WARNING: The following contains spoilers for the entirety of Stranger Things 2. Read at your own risk!
The most surprising thing about Stranger Things' first season was how the '80-set series was discovered by enthusiastic viewers via word of mouth. The most surprising thing about the Netflix show's second season is that it doesn't just live up to expectations, but is the rare sequel in which bigger actually does prove to be better.
After introducing the dark and twisted alternate dimension known as the Upside Down last season, Stranger Things 2 picks up nearly a year later during Halloween 1984 and expands just enough upon the show's driving mythology that it pushes the overarching narrative forward while still telling a very personal story. Co-creators Ross and Matt Duffer avoid bloat by again centering the narrative on Will (Noah Schnapp), only this time he's not missing in action but playing host to a mysterious entity from the Upside Down that the still-incredibly-likable kids at the center of the drama have dubbed the Shadow Monster.
It would be odd to say the Duffers are lucky Schnapp is able to carry the season's arc on his shoulders -- the strength of Stranger Things' young cast is easily its greatest asset -- but since he was largely absent from the first season, there's also little on-screen evidence from Season 1 to offer as proof of his abilities. Thankfully, he plays Will brilliantly, making viewers feel the character's fear at every turn, and when he's taken over by the Shadow Monster, again rises to the occasion with creepy intensity.
His character's lingering connection to the Upside Down was first hinted at last season, when, after being rescued in the finale, Will sees flashes of the sinister world and coughs up a hideous slug. The scientists at Hawkins Laboratory, led by Paul Reiser's Dr. Owens in a nod to his Aliens role, believe these flashes to be a sign of post-traumatic stress, but they progressively get worse. Eventually the formless monster overtakes Will and his friends and family no longer know how to help him.
The series is again operating from a less-is-more mentality in Season 2, only doling out enough information to whet viewers' appetites. Even after these nine episodes and watching the kids face down more than just a single Demogorgon, we still know very little about the Upside Down or the various monsters who call it home. This restraint actually works in the show's favor (for now) because it keeps the action focused on our hometown heroes while increasing the natural suspense created by the darkness seeping into the town of Hawkins by limiting our knowledge of it through the D&D party's reactions. And if the horror of the first season was largely expressed through the reactions of Will's family and friends following his disappearance, the horror of the show's second season stems from witnessing the Upside Down slowly infiltrate Hawkins and our beloved heroes being unable to stop it.
Everyone tries, of course, to halt both the progress of the Upside Down and the knowledge of its existence. As the chief of police, Hopper (David Harbour) is tasked with leading both fronts -- he wants to control the situation and protect the people of Hawkins, including Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), who's become a surrogate daughter to him. While he is otherwise engaged, Joyce (Winona Ryder) sticks close to Will as his behavior changes, and eventually brings in her new boyfriend Bob ('80s movie icon Sean Astin) once Hopper goes missing while investigating a series of tunnels under Hawkins. Elsewhere, a guilt-ridden Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) strike out on their own to expose the truth -- or a watered-down version of the truth -- about what happened to Barb (Shannon Purser), and by extension what's happening in Hawkins.
In the season's most successful narrative decision, the younger kids are paired off differently for round two. With Mike (Finn Wolfhard) by Will's side and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) spending more time with Season 2 newcomer Max (Sadie Sink), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) finds himself teaming up with Steve (Joe Keery) to trap and stop d'Artagnan, aka Dart, a polliwog-like creature eventually revealed to be a young Demogorgon that Dustin has taken in as a new pet. Along the way a genuine bond develops between Dustin and Steve that allows the latter, who suffered a bit in Season 1 because of his attitude, to fully emerge as the show's true secret weapon and unsuspecting hero. It should go without saying, but together Dustin and Steve also deliver some of the show's funniest moments too.
They are eventually joined on their mission by Lucas and Max, who slips right into the world of Hawkins with considerable ease, despite her step-brother Billy's (Dacre Montgomery) many attempts to stop her. Together they come to discover that Dart isn't the only young Demogorgon roaming the town, but one of many that have come through the gate opened between the two worlds in Season 1. Now Stranger Things 2 could have easily shot itself in the foot by introducing a number of terrifying new creatures and creating a needlessly convoluted mythology, but the focus on the creatures and the world we already know is what allows the story to work on nearly every level.
The nostalgia that made the first season so satisfying for many viewers is impressively restrained as well. It would have been easy to pander, but the second season, with its nods to films like Aliens and Gremlins, and name-dropping Mr. Mom, Ghostbusters, and The Terminator, somehow never crosses into "too much" territory. It creates an atmosphere of familiarity that envelops viewers and makes for another exciting chapter in Stranger Things history, at least for those with fond memories of the '80s.
All of this isn't to say that the second season is without flaws, though. In fact, the series spends several early episodes seemingly unsure what to do with Eleven, so she spends her time cooped up in Hopper's old cabin, watching everyone's favorite '80s shows, including All My Children. Much like Will, she escaped one prison last season only to become trapped in another in the sequel. And even if Hopper means well -- everything he does is meant to keep her safe -- the truth is that Eleven is hardly living during the first half of the season. That she eventually rebels and runs away to find her birth mother is to be expected, given the situation.
However, the series could have achieved the same outcome and built up suspense by waiting a few episodes to reveal her whereabouts and eventual escape; knowing that Eleven spent very little time trapped in the Upside Down after defeating the Demogorgon last season threatens to retroactively remove some of the danger surrounding the battle. Still, by the end of Season 2 -- and after a bit of a momentum-slowing detour to Chicago to meet Eight (Linnea Berthelsen) and potentially set up a Season 3 storyline -- Eleven returns to Hawkins to reunite with her friends and set about closing the gate to the Upside Down once and for all. Of course the final shot of the season reveals the threat hasn't actually been eliminated, merely slowed, but that's something Season 3 Eleven will have to handle.
Considering that a second season of Stranger Things could have become self-indulgent and gone completely off the rails, that it manages to deliver another satisfying adventure without falling victim to its own success is an impressive feat. We may not have thought we needed these nine new episodes back when they were announced last year, but like the best sequels, from Terminator 2: Judgment Day to D2: The Mighty Ducks (yes, we went there), we're more than happy it exists, and we're ready to watch it again and again and again.
Stranger Things 2 is now streaming on Netflix.