Stranger Things 2 spoiler-free review: fans could not have asked for a more joyous return
The Duffer brothers shirk the sophomore slump with another brilliant nostalgia trip
The Duffer brothers faced an uphill battle when they sat down to write a sequel to Stranger Things.
The show had become a cultural phenomenon when it dropped back in the summer of 2016. It was a drive-by of 1980s nostalgia, propelled by an immersive mystery, innumerable callbacks to classic horror films, and headline-grabbing performances from a cast of unknown youngsters. It dominated water cooler chat for months, as more and more would-be fans got dragged into the Upside Down.
Despite extraordinary levels of hype in the build-up to the new episodes, there are no signs of a second season slump in Stranger Things 2, which arrives on Netflix on Friday.
The new season is a joyous, enthralling binge that build towards a climax equally as satisfying and emotionally wrought as its predecessor.
There’s a distinct swagger to the opening episodes of the season, which see the writer/director duo easily slipping back into their stride as we spend a prolonged period – though not that prolonged – in relative normality.
Aside from the lingering mysteries of season one which are playing on certain individuals’ minds - Eleven’s disappearance, the cover-up of Barb’s death, Will’s ambiguous connection to the Upside Down - everything is rosy in Hawkins, Indiana.
The four boys - Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) and Will (Noah Schnapp) - are preparing for Halloween night (hence the Ghostbuster outfits from the promos).
Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and Steve (Joe Keery) are the 'it' couple again, and even the terminally worked up Joyce Byers seems to be enjoying some down time with her supremely cheesy new beau, Bob - played by The Goonies star Sean Astin, whose casting is the show’s most meta 80s throwback yet.
Also joining the ranks this season are Max (Sadie Sink), a fiery-haired newbie to the school and more than a match for the D&D fanatic youngsters, and her older brother Billy (Dacre Montgomery), a bad boy cut from the same cloth as Judd Nelson’s rebellious character from The Breakfast Club.
However, it’s not long until remnants of the Upside Down start to crop up. Will has been having increasingly vivid nightmares that place him back in the Upside Down, and while the G-men at the research facility reckon that they’re a form of post-traumatic stress, perhaps they’re related to that weird slug he coughed up at the end of the season one finale. Perhaps he hasn’t quite escaped the grasp of the Demogorgon after all...
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As for the older kids, Nancy is struggling to shake off the guilt surrounding Barb’s death, which remains shrouded in secrecy. In an early scene, she and Steve eat dinner with Barb’s parents, who are selling their house to finance a private investigator to track down their missing daughter.
Jonathan is still skulking in the shadows, but the two appear to have maintained a friendship despite his evident jealousy of her relationship.
The rapport between the ensemble - who are split up into unlikely groups in creative ways as the season progresses - is as enjoyable to watch as ever. Over the course of the series the camaraderie reaches new levels, hitting the heights that the best adventure-based shows - Buffy the Vampire Slayer springs to mind - developed over many, many seasons. It’s a feat of storytelling that the Duffers manage to make us so emotionally invested in such a short space of time.
Eleven's return has already been teased in preview clips and trailers, and Millie Bobby Brown's character enjoys a rather emotional arc before the season cascades into its thunderous finale.
While the dialogue occasionally tends towards the corny, for the most part the series remains distinctly, brilliantly self-aware - there are a couple of self-referential gems that I will not spoil here. An burst of knowing laughter is never far away.
This may come at the expense of frights, and the threat occasionally feels relatively sedate compared to the terrifying Demogorgon of season one, but at its heart Stranger Things is an adventure above a horror, and in that realm it surpasses the feats of its predecessor.
Like season one, Stranger Things 2 remains deliciously addictive: the rate at which I polished off the brilliant final three chapters - the episode titles have been guarded for secrecy - tells a story all of its own.
There are several thematic talking points, such as a strong anti-establishment sentiment – rather fitting given the current political climate, and in step with David Harbour's impassioned speech at January's Screen Actors Guild Awards – that are worth reserving for a spoiler-filled discussion once the episodes have been released.
But for now, rest assured: Stranger Things 2 is more than worthy of a Halloween marathon this weekend.