In the first episode of the new season of “Stranger Things,” we saw a mysterious, inflamed storm bearing down on Hawkins. By the end of the nine-episode run its identity had been revealed: Puberty.
That strangest thing of all shared screen time, of course, with the latest disaster to emerge out of the Hawkins Lab, which loosed malevolent vines and “Demodogs” upon the luckless town and again made poor Will Byers, who really has had a terrible year, captive to an otherworldly demon. Hopper almost died at least once, and Joyce was again pushed to the brink by both her boyfriend Bob’s brutal Demomauling and her son’s tribulations.
But the success of the very good second season of “Stranger Things” is largely thanks to the equal tribute it paid to the often scary convulsions of adolescence, whether it was a heartbroken Mike being a pill to everyone or an equFally despondent Eleven shattering windows with her angst.
The nerds left the basement and looked for love amid the monsters, dividing Dustin and Lucas as each pined after the new girl Max. Nancy and Jonathan took their relationship to the next level, with the help of a vodka-swilling conspiracy cupid. Eleven went through a rebellious phase, running away and dabbling in shoplifting as she questioned her own identity, before returning with a moody new “MTV punk” look.
The attention given to their growth and struggles elevated a season that, while suspenseful, was pretty repetitive from a plot standpoint — the lab screwed up, Will was victimized, monsters escaped, Eleven saved the day. For all of the 1980s blockbuster references and “Stranger Things 2” Hollywood sequel marketing, the creators Matt and Ross Duffer clearly get that in TV, investing in your characters what makes viewers invest in your show.
As with last season, the story got going efficiently. Will beheld a tentacled shadow monster in the Upside Down and Dustin took in a slimy creature whose true nature wasn’t revealed until it feasted on the family pet. (“I’m sorry,” Dustin told Dart as he locked it in the cellar. “You ate my cat.”)
Nancy mourned Barb, getting smashed on Halloween party punch and setting out with Jonathan to get proof of the lab’s complicity in her death. At the rustic Chez Hopper, the chief and Eleven ate TV dinners and had fights fueled by past traumas: She chafed at her captivity by a domineering father figure, shades of Papa Modine, while he fretted about losing another little girl.
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Things intensified after Will got terrible advice from Bob about how to deal with monster — basically, face it and tell it to go away — which resulted in the boy becoming part of it instead. The show cleverly played with Will’s connection to the menace, revealing him to be not a “spying” asset but rather a double-agent liability, a threat to manage with tricks and a series of hypodermic needles. (Again: Will’s had a tough time.)
The monster lacked the horrifying, Gothic edge of last year’s Demogorgon. So it was a big spidery storm beast that controlled wicked vines and devil dogs? Or what? And aren’t we full up on smoke/shadow monsters after “Lost,” “Game of Thrones” and probably others I’m forgetting? But its amorphousness did make for some of the season’s most terrifying scenes, such as the moment at the end of the third episode when it invaded Will’s body.
As Will, Noah Schnaap was the linchpin of the season after being offscreen for most of the first one. He was a marvel, by turns heartbreaking, explaining to Joyce the hold the monster had on him, and creepy. (“He likes it cold.”) With his sensitive, soulful eyes and bowl-cutted fragility, Will looks like the result of someone at the Hawkins lab splicing D.N.A. of Elliott from “E.T.” and Danny Torrance from “The Shining.” But by the end he was in full Linda Blair mode, raging convincingly against the space-heater exorcism that eventually set him free (for now, at least).
The rest of the kids retained their power to charm even as the show asked more of them, too, this time around, splitting them into subplots that were more emotionally demanding than last year’s bike-bound adventures.
Finn Wolfhard was prickly and tender as Mike, a boy who didn’t know what do to with all of his feelings, culminating in his meltdown with Hopper. Caleb McLaughlin (Lucas) gave a fine portrayal of a fraught rite of passage: The first time your loyalties are torn between your pals and your crush. As Dustin, Gaten Matarazzo carried entire stretches of the show by himself. His fraternal bond with Steve (Joe Keery) — whose redemption was as delightful as it was unexpected — was maybe the most touching love story of the season.
Millie Bobbie Brown proved that she wasn’t a one-season wonder, telegraphing Eleven’s varying shades of pain with great nuance and holding her own with David Harbour through the push-and-pull of their complex, evolving relationship. (Will someone please wipe her bloody nose though?) And while the kids get most of the attention, the show simply doesn’t work without Mr. Harbour’s and Winona Ryder’s deeply felt performances.
The newcomers were more of a mixed bag. Sadie Sink (Max) was a spirited addition to the “party” (the term refers to a team of players collaborating within a role-playing game like Dungeons & Dragons). Brett Gelman was sublimely obnoxious as the investigator Murray Bauman. Sean Astin’s flair for openhearted, St. Bernard-like devotion was ideal for Bob the sacrificial galoot.
But after Billy’s (Dacre Montgomery) strong Scorpions-fueled arrival, the show seemed to lose sight of what to do with him. By the end he was an unfocused denim-wrapped bundle of rage and tire squeals. (I did enjoy his final episode moment with Mrs. Wheeler, though.)
Then there was the ill-advised detour into a Pat Benatar video. After Eleven went down the mental misery hole with her addled mother, she was moved to seek out the other lab refugee she saw in the flashbacks, and who we saw, in the season-opening scene, using telepathy to thwart the Pittsburgh police. This was Kali, and it turns out she was not part of a robber gang, as it initially seemed, but was leading a crew of misfits on a revenge quest against those who had persecuted her at the lab.
Kali was the Darth Vader to Eleven’s Luke Skywalker, urging her to give in to her hate and draw her power from the dark side of the Upside Down force. While Eleven flirted with the notion, she ultimately realized that revenge meant orphaning others, the way she had been, and decided to head home and save her friends instead.
It was perhaps worthwhile, from a character development standpoint, to have Eleven confront and make uneasy peace with her anger, and see what she might have become had she not found such loving support in Hawkins. But from the on-the-nose opening musical cue — Bon Jovi’s “Runaway” as she was literally running away — the episode was a mishmash of bad barrel-fire ’80s urban cliché and overwrought conflict. It didn’t help that the vengeful and manipulative Kali, with her sinister eyeliner, was a clear callback to “Temple of Doom” (Kali ma!), which took heat even in 1984 for its ghoulish depiction of Indian culture. (Tone-deaf exoticism is one reference the Duffer Brothers should have left in the ’80s.)
Eleven got a sweet makeover out of it, at any rate, returning to Hawkins looking like Trinity from the “Matrix.” She arrived just in time to close the interdimensional gate — did we really need Will to give us this obvious bit of strategy? — and get a birth certificate of her very own, completing her transformation from a gifted but tormented science project to Jane Hopper, a real-live girl with a mother and father. Whatever transpires in future “Stranger Things” installments, she’ll have that going for her.
One surprise was how long it took Eleven to rejoin her crew from the first season. They didn’t get together until the very end and even then, spent only minutes in each other’s company. It was an audacious and unexpected choice, as well as a slightly disappointing one given their shared chemistry. (There’s always next year, I guess, as promised by the final shot of a still-raging Upside Down.)
But it was of a piece with a season that throughout poignantly gestured at that fraught time when we all leave the basement and face life’s terrors and thrills on our own, as glimpsed in the culminating sequence at the Snow Ball ’84. After the four boys assembled on the fringes, one by one they left for new frontiers on the dance floor, with mixed results. (Oh Dustin, your time will come.)
It was a remarkable little scene and the perfect ending, capturing the anxiety, excitement, terror and occasional heartbreak that follows when you leave the cocoon of your party and enter a world that only gets stranger.
A Few Thoughts While We Enjoy a Baby Ruth
• “What’s at the X?” Bob wondered as he looked at Will’s map. “Pirate treasure?” You may recall that as Mikey in “The Goonies,” one of the ur-texts of “Stranger Things,” Sean Astin led the hunt for One-Eyed Willy’s loot. It was one of several fun meta moments this season. (See also: Max dismissing Lucas’s description of last season’s events as “a little derivative in parts.”)
• In the premiere recap I doubted that Dr. Owens was truly on Joyce’s side, as he said, but it turns out he more or less was. I probably should have guessed the Duffers would upend expectations attached to the lab doctors, after Matthew Modine’s evil turn, and Paul Reiser, who played a duplicitous character in “Aliens,” another of this series’ touchstones.
• “Mistakes have been made,” Dr. Owens told Nancy and Jonathan. “You killed Barbara,” Nancy countered. “Abundant mistakes,” he replied.
• R.I.P. Barb, finally.
• Your turn: Did “Stranger Things 2” recapture the magic of the first season? Were you fine with Eleven being away from the main action for so long? How many puffs of Farrah Fawcett Hair Spray does it take you to achieve Harrington-like coif perfection?
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