Horror sequels are tricky. More often than not, when writing follow ups to wildly successful horror films, or follow up seasons to TV shows, creators often settle for “the first one, but somewhere else or with different people”. It’s often so hard to separate the alchemy of why the film worked from the exact structure of the previous film, so creatives are often content just to remake the film or season with surface level changes (and sometimes not even those) in order to create something that the audience should like, rather than attempting to build on the original in any meaningful way. This is what makes the rare sequel that does something new so special. It’s also why Stranger Things 2 as the show runners have titled it (in a nod to horror films of the past) is such a delightfully terrifying season of television. When faced with the question of where to go from launching a legitimate phenomenon with season one, the Duffer Brothers decided that the only course of action was to go bigger, weirder, and more horrifying than ever before.
Out of deference to those who haven’t finished the season, or are still on the fence about whether to even start it, this review will be spoiler free past some more general discussion of the first four episodes. We’ll have a separate piece up later to facilitate a more spoiler filled discussion. Season two first and foremost notably decides that it’s ok with being more of a slow burn than the previous season. Knowing that they have an audience now, the Duffers seem less interested in pushing the central plot to the forefront in the first episode and instead are content to spend the first two episodes of this season toying with the character dynamics established in season one, adding in new characters, and establishing what the “new normal” has been for Hawkins Indiana and our protagonists.
It’s been almost a year since Eleven defeated the Demogorgon in the middle school and disappeared and the gang is still trying to adjust to the new reality they find themselves in. It’s in the opening scene with Will, Dustin, Mike, and Lucas that we start to see the first evidence of the changes that have occurred. Will, after being captured by the Demogorgon and experiencing an extended stay in the upside down is haunted by visions, and at first it’s not clear if they are PTSD or something much worse. And Mike? Mike’s angry. He’s angry about losing Eleven and angry that everyone seems to have moved on and that he seems to be the only one grieving. Steve and Nancy are entrenched as a couple, and now going to regular dinners with Barb’s parents (RIP Barb). Joyce, Will’s mom has a boyfriend now, Bob, played by the immeasurably talented Sean Astin, and is more protective of Will than ever. Will’s brother Jonathan is still content to pine for Nancy and be the best brother he can. Sheriff Hopper is still doing his job with the exact same level of enthusiasm, but with the added twist that he now goes with Joyce and Will on regular appointments to see the doctor that now runs the Hawkins Laboratory. All of this is felt out over the course of the first episode with one added twist that comes at the end. Add into that a new girl in town and her psychotic step brother and you’ve got plenty of rich character dynamics to go around
As the story unfolds we begin to see the scope of the Duffers’ second outing in this world. Not content to simply be another Stephen King pastiche, the Duffers decided to move towards a much more atmospheric and cosmic brand of horror. The threat is bigger this time, and the journey to uncovering the exact nature of that threat is some of the most compelling and frankly horrifying television of the year. Along the way we get the chance to join several of the core characters as they go on journeys of self-discovery, in which they learn more about themselves than even they might have originally thought possible. By the time episodes eight and nine roll around, we’re more invested in these characters than we’ve ever been, and it elevates the stakes and fear to almost unbearable levels. The secret it turns out to structuring an entire season of television around something as draining as constantly ratcheting dread, is to place character at the forefront. In many ways it is these character moments that make this constantly ratcheting dread bearable. We care for these characters, so we stay in it for them, even when there’s times we want to look away.
All in all, Stranger Things 2 is a more than fitting return to Hawkins and these characters. The bold direction, new characters, and conscious effort to go bigger and into new tonal territories combine to create a must watch season of television, and cement the Duffer Brothers as two of the great new minds in the horror genre.