It’s been nearly a year since Joyce Byers fought her way into the Upside Down and tore an intergalactic worm out of her son Will’s throat. Since then, things seem to have largely gone back to normal in Hawkins, Indiana. But as the new season premiere has shown, the ramifications of that one week in November, 1983 are still creating ripples across the small town.
Though the opening moments of this episode hint at an exciting expanded world outside of Hawkins—one that’s decidedly more diverse than Stranger Things‘ first season—we’re quickly pulled back into the recognizably dated ‘burbs that we all fell in love with last year. The Duffer Brothers spend the season premiere focusing on the trauma and survival guilt of the core cast. Noah Schnapp is back from his default banishment in season one, and he’s already establishing himself as a powerhouse.
His nuanced and moving performance as kid on the edge of two worlds, one of which he’s being told isn’t real, is a true highlight of this episode. Though it’s accepted that the Upside Down exists, the nefarious Hawkins Laboratory is now treating Will for “PTSD” whilst seemingly waiting to see if he manifests any powers. Essentially gaslighting him and his mother about his spectacular and probably prescient visions of Hawkins in the Upside Down dimension.
One interesting reading of this episode is that Will’s visions are literal manifestations of his trauma, as the rest of the 45 minutes strays away from the supernatural with only hints at the fact that what Will’s experiencing is real. Of course we know that the Upside Down does exist and that Will seems to have brought something of it back with him, but that doesn’t stop the creators from playing with this idea.
Will’s best friend and biggest champion, Mike, is also struggling to deal with his life after Eleven. In the mold of many a bothered preteen before him, Mike has begun causing trouble, graffitiing school toilets, and generally dealing with his unpacked trauma like any young boy in a kids’ movie does. Some of the episode’s sweetest and most eloquent moments come from Mike’s growing disenchantment with everyone around him. In one particularly bittersweet scene, he sits in Eleven’s old den and tries to contact her on his walkie-talkie.
As the Duffer Brothers are more focused on the emotional arcs of their characters, they seem less interested in the kooky, reference heavy meta-text which filled the first season. This time around, much of the retro referentials have been left to the fantastically nostalgic set dressing and costumes. Of course, this is Stranger Things, so we get Joyce sewing a Ghostbusters patch onto a Halloween costume for Will, and an arcade-heavy first act includes classic games like Dig Dug and Centipede. We’re also introduced to a mysterious new arrival in town who goes by the appropriately ’80s gaming handle “Madmax.”
While the younger Stranger Things kids try to get on with life, their older counterparts are also dealing with the fact that 352 days ago their entire reality was changed. Nancy and Steve are still in love, though her clear feelings for Jonathan will likely put a spanner in those works. Where Steve is enthusiastic, full of love, and promises of commitment in the face of almost losing Nancy to the demogorgon, her journey seems to be more focused on the woman she lost, Barb.
After her disappearance in season one, Barb became a symbolic representation for all the collateral damage of horror movies. The actress not deemed traditionally attractive enough to be the final girl, the friend who dies and is often forgotten. But the Duffer Brothers (and Netflix‘s marketing team) are not letting that happen to their Barb. Nancy is wracked with guilt after abandoning her best friend only to later discover her dead in the Upside Down. This is compounded after she visits Barb’s hopeful parents who’ve enlisted the help of an overpriced P.I. to find their (unbeknownst to them) deceased daughter.
The Hollands’ desperate attempts to find their lost daughter leans into what appears to be another thematic thread of this season: the exploitation of people in need. In the midst of a town that just dealt with a conspiracy theory come to life, sleazy con men are slipping out of the woodwork to take advantage of those who’re most vulnerable. Early on in the episode, David Harbour’s Chief Hopper tells an imaginative conspiracy hound to “stop bleeding these people dry and get out.” But, as a (slightly expected) third act reveal exposes, that might be more for his own sanity than it is to protect the people of Hawkins.
Where season one of the Duffer Brothers’ Stranger Things was a wild ride through a nostalgic landscape of creepy thrills, the premiere for their sophomore effort seems to be more interested in giving depth and importance to the world they’ve already created, which is a surprising yet sensible step. If there were any criticisms of the first season, it was that the show relied on a heavy dose of self-referential humor and era-appropriate product placement. But with this latest entry into the series’ canon, they’ve made a statement that Stranger Things 2 is definitely bringing something other than Eggos to the plate.
What did you think about the debut of Stranger Things 2? Let us know in the comments!
Catch Up On Every Episode of Stranger Things 2!
- Episode 1 – Stranger Things 2 gets off to a surprisingly somber start
- Episode 2 – Stranger Things characters try to get back to normal
- Episode 3 – What do you do when your bully is a transdimensional being?
- Episode 4 – The real and figurative monsters plaguing Hawkins
- Episode 5 – Stranger Things explores the tropes of trust and truth
- Episode 6 – Stranger Things goes Aliens
- Episode 7 – Why Eleven is the heart of Stranger Things 2
- Episode 8 – All the Jurassic Park references this season
- Episode 9 – Where does the Stranger Things finale leave its characters?
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