Warning: contains spoilers.
And so the Duffer Brothers’ phantasmagoria has returned for a second season on Netflix, and no doubt if you’re reading this you’ve already seen all nine episodes (they’ve been available to watch since the end of last month), and perhaps you’re one of those strange people with no social life and terrible sleeping habits who watched them all in one go. Shame on you.
I, alas, am not so brave as that, so have only just finished the final episode, but because no pop cultural event can ever be complete without my pronouncing judgement on it, and because, like you, dear reader, I really don’t have enough useful things to do, I thought I would post for posterity my thoughts on Season 2.
Season 1 appeared in July 2016, and quickly built up a dedicated following – I have to confess that, in common with many others, it was the reason for my taking out a subscription to Netflix in the first place. Now its young cast are big stars, and hype for the new season has been gathering momentum it seems for most of this year.
But is it, as they say, any good?
Perhaps inevitably, “Stranger Things 2” suffers somewhat in comparison to its predecessor – the novelty value of the first season has been lost, so the choices the producers make come under greater scrutiny as they seek to drive the narrative forward. Certainly, the plot is very similar – a year on from the events of Season 1, it is now Hallowe’en 1984, and young Will Byers is still haunted by his experiences in the Upside Down, and is being regularly monitored by Sam Owens, chief scientist at Hawkins Lab (why is the creepy lab still open? Don’t these people ever learn?). Will’s visions of the unpleasant parallel universe where he spent most of the last season incarcerated by all kinds of viscous nastiness seem to be getting worse, and the terrible blight affecting the local farmers’ pumpkin crop, and the bizarre goings on in a set of subterranean tunnels beneath the town, only serve to confirm our worst suspicions that something awful is about to happen.
Into the mix have been thrown some interesting new characters – Max, the tough young girl who joins Will’s class; her violent and aggressive stepbrother, Billy, who threatens Steve Harrington’s position as top of the high school food chain; and the kind and loveable Bob, Joyce Byers’ new boyfriend (too kind and loveable, as it turns out – you just know from the off that it’s not going to end well for poor old Bob).
In keeping with the show’s retro Eighties appeal, two of the new characters are played by actors familiar to fans of that era’s movies – Bob is played by Sean Astin, who of course starred in The Goonies back in 1985, and Owens by Paul Reiser, who was the villainous Burke in Aliens.
There are plenty of other nods to the world of Reagan, Thatcher and mullets (apart from the fact that several of the young male characters actually have mullets), from the posters for the November ’84 presidential election (Mike’s parents are Republicans, whereas Dustin’s mum is a Mondale supporter), to the lovingly recreated computer arcade where the young friends hang out, to the Ghostbusters costumes they wear to go trick-or-treating – and, as I wrote in my earlier post about the first season, for those of us who lived through those times, seeing your own past recycled in this way can be somewhat disconcerting.
But the introduction of conspiracy theorist Murray Bauman (a nicely judged performance from Brett Gelman, simultaneously ingratiating and sinister) is a reminder that the seeds of the “fake news” era were sown long ago, and that the familiar storyline of nefarious government agents plotting against innocent townsfolk, which has been a staple of Hollywood movies and TV shows for years beyond count, is perhaps not as benign as it seemed a few years ago. When encouraging your audience’s credulity helps to feed a willingness to believe virtually anything – so long as people we like are saying it – it begins to look somewhat irresponsible.
However, despite the broad horror of Stranger Things, its creators are too subtle to fall into all the obvious traps. Owens seems shifty at first, but turns out to be a decent man, and the other new main character, Kali / Eight, while not a villain as such, is nevertheless involved in a violent campaign of retribution against those she believes were responsible for the abuse she suffered as a young girl, a campaign that Eleven embraces but then ultimately rejects for its nihilism. Some viewers don’t seem to have enjoyed this episode, but I think it underlines a strong ethical current beneath all the fantasy and nostalgia – violence and revenge have consequences, after all, and they change people, and ruin lives, something also underscored by the touching scene where Nancy and Steve visit Barb’s parents: she may only have been a relatively minor character in Season 1, but her loss still reverberates, and I really appreciated that attention to emotional truth from the writers. Too often in these kind of dramas, the death of such characters seems to have been forgotten five minutes later.
The possession of Will by the amorphous, multi-tentacled being from the Upside Down – and the subsequent scenes where he is restrained as his family and friends try to exorcise the creature – I found genuinely disturbing, and though no doubt every care was taken to protect the young actors involved, nevertheless scenes of children in pain or distress are always upsetting to watch. But then Stranger Things is a horror serial with a predominantly young cast, so I suppose such scenes are all but inevitable. But maybe it could sometimes be handled a little better.
This no doubt makes me seem terribly middle-aged, to which I plead guilty – I am! But I’m still enjoying Stranger Things, though I think they need to keep new ideas coming if the show isn’t to run out of steam over the next two or three seasons. Ultimately, the key to its success is its cast, and its tight plotting. The way characters are allowed to develop – Steve Harrington was the school bully in Season 1, and has now become an unlikely hero, and Billy seems like a monster at the beginning of Season 2, but grows more sympathetic when we get to meet his appalling father – adds real depth, the kind of depth such fantasy horror requires if the audience is to successfully suspend their disbelief. As the writer M. John Harrison said in a recent interview – “You can’t really do the strange, unless you back it with the normal”.
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