I am a Stranger Things swing voter. If there’s an ideal test case for whether Stranger Things can replicate the bona fide phenomenon it became over the course of last year, I’d like to think I’m close to it. I liked the show well enough when it arrived on the scene as an unassuming summer entertainment, but the craze that followed—or seemed to follow, given that Netflix remains tight-lipped about quantitative data—blindsided and, if we’re being honest, somewhat confused me. I enjoyed the internet’s Barb obsession as much as anyone else, some traitorous colleagues excepted, but was sympathetic to the harshest critiques characterizing the show as a shallow pastiche. I was thoroughly charmed by the universally and surprisingly strong performances from an ensemble of child actors, but couldn’t help but wince every time I saw a Verizon commercial or fashion spread featuring one of the newly minted tween celebrities.
Essentially, I’m down-the-middle on this show—neither wholly invested in its success nor cheering for its failure. When I fired up the season that Netflix and the Duffer brothers are insisting we call Stranger Things 2, franchise sequel-style, it was with equal parts curiosity and skepticism. Would Stranger Things be able to sustain the level of scrutiny that comes with popularity, a raft of Emmy nominations, and a full-blown aftershow? Could full-court-press promotion serve as an adequate substitute for word of mouth? In short: Would Stranger Things live up to the hype?
For the first five or so of Stranger Things 2’s nine episodes, such questions remained at the forefront of my viewing experience. They were, of course, the responsible things to ask as a professional observer of television; at stake was Netflix’s ability to transmute a grassroots sensation into a sustainable flagship. But these questions were also genuine. I liked the troubling ambiguities of the first season’s epilogue as the grace note to a limited series, yet they didn’t leave me craving resolution. I wanted to see if Stranger Things 2 could win over someone who was agnostic about its very existence.
And then I found myself shouting—yelping, really—at the television when a character left their gun on the table during the climactic standoff of “Chapter Eight: The Mind Flayer” and walked straight into a supernatural war zone unarmed and suffered the inevitable consequences. Even when you consider yourself an impartial observer, Stranger Things has a way of pulling you in.
That reaction is an accurate summation of Stranger Things 2, a season of television that, like its predecessor, has its flaws, but overcomes them through the sheer strength of its stars’ charisma and the expertly choreographed momentum of its plotting. I’m still not convinced that Stranger Things deserves a place in the canon above or even alongside the long list of nostalgia objects it’s paying homage to; on the flip side, I’m more convinced than ever that the Duffers understand their influences well enough to channel them into a slickly addictive product, aided by a cast talented enough to deepen their characters from stock archetypes into people worth caring for.
Netflix-imposed NDAs prevented critics who filed advance reviews from revealing much, but the plot of Stranger Things 2 wasn’t exactly hard to guess. The Upside Down is back, bigger and badder than ever, and so are the outcast kids who brought it down last time, plus a newcomer in the form of redheaded tomboy Max (Sadie Sink). Relationships teased last year come to fruition, villains are redeemed, and the ample pop culture references get an update. All of this is well in line with the conventions of a blockbuster sequel, a fact Stranger Things is obviously, sometimes even gratingly, aware of. I’m less put off by the title and its implied pretensions to moviedom as some other critics, but Stranger Things 2 is packed to the gills with the sort of callbacks and meta cracks that are seemingly endemic to franchise follow-ups. These range from the cutesy (Brett Gelman’s conspiracy theorist explaining why two teens should get together, an in-text surrogate for every ’shipping fandom that’s ever lived) to the tiresome (a skeptical Max remarking that another character’s recap of last season sounds derivative and unoriginal, aping the show’s real-life detractors) to the merely repetitive (a mess of crayon drawings taking over the Byers home in lieu of last year’s makeshift Ouija board). Whatever one thinks of each individual bit, however, together they add up to a bit much.
Yet Stranger Things 2 succeeds in making the world of the show a wider and richer one. That fleshing out was badly needed for a series that faced so many accusations of being a rehash of other stories rather than a narrative in its own right. The more time we spend with its central characters, the deeper they get, and the further they travel from their baseline types of adorable wisecracker, earnest hero, or douchebag bully.
Steve (Joe Keery), he of the artfully applied hairspray and Risky Business–style Ray-Bans, gets a touchingly mature redemption arc, catalyzed by an odd-couple pairing with Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo). Will (Noah Schnapp) spent nearly all of last season marooned in another dimension. But by the end of this one, a scene where his loved ones try to bring him back from the brink by telling nostalgic stories hit close enough to home that it brought me to tears, as did the long-delayed reunion of Mike (Finn Wolfhard) and Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown). That level of emotion simply isn’t possible without either prolonged exposure or winning performances—the kind we already knew other principals were capable of and that Schnapp finally gets a chance to deliver.
Not every glimpse of self-awareness is entirely unwelcome, either. Nancy’s (Natalia Dyer) quest for justice on behalf of her overlooked and, unbeknownst to her, much-memed best friend was exactly the right form of recourse for Barb, rectifying the storytelling oversight that led people to ironically latch onto her in the first place rather than retconning her back into the action. (Not that the Duffers have entirely learned their lesson on that front. Bob, Joyce’s nice-guy saint of a new boyfriend, is similarly and objectively mistreated by both the show and its players, putting up with some real bullshit from a woman who clearly doesn’t like him as much as he likes her, only to get killed off so she can fulfill her endgame with the hot police chief. JUSTICE FOR BOB.) And the introduction of Paul Reiser as the new face of the Hawkins Lab presents a neat evolution from Matthew Modine’s cartoonish villain. An arrogant man of science who’s nonetheless earnestly attempting to do the right thing, Reiser’s Dr. Owens is an impressive bit of nuance for a show that’s otherwise happy to traffic in “cute preteens good; quasi-demonic Shadow Monster bad” levels of black-and-white morality.
As that Big Bad name indicates, if you subscribe to the notion that horror lives or dies on the strength of its heavy, Stranger Things might still be dead on arrival. Both seasons of the show are remarkably successful at what they set out to do, but subtext and allegory are each left off that agenda. For that, you could look to the likes of Get Out, Raw, It Comes at Night, or Netflix’s own Gerald’s Game, all part of the wave of popular horror titles that have thrived in the year-plus between Stranger Things seasons in a trend the show itself helped start. And while that wave clearly has room for razor-sharp, ultra-contemporary dissections of modern social problems, it’s tempting to attribute much of Stranger Things’ own success to its lack of specificity or even symbolism. In this world, evil is simply evil, and that’s scary enough.
But when that evil is defeated in such a thrilling climax, by such a ragtag crew, weaving together all the season’s disparate threads together so neatly, does that simplification really matter? Stranger Things may not withstand much in-depth analysis; scratching below its surface would mostly result in a list of supplemental viewing rather than more insight into Stranger Things itself. What the show encourages in lieu of analysis, however, is pure, accessible enjoyment that easily explains its popularity with those who lived through the ’80s and have no memory of it alike. That’s what made Stranger Things a Peak TV success story to begin with, and that’s what it made sure to keep delivering its second time around.