A couple of friends convinced me to watch the Stranger Things pilot with them a little over a year ago. I’d heard of the show, but found the trailers confusing; the most substantial thing I really knew about the show was the fact that it starred Winona Ryder, an actress I’ve appreciated ever since watching Heathers and Reality Bites in one weekend (I recommend both movies, but be prepared for Heathers to be a little weird and Reality Bites to be a little predictable). Turns out, Stranger Things was wonderful. Part of its genius is the fact that it is set in the 80s, a decade that produced some of the best sci-fi and fantasy films ever made. It follows a group of middle-school friends–Mike, Dustin, and Lucas–as they find and help a mysterious girl called Eleven and search for their friend, Will, who disappeared out of thin air (into another dimension, it later turns out, dubbed the “Upside Down”). The show also follows Will’s mother, Joyce, and the local sheriff, Jim Hopper, as they also search for Will; and Mike’s sister, Nancy, in her budding love triangle involving her boyfriend Steve and Will’s older brother, Jonathan.
Outside the Disney Channel, Nickelodeon, and PBS, it’s rare to find a TV show about kids, starring age-appropriate actors, that connects the audience both to the characters’ wonderment and the cold realities that they themselves don’t fully understand yet. For this reason, I devoured season one of Stranger Things. By the end of it, I had developed a very low opinion of Steve, had shed several tears over the disappearance of Eleven (and Mike’s incidental despair), and developed a deep emotional connection to the show’s dreamy, 80s-inspired music score, written by composer Kyle Dixon.
Fast-forward to this fall, when I finished season two of Stranger Things in four days. As an avid participant in binge-TV culture, I was honestly happy with myself for stretching it out over four days. The score is just as dreamy, with several new pieces surrounding the new adventures, characters, and big bads of the season. The new characters are interesting and fit into the world of Hawkins, Indiana pretty well. A girl named Max falls in with the boys, and I really appreciate her presence and the energy she brings. She comes along with a truly terrifying older step-brother named Billy, played scarily well as a handsome psychopath by Dacre Montgomery (yes, he is also the new red Power Ranger). Billy, as the creators of the show have often said in interviews, represents human evil, a juxtaposition with the supernatural evil of the creatures that inhabit the Upside Down. What makes him even more scary is how charming and attractive he is, even with a mullet, something that is showcased in his creepy, sexualized, and hilarious interaction with Mike and Nancy’s mother. Billy is cruel to his sister, and most everyone else, and has an inexplicable hatred for Lucas, one of the four best friends on whom the show centers. Billy’s hatred is chilling because it feels racially motivated, though nothing is ever expressly stated, he only sees Lucas once from afar before he tells Max to “stay away from him.” He tells her that Lucas is not the kind of person she should be spending time with; after that, Max knows that she needs to keep Lucas away from Billy in order to protect him from physical harm.
With the introduction of a new person to hate in Billy, the show becomes a champion of the once-douchey, now loveable Steve the babysitter, played by Joe Keery. He and Nancy break up pretty early in the season, leaving him to help Dustin, Lucas, and Max, as they attempt to take down the demodog that has invaded Hawkins. His interactions with Dustin especially feel genuine and unplanned, as they ought to. It’s really nice to see Steve outside of the context of his love triangle with Nancy and Jonathan, in which he is the losing angle, as Nancy and Jonathan have feelings for each other that can’t be trumped by Steve’s hair and charisma. I’m excited to see what season three will bring for Steve, now that his character is defined by relationships with more characters than just Nancy.
One of my recurring thoughts as I watched season two was: why can’t Will catch a freakin’ break? Seriously, the kid is missing and suffering for all of season 1, and then he gets possessed by an evil Upside Down creature (whom the kids dub the “Mind Flayer”) that his family has to literally boil out of him. Of course it’s the sweetest one of the four friends that this happens to: Will (Noah Schnapp) is shy and kind and has the face of an angel. So I guess it’s effective, but I’d still be okay with someone else being the main victim of season three. At least a girl asks him to dance at the Snow Ball, though she does call him Zombie Boy.
Winona Ryder as Joyce and David Harbour as Hopper are great as terrified-but-fierce-as-fuck parents (Hopper is something of a surrogate father to Eleven after he shelters her for over a year post-Demogorgon incident). One of the biggest surprises and saddest moments of the season is the death of Bob Newby (Sean Astin), Joyce’s loveable, techie boyfriend. He shows he’s super brave by venturing into a demodog-infested science facility in order to unlock the doors so Joyce, Hopper, Mike, and Will can escape; he makes it to the lobby and sees Joyce right before he is mauled by a demodog. The decision makes sense, someone needed to die given the upped ante of the threat, and Sean Astin makes you like the character just enough so that his death is affecting.
Stranger Things season two, just like season one, finds a great balance between thrill and humor, sadness and sweetness. The Snow Ball dance at the end is lovely, and the fact that Mike and Eleven are finally there together, after being separated for almost the entire season, is very satisfying, even though Finn Wolfhard is probably the weakest actor of all of the kids. Again, the fact that the show is set in the 80’s is a big part of what makes it so good (The clothes! The hair! The references!) and the progression of the plot feels natural–none of the characters feel underused or forced into the roles that they play. The season feels like an almost-perfect second installment, though episode seven, the one that only follows Eleven as she seeks out a group of scary outcasts in Chicago, is definitely the weakest link. The show plays best when the cast works together as an ensemble, and Millie Bobby Brown’s Eleven is a good character, but not strong enough to heavily carry her own episode–at least not yet. I would recommend the show with a ten out of ten. Watch seasons one and two of Stranger Things on Netflix anytime.