The hyper genre-aware Netlfix show is back with another nine hour marathon wearing the early 1980’s as a halloween costume. If you didn’t like the first series, fair enough – tastes very and I’ll discuss one of the biggest issues I have with the show below. If you did like the first series then you’ll like this one also. Essentially while the characters have grown and the plot advances, the core features of the show are the same. Personally, I was absolutely riveted.
What is different? The initial episodes are slower but more evenly paced. The threat is less immediately obvious and time is spent looking at the after effects on the characters of series one. Eleven/Elle/Jane gets her own plot line that at times goes beyond the events in the town of Hawkins. This somewhat separate story expands the scope (and setting) of the show and introduces new characters and new potential directions but is not the strongest part mainly because it lacks the dynamic interplay of the rest of the ensemble cast. But…well, Eleven remains awesome and as a character she needs space to explore her powers and her own personal morality in the face of her powers.
The strength of the show remains with a great cast with strong characters. Wynona Ryder as Joyce Byers gets to be less frantic for more of the show but still conveys an electric mix of nervous energy and fierce determination to protect her family against absolutely ANYTHING. Above all she is a wonderful antidote to the cliche of the disbelieving adult – as with the first series, she follows the internal logic of the crazy situation with a compassionate ruthlessness.
The younger cast remain brilliant and charming and plausible. The addition of Max, a skateboarding new kid from out of town, broadens the gender mix of the core gang. While among the adults, Sean Astin plays Wynona Ryder’s romantic interest as an adult nerd – which is a handy trait in a show where being a nerd is often a handy superpower.
The show still happily plays it reference games at multiple levels. Given that it is season 2, naturally classic sequels are in play: Aliens, Mad Max: The Road Warrior, and The Empire Strikes Back. Others play out as direct references by characters (Ghostbusters and Dungeons and Dragons in particular), others as knowing winks in the script (Jurrasic Park), others in some of the broader plot structure (elements of Empire Strikes Back), while others are just part of the general blender (It, Stephen King in general, X-Files, base-under-siege episodes of Doctor Who, X-Men) and finally just background decoration (is that a reference to Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles on that window?). Distracting or as Max says when she learns what happened in season 1 “a bit derivative”? I love that aspect of the show but I hope it other shows don’t try to do the same thing quite as overtly. The potential for the effort the Duffer Brothers go to show how clever they are being becoming annoying is high but I’m still finding it entertaining.
Downsides? The eighties setting and the use of eighties genre-conventions means the show tends to assert rather than examine questions around gender and sexuality. There is a tiny attempt to unpack the element of ‘token black character in a group’ with Lucas (Caleb Maclaughlin) when the four boys argue over who gets to be Venkman in their Ghostbusters cosplay but Lucas is better served in this season with more dialogue and more character growth.
A bigger issue for me, and one worth noting if you haven’t seen the show, is that physical, psychological and psychic harm occurs repeatedly to children. This is very much baked into the plot as there are themes of psychic experiments on abducted children, as well as the core characters investigating inter-dimensional monsters. Eleven’s backstory (told in flashback) remains distressing, as does that of a new character. In later episodes there is a psychic possession element to the story that leads to the good guys doing somethings that are very distressing (yes, in context it is to help the character but it’s objectively abusive and I’d rather the writers had found a different approach).
Most creepy part? For me it was the fact that before Eleven gets her Darth-Eleven makeover, she has exactly the same haircut as I did when I was 11, which makes old photos look I was trying to do a Stranger Things 2 cosplay.
I’ve avoided spoilers in the post but I’ll be less circumspect in the comments 🙂