Warning: spoilers for Stranger Things 2 below
MANILA, Philippines – Stranger Things is that rare treasure: a genre throwback piece that willfully avoids becoming another cynical nostalgia cash-grab. We Gen Xers are a sensitive bunch. Sell us an idealized image of our past, but don’t sell it too hard. As full of fan service Stranger Things is, everything it does is, first and foremost, in service of the story. And it’s a delightful paradox that a show called Stranger Things gives us all the familiar beats and references from our favorite Spielberg and John Carpenter movies. As gory as this show gets, it isn’t hard to imagine fans wrapping themselves up in the show as if it were a favorite childhood blanket.
And here we are with Stranger Things 2. There’s a French proverb that, when translated, says “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” (Thank you, X-Men #1). Stranger Things 2 takes us back to Hawkins, Indiana. It’s a location we’ve become familiar with. The adventuring party consisting of Dustin, Lucas, Mike, and Will are still nerds. They confidently strut into school wearing homemade Ghostbusters uniforms on Halloween, only to get ridiculed. In an age where cosplay has gone mainstream, it’s heartwarming to look back to a time when carrying a proton pack to school didn’t win you any cool points.
And yet (there always has to be an “and yet”) a new bout of trouble is brewing in Hawkins. Or is it brewing inside Will’s head? Will has been experiencing regular blackouts since last season’s events. During these episodes he’s besieged by a shadow monster (or Mind Flayer, as Dustin calls it), an entity so big and threatening it looks to be the final boss in the Upside Down.
Will’s mom Joyce takes him to regular therapy sessions with Dr. Sam Owens, who has taken over operations at Hawkins Lab. Taking Will to the same facility that unlocked the gate to the Upside Down doesn’t seem like a sound parenting decision, but she has no choice. Dr. Owens is the only doctor they’re allowed to see. The true story is locked behind a barricade of non-disclosure agreements. Official word is Russians were responsible for last year’s trouble, and that Will got lost in the woods. Everyone in Hawkins tries to move on. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
That desire to maintain normalcy reveals the different layers of reality that the characters operate in and hold on to. There’s the mundane reality most of the residents inhabit, the most obvious example of which being Mike’s oblivious father. Go a little deeper and you’ll find former journalist Murray Bauman’s world of commie conspiracies and corrupt experiments. Further down, there’s Dustin, Lucas, Mike, and Will and their experience dealing with the Demogorgon. And at the very deep end of this story, of course, is Eleven.
The bond between the four boys are tested by the conflicts and secrets they keep to themselves. Mike is aloof and continues to pine for Eleven. Dustin finds a strange creature in the garbage, a pollywog as they name it, and cares for it behind the party’s back. Lucas breaks party code by telling the truth about last year’s events to the new kid Max.
On the surface, Max is an intriguing character. Like Boba Fett, there’s an air of mystery surrounding the girl, which is heightened by the fact that her parents are usually absent, even by Stranger Things parenting standards. And then there’s her wild red hair and skater punk attitude, which is a great contrast to Eleven’s tight curls and barely-restrained intensity. But as the episodes roll by, you can’t help but think that Max and her step-brother Billy (who bears a striking resemblance to Rob Lowe in St. Elmo’s Fire) are simply catalysts for other characters’ development. I couldn’t help but wonder whether she was added as a sort of meta-commentary on prepubescent boys interacting with, yuck, girls.
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These tensions form the core of Stranger Things 2. Yes, there are monsters and interdimensional portals. Yes, Will’s apparent possession by the Mind Flayer is the driving force behind most of the show’s events. But at its heart, Stranger Things 2 is a story about maintaining family and relationships in the shadow of a possible world-ending cataclysm. Lucas hits the nail on the head when he says “It’s judgment day, which is why we need as much help as we can get.”
And as far as relationships in the show go, there are none as bittersweet as the one Eleven and Sheriff Jim Hopper tenuously hold on to. This season builds on the cliffhanger the first season left us with. Hopper has kept El hidden in a shack in the woods for over 300 (and counting) days. In this dusty, rickety home, the two establish a shaky bond built on secret door knocks, morse code, and an entreaty to “don’t be stupid.”
Eleven may be a superhuman lab experiment, but she’s still a 13-year-old girl. A girl who loves Eggos and TV and wants to go trick or treating. A girl who needs family. That last item, coupled with her prepubescent anger directed at Hopper, spurs Eleven on an impetuous quest to find her origins. The show reveals just enough of her past without spoiling the mystique that made her compelling in the first place. It’s basically saying El’s past isn’t as important as her present. And this present, grumpy father figure and all, is the best she’s got.
Towards the end of the show, all its different threads and conflicts converge at Joyce’s household, and a little later, back at the Hawkins Lab. The final act offers little in the way of surprises. There are homages to Alien, The Exorcist, and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (some more subtle than others). Monsters die. The end of the world is prevented. Eleven’s nose bleeds. But by this point, we’re so invested in the characters, the lack of surprises hardly matters. In this context, the resolution feels more like a victory lap.
All 9 episodes of Stranger Things 2 are now available on Netflix. – Rappler.com
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