We first met Stranger Things’ core cast of pre-teen heroes in the midst of a game of Dungeons and Dragons, and what we saw of that game served to quickly establish their roles, not just in D&D, but also in their circle. New girl Max (Sadie Sink), however, had no such privilege, so Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard) lays it out for her a few episodes into the show’s second season. “I’m our paladin, Will’s our cleric, Dustin’s our bard, Lucas is our ranger, and El,” he says, weaving in the gang’s long-lost friend from the show’s first season, “is our mage.” He tells Max they don’t need another party member. The roles are all filled.
It’s a self-aware bit of dialogue, an acknowledgment from creators Matt and Ross Duffer of just how deeply archetypes are embedded into the show’s DNA. Stranger Things‘ first season reveled in them, exploiting nostalgia to such a degree that one could easily accuse it of coasting. But it was a solid piece of television, an entertaining pastiche of ’80s horror and sci-fi tropes that thrummed with an unexpected emotional resonance. Still, no one would argue that at least some measure of the show’s massive success rested on its familiarity. Even if we hadn’t seen it before, we’d seen it before.
But Mike’s speech to Max here is striking because it highlights the show’s biggest asset by undercutting it. When we first met Mike, Will (Noah Schnapp), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), they were the paladin, the cleric, the bard, and the ranger. And Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) was the struggling single mother. And Jim Hopper (David Harbour) the drunk, grief-stricken sheriff, Steve Harrington (Joe Keery) the suave bully, and Martin Brenner (Matthew Modine) the nefarious intellectual. And Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) was Hawkins, Indiana’s Christ, its magical savior.
Yet by the third episode of season two, not a single one of them could still be defined so simply. Mike, Dustin, Lucas, and Will have emerged from the basement, eschewing Dungeons and Dragons for trips to the local arcade and anxieties about their budding libidos. Booze isn’t all that important to Hopper anymore, who seems more alert than ever due to the secret guest he’s caring for at his new cabin in the woods. Nancy (Natalia Dyer), meanwhile, has softened “King Steve,” who finds himself humbled by Billy (Dacre Montgomery), an imposing new arrival to Hawkins High. And Joyce is almost unrecognizable, what with her not screaming bloody murder in every scene. Credit doofy new boyfriend, Bob (Sean Astin), who keeps her from smothering Will, who’s still coping with the aftereffects of his abduction and recovery last season. And it’s Will’s “episodes” that drive the narrative this season, again planting the poor kid right in the crosshairs of whatever ephemeral presence is controlling the Upside Down.
Some say every artist steals, and the Duffers no doubt pillaged the American genre canon in crafting Stranger Things‘ first and second seasons. The new season alone directly or indirectly cribs plot lines, dialogue, and set pieces from the likes of Ghostbusters, Firestarter, Under the Skin, Poltergeist, Jurassic Park, Tremors, Slither, the Resident Evil games, and, most obviously, Aliens (“Stay frosty,” says a military squad leader). That’s not a problem, per se—the show melds them all in an intriguing way, and the introduction of a shadowy, Lovecraftian force only serves to elevate the material that much further—but imitation doesn’t always give way to resonance.
Luckily, when it comes to character, it’s more accurate to say the Duffers borrow. Building on an archetype isn’t the same as relying on one, after all, and the best thing about these first two seasons of Stranger Things is the way it allows character to evolve in ways that feel organic both on the page and in performance. The Duffers have said in interviews that Matarazzo and Keery’s characters, especially, blossomed and grew in importance due to their contributions. But Dustin and Steve aren’t the only regulars to take on dimension in season two. McLaughlin’s Lucas, for example, spent the lion’s share of the first season as the crew’s resident buzzkill. In season two, his stubbornness is maintained as his softer, more tender side emerges via his relationship with Max. We see him bantering with his parents and sister; we see him dopily practicing pick-up lines in a mirror; we see him butt heads with a bully; we see all of this outside of the foursome at the show’s core. No longer is he just a ranger in a party, and it’s a delight to watch the character come into his own.
Of course, this is what you want when you bring new characters into an established world. You want them to shake up existing dynamics, to allow us to view old characters in an entirely new way. Too often in a series or a sequel, newbies enter only to scuff up against someone the creators have no interest in changing, resulting in a lack of chemistry or narrative drive; it’s what The Simpsons were parodying with Roy. What Stranger Things 2 gets so right is the ripple effect of new characters, the sense that their presence not only alters the course of a particular character, but also broadens our view of the community and the town itself. Paul Reiser’s Dr. Owens initially resonates as a carbon copy of Burke, his two-faced scuzzbucket from Aliens. It isn’t long, however, before he establishes himself as a funhouse image of Modine’s evil doctor from season one, altering our view of the Hawkins National Laboratory and what kind of stake the powers that be hold in all of this.
These new characters are archetypal in much the same way our established players were in Season One, and, as such, each exudes a wealth of potential. Max is the female presence the core foursome desperately needed. Brett Gelman’s Murray Bauman is a crackpot journalist, but not an incompetent one. And Montgomery’s Billy is a hunk by way of Henry Bowers; the character is a Kingian bully in the most frightening ways.
Stranger Things 2 succeeds on nearly every level. Its patchwork plot is compulsively gripping, the obstacles are even more insurmountable, and the final two episodes tug on the heartstrings with minimal treacle. But what’s most exciting here is the ensemble, which the creators have proven will continue to deepen as it grows. Just look at the films Stranger Things exploits; Aliens, Ghostbusters, and Tremors persevere not because of their story, but because of the characters that story is based around. Why do we watch horror if we don’t care about who lives and who dies?
We’re getting two more seasons of this show, after all, and it can’t survive on demogorgons alone.