- MORE THAN MONSTERS: The second season of Netflix's supernatural thriller "Stranger Things" concerns itself with the realm of isolation, trauma and memory.
"Stranger Things 2" picks up about a year after the events of the previous series. It's 1984, and Reagan/Bush campaign signs litter the lawns in Hawkins, Ind., where, unbeknownst to the town at large, a secretive government laboratory has inadvertently opened a gate into another reality. The girl called Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), a psychokinetic marvel at the center of these government experiments, remains missing after defeating last year's feature creature, while Will Byers (Noah Schnapp), a middle-school boy who had been dragged into this "upside-down" dimension, is back home, dealing with the lingering trauma of what he experienced, including visions of a greater menace just on the other side of reality.
If you're already a devoted fan of Netflix's "Stranger Things," you're perhaps reading this review to see if I agree with your much more informed opinions, and chances are that your friends have been talking about nothing else for the past two weeks. Even if you're not, though, you have heard all about the excellent acting in the series: the ensemble cast certainly brings their best to each performance, though it is Schnapp as the tormented Will who stands out this time around. Or, you've possibly also heard about the taut dialogue, the classically creepy atmospherics, and the expertly crafted tension that have made the series so popular. However, there are so many shows available these days, and you just don't have time to waste on a series that resembles little more than a pastiche of recycled tropes from 1980s pop culture, right?
Series creators Matt and Ross Duffer had stated that their intention with this second, nine-episode season was to expand the mythology of "Stranger Things." And, while they certainly take the show beyond the confines of small-town Indiana and deeper into the pasts of its characters, the mythology explored and expanded is our own. A myth is just a story, like the myth we tell ourselves of childhood — a time of wonder and innocence, rather than, often, of confusion and pain. To describe this show as the product of '80s nostalgia or a yearning for childhood experiences is to mistake the clothes for the man, for "Stranger Things" is much more than the sum of its Stephen King and John Carpenter references.
Rebecca West once wrote that the sin against the Holy Ghost — the Bible's one unforgivable sin — was "to deal with people as if they were things." The modern horror genre has, with rare exception, exulted in exactly that, from the slasher flick whose cast of stock teenager stereotypes gets lined up for execution in increasingly grotesque ways, to the torture porn films whose populations exist only to suffer or to inflict suffering.
By contrast, "Stranger Things," while situated within the horror genre, interests itself more with the complexity of the human soul than the fragility of the human body. Its characters evolve and break type, as with Steve Harrington (Joe Keery), last season's high school bully, who becomes this season's hero and mentor. Even the show's rare missteps only highlight its fundamental interest in humanity. For example, a subplot featuring local conspiracy theorist Murray Bauman (Brett Gelman), hired to investigate the disappearance of Barb Holland (Shannon Purser) the previous year, takes the series into some silly territory, but its purpose is not comic relief — it's to illustrate the ongoing struggle of family, friends and the wider community as they come to terms with tragedy.
Indeed, characters in "Stranger Things" struggle against trauma and memory as much as they do against the otherworldly "shadow monster" that is this season's supernatural baddie. That creature could hail straight from the work of H.P. Lovecraft — an otherworldly assemblage of stormy tentacles whose mind and motives lie beyond human comprehension. In Lovecraft's stories, the encounter with forces beyond our ken drives the average man to savagery or insanity. In "Stranger Things," though, that encounter renders all the more poignant these moments of our daily lives, turning upside-down our symbols of loneliness and isolation — the foil-wrapped frozen dinner, the awkward school dance —and finding, time after time, the possibility of redemption.