'Stranger Things' channels classic Stephen King, expands universe

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Photo Credit: Courtesy of Netflix

The first season of “Stranger Things” merely dipped into a wider universe, but “Stranger Things 2” dives headfirst into a realm of fascinating monster mythology. Buoyed by excellent performances from an ensemble cast and even better special effects, this horror series once again establishes itself as one of Netflix’s best productions in recent memory.

“Stranger Things 2” focuses more on its characters than on the plot, which predictably entails Will’s newfound connection to the Upside Down threatening to plunge Hawkins into darkness. 

The story picks up a year after the events of the first season. Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) have done their best to help Will (Noah Schnapp) move on from his traumatic imprisonment in the Upside Down, but Will’s repeated visions of a gigantic shadow monster prevent him from doing so. The arrival of the new girl, Max (Sadie Sink), further upends their dynamic by pitting Dustin and Lucas against each other in a battle for her affection. Mike plays a less pivotal role than he did in the previous season, spending the majority of his time lamenting Eleven’s disappearance.

Meanwhile, Nancy (Natalia Dyer) feels guilty for kicking Barb out before the latter’s death, putting her relationship with Steve (Joe Keery) on the rocks. This leaves an opening for Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) to grow closer to her as they try to expose Hawkins Laboratory’s experiments in the Upside Down.

While Jonathan and Nancy make a familiar pairing, “Stranger Things 2” also gives us wonderful new ones. The budding romance between Lucas and Max doesn’t do much to drive the plot forward, but it does provide an extra layer of sweetness. Joyce (Winona Ryder) finds her own beau, Bob (Sean Astin), who immediately becomes a warm, friendly and likable presence thanks to Astin’s performance. On the flip side, Steve and Dustin develop a genuine bromance over girls, monster hunting and hairspray.

But the real gem of “Stranger Things 2” is the unexpected father-daughter relationship between Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) and Sheriff Hopper (David Harbour). It turns out Eleven returned to Hawkins not long after destroying the Demogorgon, and Hopper has been harboring her for over a year. In Hopper, Eleven finds the paternal love Dr. Brenner never gave her, while Hopper sees a chance to make up for his own failings as a dad. This is a surprising dynamic given how rarely these characters interacted in the first season, yet they make each other whole. Their bond may become the most beloved element of “Stranger Things.”

As Eleven, Brown once again demonstrates the maturity of a thespian beyond her years, excellently balancing her character’s inner strength and rage with her damaged vulnerability. Harbour matches those traits in his own performance, capably being a powerful yet gentle presence who doesn’t overshadow the younger cast members. 

Thanks to the remarkable number of strong character moments and likability of its cast, “Stranger Things 2” holds your attention even as it expands its universe with more complex revelations about the Upside Down. The shadow monster in Will’s visions, dubbed “the Mind Flayer,” is a far more threatening villain than the Demogorgon, with its seemingly endless influence and shape-shifting form working in tandem to give it an air of invincibility. Thankfully, “Stranger Things 2” takes care not to explain too much about the Upside Down, relying on detailed environments to subtly teach viewers about this parallel universe so its mystery can be preserved. 

“Stranger Things 2” carries forward the best elements that made the first season such a hit while adding new ones. With its fantastic characters and excellent production design, this is a worthy continuation of Netflix’s spooky franchise. 

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  • “Stranger Things 2”
  • Score: 4.5 / 5 stars