Look, I like the show, but the title is a lie. Seemingly inspired by that one line from Hamlet that I kept hearing in presentations the time I reported on a UFO convention, the words “stranger things” promise nothing less than the revelation of “things in heaven and earth” that are not “dreamt of in your philosophy.” The show’s an easily bingeable pleasure, a spooky-sweet revel in our pop past, but nothing in it seems previously undreamt, neither by philosophizers or horror novelists or anyone working in early- to mid-'80s Hollywood. In its second season, which is better paced and more varied in its moods than the first, we again revisit scenarios and scenes familiar from the era that the show’s monster-haunted kids grew up in: The only thing beyond our imaginations here is the thought of a viewer not knowing beforehand that none of that armed squad of dudes in hazmat suits are coming back from their Aliens-style sweep through pulsing, organic tunnels. (And, yes, of course other characters watch this all unfold on a static-y video feed.)
Much of the appeal of Stranger Things is its familiar things, its Jaws posters and Trans-Ams and deep interest in its characters’ cultural preferences. This season is at times like scrolling through a Tumblr of impassioned '80s opinions, the people of Hawkins, Indiana, defined first and foremost by how much they’re in to Dig Dug, Ratt, Kenny and Dolly, Ghostbusters, and candy bars whose manufacturers may or may not have paid for the shoutout. Twenty-four minutes in, we get an homage not just to E.T. but to E.T.’s product placement — is this a callback to the first season’s E.T. plot points, or foreshadowing of the ones to come in just a few episodes? Some of this charms, especially when the characters seem to inhabit the 1984 itself rather than an '84 movie’s 1984. That early scene of this story’s It-style “losers” stealing change from their families to blow at the arcade being disappointed by Dragon’s Lair? I actually lived that — but, ugh, I raided Mom’s collection of bicentennial quarters. So much period detail gets shoved into the first episode that anyone who lived through it, or has grown up consuming cultural work created by people who lived through it, is sure to be struck by individual moments: a logo, a song, a jean jacket.
Since some do resonate with me, deeply, I can’t complain about their prevalence, as it’s probably a different one that will resonate with you. But what value is there in that listless commando raid through those veined tunnels? It’s a question I asked during the first season, too, during the frequent scenes where Winona Ryder’s character, a mother whose son had been stolen away to a vaguely detailed dimension called “The Upside Down,” tried to get the authorities to take her seriously. Why restage a scene whose outcome everyone watching already knows? Is this an homage? A retelling? Are we meant to enjoy some satisfied sense of being ahead of the narrative?
I’d probably have checked my phone or gone to the restroom if the commando sequence had not been cut together with a better and more exciting one, a junkyard monster mash that pits junior versions of the first season’s final boss — that goopy eyeless beast whose penis-shaped head blossoms open to reveal full acres of teeth — against an unlikely roster of secondary characters. In outline, this face-off is essentially a velociraptor attack, but with an urban fantasy gloss and some welcome elements from The A-Team and the Three Investigators books. It’s also the best of what Stranger Things has to offer, outside of that still-striking minimalist title sequence: Here’s the fruitful and gratifying recombination of old elements into something new enough to invest ourselves in.
It’s still not strange, of course, and the series’ creators, the Duffer brothers, still haven’t invested it all with any ideas beyond Don’t you love this shit, too? But we love the shit we love, and I’m one of the many who couldn’t wait for more Stranger Things, despite its failings. Those still include a tendency to underestimate our interest in the characters themselves, like poor Barb, and the flipside problem of killing time wringing drama from the sulky moods of the cast of young kids. Two early scenes in this second season nearly flushed me out altogether: first, when we’re asked to feel for Finn Wolfhard’s Mike as he selfishly refuses to welcome Max, a badass new girl (Sadie Sink), into his group of friends. Second: the godawful moment when Eleven (Millie Bobbie Brown), the telekinetic preteen science-project shut-in, freaks out at the sight of Mike merely talking to Max. The best the writers can dream up for the little girl who can move mountains with her mind is a sitcom jealousy plot? (And I feel obliged to note that I come from a midwestern town smaller than the one these kids live in, and we had gender-fluid friends, even in the early '80s.)
But it gets better. The town of Hawkins, Indiana, is alive in ways it wasn’t before, teeming with incidents and side stories compelling enough that, unlike in the first season, I’ve not been tempted to skim ahead when the kids aren’t onscreen. Likable back-bench geeks Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) get their own subplots this time, giving the show more bounce and sweep. Ryder’s role is no longer one-note, and I love her scenes with Sean Astin, who plays a cheerful lug who actually believes her character when she says that the supernatural has intruded into her life. (That said, the scenes of Ryder’s Joyce again surrendering her home to an elaborate occult arts-and-crafts project are a rushed homage to an homage.) Some of the strongest moments again go to the high school kids, with Nancy (Natalie Dyer) taking decisive action against the scientists who got her friend Barb killed, and feathered-hair Steve (Joe Keery) again reminding us that cool-dude bullies can fight monsters, too.
But the best scenes are the most unexpected ones. Eleven now lives in a cabin with burly Sheriff Hopper (David Harbour), a caring and open-minded man who preserves his secrets by putting on an air of diffident boredom. But in providing her a home, he’s made her a prisoner. They clash, inevitably, and their biggest fight builds and builds with an intensity and ambiguity nothing else in the series has matched. We’re not cued to believe one character is more right than the other, at least until her brain-powers blast out the windows. Stranger Things never invents anything new, exactly, but at its best it fully imagines fresh variations on the old ones. You know what's truly strange? The day-to-day parenting of a decent, reasonable adult who feels responsible for the raising of a Carrie or a firestarter.