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Spoiler-Free Review: Stranger Things Grows and Changes in Season Two, But It’s Still Got All the Same Heart

Stranger Things 2 production still, courtesy of Netflix

NB: This is the spoiler-free review, so if you’ve got an insightful comment about the show to share that also contains spoilers, please post it at the spoilerific discussion instead. Not everyone could mainline the show in one go, and plenty of readers – like me! – work on the weekends and won’t get to the show right away. So let’s not ruin it for each other, yeah?

It was always going to be impossible for the second season of Stranger Things to capture the same magic as the first, in part because of how slow-burning that first season’s success was. It’s more fun to discover a new treasure than it is to catch up on the hype machine, and that’s something the showrunners can’t control. However, the good news is that Stranger Things 2 is still pretty awesome. What flaws it has are very similar to those of the first season, and while the plotting can feel too easy or slow, the characters’ surprising growth and touching relationships more than compensate. All in all, it was a real delight to return to the weird, small world of Hawkins, Indiana.

As with the first season, the saving strength and beating heart of Stranger Things 2 is its killer ensemble. There’s a reason that Season One won the Emmy for casting; from new discoveries like Millie Bobby Brown to established names like Winona Ryder, the cast is just excellent. Noah Schnapp, who plays Will Byers, was perhaps the only unknown, moving from his largely off-screen role in Season One to being the centerpiece of Season Two – but he’s just as remarkable as the other young actors here.

Luckily, the Duffer brothers seem to recognize how lucky they are with this ensemble, and they play off the strength of their cast by shuffling the characters around in new relationships. This is easily the smartest storytelling choice they make in the second season, and it’s a huge part of why the whole thing works. Both poignant and funny, the new relationships between Hopper and Eleven, Steve and Dustin, Nancy and Jonathan, Lucas and Max, all deepen and round out the characterization of our favorites from Season One.

The second season also introduces some new characters: Bob, the boyfriend of Joyce Byers; Max, a skater girl-pinball wizard who’s recently moved to Hawkins from California; and Billy, Max’s bullying, preening older brother. While I thought Bob served his part quite well, Max and Billy still felt like they needed more fleshing out. Max starts out feeling like an amalgam of “cool nerd girl” tropes, and though the show gives her some surprising and interesting moments with Lucas, I wanted a bit more from her as a character. It’s something I’m confident they’ll fix in Season Three as she grows, but she felt just a bit shortchanged in some of her scenes and dialogue.

Plotwise, Stranger Things 2 does rehash a lot of the general beats from the first season – and this is one of those decisions where you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Some fans of the first season will be annoyed by the repetition, wishing for more growth; others will enjoy how it captures that same feeling they loved and avoids going off the rails. There’s more of Joyce Byers’ detective work, more bashing aliens with the nail-studded bat, more of the kids desperately hiding their activity from their parents, and more of the small-town, MacGyver-style weapons-making and trap-setting. As in the first season, the U.S. government continues to pursue a plot-convenient mix of inescapable surveillance and inexplicable negligence.

However you feel about the plot beats overall, though, they definitely get off to a slow start. The first few episodes feel slow; now that we know what the Upside Down is, there’s less propulsive mystery than in the first season, and a few of the plotlines end up treading water for an episode or two. The cast keeps it entertaining, but in a season with only nine episodes, you’re immediately aware when something’s filler.

The latter part of the season, though, is truly, truly excellent. Chapter Eight, “The Mind Flayer,” is easily one of the series’ best episodes. It’s exciting, it’s emotional, and even though you know which general beats are coming, it manages to be genuinely tense and surprising.

I watched the series relatively quickly, in three batches of three over the weekend, so my review is admittedly influenced by my methods. But I enjoyed the hell out of this season. Even when I recognize the flaws of Stranger Things 2, I’m so invested in these characters and these performances that I couldn’t help loving it. As it expanded the series mythology and stakes, Stranger Things 2 still held on to its thematic smallness. This is a show about interdimensional monsters, sure. But it’s most importantly a show about small-town people and lost kids who are trying to survive in a big, scary world. And as long it keeps the focus on those people, it’ll continue to be a must-watch show.

(Featured image via Netflix)

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