Like the gate to the Upside Down, the Duffer Brothers have realised that once you open a door there’s no closing it. There’s no going back to the simplicity and optimism of Stranger Things season 1, there’s no returning to how it was before Will disappeared. You can’t ignore the oppressive influence of the Upside Down, and you can’t shy away for the ramifications it has over Hawkins, its inhabitants, and how it changes the way we understand our dimension. Yet Stranger Things season 2 resists the temptation to descend into doom and gloom, instead giving us a portrait of hope (although it’s difficult to see until the end is almost within sight).
Going home is never as easy as you think. Returning back to those familiar places forces you to decide whether you still belong or not, but no matter what conclusion you come to, it will always have a hold over you. Similarly Stranger Things takes the brave step of confronting the hold the Upside Down has over Hawkins, and how impossible it is to escape the fact that things are about to get very dark. Breaking the first rule of a good horror movie - don’t show the monster - comes naturally to the dazzlingly ambitious plot, because the season understands that the more we see of the Upside Down and its denizens the less we understand it. We might know what it wants, but Stranger Things isn’t interested in telling us why just yet - testing the people of Hawkins is more important. All we know is that Eleven is back, Will is still connected to the Upside Down, and Hawkins is slowly being contaminated by it. Just like the first season, developing its characters is where this series shines. It’s simply astonishing how much season 2 puts them through, and how strong they come out the other side.
Initially a lot of season 2’s story is about damage control - what I’m about to go into here isn’t anything you won’t already have worked out from the trailers, but if you really don’t want to know even these minor plot details, feel free to skip this paragraph. David Harbour’s reticent Hopper is more invested than ever in his town’s safety, and he’s trying to keep the story behind Barb’s disappearance quiet alongside Dr Owens (played by Paul Reiser), the official put in charge to tidy up the mess caused by Hawkins’ Lab in season 1. Their efforts are being slightly curtailed by Nancy’s guilt - unsurprisingly, she isn’t over Barb’s death - who’s having trouble keeping what happened bottled up, and Natalie Dyer does a great job at showing just how on-edge Nancy is. Plus, the Jonathan/Steve/Natalie love triangle is back, yet Charlie Heaton’s Jonathan nicely avoids the teen angst he was slightly susceptible to in the first season. But the cover-up isn’t all they, or the rest of Hawkins, has to worry about. Will is starting to get visions about a malicious entity from the Upside Down spreading its influence throughout Hawkins, and the race to save the town becomes gradually intertwined with his own fate.
Dungeons and Dragons teaches us to ‘never split the party’, because you’re more vulnerable alone. Yet our main characters go their separate ways. At first it’s jarring. Their humour and palpable affection for each other propelled the first season onwards, and you’ll probably miss it at first. But when they split up, my god do they flourish. Lucas ditches the machismo in favour of humility and understanding, with Caleb McLaughlin perfectly depicting the prepubescent struggle to bring down his defences. That someone is Max, who treads water in her frustrating liminal space as a friend being tested. Sadie Sink does biting comebacks and sarcastic humour incredibly well, yet her scenes with her step-brother Billy (played by Dacre Montgomery) give her room to portray Max’s quiet, learned fear.
On the other, more serious side of things, Noah Schnapp effortlessly falls into Will’s tendency to disassociate from his surroundings without coming across as passive, but is also able to project an animal ferocity in certain scenes which you wouldn’t expect. Winona Ryder’s Joyce has also learnt from the first season and grown, with Ryder imbuing Joyce with a newfound confidence to take things into her own hands instead of relying on Hopper to find answers for her. Giving us a break from the high-stakes, unnerving scenes featuring Will and his much angrier mom, is Dustin and Steve Harrington’s surprising, but particularly welcome friendship. Gaten Matarazzo and Joe Keery have an easy-going repartee, with Matarazzo showing how easily Dustin swings between being comedic relief and an unintentionally supportive presence for Steve, who has to navigate a different, estranged role in comparison to the first season.
But Mike is the biggest surprise. It’s as if losing Eleven has sapped all his goodness, making Mike cruel, delivering sharp outbursts which Finn Wolfhard executes with aplomb. As for Millie Bobby Brown’s Eleven… Brown is still unmatched when it comes to depicting Eleven’s tendency to evaluate every lesson she’s taught. Her acting convinces us of Eleven’s difficult position of being ignorant of the real world, yet also knowing more than anyone else about the darkness within Hawkins. Brown holds her own and doesn’t lose that kernel of what makes Eleven a survivor: her curious, cautious, but occasionally violent stubborn streak.
Hawkins has become somewhere very different since the first season. Despite the higher stakes, it doesn’t fall into the trap of becoming more about plot twists and blockbuster moments. The Duffer Brothers clearly understand that their audience wants character arcs, heartfelt moments, and a decent dose of horror - and boy, did they deliver. It’s similar to the first season in the love its characters have for one another and the journey they go on together. At points their actions are even cyclical, repeating motifs from the first season that’ll give you an odd sense of déjà vû. The same sensation you’d probably feel if you came face-to-face with the Upside Down, come to think of it... But this time the story leans into the menace exuding from the Upside Down, how pervasive it is, and how the characters fight its threat to Hawkins. Season 2 might feel different, yet it retains the character-driven spark that gave Stranger Things its pedigree in the first place. Simply put, Stranger Things season 2 lives up to the hype.