Stranger Things 2 review: Eleven and the gang are back — for a bigger, better adventure
It’s finally here! After what felt like the longest 15 months since season one dropped on Netflix, the town of Hawkins, Indiana, its residents (Joyce Byers, Sheriff Jim Hopper, Will Byers, Mike, Dustin, Lucas, and Eleven), and their quirks/favourites (Eggos!) are back in our lives once again, and everything feels right with the world, even when it’s upside down!
Stranger Things 2 (it’s a sequel, mind you, not a second season per se) released on Netflix yesterday, and everything we loved about the first series — the friendships, the ’80s nostalgia, the small-town atmosphere, the genre storytelling, and the many movie and board/arcade game homages — is back again; only this time, it’s bigger and (in some ways) even better than before. Some of you may have finished bingeing it already, but I know that many of you are still probably watching it (at a viewing party with friends, or just curled up on your couch eating a box of Eggos — or any other frozen waffles), so I’ll keep my review fairly spoiler-free; where there are spoilers, I’ll call it out in big font, I promise. All right then, here goes.
Where they begin — the setting
Joyce and Will Byers: Stranger Things 2 is set in in October 1984. In fact, it begins a few days before Halloween (28 October 1984) and close to the one-year anniversary of Will’s disappearance. This starting period is significant for many of the people in Hawkins, including most of our main cast. Will (Noah Schnapp) is beginning to experience a lot of his past trauma once again (i.e. vivid flashes of the Upside Down, and a bigger, more menacing-looking tentacled monster against a bright orange sky that we saw in the trailer).
Joyce (Winona Ryder) is dating a portly Radio Shack employee called Bob (Sean Astin); she and Sheriff Hopper (David Harbour) have been taking Will to the doctors/scientists who may or may not be directly related to the events of last season, and who’ve made their headquarters at the lab in Hawkins. These are meant to be regular check-ups for Will, but every time he’s called out by the teacher/vice-principal because his mom is at the school to take him to the lab, you can feel the growing isolation within him. Not only has he been unable to shake off the dreadful images and flashes that continue to haunt him, but he’s being looked at as the “weirdo” or “freak” in school, and knowing how rampant high-school bullying was against non-cookie-cutter kids back in the 1980s, you can imagine how absolutely desolate a 13-year old Will Byers is feeling at this point.
Worse still is the fact that the team of scientists, led by Dr Owens (Paul Reiser) don’t really know what’s happening to Will. In a classic case of damage-control-of-something-they-had-no-control-over-to-begin-with, Dr Owens and the others at Hawkins lab are pretty much just grasping at otherdimensional straws, without providing any concrete diagnosis. Most of what Will is seeing (they’re referred to as his “episodes”) is thought by them to be just in his head and not real, but as the scale of his “visions” get bigger and seemingly more dangerous, it’s up to Joyce (once again!) to notice the similarities between what Will is “imagining” and what might be real!
Eleven and Sheriff Hopper: There’s been a lot of speculation about Eleven’s whereabouts after last year, and while the trailers made it obvious that our favourite teenage telekinetic badass was still alive, Stranger Things 2 does a good job of filling in the dots for those of us who wondered how she survived, and who helped her. The answers: by using her powers, and Sheriff Hopper. We’d seen Hopper leave Eggos in the woods for Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) assuming she was alive, and that was how it really did go down as well. Until she had Eggos to feed on, Eleven was using her powers to throw squirrels against trees to kill them and roasting them up to a crispy deliciousness. Even getting out of the Upside Down was (relatively) easy for Eleven; she used her powers to hold the portal open and big enough for her to crawl through.
There’s an interesting father-daughter dynamic going on between them by now: Hopper is hiding Eleven away at his father’s old cabin in the woods. Hiding her for her own safety, that is, against the government cronies who ran the experiments on her. It’s a warm cozy cabin that she can call “home”, she has her own soft bed to sleep on (although Mike’s makeshift tent in his parents’ basement last year wasn’t half bad, was it?), and plenty of Eggos for her to eat (and variations too, a highlight meal by Hopper being a three-layered Eggo stack topped with whipped cream and Smarties/M&Ms!). He also puts up a number of simple-yet-smart traps in and around the cabin, teaches Eleven the Morse code to communicate with her, and informs her that there will be three rules that she would need to follow:
1. Never leave the curtains open, especially during daytime.
2. There will be a secret knock that he’ll use to enter the cabin, and Eleven should open the door only in response to that knock.
3. She should never, ever get out of the cabin by herself.
Everything seems to be going okay, until Eleven realises that the “soon” that Hopper keeps referring to (as in, she can get out and go meet Mike soon) has no set time limit. Eleven’s been visiting Mike telepathically for the past year — while he’s huddled in the tent he’d made for her, hoping to catch any sound of her on his trusted walkie talkie, or any indication that she’s alive. She says Hopper’s a liar (she uses her “friends don’t lie” line from season one to good effect here); Eleven was hoping that Hopper’s “soon” meant the next day or in a few days, but over 360 days later (yup, she’s keeping count!), when she still hasn’t reunited with her dear Mike, an angry and impatient Eleven decides to take matters in her own hand. Ah, teenagers, I tell ya!
The boys, and the new girl: Mike (Finn Wolfhard), meanwhile, is unhappy and melancholic and lovelorn himself. He has felt Eleven’s presence in his parents’ basement for the past year, but doesn’t know if that’s just wishful thinking on his part. The boys are also at an age when they don’t really talk about such things, especially not when Will is still having his episodes, and Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) are more intent on impressing the new girl at school Maxine (Sadie Sink), a red-haired skater kid who goes by Max, and who they realise is the “Madmax” on the scoreboard who beat Dustin’s score on Dragon’s Lair.
Mike is also the only one who seems to be treating Will normally — like another teenager who went through a lot of trauma a year before and is naturally still affected by it; and not like his mom, brother, Dustin, and Lucas do — as a child who’s incapable of doing anything by himself.
We see the boys going on their own paths in Stranger Things 2, as each one of them has a distinctly personal storyline that obviously loops back in with the broader story.
Nancy/Jonathan/Steve: The anniversary of last year’s events is also making Nancy Wheeler (Mike’s older sister and Barb’s bestie) remorseful — about how she and bad-boy-turned-totally-good Steve “let Barb die.” Barb’s parents believe she’s still alive, and as if keeping the truth from them isn’t enough to compound Nancy’s guilt about Barb, they’re also planning to sell their house to pay the fees of an investigator they’ve hired to look for her. I guess the Duffer brothers, Shawn Levy and others really took the whole #justiceforBarb movement to heart (the online criticism must’ve meant something to them), because Nancy’s character arc for two-thirds of the series (first with Steve and later with Jonathan) follows this storyline.
Where they all go — the journey
Will Byers catches a virus from the Upside Down, and Joyce Byers is the most resourceful mother (until Carol came along in The Walking Dead): A shadow of the tentacled monster (hereby known as “the Shadow Monster” because that’s what the kids call it) on part of the Halloween tape filmed by Will looks similar to a drawing he’d made of one of his visions. When Joyce hits pause on the tape and traces the shadow from the screen, she realises it’s identical to Will’s drawing of the Shadow Monster. This leads Joyce to believe that Will’s episodes are probably more real than Dr Owens and the other scientists seem to think.
[Some spoilers ahead]
Will’s been feeling unwell, or like he explains to his mom, “out of it.” His body temperature is a few degrees below normal, and when Joyce decides to run a hot water bath for him, Will complains to his mom that it’s “too hot.” In a chilling scene, Will informs her that “he likes it cold.” He = not Will. He = the Shadow Monster. During one of his episodes, Will tries to follow Bob’s rather-useless-when-a-child-is-being-hunted/haunted-by-an-otherdimensional-monster advice by confronting the Shadow Monster; instead of scaring it away, the monster engulfs Will and enters his body through his mouth. There are similarities to religious possession here, and if you expect a scene later on when they’d try to “exorcise” the monster out from Will’s body a la The Exorcist, you may not be completely mistaken. There’s no projectile vomiting, and no hoarse voices, but the idea of Will being struck by an otherdimensional virus that’s growing inside him, consuming him, and (more spoilers ahead) making him less “Will” by erasing his memory, is an altogether new and incredible plot point. The ways in which this storyline progresses is super fun to watch; it takes on an altogether unexpected turn in episode six, and is then dealt with some awesome ferocity in the last two episodes.
Before all of that happens though, in an effort to try and explain his visions (which he isn’t able to properly articulate), Joyce asks Will to draw these recent visions. An emotional-but-excited Will starts drawing very similar looking strokes on dozens of papers, as Joyce, Hopper, and Mike look on, confused. Thankfully, Joyce realises there’s a pattern to it, and Hopper notices that Will’s maze-like strokes look like vines. Hopper has been investigating random acts of vandalism across Hawkins, when a number of local farmers complain about their holiday pumpkin patches being destroyed (the farmers blame each other, Hopper perceives there might be more to it!). When he sees Will’s drawings of the vines, Hopper takes off, digs through the ground near the vines to find that the Upside Down is closer to them than any of them anticipated!
Will, at home, can feel that Hopper is in trouble (he’s right — in the Upside Down, Hopper is trapped by the organism’s growing tentacles) and points out where on his drawing Hopper might be. Only problem, they don’t know where that is in the real world. As Joyce, Will, and Mike try to figure out what and where Will’s drawings are, Bob (who still doesn’t know about any of this) arrives at Joyce’s home to play some games and puzzles with Will. Without telling him much, Joyce urges Bob to figure out Will’s drawings, and he does — Will’s drawings are a map of Hawkins! Based on them, they figure out where Hopper might be in the real Hawkins; Joyce and Bob dig down into the Upside Down in time to rescue Hopper from suffocating to death by the growing tentacles.
Dustin and his pollywog: While Mike is helping Will and Joyce, and is otherwise occupied with thoughts of Eleven, Dustin has his own little side-story going on. Besides vying for Max’s attention (something that he and Lucas are both trying for), Dustin finds a slimy tadpole-like creature in the trash bin on his front porch. We see it and instinctively know that it’s something from the Upside Down. Dustin, however, is convinced he has discovered a new species because not only does the creature not need water to survive, but unlike typical terrestrial pollywogs or reptiles, it hates warmth and sunlight. He insists on keeping Dart (that’s what he calls it) in his turtle tank, and even brings it to school in a box, excited to show Dart to his friends; when they see it, Will is immediately reminded of the slug-like creature he coughed out at the end of last season. He tells Mike that Dustin’s Dart may be from the Upside Down; Mike is convinced, but a rather uncharacteristic Dustin refuses to believe his pet Dart could be anything harmful.
If ever there’s a crossover between Stranger Things and the Harry Potter universe, I now know who would be Hagrid’s son or brother — Dustin! In a very Hagrid-like manner, Dustin lies to his friends about finding Dart when the creature escapes and all of them are trying to catch it, ignores Dart’s alarmingly-growing size, and even attempts to cover up his mother’s pet cat’s death at the jaws of Dart. I won’t give away anything more about this creature or what it is, and if and how it ties up to the larger storyline of the Upside Down and the Shadow Monster. Let’s just say, it’s thoroughly entertaining!
Lucas is in 'like' with Max: Ah Lucas, Lucas, Lucas. Our bandanna-wearing assassin from last year is a tad mellower and less angry this time round. Like Dustin, Lucas is infatuated by Max. Unlike Dustin, he doesn’t have a pollywog for a pet; instead, Lucas pursues a friendship with Max — he tells her all about the happenings from last year (resulting in her absolute disbelief in his story, calling it a good tale but a tad “derivative”) and even brings her along to one of their missions to see the whole thing for herself. Lucas also brings Max to tell him about her life, and while it’s not very important to the larger story arc, it’s nevertheless nice to know more about an unconventionally-written female character.
Eleven explores her backstory: The opening scene of Stranger Things 2 has a group of mask-wearing punks (the ’80s are strong in them) being chased by police vans down a street in Indianapolis. Chief among them is a buzz-haired Indian teen who uses some power to stop the incoming police cars by bringing a wall of stone crashing down from the tunnel they’re going through; the police cars abruptly stop because they can’t go through, and the on-the-run punks drive away. The scene cuts back to the policemen, with the one in the passenger seat asking the one who was driving and who stopped, about why he’d suddenly halted. And that’s when we see it — there are no big stones or a wall of rubble hindering them; the driving policeman had been given that vision by the Indian teen. Turns out, she’s another subject from Project MKUltra (her power is to make people see what she wants) — as the scene fades, we see the number “008” tattooed on her forearm, just like Eleven has “011” tattooed on hers!
How Eleven finds Roman (that’s Eight’s real name) and her brief stay with Roman and her punk friends (Eleven even dresses up like a punk teen, learns to channel her anger to use her powers better, and learns what “bitchin’” means!) is one of the threads to Eleven’s expanding backstory in Stranger Things 2. We knew that she was kidnapped as a baby, by Dr Brenner. And we also knew that her abduction had left her mother Terry Ives in a catatonic state, as we last saw when Joyce and Hopper visited Terry last year.
Eleven’s journey through the first seven episodes (and especially episode seven, which is only about her finding Roman and trying to see if Roman’s life could also be hers) is a sweet story about a young girl finding what is hers, who are her people and what is her real home. When she leaves Hopper’s cabin by herself to go see Mike at Hawkins Middle School, Eleven is upset when she sees him in the gym with Max (unbeknownst to her, Mike is upset with Max for wanting to be a member of their “party”, something that both Dustin and Lucas want). An angry Eleven uses her powers to trip Max on her skateboard, but thankfully, the boys and Max have a more pressing matter on their hands (finding Dustin’s pet Dart, who escapes from its box), which prevents any further telekinetic harm from being caused.
Where they all end up — alive, dead, in the real world or the Upside Down
It would be difficult to talk about the ending without giving away major spoilers, so I’ll refrain from doing so. But I’ll say this — episodes 8 and 9 of Stranger Things 2 are two of the most tightly-written episodes of any Netflix show, and the ending is more than satisfactory, albeit slightly disconcerting. There’s good news for most characters, and especially great news for one main character.
Like all good things, everything (and everyone) comes together towards the end to fight their battle as a team. Stranger Things 2 has more separate threads to follow than in season one, but none of them feel disjointed or too complex. Nobody ends up in the Upside Down and most of the main cast survives, although there are many deaths in Stranger Things 2, including the death of a beloved character.
The homages are plenty too, but they’re less derivative (which means less still-by-still captures from fans). Besides Steven Spielberg, Stephen King, James Cameron, John Carpenter, and John Landis from the ’80s, there are also several nods to ’90s movies — in episode nine, a terrific sequence seems wholly inspired by Jurassic Park (no, the Shadow Monster doesn’t act like a rampaging T-Rex!). As a huge fan of the original Jurassic Park, my mind started racing to a third season of Stranger Things (or, Stranger Things 3) which would jump 10 years to draw more direct inspiration from the superhit dinosaur escapade. It’s unrealistic, I know, because our cast will still be mostly teens, but a girl can dream, can’t she?
Until then, this would do just fine!
Stranger Things 2: ★★★★☆
Best episode: Toss up between episode 4 (Will The Wise) and episode 6 (The Spy).
Best child actor: Noah Schnapp as Will Byers — he portrays vulnerable, scared, and hopeful better than anyone I’ve seen!
Best adult actor: Winona Ryder as Joyce Byers — sometimes, Stranger Things 2 feels like a Byers family show, with their mother and son moments (the tender ones, the funny ones, the emotional ones) some of the best scenes on the show. Ryder is astounding as the distraught-but-strong-as-hell mother.
Best pop culture reference: There are many, but Dustin naming his “pollywog” Dart, after D’Artagnan from The Three Musketeers, is so nerdy it’s awesome!
Scariest reference to real-life: Eleven hitchhikes to find her mom and Eight. When Hopper finds out about it, he’s nowhere near as angry as he should be. Two weeks after watching Netflix’s Mindhunter (where Ed Kemper talked about how he killed hitchhiking co-eds), I’m instinctively scared for Eleven hitchhiking. I know Mindhunter wasn’t out in 1984, people still knew about Kemper and other serial killers who targeted young girls hitchhiking. Come on Hopper, be more dad-like!