There is a special challenge in generating a successful sequel. You have to delicately balance the desires and demands of your fans, while also giving them something new. In season two of Stranger Things, The Duffer brothers deliver a beautiful follow-up that is, arguably, even better than the first season. As any tantalizing finale should, the first season of Stranger Things left us with a myriad of lingering questions. “Is the gate to the Upside Down still open?” “What happened to Eleven?” “Where are the kids numbered 1-10?” “Oh God, is Will vomiting inter-dimensional slugs into his sink?” “Will Dustin’s teeth finally come in?” Blissfully, these questions are all answered by the end of the first episode of season two; there aren’t many resolutions we must await. We begin almost a year after Will’s rescue from the Upside Down, and Eleven’s apparent disappearance into it. Back in Right-Side Up Hawkins, things are relatively quiet. Naturally, our characters are still dealing with some fallout from season one. Will is plagued by periodic “episodes” that seem to transport him, psychically, to the Upside Down. Every night for about 350 days, Mike tries to contact Eleven via his walkie-talkie. Hopper is visited by a reporter investigating the conspiracy surrounding the disappearance of Barb Holland, before he’s called about an attack on local crops that make pumpkins look suspiciously like hatched xenomorph-eggs.
Nancy struggles with her guilt over Barb’s death, and finds herself resenting Steve’s willingness to keep Barb’s parents in the dark. The folks at Hawkins Labs are in damage-control mode. With Dr. Brenner gone, the lab is freshly re-staffed with doctors and technicians who provide after-care for Will and manage “weeds” coming from a glowing crack in the wall of the lab. While the first season takes its greatest influences from Poltergeist and E.T., season two veers much darker, taking its primary cues from Aliens and The Exorcist. The casting of Paul Reiser as company-man Dr. Sam Owens, Will’s primary doctor at Hawkins Labs, is a particularly smart move. Late in the season, you’ll also find an episode laden with references to Frank Morrison’s graphic-novel The Invisibles, and the episode titles are littered with references to favorites from the eighties and nineties, including “Mad Max” and “Dig Dug.”
It’s not much of a spoiler to reveal that Millie Bobby Brown’s Eleven is back this season. By the end of the first episode, we learn that Hopper’s Eggo-bait in the woods worked; he’s been taking care of Eleven in his house in the woods for the last year. While this is a slight spoiler, I’d be remiss in not mentioning it, as the relationship between Hopper and Eleven is really at the heart of this season. Indeed, season two is all about fathers, both biological and surrogate. With the exception of Lucas’ father, who only appears in one scene, biological fathers this season are either absent, incompetent, or abusive. Meanwhile, surrogate and accidental fathers abound. Joyce’s new boyfriend tries to act as a father-figure to her children, who dismiss him as a dork. Steve becomes a reluctant mentor to Dustin, who is himself grappling with the difficulty of caring for an unusual new pet. However, Hopper and Eleven’s growing bond and persistent difficulties are central. Hopper indulges Eleven’s love for waffles and television and gives her a new word to learn every day, only asking that she stay in the cabin and refrain from contacting anyone else. Eleven, like many pre-teen girls, is defiant and moody. She’s desperate to see Mike, curious about her origins, and she’s haunted by memories of her life in the lab with “Papa.” Hopper does nearly everything wrong and Eleven rarely reacts appropriately to disappointment, but their love for one another is undeniable. Any father of a teenage girl, even one without telekinesis, should relate.
In addition to the aforementioned casting of Paul Reiser, season two adds a number of new characters, new-girl Max being the most prominent. Played by Sadie Sink, Max has just moved to Hawkins from California. She likes video games and skateboarding, and quickly grabs the competing attentions of Dustin and Lucas. Max’s stepbrother Billy, played very well by Dacre Montgomery, manages to be menacing while also wearing double-denim and blasting Scorpions from his Camaro. Brett Gelman plays Murray Bauman, the conspiratorial investigator hired by the Hollands. The wall where he charts evidence related to Barb’s final day on The Right-Side Up is likely to remind viewers of Rustin Cole’s storage locker in the first season of True Detective. We are also introduced to a young woman named Kali, also known as “Eight,” and Priah Ferguson is hilarious as Lucas’ little sister, Erica. If the social-media hive-mind gives any indication, this season’s favorite newcomer is Sean Astin’s Bob Newby, Joyce’s new boyfriend. “Bob the Brain” is ridiculously likable. He clearly adores Joyce, and apparently has since high school. He wants nothing more than to be supportive of her and her boys as Will’s condition becomes more dire; he comes armed with an intensive knowledge of computers and Hawkins geography, and a seemingly endless supply of dad-jokes.
Our original characters are still stellar, with many getting much needed growth and development. Winona Ryder still shines, but as a stronger and more focused Joyce. Caleb McLaughlin, as Lucas, gets much deserved screen-time, as does Noah Schnapp’s Will. While he was central to season one’s plot, Will didn’t get much to do or say. In season two, we see him deal with the ongoing trauma of his disappearance, the bullying taunts of “zombie boy” from his classmates, his desire to be treated normally by his family and friends, and the growing sense that the Upside Down never completely left him. It requires an actor who can handle the emotional and physical labor involved with such a performance, and Schnapp does a beautiful job. The only returning character who, to my liking, doesn’t receive a particularly fair treatment this season is Dustin. Gaten Matarazzo is fantastic, of course, but the Dustin B-plot involving the ongoing care for his “pet” is a bit silly. It does bring him together with Steve, however, who had my favorite growth this season. Steve is back with his nail-covered baseball bat, and all of his best moments come late in the season, when he’s forced into the role of monster-hunting babysitter.
The Duffer Brothers clearly paid attention to the fans as they constructed this season. Only a week after the premiere, they’ve already confirmed the return of Priah Ferguson, so we can feel confident that they will keep paying attention. My favorite gems of the season: Mr. Wheeler’s hilariously nonsensical contribution to a dinner conversation, the boys arguing over who ought to be Winston in their Ghostbusters group costume, and Eleven watching Erica Kane on All My Children. If you’re looking for a season two equivalent of the Eggo waffle, it’s going to be Three Musketeers bars. Indeed, I foresee a future of premiere parties all over America, featuring various waffle-nougat confections. We have at least a year to prepare.
Erin Wilson holds a Ph.D. from the University of Missouri and is a Visiting Affiliate Assistant Professor of literature at Loyola University Maryland. Her research and writing concerns 19th-century British literature, medical humanities, horror studies, and representations of the body in literature and film. Erin runs a blog, Night of the Spoiler, in which she spoils movies so that her friends who don’t get out much can pretend they’ve seen them. She can be followed on Twitter at @benadrowsy.