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‘Stranger Things’ is back and it’s bold

Will+Byers+%28Noah+Schnapp%29+struggles+to+deal+with+one+of+his+episodes+after+returning+to+Hawkins.+Schnapp%E2%80%99s+performance+carried+the+newest+season+and+surpassed+expectations.
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‘Stranger Things’ is back and it’s bold

Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) struggles to deal with one of his episodes after returning to Hawkins. Schnapp’s performance carried the newest season and surpassed expectations.

Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) struggles to deal with one of his episodes after returning to Hawkins. Schnapp’s performance carried the newest season and surpassed expectations.

Netflix

Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) struggles to deal with one of his episodes after returning to Hawkins. Schnapp’s performance carried the newest season and surpassed expectations.

Netflix

Netflix

Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) struggles to deal with one of his episodes after returning to Hawkins. Schnapp’s performance carried the newest season and surpassed expectations.

Blythe Terry, A&E co-Editor

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“Stranger Things 2” dropped this past week, and it’s kind of everything we could have hoped for. Our favorite guys and gals of Hawkins are back and better than ever, and new characters–both friend and foe–are joining the adventure. The new series isn’t a rehash of the first season, yet the parallels are frequent and meaningful. Season two manages to maintain intrigue and depth throughout despite the uphill battle inherent in being a sequel, and the writers made some daring choices that for the most part paid off.

Will has returned, but is suffering from post traumatic stress and finds himself falling back into Upside Down.”

— A&E co-Editor Blythe Terry

That being said, tiny flaws are abundant. Some subplots and characters seem to be haphazardly thrown into the mix, and many might argue that this season, while certainly enjoyable, was a tad too saturated with ideas, lacking its predecessor’s sense of measure. Much of this is true, but one thing is for sure: “Stranger Things 2” is not meek.

The series kicks off one year after Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) comes home, having being lost for the entirety of the prior season in an alternate dimension. Despite this, we begin to understand that all is not well. Will has returned, but is suffering from post traumatic stress and finds himself falling back into Upside Down, discovering what his friend Mike Wheeler refers to as “true sight.” Mike (Finn Wolfhard) is not only trying to support his friend as he struggles to re-enter society, but continues to grapple with the disappearance of Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown). All the while, the remainder of Will’s friends, Will’s mother Joyce (Winona Ryder), and the police chief Hopper (David Harbour) begin to unearth that the mysteries that plague Hawkins are far from over.

Without the tension of Will being missing, “Stranger Things 2” needed to try twice as hard to keep viewers engaged. Luckily, the series follows through story-wise, not falling flat as many second seasons do. The progression of conflict isn’t always perfectly explicit or artful, but with the suspense turned up to ten, some of this minimal messiness feels almost intentional. The story still exceeds as a clear and captivating thematic journey.

One way “Stranger Things 2” incorporated fresh content this season was through characters. Most notable among the new additions is Max (Sadie Sink), a spunky, red-headed skater and Dig Dug champion, as well as a new student at Hawkins Middle. She predictably attracts the attention of the kids, most notably Lucas (Caleb Mclaughlin) and Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), and their interactions generate remarkable moments, both light and consequential. Max was such a catch, in fact, it’s a shame she wasn’t utilized more. Max is designed and acted brilliantly, but her being more attached to the story would have been preferable. Instead, she’s equipped with a backstory in the form of her psychotic, unsympathetic step-brother Billy (Dacre Montgomery), and frankly, his inclusion was probably the most misguided in the series, simply because he has no real purpose, and his time on screen could have been spent getting to know Max a bit better.

Most of the new elements are functional…enhancing the existing world rather than uncomfortably puncturing the show’s existing ecosystem.”

— A&E co-Editor Blythe Terry

Beyond Max and Billy, we meet Bob Newby (Sean Astin), who features as Joyce’s new boyfriend and absolute sweetheart. His presence adds an extra dimension to the Byers family, and he becomes extremely important with regards to Joyce’s emotional arc throughout the series. Most of the new elements are functional in that way, enhancing the existing world rather than uncomfortably puncturing the show’s existing ecosystem.

The show isn’t afraid to make choices and commit to them. We leave Hawkins for the first time this season, and it feels weird. That being said, it’s not unwatchable. More importantly, this sets up promise for the future, not limiting this universe to just one small town.

The lore is different, too. There’s none of the flickering lights when the inter-dimensional baddies show up and generally speaking, the supernatural aspects of the show aren’t treated in the same way, despite being prominently featured. Perhaps that’s for the best. The Upside Down has lost some of its novelty, so instead there’s focus placed on the stuff that’s even creepier: the monsters just around the corner. (But fear not! There’s plenty of consistency with the Dungeons and Dragons analogies… there’s a brand new Demogorgon this season).

Our favorite characters are treated well this season. It’s a year later, but “Stranger Things 2” picks up right where it left off, with plenty of emotional heft and a myriad of complex relationships.

Steve Harrington (Joe Keery), Mike’s sister’s boyfriend who everyone’s far too invested in, is a complete gem. It’s hard to get into everything that was done right with his character this season, but there’s two important things to know. First, his development subverts tropes and serves as one of the few positive representations of masculinity on television today. Second, “I may be a pretty s—ty boyfriend, but turns out I’m actually a pretty damn good babysitter.”

The other teenaged characters are given with super solid storylines as well. Mike’s aforementioned sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and Will’s older brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) work together to tie up loose ends with the Barb subplot, in which they seek revenge for the coverup of her killing. Fans were certainly thankful for this turn of events, as the dearly departed Barbara was a crowd favorite in season one.

The kids are still a treat to watch. Millie Bobby Brown continues to give everything she has as Eleven, and it shows. Lucas and Dustin are given a lot more room to breathe and become three-dimensional, and McLaughlin and Materazzo play the duo well. Despite Mike not being in the spotlight as much this season, Wolfhard has improved immensely and really digs into his character. This pays off in a big way in a few crucial, tear-jerking scenes.

Special praise must go to Noah Schnapp for his portrayal of Will. He was in a demanding role, playing a character that increases in complexity with every episode and he does so convincingly. He was responsible for what was probably the most crucial part this season and not only was he not a let down,  he blew away audiences.

These exceptional performances do well to further the show’s message. Now that these characters are so familiar to us, we’re starting to really get to the core of “Stranger Things.” It’s not completely clear just yet, but it has plenty to do with family, friendship, struggle, and loss. This second season, in all its craziness, highlights these ideas with grace.

Does “Stranger Things 2” sustain the same level of cinematic perfection as season one? Probably not. But this season is not a forced continuation. Where it didn’t exceed, it took risks, and set even higher expectations for future installments. Overall, there’s nothing but good things to be said for the people behind the project, who were clearly determined to live up to the hype.

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