The A.V. Club’s full-length Stranger Things 2 recaps are rolling out daily at noon, but for those watching the show’s second season at a more rapid clip, we present the following capsule reviews. This post will continually update, and we’ll have the full season covered by Monday, October 30; plot details will be discussed, but please be mindful of spoilers in the comments.
Episode 1: “Madmax”
Everything’s the same, but different.
Mike, Will, Dustin, and Lucas are role-playing in a fantasy realm, but now it’s the notoriously expensive Don Bluth arcade game Dragon’s Lair. Joyce is in a confined space with Christmas lights, but she’s joined by new beau Bob (Sean Astin). Chief Hopper ends his days in an isolated homestead where the TV’s blaring and there’s Schlitz in the fridge, but he has someone to eat his frozen dinner with—and chide for spoiling her appetite with Eggos. This is Hawkins, Indiana in the autumn of 1984: Same as it ever was, same as it ever was.
And that might be the main drawback of The Duffer Brothers’ “movie sequel” conception of Stranger Things’ second season. “Madmax” re-establishes a status quo, but that status quo requires an awful lot of reiteration. It’s heavier handed in later episodes, but handled with a humorous touch when we meet another of season two’s new characters: Murray Bauman (Brett Gelman), the conspiracy-minded investigative journalist who’s been hired to solve Barb’s disappearance. Yes, Stranger Things is going to continue beating that particular drum, but it provides more comic relief than fan-service in the season premiere, as seen on the awkward side of the dinner table shared by Barb’s parents and Nancy and Steve—at least until Nancy’s feelings of guilt get the best of her, and Natalia Dyer gets to have a good cry in the Holland family bathroom.
The major difference here is Will. After being squirreled away in the Upside Down for most of the first season, Noah Schnapp is almost as much of an unknown presence on the scene as Dr. Brenner’s replacement at Hawkins National Laboratory (Paul Reiser as Dr. Owen), the kids’ new classmates (Dacre Montgomery as Billy and Sadie Sink as Max), or the cold-open band of Pittsburgh fugitives who appear to have their own lab escapee in their midst. Things in Hawkins may look like they’ve gone back to square one (and “Madmax” takes its time in moving the story to square two) but Will remains a living reminder of the extraordinary things that happened in this town just less than a year ago—“Zombie Boy,” a term that’s alternately disparaging and empowering, depending on the scen. Schnapp plays him wide-eyed and shellshocked, the chilling flashes of stormy skies and a monster on the horizon as much a symbol of season one’s open wounds as that gate to the Upside Down that the friendly folks down at the lab are still taking precautionary measures against. It’s still there, like Will, and so’s Eleven, too—eventually. “Madmax” just has to finish with the scene-setting first.
Episode 2: “Trick Or Treat, Freak”
Having confirmed that Eleven survived her climactic encounter with the demogorgon—and it’s hardly a confirmation when Millie Bobby Brown has been all over the season-two publicity tour—Stranger Things does not dilly dally. Does her escape from the Upside Down lack for drama? Sure. But it gets “Trick Or Treat, Freak” moving, and establishes a flashback framework that ties into the first season’s. Season two is a story about survival, and El is Stranger Things’ ultimate survivor.
She’s better equipped for it, at least, than Will or Nancy. Ever since the latter disappeared, every day’s been like Halloween in Hawkins, but now that it’s actually October 31, they’re hoping for their own escape, to a sillier, safer realm of the supernatural, that of bad Bela Lugosi impressions, “Monster Mash,” and Dr. Peter Venkman. Nancy and Steve go to Tina’s party as Tom Cruise and Rebecca De Mornay in Risky Business, but their actual costume is “stupid teenagers” pretending like they didn’t get Nancy’s best friend eviscerated by a toothy being from another dimension. It’s just not going to happen in a town where the most recognizable symbol of the holiday is putrefying in slime-covered fields. “Pure fuel” can only go so far, and so can Will when he’s engulfed by the Upside Down and pursued by the shadow monster from his season-premiere vision. Sooner or later, they’ll have to confront what they’ve been through.
All that heaviness aside, “Trick Or Treat, Freak” is more treat that trick, a lively Halloween entry that deeply indulges the Duffer Brothers’ pop-culture passions (it’s not Ghostbusters saturation when you use the theme song smartly and acknowledge the disservice the first film does to Winston) while gearing up for the main action of season two. And even though the episode ends on notes of anguish and alarm, it packs some big laughs, too, like Eleven sneaking up on Hopper in her ghost costume (hey, it worked for E.T.) and Dustin and Lucas’ initial, thwarted attempt at flirting with Max. (“Let’s engage.” [Locker slam.] “We could ask her after class.” “Yup.” “Trick Or Treat, Freak” does a good job of capturing the joke-telling rhythms of Ghostbusters without quoting too much from the film itself. The “exterminators” allusions is a nice touch.) There’s something strange in the neighborhood, but that doesn’t prevent Stranger Things from finding entertaining ways for its kids to act like normal kids.
Episode 3: “The Pollywog”
If you’re the type of person who prefers for “things” to “happen” on your streaming television programs, “The Pollywog” is the episode that’ll pull you onto the Stranger Things 2 train. Me, I don’t mind all the atmosphere of the first couple of episodes—it’s the rehashing that gets me down. Then again, I’m the guy who loved the way Mindhunter moved by inches in its first two episodes, so what do I know?
I know this much: “The Pollywog” works best for me as less of an individual entry and more of the second half in an unofficial two-parter with “Trick Or Treat, Freak.” It’s the cold All Saints’ morning light hitting the gang after All Hallows’ Eve—though I think Steve should walk back those words about Nancy not handling her liquor, because she’s handling her hangover like a trooper. The episode is a “zoomer,” like Max, which isn’t a thing but is a good description of the momentum that swoops Eleven out of the house and sends the party scrambling around Hawkins Middle in search of the quickly evolving Gremlins surrogate that was rattling around in Dustin’s trash can.
During the montage that shows Eleven and Hopper making a booby-trapped home in the woods (truly, you do not mess around with this Jim), El is seen putting a puzzle together, and that’s what watching this episode feels like: Pieces clicking together, like Dustin’s discovery connecting to the slug Will puked up at the end of season one or Joyce seeing the shadow monster in the camcorder interference—before the massive arachnid threat engulfs Will in what makes for season two’s first truly startling image. In “The Pollywog,” we get a ramped up Stranger Things, and we get a hip-swinging David Harbour, and both of these things are good.
Also: I get the feeling that that basketball scene (and/or Dacre Montgomery’s ability to simultaneously channel the Lost Boys personas of Jason Patric and Kiefer Sutherland) is about to become a thing.
Episode 4: “Will The Wise”
Episodic cliffhangers are old hat for streaming TV by now, a hallmark of the format that was pretty much in place during the first season of Orange Is The New Black. I sit down for a show like Stranger Things expecting to be pulled by the nose from one episode to the next, but “Will The Wise” does that pulling with more force than most—and this coming out of an episode whose ending is nothing to sneeze at.
But even before Hopper plops down (or up?) into a tunnel seemingly connected to the Upside Down, Stranger Things 2’s fourth episode is a triumph of the eerie and foreboding. In the words of Mr. Clark, “These are the signs of the physical and emotional state we call fear.” Supernatural and earthbound threats converge in “Will The Wise,” like the parallel dimensions that appear to have collided beneath Merrill’s Farm: Noah Schnapp serves up superb creepy-kid vibes now that the shadow monster is inside him, and Jonathan and Nancy waiting to get picked up by the lab folks is charged with conspiracy-thriller tension. Though, while it obviously worked out, I’m still a little unclear as to what Nancy and Jonathan’s plan even was. Are the lab’s spies known to hang out in that park? Is this a callback to season one I’m failing to pick up?
“Will The Wise” lays it on a little thick at times—Hop and El’s fraught father-daughter relationship is one of my favorite parts of the new season, but maybe David Harbour could’ve held back just a teensy, tiny bit during the grounding?—but it’s a loud episode overall. The score hits new heights of discordance during the big argument, and then spirals into mad crescendos during the coloring/assembling sequence at the Byers. (From the school of “go bigger” sequel-making: Whereas Will uses one wall to communicate with his mom in season one, here he uses the whole damn house.) And then there’s the ending, big and brash and unapologetically Stranger Things in its mash-up of Ghostbusters 2, The Goonies, and ALF. (Dart eating Mews is a reference to ALF always trying to eat the Tanner family’s cat, I will not be persuaded otherwise.) The lab’s “mistake” has penetrated deeper into Hawkins than anyone could’ve anticipated, and now Nancy and Jonathan are poised to blow the lid off the whole thing. The world’s turning Upside Down, and that’s not just a photographic trick.
Episode 5: “Dig Dug”
Back in “Trick Or Treat, Freak,” Stranger Things 2 makes a choice, showing the early stages of the cover-up that’ll keep the events of the previous season hush-hush. It’s a campaign of misinformation about Soviet espionage that drives people like Murray to seek the truth, and keeps people like Lucas from filling his new friend Max in on the fact that, hey, last year, a monster from another physical plane abducted his friend and killed local wet blanket Barbara Holland. There’s a justification for this within the script of “Dig Dug”—the ol’ “People don’t want to see behind the curtain” song-and-dance, which builds on what we’ve seen Dr. Owen and Chief Hopper discussing—though it does little for the fact that, up to this point, season two has been playing with one hand tied behind its back.
There are vague threats of retaliation hanging over the principals, but they’re the sort of thing that’s only there when one of the characters is talking about them, a sign of Stranger Things’ occasionally hinky writing. It’s like in season one, when Dustin tells Mike that Lucas is jealous of Eleven because he considers Mike his best friend, and Mike’s caught off-guard—but I was also caught off-guard, because every other indication the show had given to that point was that Mike and Will were the best friends within the party. It makes sense to keep some secrets, like the one about the cat-eating quadruped Dustin’s been keeping in his room, which could very well be a demogorgon. But there’s neither the stakes, nor the overpowering sense of “trust no one” suspicion, to keep potential allies in the dark for this long—not when Hop’s suffocating in a nest of sentient tentacles!
I bring this up because “Dig Dug” succeeds despite these limitations. Like Hopper down in those tunnels, it just has to fight through a lot to get there, but that fighting makes for some crackerjack TV. By the end of the episode, Max and Bob are both up to speed, though don’t you just want to grab Mike, Will, and Joyce in that map-decoding scene and scream “Just let him in on the secret already”? It’s not like the scenes in which Eleven, Nancy, and Jonathan are revealing secrets beyond the Hawkins city limits lack for any drama. In his first of two Stranger Things episodes in the director’s chair, Pixar hand Andrew Stanton puts some real zip into the proceedings, as Nancy and Murray find they have a compatible knack for hatching schemes, and Eleven learns the Philip Glass-backed truth behind her birth, her kidnapping, and Terry Ives’ abuse at the hands of Dr. Brenner. “Dig Dug” lives up to its name, in both Hopper’s subterranean predicament and the way it excavates some of the series’ larger mysteries. I’m not entirely convinced we needed to know what that flakey floaty stuff in the Upside Down is, but I am thankful that we can probably just refer to it as pollen from here on out.
Ending on a note of appreciation, which some are already sounding elsewhere: Noah Schnapp kills it in Stranger Things 2. He convincingly channels Will’s terror and confusion at his “now memories,” and makes chilling work of the shadow monster’s increasing grip over the boy—his convulsions at the end of “Dig Dug” are, to borrow a couple of phrases, pure nightmare fuel. And not for nothing, but the way he embodies those emotions and reactions enhances the credibility of his casting: When he and Finn Wolfhard are talking at the beginning of “Dig Dug,” Schnapp really, really seems like he could be Winona Ryder’s kid. If that Beetlejuice sequel ever comes to fruition, the producers really ought to consider Schnapp for a member of the next generation of Deetzes.
Episode 6: “The Spy”
“The Spy” is all about the power of two. Dustin and Steve, and their adventures—Dustin and Steve, forever and ever, a hundred years Dustin and Steve. Nancy and Jonathan, doing Pillow Talk in the secured bunker of an eccentric crank. The emotionally honest rooftop chat between Lucas and Max. And most importantly to the thrust of “The Spy,” Will and the shadow monster, linked by science-fiction mumbo jumbo and close calls in confined spaces.
This is my favorite episode of Stranger Things 2, a series of nail-biting set-pieces interspersed with potent character connections. The junkyard battle is probably going to get the most attention—it seems like Steve is going to bite it there for a second, doesn’t it?—but the mini-screwball comedy that breaks out at Murray’s is equally worthy of praise. For one, it’s an entertaining change of pace, a use of the friction between Nancy and Jonathan that pulls from beyond Stranger Things’ cinematic comfort zone. At first it’s funny because it’s unexpected, but as the characters go through their Doris Day-Rock Hudson beats—incredulous muttering and door-slamming—it’s funny because “The Spy” really goes for it. And because it’s going for it, and because we’ve been waiting so long for it, the climactic clinch lands with maximum impact. Nobody else understands what these two have been through; no one could understand them like they do.
And then the humor is restored in the smash cut to Lucas’ sister Erica, smooshing her Barbie’s face into He-Man’s. “The Spy” balances its tones really well, and I think some of the credit there should go to Andrew Stanton, who so seamlessly blended wordless storytelling, environmentalist allegory, space exploration, romantic comedy, and a couple of Hello, Dolly! deep cuts as the director of WALL-E. Part of the fun of watching Stranger Things 2 is in seeing the Duffer Brothers expand their sandbox to make room for not only a wider array of reference points (not much of a stretch for the Spielberg devotees to do Jurassic Park here and in episode eight, but you catch my drift) and collaborators. If the first season of Stranger Things proved anything, it’s that the movies, TV shows, and books that inspired the Duffers stuck with and influenced a lot more people than you might’ve originally guessed. It’s encouraging to see that “He-Man kissing Barbie” spirit extend to the second season.
If only it could’ve prevented the next episode from happening.
Episode 7: “The Lost Sister”
If any Stranger Things character deserves a standalone episode, it’s Eleven. If any member of its school-aged cast deserves a spotlight hour, it’s Millie Bobby Brown. In the wider spectrum of Stranger Things’ thematic material, there are riches to be mined from El learning to harness her powers, as an X-Men-style coming-of-age narrative or a Star Wars-style moral quandary. There is much potential in “The Lost Sister,” almost all of it squelched by poor performances, half-baked characters, and allusions that aren’t so much on-the-nose as they are bashing-the-nose-to-a-bloody-pulp. The Duffers knew they were taking a risk here. Unfortunately, it’s one without much reward.
I hate this episode and the effect it has on the momentum of season two. Dart and his den of Upside Down monsters are poised to descend on the lab, and instead we’re pulled away to Chicago for a hot minute, to witness a personal journey for El that doesn’t have nearly the amount of foundational support it requires. She’s not the most verbose of characters, which means the Class Of 1984 ringers assembled around Kali have to do most of the talking in “The Lost Sister,” and they’re not up to the task. They’re cartoon characters swarming around Brown’s soulful portrayal, and the whole detour into the big city—which hews much too close to the baseless, suburban-borne fears of the “into the night” movies it’s mimicking—is goofy in a way Stranger Things usually isn’t. It’s a subplot straining to be the sole plot of an episode. Eleven and Brown both deserve better.
Kali does, too. She has a few years on her surrogate sister, both in age and time outside the lab, and with those years has come a vengeful spirit that’s only occasionally swept up Eleven. It makes sense for Kali to exist, just as it makes sense that she’d lead a band of outlaws bent on taking lives and money in exchange for the childhood that was stolen from her by Dr. Brenner and his cronies. (Her belief that Brenner is still out there is an interesting wrinkle, one that’s certain to fan the fan theory flames.) Her escape at the end of the episode guarantees a return in future episodes, and that’s where “The Lost Sister” will do the most damage, because I’m always going to associate Kali with the low point of Stranger Things 2. Perhaps they can roll “better material” into the character’s overall quest for justice.
Episode 8: “The Mind Flayer”
And another annoying thing about “The Lost Sister”: It just delays Eleven’s reunion with everybody back in Hawkins. That fateful rendezvous takes place at the end of “The Mind Flayer,” after some stalling of a more interesting sort: A tense survival thriller in a locked-down lab followed by a siege of the Byers homestead, both pitting the humans against Will/the shadow monster and their army of “demodogs.” There’s the sense that nobody’s safe, even though almost everybody is safe, because Stranger Things isn’t in the business of killing named characters willy-nilly. (Something that becomes abundantly clear after Steve escapes the demodogs in “The Spy.”) The show stands out from its genre-TV contemporaries in that it doesn’t treat its cast as cannon fodder. That’s probably a function of the cast members’ ages: The writers aren’t afraid to put the kids in mortal peril, but they’re also not about to toss them to the slimy, lamprey-faced wolves. The burden of putting the fear of death into the viewer lies instead with the adult characters, who are usually pulled back from the brink at the last second—if they’re not Bob Newby.
Poor Bob. For most of Stranger Things 2, pretty much up to the moment of his death, I had him pegged as a turncoat. The red-herring game is afoot as soon as episode three, when he gives Will faulty, Losers’ Club advice about confronting his fears. There’s then a slight hint of malice when he volunteers to play the Ellie Sattler part in “The Mind Flayer”’s “I think we’re back in business” sequence, but it turns out he’s just playing selfless hero. The sacrifice confirms his noble intentions, then renders him into another cleared obstacle to Joyce and Hopper’s eventual coupling. It’s a cruel end for a character who rocketed to fan-favorite status over the weekend, albeit one that dispels all of that fretting Jonathan does earlier on in the season.
With our heroes reconvened and swatting away the monster’s influence on Will—in an affecting montage that re-ups on the “power of storytelling” motif from “Dig Dug”—“The Mind Flayer” picks up, then puts down, one lingering Stranger Things 2 thread: Why is Billy such an asshole? Answer: Billy is an asshole because his father is an asshole, an abusive, bigoted piece of shit who appears to have passed his prejudices down to his son. As with Bob, I’d sort of let my imagination run wild re: Max, Billy, their parents, and why they moved to Hawkins, presuming they worked at the lab, or for the shadowy government agency that runs the lab. But as far as we can tell from their long-delayed first onscreen appearance, Mr. Hargrove is just your ordinary, run-of-the-mill bad dad, and neither he nor his wife nor his son nor his stepdaughter had any ties to the strange happenings in Hawkins until they came to Hawkins. Then again, I’m willing to be proven wrong: I was with Bob Newby—may he rest in peace.
Episode 9: “The Gate”
In my initial review of Stranger Things 2, I referred to an “inertia” setting in during the closing hours. Having watched the whole thing a second time for these capsule reviews, I’m not sure it’s so much inertia affecting these episodes as it is the feeling that much too much incident has been staved off until the very last moment, so that the (honestly exciting) pile-up that occurs in “The Gate” causes the episode to drag, then fire up, then tie all its action in up in one fell, screaming swoop. An emotionally satisfying denouement follows, but when the episode is 20 minutes in, and Billy is wailing on Steve, it might not be the best time for that wailing to go into slow motion.
When it gets cooking (pun intended), “The Gate” locates the peak of Stranger Things’ pastiche powers: “pretty damn good babysitter” Steve leading a subterranean Goonies adventure while Will sweats the infection out in a cabin-in-the-woods scenario and El and Hopper get their alien-queen showdown—complete with a mechanical rig. The sequencing of events is a nifty bit of plotting, breaking the principals into three groups in order to fulfill the chain of events that will allow El to close the gate to the Upside Down without also killing Will. And, hey, she’s only able to close the gate because of what she learned with Kali in Chicago—and the vision of Brenner, which reframes the gate as the biggest unhealed wound in all of Stranger Things 2—so “The Lost Sister” wasn’t a total waste! (But the callback here backs up my feeling that what happens in “The Lost Sister” only works in small chunks—okay, I’ll put it to rest…)
The epilogue is another component of “The Gate” that goes a little long, a length I’ll accept in exchange for the sequence set at the Snow Ball, the school dance Mike told Eleven he would take her to in the first season. In addition to that full-circle moment, the dance fulfills the “stupid teenagers” wish from “Trick Or Treat, Freak”: With all the scary, unbelievable events of the past two years behind them, the kids can be kids again, in mortifyingly true-to-life fashion. The deflation that Dustin goes through—the unmet expectation that a new hairdo or more stylish clothes will completely alter your identity—is played so crushingly well. It, or El and Mike’s exchange about not knowing how to dance, are the human heart of Stranger Things. The action can go sideways, and the pacing can lag, but it always has this. “Time After Time” is a smart music cue, and not just because it’s an all-time great slow-dance number: It’s a summation of what bonds these characters together. When one of them falls, the rest are there for the catch. Friends don’t lie, and they don’t let each other wander into the biggest fights of their lives—physical or metaphorical; in the school gymnasium or on the field of battle—alone. And judging by the final frames of Stranger Things 2, they have quite the fight ahead of them.