Stranger Things’ nostalgia fixation has reached a new extreme, intensified to the point of taking physical form in Sean Astin’s Bob Newby, Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder)’s new boyfriend. There’s no doubting here: Astin’s essentially playing Mikey from 1985’s The Goonies all grown-up – just as plucky, just as naively heroic.
Here he lives, amidst the nods to Cold War paranoia, The Terminator, Farrah Fawcett, and Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Time After Time’. But Stranger Things is not The Goonies, and that makes all the difference. Bob’s unwavering optimism, inevitably, must come to face the veil of darkness descending upon Hawkins, Indiana; to those around him, it’s a weary business as usual, but to him it’s as if the movies and comics of his youth have come to life.
Stranger Things 2 is weaponised nostalgia to its core, but not in the way we’re so accustomed to assume. This is nostalgia in its older, more traditional form: the feelings of things lost. Present in the first series, but more strongly felt here.
Viewers may take simple pleasure in returning to their own pasts – the songs, movies, and clothes of their childhoods – but that joy must forever be in contrast with the strange and lonesome fates of those who live in Hawkins.
Will is tortured by his time in the Upside Down, so pale and serious he seems no longer like a child. The events of a year ago hang in the air as an unspoken whisper. Eleven, of course, was robbed long ago of the childhood she deserved.
Stranger Things 2 may open on portraits of quaint simplicity – at the arcade, or the kids in their Ghostbusters costumes – but those scars are never far behind. Mike (Finn Wolfhard) is found alone, in his basement, trying to contact Eleven on his walkie-talkie. It’s been a year since she sacrificed herself to save them. Since he last saw her. All he hears is static.
On top of scars, come new wounds. Or, perhaps, the same wounds re-opened. Ironically, directors the Duffer Brothers’ continual insistence this second season is far more like a cinematic sequel rings truest here: like most movie sequels, it’s a rehash of what everyone liked about the first one. It’s just, in this case, they largely get away with it.
Credit it all to two central ingredients: characterisation and tone. Stranger Things 2 narrows in even closer on its central cast here (to the point you’ll forget about Barb all over again). The kids, Hopper (David Harbour), Joyce, Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), Steve (Joe Keery), and Nancy (Natalie Dyer) were all beautifully fleshed out in the first season, and here we’re allowed to settle into that comfortable familiarity.
They’re neatly split up (who knew Steve and Dustin could get on so well?), but all convene when it’s needed. All in all, Stranger Things 2 only grows our affections for these characters: Winona Ryder gets to yell at a bunch of people like we all want, Jonathan and Nancy get to do their adorable ‘will they, won’t they’ routine once more.
There are new characters here, some more effective than others. Max (Sadie Sink) is the defiant, tough skateboarder who adds a little more gender balance to the mix. She’s a great new character for the four main boys to spark off of, creating natural bonds and tensions within the group, but beyond that? She doesn’t have that much bearing on the story.
Neither does her aggressive, abusive older brother Billy (Dacre Montgomery) – he's too preoccupied with punching inanimate objects and dressing like a cast member of The Lost Boys.
If there’s a major leap from the familiar to be found, certainly, it’s with Eleven; her story shifts from Carrie to the X-Men, in a way, and it’s with her that the show seems to really craft itself a future.
Indeed, Stranger Things 2 does, at least, start to play fast and loose with exactly which ‘80s references it preys upon; the Stephen King/Steven Spielberg vibes are still prominent, but others, too – from Alien to Poltergeist. There's even a joke that one of the kids' recountings of the events from the first season turn out “a little derivative”.
Stranger Things 2 may be a safe move, but it’s a smart one. Founded in the familiar, it’s allowed to put to the side any temptation that might arise by show’s enormous success.
Namely, we don’t get a season that becomes too wrapped up in its own mythology: in the origins of the Upside Down, or the history of the lab. There is power in that mystery, and in that simplicity we can revel in what Stranger Things does best – nostalgia in its sweetest, most wistful form.
For a second spin, it all comes together fairly wonderfully. But there’s a concern here, too. Stranger Things ends with a sense of the cyclical once more. With a season 3 and 4 already discussed, there’s a point where the trick will tire. And why should they remain stuck in the same place? Their style, their world has been thoroughly established by now. Why not break out and explore?