Back in the tunnels, Hopper’s getting choked to death by the previously mentioned tentacles. Bob somehow uses TV show logic to figure out, using the vines that Will has been drawing, which are really a map of Hawkins, duh, that he’s over in the vicinity of the farm. They head over when Will gets a “now-memory,” which is what they’ve been calling his growing repository of the shadow monster’s thoughts, and hit a hard right. Quickly, they hurry down to save Hopper before the feds show up. They finally figured out the Upside Down has spread farther than they could have ever imagined. But before they’re out of the woods, the government begins to burn out the tunnels, which hurts Will and sends him into a state we’ve never seen out of him.
Chapter 6: The Spy
Sometimes, you can’t trust the homey.
Nancy and Jon got it in last night at Murray’s place, which, I mean, finally satisfies that tension between them. Dustin is cool and all but he’s also the worst. His monster homey grew again, then tunneled through a concrete wall and out into the forest. The hunt’s back on. Hopper, Will, Mike and the rest of the gang all ended up in the hospital. Paul Reiser is nipping at their heels since no one knew Will became a conduit for the shadow monster. The Upside Downers have managed to figure out a technique for survival now that their space has been invaded. They began tunneling underneath Hawkins to create more portals to the in-between. Ones the government couldn’t get to.
Frankly, we’re no closer to figuring out what that is. Stranger Things refuses to answer any of the questions it creates. The straight play gives the show credence, but it doesn’t flesh almost anything out. In short, it doesn’t give the show what it needs to feel more like To Pimp A Butterfly and less like Nothing Was The Same. In fact, that’s it, Stranger Things stuck to the script so closely they’ve ended up making season one over again.
You can’t imagine how much I despise Bill at this point. He’s the kind of guy who skips leg day. The kind of fast-driving teen that doesn’t even exist anymore. The internet has made him obsolete. Also, oh, Will has lost his memory. I can’t blame him, but, God.
All this as Lucas and Dustin make peace and prepare to fend off D’Artagnan and friends. And just as they’re about to bite the bullet, the whole gang leaves to spring a trap.
One Will lead the government into. He pretended to know a secret about the shadow monster and sent those soldiers to their deaths underneath Hawkins. “He made me do it,” he says. He’s crying now. The virus has him right where it wants him.
After the trap is set, what’s left for the crew? See you next time.
Chapter 7: The Lost Sister
Why does Stranger Things think it has time for a side quest?
Honestly, who has time for this? Eleven heads out to find her “sister.” You know, the punk, dark-eyed illusionist from the first episode. She finds out she was in the rainbow room with her as children when her mom offered up her memories. Now, using her telekinesis, she tracks her down in big bad New York City. To get there she grabs cash out of her aunt’s purse (the one taking care of her mom) and dips when she overhears her on a call.
The episode gets very predictable, fast. She links up with the crew of n’er do wells in an abandoned building and her sis’ (Linnea Berthelsen) convinces her they need to hunt down the folks who hurt them and the others on her team. But not without a power upgrade. Eight teaches her how to harness her rage to pull larger items. She ends up dragging a train cab for a ride. A makeover and they’re off. First, they rob a gas station on the way to do their worst. She steals so much Eggo that it feels like blatant product placement. When the shopkeep comes out of the bathroom with a gun drawn, Eight delivers a freshman philosophy speech on ethics, arguing they aren’t stealing from him, but the billionaire capitalists who exploit his time for bullshit wages. Eleven finishes him off with a psychic push into a wall. She almost kills him before she realizes he has two daughters.
Back at the hideout, Eight explains how she lost her Jim and turned vigilante. She tells Eleven she needs to make a choice: avenge her mom or go get her friends. Guys, I could have done without all of this rubbish. This episode is so contrived that it spits in the face of the greatness that was the first season and the first four episodes of this one. We get it. Wounds, the shadow monster, the Upside Down are all connected, but how?! Eleven needs to go check up on her team and fast. Without that dynamic, the show festers and stumbles into a pit of despair. Millie Bobby Brown also out acts the rest of this episode’s cast by a country mile.
Eleven ends up back on a bus to Hawkins; her brief sojourn is finally over and we can get back to business.
Chapter 8: The Mind Flayer
Loyalty, Loyalty, Loyalty
In a twist absolutely no one saw coming, Bill’s got an abusive father who calls him a faggot and smacks him up when he loses track of his sister. Toxic masculinity needs to be wiped from the face of the Earth. At the end of his beating, he drops a tear and I almost feel bad for him, except for the fact he takes his anger out on everyone around him. But forget about him, this is Bill’s moment! The compound has gone into complete lockdown after the power has gone out. The only person who can reboot the computer and open the doors is Bill because he’s a nerd and knows visual basic.
The two crews link up back at the compound with Nancy and Jon sporting each other and the other crew arguing over who broke the party rules. Steve is not amused. Back in the compound, Bob gets it done. He opens the doors and allows Jim to guide the others out. Oh, and they had to sedate Will because he’s a spy for the shadow monster. Bill, because he’s a dweeb (or just a regular guy), forgets his gun in the basement with his computers. He dies horribly. Jim makes sure everyone gets away while the monsters feast on Bob. Samwise always gets a raw deal.
Everyone escapes back to the Byers house.
And now Stranger Things decides to get back to its core: fantasy. They figure out whatever is controlling Will is a hive mind virus that’s using him to spy on his friends; on the town. They place Will in a place where he doesn’t know who he is to throw the shadow monster off. To do this they draw an analogy between whatever’s controlling him and the Mind Flayer, a character that serves as a manual for what they’re facing. Now, tied up, he’s getting psionic powers of his own. The lights flicker on and off as his rage consumes him.
They feed him memories as he feeds them morse code. The scene is as touching as the plot point is convoluted. The phone rings and Will hear’s it. They sedate him as he gives away their position. The demo-dogs show up, but so does Eleven. Finally!
Chapter 9: The Gate
A lot more Eleven
The season finale is here! You made it! You’ll be happy to know that Eleven walked right past Max like the interloper she is. Here we go.
Winona Ryder keeps trying to ruin this, guys, but the rest of the cast won’t let her. The team puts it together that if they kill the Mind Flayer then Will dies, too. To stop that from happening they have to take him somewhere he doesn’t recognize and drive the virus from his body. It likes to be cold, they need to heat him up. Eleven and Jim head to the hive and Jonathan takes Will to their spot. That’s when the foursome hatches a plan: maybe they can buy Eleven and Jim some time if they can distract the demodogs and clear path. Then, Bill shows up.
Steve meets him at the door and they throw down. Bill lives for this and gains the upper hand before Max sedates him and threatens him with castration if he won’t leave them alone. The team of Jonathan, Nancy, and Ms. Byers take Will back to Jim’s cabin where they turn up the heat. On the other side of town, their zoomer, Max, grabs the keys and drives her brother’s car to the tunnels. They’re going to start their fire whether Steve likes it or not.
The heat starts to work on the Mind Flayer as Will’s brother Jonathan starts to freak out about how it’s killing him. Will suddenly gets one arm free and starts choking out his mother. At the same time, the guys start to set the tunnels on fire, which really starts driving this thing wild. Suddenly, his mom in danger, Jon pokes his brother with a hot poker. Will is saved, maybe! The Mind Flayer leaves him in the lurch. Viruses are so selfish.
Now the final showdown. Eleven needed that power up because now she channels her entire life into closing this gateway. She eventually goes full Tetsuo, floating off into the air, using both hands, screaming at the top of her lungs. It closes and lets her know it’s all over.
It looks like the tape got out and, embroiled in scandal, the army is forced to leave Hawkins. Just in time.
Thankfully, the season ends on a personal note. They meet up at the school’s winter dance, or, The Snowball. Dustin is the show-stopper on the boy’s side, rocking a bow-tie, jacket, and suspenders with hair big and gelled like Steve’s. Lucas immediately links up with Max. Will gets to dance as a girl approaches him. Mike is hanging back, waiting for Eleven, but Dustin’s the odd man out. After a few girls turn him down, though, Nancy rescues him with a dance that sets the night on fire. Eleven shows up and Mike is made whole. If only the The Mind Flayer would mind his business. On to season three!