Stranger Things: Season Two Review
Warning - this review contains spoilers for both the first and second seasons of Stranger Things.
October 2016 saw the debut of one of Netflix' biggest breakout series - it had very little marketing and the cast were largely unknown. It was a show steeped in nostalgia, memories and childhood dreams and it became a massive hit, the atypical water cooler TV show - that show was Stranger Things. Word-of-mouth and decent reviews meant that the show took off like very few before and the second-season order was by that time a sure thing.
Despite a cliffhanger ending, the first season told a decent story from start to end and sometimes you can definitely have too much of a good thing; in the case of Stranger Things this was a real risk.
Season One closed on the bum note of Eleven disappearing and despite his rescue Will was still seeing and feeling a connection to the Upside Down. The intrepid bunch of kids Will, Dustin, Lucas and Mike are getting on with their lives. Being set in eighties is part of the appeal of the show. For someone who grew up then, hearing songs from the time along with cultural touchstones like certain films and TV shows immediately transports this viewer back to that warm fuzzy nostalgic safe place before adulthood came calling. Having the X-Files style science fiction narrative is just the cherry on the top of the cake.
English actress, Millie Bobby Brown, was one of the breakout stars of the first season with her portrayal of the enigmatic, mono-syllabic, scary eyed Eleven; an affected child with supernatural powers. At the conclusion of Season One she vanished after sacrificing herself. Her interactions with the kids group was the highlights of the first season, with them all being around the same age and at the cusp of becoming teenagers and looking at girls for the first time. To have Eleven away from the main group for the most part of this season is a blessing and a curse.
Eleven is being kept in a wood cabin by Chief Hopper without anyone else knowing what he is doing. He is keeping her there for her own good. Hopper is a surrogate father or 'Papa' to Eleven. Keeping her to a routine of sleep and feeding her her favourite food, Eggo's. There are many scenes throughout this first part of the season that show the warmth and love Hopper has for Eleven and is trying to keep her happy although she is technically a prisoner. Check out the scene where Hopper plays some rare music in the house and does a little hip wiggling dance, its hilarious and heartfelt all at the same time.
On the flip side to this father/daughter interaction between Hopper and Eleven is that Eleven is not interacting at all with the main group of boys, which like I mention above is what makes part of Season One so enjoyable. Instead we get a new girl on the block in the form of Maxine 'Mad Max' Mayfield (Sadie Sink), a girl of their age who is a lot more feisty than Eleven and can take the boys on at their own game, beating them at their favourite arcade game. It's interesting seeing the boys move on in their lives, the folly of youth, although Eleven isn't far from their minds as Mike is still trying to contact Eleven through his radio.
The fact that Eleven is kept away from the main group for the best part of seven out of the nine episodes of the series is probably a little too excessive and for me that's far too long to wait. The series starts strong but slow and builds to the eventual reunion of the characters but it ultimately felt a little disappointing.
There is one weak episode in the entire run - entitled 'The Lost Sister', the seventh episode centres around Eleven and her interactions with another character that was at the facility that Eleven was tested at, her name is Kali (Linnea Berthelsen), designated Eight. The episode shows Eleven running around with a rag tag bunch of small time crooks using her powers for no good and getting in trouble with the cops. The standalone episode has the feel of a back-door pilot - one which stands separate from the main mythology and feels remarkably out of place.
Guest stars in the season are 80's centric also. Sean Astin, Mikey from the seminal kids on bikes 80's movie The Goonies is cast as Joyce's new love interest, Bob Newby, who runs the local Hawkins RadioShack. Being the love interest of Joyce puts him at odds with Hopper as he doesn't want Joyce going into any danger. When Bob dies later in the show after a particularly vicious Demigorgon dog attack you feel for him as the others reminisce on how nice he was. It shows how strong the character and Sean Astin as an actor is as a whole package and what he brought to the show. I for one was sad to see him go.
Overall Season Two as a whole manages to meet the expectations built by the first but doesn't exceed them. The narrative thrust of the show is when the gang are all together and not apart for episodes at a time. It's strengths are still evident in its surroundings, time setting and eighties familiarity. There is enough here to give some hope that the Duffer Brothers will continue their good work and that the (already confirmed) season three will bring more of the chemistry and surprise that drew us to the show in the first place.