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Going back to strange | Stranger Things, Season 2

The most powerful thing to hit this reviewer after sitting through a second season of the show is the realisation that the franchise is a bona fide interplay of contemporary mythology • 3/5

Teodor Reljic
13 November 2017, 7:49am
Who you gonna call? The kids are once again way in over their heads in the second season of the hit 80s pastiche adventure-horror-fantasy Netflix show
Who you gonna call? The kids are once again way in over their heads in the second season of the hit 80s pastiche adventure-horror-fantasy Netflix show
The stratospheric success of the Netflix show Stranger Things, whose first and full binge-ready season premiered on the global streaming service on July 15, 2016, is not all that difficult to fathom, in retrospect. With an eager band of excellent child actors on their side and a perfect grasp of the 1980s pop culture idiom, showrunners The Duffer Brothers created an adventure show that hit older viewers right in the nostalgia and gave their younger counterparts a spit-polished version of all that was great about those genre classics that tend to be set in the American suburbs and tend to involve a plucky band of kids in their early teens saving the neighbourhood from some supernatural threat, often just out of sight of their clueless parents.

Now back for a second go just in time for Halloween with a nine-episode second season run – in line with its reference points that absorb everything from Stephen Spielberg to Stephen King and John Carpenter and beyond – the heartwarming walk down memory lane takes a darker turn.

Eleven (Millie Bobbie Brown) is still missing after the events of the first season, but Will (Noah Schnapp) is back home following his traumatic imprisonment in the 'Upside Down' – an alien hellscape that lies just under the surface of the sleepy (and fictional) town of Hawkins, Indiana, and which is kept in check by a government facility now under the control of Sam Owens (Paul Reiser), who is determined to take a more conscientious tack to job than his predecessor (and Eleven's erstwhile father figure) Martin Brenner (Matthew Modine).

But the Upside Down is not done with Will. Besieged by visions of a giant tentacular monster keen to make the boy its host, Joyce and Will's brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton)  are placated into believing that this is all just 'PTSD' by Owens and Hawkins' Chief of Police Jim Hopper (David Harbour).

Tentatively bringing a newcomer – Max (Sadie Sink) – into their fold, Will's friends – Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) – are once again drawn into swirling chaos. But they're missing a key power player this time around... a player they suspect might have gone away for good. A player going by the number Eleven. A player who has been kept in a shed by none other than Cooper himself for the better part of a year, and who's itching to go out in the world to settle some scores, no matter the risk involved.

A sophomore season for a show largely built on a pastiche-castle of pop culture references was always going to be something of a challenge to pull off, and 'Stranger Things 2' – the title a riff on the VHS-friendly film franchises it draws from – does have some tempo-related and structural niggles to iron out which may leave something of an iffy aftertaste. For starters, the narrative itself is made to fork into various paths – with Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and Jonathan going on their own quest to vindicate the death of Barb (Shannon Purser) from last season, on top of everything else – so that we don't have the same clear emotional focus of the first season, where Mike had a more central role, and his affection for Eleven was established as the main build-up. And with Eleven lies the second snag of season two. Shoved into the margins and made to play out her journey of self-discovery in what feels like 'extra time' for the show, her segments often feel like they belong to – and deserve – a spin-off show of their own. The most egregious misstep here is a justifiably much-derided episode in which Eleven follows the trail to a Chicago-based gang of misfits... fun on the surface but tonally off. 

However, these turn out to be forgivable niggles for a show that continues to betray a love and understanding of the references that make it, and to zone in on just what makes it all tick. The turn towards horror is a logical step; it helps escalate events in a way that puts added pressure on the characters and it distinguishes this new season from the last. And despite the structural niggles, the hooks are planted well and good... but the best thing about it is that the human dimension is the one that really keeps you watching. While Max and her Kiefer Sutherland-esque bully step-brother Billy (Dacre Montgomery) will need another season to become fully-fledged characters, the redemption arc of Steve Harrington (Joe Keery) is a joy to behold, and his budding mentorship of Dustin is one of the true highlights of the season.

Although, the most powerful thing to hit this reviewer after sitting through a second season of the show is the realisation that the franchise is a bona fide interplay of contemporary mythology. The Duffer Brothers' bare-faced adoption of the mood, the tropes and even the characters of the '80s material they draw on makes you feel like you're participating in a ritual – a ritual of cultural mix and match, where your memories of the past are transmuted back into the present, refreshed in a guise just about new enough to justify its replay.

Stranger Things 2 builds on the success factor of its predecessor thanks to a deft tonal shift. Cranking up the horror elements while still retaining the youthful adventure vibe of the first season, the Duffer Brothers lend an edgier, darker pall over their Netflix show that nonetheless manages to retain the nostalgic pull that is such a key selling point of this hugely successful show. So while it's more Alien and Exorcist than Stand by Me or Goonies this time around, this is a show firmly on track to become a regular binge-watching ritual year in and year out, and has this year provided the perfect accompaniment to the scary season.

Stranger Things 2 is currently available to stream in full on Netflix

Teodor Reljic is MaltaToday's culture editor and film critic. He joined t...