It’s been a year since Stranger Things made its relatively quiet debut on Netflix, and in that time the show has grown from a quirky, nostalgia-filled ode to Stev(ph)ens Spielberg and King to a genuine pop culture phenomenon. Between its awards buzz (and subsequent wins) and Netflix’s non-stop promotional juggernaut, is it any wonder that season 2 was all anyone could talk about?
To be honest I was a little nonplussed by the whole thing. When I first offered to cover the show for this site last year, it was a week or two after its initial release, and I’d heard some good things, but just mutterings. Quiet little comments here and there about The Goonies and IT nostalgia, so I decided to check it out.
In the five weeks I spent covering it, the buzz grew a little bit, but it wasn’t until a few weeks later that the show’s popularity seemed to explode. I liked season 1, despite a few issues, but I wasn’t crazy about it. It was a better-than-average show with a likable, talented cast. But I didn’t quite see what all the goddamn fuss was about. I was looking forward to season 2 because I missed my gang of misfit kiddos, but otherwise? I mean I waited until the weekend to even start watching it…
Spoiler alert: I fucking loved season 2. OKAY!?! I loved it. No, it wasn’t perfect, but overall it took everything I liked about season 1 and made it better and stronger and yeah so. I’m smitten. I am in deep smit. We’re going to spend the next few weeks together covering each episode, two at a time, so fire up the Betamax and let’s go!
Chapter 1: MADMAX
The episode opens, seemingly randomly, with a group of 80s-style punks in Halloween masks robbing a bank. The jump in their van and the driver takes off, with the cops in hot pursuit. The passenger, an Indian girl with big purple hair, seems to be navigating without a map, and as they go through a tunnel, she makes it collapse on the police behind them.
Or so it seems. Really the cops just think it’s collapsed and don’t follow them any further. The girl wipes her bloody nose with the back of her hand, and a number is tattooed on the inside of her wrist: 008.
Meanwhile back in Hawkins, the boys meet at the arcade for some Dragon’s Lair and Dig Dug. Dustin is deeply vexed to see that his high score has been bested by someone named MADMAX, and not only that but the score is SO HIGH the boys barely even believe it’s real.
While they’re squabbling about it, dear tiny little Will (he’s so little!) is transported to the Upside Down. Everyone disappears, and the place looks like it’s from some sort of nuclear wasteland. He wanders outside and sees a storm in the sky, and as lightning flashes a giant monster is silhouetted. It kinda looks like if the things from Aliens and the Cloverfield monster had an unholy lovechild. Real bad, in other words.
Will tells Joyce-Winona, his understandably worried mom, and she and Hopper promptly take him to see Paul Reiser at Hawkins Labs. Paul Reiser?! You’re gonna trust THIS guy!? Have you seen Alien(s)??
He tells Winona and Hops that basically it’s all in Will’s head, PTSD-style flashbacks, and as the one-year anniversary of his ordeal approaches, the flashbacks are going to get worse. Winona is displeased, because this dude is basically telling her her kid’s going to be having increasingly horrific waking dreams and there’s nothing she can do to help him. At all.
It gets worse, because OF COURSE Paul Reiser (known henceforth as “PR”) isn’t what he seems. Down under Hawkins Lab they’ve still got a door to the Upside Down, and regularly soldiers don hazmat suits and burn the tentacles sticking out of the gateway. I mean it seems like pasting a very small Band-Aid on a very large problem, but it’s not like anybody asked me, and PR seems confident that they have it under control.
Famous last words, amiright??
On the more personal front, Nancy and Steve are still together, but Nancy doesn’t seem as into it as Steve is. He’s working on his college essay, but when he realizes he’s going to have to re-write it, he decides to forget the whole college thing and stay in Hawkins to work for his dad. He can be around for Nancy’s senior year, he says. She isn’t super thrilled with that idea.
She reminds him that they have dinner that night, which he forgot, but she says they’ve already put it off a couple of times. Turns out it’s dinner with Barb’s parents (poor Barb), who still don’t know that their daughter is even dead, much less what happened to her. Ugh, suck it, PR and Matthew Modine.
As Steve and Nancy are talking, a blue Camaro comes barreling into the school parking lot. A young girl with red hair gets out and skateboards off, then her blond, mullet-and-tight-jeans wearing brother climbs out and gets ogled by the girls.
The girl is brought to the boys’ science class, and it turns out she’s from California and her name is Maxine, but she goes by Max. The boys instantly realize that THIS must be MADMAX! But…how can that be?! She is…girl?! Girl…no play…video game!!
They follow her, believing themselves to be super sneaky spy boys, but she catches on and leaves them a note to quit watching her. Dustin and Lucas, especially, are gonzo heart-eyes over her, and they come up with a plan to get her into their party that will play out in Chapter 2.
Winona, meanwhile, has a beau! Bob Newby, known in high school as “Bob the Brain” and played adorably by Sean Astin. Honestly, not to spoil anything, but I’m so used to men on TV disappointing me, but Bob…Bob’s a winner. Bob’s your uncle. Good on you, Joyce. You deserve a good man who loves you and loves your kids and works at Radio Shack! He shows up at her job and they end up making out in the back room, and apparently they have a standing movie night but Bob doesn’t like scary movies. Stop scaring Bob, Jonathan!!
Hopper is called out to a pumpkin farm because all the pumpkins are rotted and maggot-infested and gross. The farmer thinks a rival farmer did it, but as we’ll discover in chapter 2, that’s not the case. His farm is infected too, and so are several farms in the area.
Oh right okay I almost forgot: Hops has pretty much adopted Eleven. They live together in a cabin in the woods and she makes TV dinners for him to come home to at night and they have a system worked out if he’s going to be late. Honestly, just…thank you, TV Jesus, for Jim Hopper and Bob Newby.
Chapter 2: Trick or Treat, Freak
Episode 2 fills in some backstory on the year we missed in Eleven’s life. She was spit out of the Upside Down (or sort of birthed herself out of it) only to find the right-side up empty. She went to Mike’s house, which was surrounded by cops, and overheard them telling Mike that she was a liar and a spy. She ran off into the woods and lived on squirrels until she found the box of Eggos that Hopper left for her.
Eventually she and Hopper found each other, and he took her to his cabin. They cleaned it out and got it all set up as a cozy domestic spot, and Hops even set traps outside so they would hear anything coming. They have 3 ground rules, but they basically amount to “Don’t be stupid.”
In the present, Eleven wants to go trick-or-treating dressed as a ghost, but Hopper refuses. He tells her that would be stupid (because someone might recognize her), and they aren’t stupid. They compromise that instead Hopper’ll be home by 5:15 and they’ll eat candy together.
The boys, meanwhile, dress up like the Ghostbusters. Lucas and Mike are both Venkman, which causes some strife within the party. Mike says Lucas should’ve been Winston, but Lucas doesn’t LIKE Winston because he’s not a scientist and he shows up late. Mike says he can’t be Winston because he—whoops. Lucas calls him out and they nearly come to blows, but then Dustin makes a horrifying realization: not a single other student at Hawkins Middle is in costume.
(sidenote because I’m a nerd: did y’all know that originally Winston’s role was much, much bigger, and he had a fancy backstory and everything? They moved his entrance from page 8 to page 68 in the script, and Ernie Hudson wasn’t happy, but it was too late!)
Of course Max isn’t in costume, which makes Dustin and Lucas’s plan seem iffy, but they’re committed. They approach Max in the hall and offer to let her come trick-or-treating with them since she doesn’t have any friends and CLEARLY she wants to be friends with them. She calls them presumptuous for assuming things about her and stalks off. Dustin doesn’t know what “presumptuous” means and assumes it’s a good thing, but Lucas rolls his eyes, humiliated.
Later as Billy drives himself and Max home from school, this lunatic psychopath sees Lucas, Mike, and Dustin on their bikes and speeds up, aiming his car right for them. Fuck Billy, y’all. What’s the point of stupid Billy anyway? Obviously the boys live, but as some sort of pre-teen rebellion, Max decides right then and there that she’s gonna join their party after all.
There’s a montage of the parents taking pictures of the boys in their costumes, which is adorable, and at Will’s Bob Newby is taping the whole thing on his video camera, and once the boys leave he asks Winona to dance and they dance around the living room. He’s also the greatest vampire ever:
Jonathan is supposed to take Will trick-or-treating, but Will talks him into letting him go alone with his friends. Jonathan instead goes to a Halloween party because Nancy invited him. Nancy and Steve are there, with Nancy getting smashed. Honestly she weighs 90 lbs soaking wet, so it probably took like half a cup of punch.
She tells Steve off, proclaiming their relationship and their lives “bullshit.” She’s pissed because she can’t tell the truth about Barb, and she’s sick of being with Steve and his hair. Steve asks Jonathan to take Nancy home, and our lovelorn sensitive creeper tucks her into bed and leaves.
Meanwhile the boys are trick-or-treating—with Max, which pisses Mike off—and some older boys harass Will and call him “zombie boy.” He has a flash to the Upside Down, so Mike drags him away from the others so they can talk. Back at Will’s they eat candy and talk about how weird things are now: Will keeps having his episodes and Mike misses Eleven and they’re both sad and lonely and scared, but at least they have each other.
Mike sits in his basement every night and calls out for Eleven on his walkie. When she accesses the psychic space place with the pool (y’all know what I mean) she can see him. She’s extra upset, because Hopper gets caught up in the Case of the Mysterious Rotten Pumpkins and entirely forgets their candy date. By the time he gets home (after buying candy off the tiniest cowboy in Hawkins, IN) Eleven is in her room with the TV that she dragged in there and the door shut.
He apologizes through the door, but she ignores him. Clearly she’s not going to get over this quickly, and Papa!Hops done fucked up.
Okay, well, obviously it’s a bit of a slow start with episode 1, because we’re kind of reestablishing the characters and the town at all, but things ratchet up pretty quickly in episode 2. Will is seeing the shadow monster more, PR is concerned about it, and there’s the pumpkins. Which are really gross, and the rot has extended beyond the farms and into the woods.
As I’m sure y’all remember, my main issue with season 1 was how Winona-Joyce and Eleven were treated: Joyce being pretty much nothing but Super Mom and Eleven denied any personhood because of her powers. So far Winona’s narrative is ALREADY better: she has a boyfriend and life outside of being Mom! I’m so happy for her!
As for El, Hopper means well, and at least his protection of her comes out of concern for her as a person, and not 011, the lab experiment. He wants to keep the little girl safe, and if somehow offered the chance to trade her powers for her being able to have a normal life, he’d swap her powers out in a heartbeat. For once someone cares about her for her, and not for her abilities.
Which brings us to Mike. I did complain some last season that even Mike, the one who seemed to care the most, was more fascinated by her abilities than anything else. That’s been retconned somewhat, as it seems like Mike misses Eleven his friend and not Eleven the superhero. I mean, on the one hand I’m glad he feels that way, but on the other hand, you can’t just make the old narrative disappear. It doesn’t work like that, Duffer Bros.
In other news, can we take a moment to talk about how my tiny son Will looks just like Bastian Balthazar Bux from The Neverending Story?
Honestly he’s a dead ringer, and that tells me more than anything how much this is Will’s story. Obviously last season we didn’t actually see him that much because he was busy being kidnapped, but this season seems to be a lot more about Will’s journey and Will’s trauma. Of course there’s El and Mike and the other kids, but Will is the connection to the Upside Down, and whatever it is Will’s seeing is the Big Bad for season 2.
In The Neverending Story, Bastian creates Fantastica (or Fantasia in the movie) through his own imagination. Without him, Fantasia doesn’t exist. When the Nothing eventually destroys it (all but a grain of sand), it’s Bastian’s wishes that bring it back…but with a catch. Every time Bastian makes a wish to restore Fantasia, he loses a memory. That part isn’t in the first movie, but it’s in the sequel and it’s in the book. Read the book, y’all. It’s so good.
Anyway. I don’t think Will’s resemblance to Bastian is a coincidence, because 80s callbacks are this show’s bread and butter. The Upside Down isn’t from Will’s imagination (as far as we know, anyway), but it’s possible that through the link forged with Will (remember the end of last season when he coughed up that slug??), the Upside Down is somehow empowered or emboldened, and that without Will it really is just a formless shadow realm.
I mean, we’re only 2 episodes in, so who knows!
Early first impressions:
- I love Max. I want more of her.
- Ditto Bob Newby.
- I hate Billy and I hope he jumps in the quarry or asphyxiates on his hairspray.
- Papa!Hops and 11 are wonderful.
- I love my nerdy Ghostbusting sons!