This review contains spoilers from the first two episodes of Stranger Things Season Two.
Fear not, those of you who were turned off by the first season of Stranger Things’ overwhelming reliance on references to 1980s pop culture (even though you reluctantly watched through its conclusion because you’re weak): Season Two is built of hardier stuff. The first run used its affection for Steven Spielberg to explore themes he adored in his work, like loss and grief, especially when there exists a cavern between the imaginations of those experiencing them.
When people have different tolerances for the fantastic, they cope in different ways, which can make a fundamental divide in society between the open- and closed-minded. Now that the loss and grief has been experienced and, to some extent, overcome, Stranger Things shifts its purpose, offering the same characters dealing with the aftereffects of trauma. One year after the events of the first season, with psychic wunderkind Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) still vanished, friends Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) are reunited with Will (Noah Schnapp, who I’m glad is awake, because the kid is quite the vulnerable little actor) and are attempting to return to normalcy.
That would be all well and good, but then there’s the a cold open promising another numbered X-Kid warping the mind of a cop after a brief but well-shot car chase. The far-reaching impact of the Department of Energy’s experimentation may not be as pressing an issue as Will’s PTSD or the slow-burn stress suffered by Joyce (Winona Ryder) and police chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour), but it’s always in the background, promising more science fiction than the city of Hawkins is ready for.
Throughout the first two episodes, “Madmax” and “Trick or Treat, Freak” (of which the latter is stronger), this promise remains a brief and not-quite-tantalizing-enough innuendo. Instead, both focus on the altered relationships between the characters—during the lead-up to Halloween—that the past year’s toll has wrought. This isn’t solely the impact of what Will went through in the Upside Down; it’s also the minor childhood trauma of losing a close friend when they move away. Mike’s kept Eleven’s secret bedroom hovel intact since she vanished, but this devotion represents a loss that has externalized over the past year.
Mike has become a bit of a rebellious dick, lashing out and adopting some bad boy behavior (or at least bad in comparison to his cadre of nerds); Will has kept quiet, weathering his flashbacks with the same cycle of stoicism and breakdown as combat veterans; and Dustin and Lucas have bonded together, using each other as a support system and arcade games (and a crush on the new girl in town) as an escape. Max (Sadie Sink), said new girl—who kicks everyone’s ass at Dig Dug—add a tiny amount of estrogen to the proceedings while Eleven is away from the group. She accompanies the boys out trick-or-treating, after some surprisingly fun ribbing about the racial politics of group Ghostbusting leads to a hilarious situation bolstered by Matarazzo’s morose delivery.
The best new character, however, is Sean Astin’s Bob. Joyce’s boyfriend, practically an anthropomorphic pair of khaki pants, Bob is simple, sweet, and a wonderful foil to the wired panic of Ryder’s performance. While she’s so good at being frazzled, which is even more effective now that we know from where her frazzlement comes, Astin is equally good at being a warm loaf of white bread. It’s nice that they don’t show them getting together, because it’s not their love story—it’s a story about coping.
Nancy (Natalia Dyer), the only non-mom female character besides Max, has an expanded role, but a seemingly reduced character—she’s only intent on coping. She’s yet to deal with Barb’s death, and her relationship with Steve (Joe Keery) is beginning to suffer. That’s about where she caps out, getting drunk (not well, from a hangover or acting perspective) at a Halloween party that’s perfect for pausing to count all the period-appropriate costumes.
Ditching Steve after their drunken tiff leaves her passed-out self vulnerable to the show’s second ickiest character (after the towering H.P. Lovecraft/Gareth Edwards’ Monsters tentacle monster Will keeps seeing during his PTSD episodes), Jonathan (Charlie Heaton). It is 2017 and I do not need a creep from the Nice Guys School of Unwanted Chivalry, Class of 1984 taking an unconscious girl from a car to a bedroom, no matter his intentions.
Other good intentions come from Hopper, who’s been caring for Eleven in a remote, wooded cabin. They share Eggos, TV dinners, and old movies, which is a reprieve after a series of flashbacks showing Eleven’s escape from the ethereal and blood-splattered Upside Down school. She exits through a tear in the dimensions—the two worlds are separated by a fleshy membrane, with twisted roots of sticky, thin meat tendrils more akin to the bioengineered haunts of a Metroid game than your typical high school horror—then survives in the woods.
Putting Brown and Harbour together was a brilliant move, considering the two are the strongest actors of the pack with the meatiest characters to explore. The surrogate father-daughter relationship is one thing, but so is the idea that two damaged individuals can suss out and fill each other’s hollowed wounds. Eleven gives Hopper someone he can’t maintain his crankiness around and Hopper provides Eleven with structure, maturity and real protection. And breakfast. Lots of breakfast.
Hopper’s had a lot on his plate, as a sickly pumpkin plague has been afflicting local farmers and he’s been attending Will’s therapy. The doctor treating Will is played by Paul Reiser, who is charming, warm, and possibly sinister—like how everyone distrusts their therapist just a little. What are they really up to? There are lots of suspicious seeds being planted, but there’s so much characterization to catch up on that the series can forget to tend to them.
And honestly, that’s going to be good thing in the long run. Refusing to lean as heavily on its aesthetic touchstones and instead delving into its characters is a smart move by Stranger Things, and something I think it will be able to balance soon. The show is slowly becoming as much about memory as it is trauma. Trauma is a bodily response to memory, as is nostalgia. Now that Stranger Things has formed its own memories instead of feeding off those in our world, it takes on a new nostalgia (that for its characters’ pasts) and an ability to effectively engage with trauma that promise greater rewards than its first outing.
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages, and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.