Stranger Things Season 2 Premiere: New Mysteries, Old Nostalgia

Stranger Things Season 2
Photo Courtesy of Netflix

Stranger Things Season 2 Premiere Plot Summary:

Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) is haunted by his experiences in the Upside Down, raising concerns among his family and friends. The boys become enamored with a new girl at their school. Nancy (Natalia Dyer) tries to support her friends but remains troubled by Barb’s (Shannon Purser) disappearance.

Time (and plenty of binge watching) will tell if a return trip to Hawkins and the Upside Down was necessary, but the second season’s premiere makes a good case for exploring the emotional fallout of the first. Between the town conspiracy theories, rumors surrounding Will, and the characters’ struggles to cope with their losses and dramatic experiences, “Chapter One: Madmax” does a remarkable job exploring the nature of trauma and the effects of a supernatural experience on a small town. Thankfully, when the episode is tackling such a heavy theme, the season premiere contains plenty of the mysteries, laughs, and nostalgia that made the first season such a hit, even if the premiere doesn’t necessarily reach the same heights of the initial phenomenon.

While the exact direction of the sophomore season remains unclear by the end of the first episode, the new season’s darker tone is clear almost immediately. A purely happily-ever-after ending was always going to be unlikely, but I am genuinely surprised how well the season premiere manages to address concepts like PTSD and survivor’s guilt within the context of a love letter to the ’80s. Will’s flashes to the Upside Down, Joyce’s (Winona Ryder) overprotectiveness, Nancy’s inability to tell Barb’s family the truth, and Mike’s (Finn Wolfhard) longing to be reunited with Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) all make perfect sense within the context of the series’ earlier events and perfectly capture the effects of trauma. The tact with which the show approaches this subject is perhaps the best justification for the show being renewed for another season.

But the premiere doesn’t solely focus on the past; new characters and locations are introduced in spades and have the potential to dramatically alter the trajectory of the show. The importance of characters like Sean Astin’s Bob Newby and Paul Reisser’s Dr. Sam Owens may only be teased, but their chemistry with the rest of the cast suggests they’ll make a big impact on the Byers family. The most intriguing characters so far, however, are undoubtedly Max (Sadie Sink) and Kali (Linnea Berthelsen). Although not much is known yet about Max, she will certainly be a fun new addition to the Hawkins Middle AV Club who can disrupt the group’s interactions in a similar way to Eleven while bringing her own baggage and strong personality. Meanwhile, starting the episode on Kali is a surprising stroke of genius from the Duffer Brothers, the show’s executive producers and masterminds. The introduction of Kali immediately answers some key fan questions but also changes everything we know about the world of Stranger Things.

One thing that hasn’t changed about Hawkins, though, is everyone’s favorite love triangle. I know some fans (including The Pop Break’s own Bill Bodkin) may be weary of the Nancy-Steve (Joe Keery)-Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) dynamic, but there is clearly plenty of dramatic ground to cover in this romance/friendship/rivalry. Anyone that read my previous reviews will remember how hard I was on Steve, yet I think the Domino’s star has truly turned a corner and become one of the show’s most charismatic characters. Now that both of Nancy’s love interests are likeable, picking a side will be much harder for us fans that initially sympathized with the awkward, family-oriented Jonathan.

Aside from having to admit that Jonathan and Nancy may not be destined for one another, it also pains be to admit that the premiere may have gone a tad overboard in its ’80s nostalgia. As much as I love the town’s arcade as a setting, the show’s soundtrack and visual callbacks to the period’s style feel more forced in this episode; rather than being a background feature that gives the show texture, the setting occasionally overshadows moments that need more room to breath. Though I don’t want the ’80s callbacks to completely fade away, I hope the nostalgia will be toned down as the season progresses.

While the episode suffers from high fan expectations and questions of necessity, “Chapter One: Madmax” is another great installment to Netflix’s best original series. The cast and writing continue to impress, and Hawkins remains a wonderful setting to escape to, full of intrigue and friendly faces. And much like Season 1, the premiere’s cliffhanger will likely make you rethink any plans you had for this weekend in favor of some serious binge watching.

Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Josh Sarnecky is one of Pop Break’s staff writers and covers Designated Survivor, Game of Thrones, and Stranger Things. His brother, Aaron, is the site’s TV Editor, but Josh is the family’s reigning Trivial Pursuit: Star Wars champion.

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