4/5 Stars

WARNING: Mild to severe spoilers ahead.

Stranger Things’ second season brings us back into the Upside Down with a familiar storyline and unforgettable characters. The show is nine hours’ worth of hair-raising and teeth grinding excitement, filled with its classic ’80s nostalgia, a never-ending number of references, and much needed comedic relief in the most stressful situations.

Chapter one immediately immerses us into the world of the ‘80s with Lucas Sinclair (played by Caleb McLaughlin), Will Byers (played by Noah Schnapp), Dustin Henderson (played by Gaten Matarazzo), and Mike Wheeler (played by Finn Wolfhard) all crowding around a video arcade game. As the boys are playing, Will starts experiencing the Upside Down again, thus becoming the foundation of the season’s plot.

Mixed with Will’s multi-dimensional experiences, the show gradually introduces various connections between unsolved problems and subplots from its former season. The disappearance and death of Barb Holland (played by Shannon Purser) in season one comes full circle in season two, playing a primary role in the closing of the Hawkins Laboratory, the lab that did experiments on Stranger Things’ protagonist Eleven (played by Millie Bobby Brown).

The reintroduction of Barb, however, feels more forced than necessary. Season one received backlash for its lack of concern of Ms. Holland’s mutilation. Nancy Wheeler (played by Natalia Dyer) was one of the few people concerned with her best friend’s disappearance. Season two, however, presents Barb as a more fundamental character than the writers meant for her to be, perhaps a response to the backlash season one received. The concern the characters feel for her implicates more forced than genuine grief. Despite the forced grief, Barb’s death fortunately fits in with the rest of the Stranger Things plot, and the show gives her gruesome murder the closure it deserves.

As well as Nancy’s growing concern for her friend, we see an expansion of development for the rest of the characters. Bonds, sometimes unlikely, formed between them, like when Hawkins police chief Jim Hopper (played by David Harbour) unveils a paternal side to his personhood when he takes the responsibility to look after Eleven. Jonathon Byers (played by Charlie Heaton) and Nancy become more than friends, and Steve Harrington (played by Joe Keery), season one’s villain, grows to be sweet and admired, developing an unexpected, but important, friendship with Dustin.

To fill the spot for the show’s teenage villain is Billy Hargrove (played by Dacre Montgomery), an abusive, rage-filled older brother to Max Hargrove (played by Sadie Sink), and the foil for Steve’s nurturing character. Bob Newby (played by Sean Austin) is Joyce Byer’s (played by Winona Ryder) dorky significant other and meets a gruesome death he could have avoided had he not stopped running. The growth among the characters moves the story along, especially in places the story seems stuck. The show ends anticlimactically, with the Shadow Monster still existing in the Upside Down just as the season had started. It seems as if the show is afraid to move itself forward, away from the Upside Down. This alternate dimension is familiar, but it is starting to get stagnant. Fortunately, we can trust the main characters to move season three along despite the endless cycle Stranger Things seems to put itself in.

Chapter 7 “The Lost Sister” is one of the most unique, exciting episodes in the season. The story deviates from Hawkins when Eleven travels to Chicago, Illinois to find her estranged sister, Kali/Eight (played by Linnea Berthelsen), who was also experimented on in the labs. The sister has illusionary manipulation powers, meaning she can force people’s minds to see something that isn’t there. Her powers are mind-boggling and depicted with effects so extremely detailed and intense, you forget you are watching a show on Netflix. As Eleven grows comfortable with her new “home” in Chicago, she gains a new sense of agency and personhood, sporting a classic punk look and starts referring to herself by her birth name, Jane. The evolution she experiences furthers her character development throughout the rest of the show, and we finally see more of who Jane/Eleven is. Chapter 7 also found a way to intertwine its storyline with that of Chapter 6, so to make sure Eleven’s trip to Chicago is not just a detour from the show’s central plot. Stranger Things, from the beginning to end, is spot on with its flashbacks and consistency of illustrating different events happening at the same time in one scene.

The entirety of seasons two’s soundtrack is electrifying and thrilling, a combination of synthesizers and classic rock familiar in the decade’s era of science fiction and horror. The show also continuously throws bouts of ‘80s reminiscence in your face, from the four boys’ adorable Ghostbusters costumes and Max’s horrifying Mike Myers mask to the classic arcade games and Lucas’ He-Man action figure. Influences of Stephen King (“It,” “Needful Things,” “Firestarter” and many more), John Carpenter (“Halloween, The Thing”), and Steven Spielberg (anything extraterrestrial in Stranger Things) remain as evident and powerful as in the season prior.

Stranger Things is not a perfect show. The writers tend to drag out storylines longer than needed and there is an unnecessary trio of love triangles; love triangles are an overused trope in the horror/sci-fi genre and rarely, if ever, end well. Often, because it is usually a man and woman and man situation, love triangles enforce toxic masculinity and sets the female in the middle up for failure; it is best for the writing to do away with it entirely. Season two is also forceful with heteronormativity and desperately lacks diverse representation (representation is important, friends). Stranger Things, however, is riveting. There are few shows that are as easy to sit nine hours through without a break, and few as anxiety-ridden and simultaneously hilarious with such an outstanding cast. It has successfully proven itself to be anything but a one-hit-wonder, now let’s hope it will allow itself to grow.