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Review – Stranger Things 2

Netflix’s 80’s horror masterpiece returns for a second season. The Duffer Brothers first series introduced us to the town of Hawkins; Indiana, the vague yet menacing government agency and the nightmarish otherworld that they accidentally punched a hole into; and the plucky kids who help solve the problem by helping their lab-rat and new best friend known only as Eleven.

I could spot the Steven King/John Carpenter homages pretty much straight away in season 1 last year, and have – over time – gathered a few of the other 80’s cinema references that have been woven together into something that can broadly be considered original. But my heart belongs to games, and I was wholly sucked in to the Dungeons & Dragons references over anything else, and the ragtag band of young adventurers interpreting their unfathomable situation through the lens of fantasy.

It’s through the eyes of a gamer I watched Stranger Things 2, and once again I was not disappointed. Expect some spoilers throughout…

Bestiary

Amongst the D&D community there has been one prevailing question for the new series: “What classic horror will they be facing next?”

Demogorgon may have been a poor analogy if one were to pick through a monster manual, but given the context it worked quite well. The problem became the escalation, as Demogorgon is amongst the most terrible things a DM can levy against a party, so where do you go from there? Watching the trailer it seemed reasonable that the many-limbed and shadowy creature from the Upside Down would be the Thessalhydra mentioned briefly at the conclusion of season 1, a reasonable addition to the show given the appearance of the original.

But if you perused the titles of each episode you may have already spotted an old Gygaxian favourite, The Mind Flayer, and the implications are enormous. Mind control, grand plots, minions, deceit, friends turned against one another, and that is exactly what we got. With the addition of conspiracy theorist Murray Bauman (Brett Gelman) we bring in some good old fashioned Cold War themes to our 80’s film-fest, mistrust, lies, suspicion, an intricate web of red string and blame. More on that later.

This series comes complete with a dungeon crawl, escalating combat encounters (you’ll know that one when you see it), even some new loot. An adventure for 5-7 players starting at level 2, they should end the adventure at level 3.

The Party Assembled

It’s nice to know that Noah Schnapp can play will Byers as something more than just the damsel in distress. It seems he barely got more than a few lines in Season 1 but now takes centre stage in such an ambiguous way. With a foot in each world he is no less a victim to the forces of the Upside Down than he was before, haunted by visions of a world in ashes, stalked by the “Mind Flayer”, and tested and observed by the scientists at Hawkins National Lab. He’s a victim everywhere he goes, and in the end he succumbs to the whims of the creature, despite fighting hard against it.

We dig deeper into the illusive history of Eleven, reuniting her with her mother, and of course with the boys. Chief Hopper has been keeping her safely away from anyone who would abduct her, but being cooped up for so long is enough to drive her through a Darth-Vader arc of turning on her mentor, turning to a life of vengeance and anger before eventually turning back to the light.

And finally we have our new face, Mad Max Mayfield, the skater punk with a talent for computer games and a rather… troubled family background. Her abusive brother is a little over the top, although I suspect that his almost comically exaggerated violence and demeaning behaviour may have some unspoken causes that go beyond the standard cycle of abused becoming the abuser. Max enters to throw a love triangle into the plot, motivating some bad decisions and tension, it helps raise Dustin and Lucas’ profiles in the show, but gives us a new character who still leaves us with a lot of questions for the future.

Mike takes something of a back seat this season. Embittered over the loss of Eleven, riling under the burden of secrecy and the erratic actions of his friends now there’s a new girl on the block.

Justice For Barb

Spoilers, but, we got Justice for Barb! The death that passed most silently in the series, almost as thoroughly ignored as Barb was herself, good for one photo opportunity for Demogorgon. This time she is the driving force for last years B-plot stars and this years primary love triangle (Two love triangles? Guess again, there’s three! A trilogy of triangles) as Nancy Wheeler and Jonathan Byers go on a side-quest to bring the actions of the Hawkins National Lab.

In Summary

If you’re looking for an overarching theme in this season, it has to be a study in relationships. Eleven’s story takes her through family, the one she lost, the one she found, and the one that found her. For Will, it’s the strain of relating to a world in which he feels like a stranger, and how his ties to that world can help heal the damage trauma has done, despite the beguiling pull of alienation. Dustin, Lucas, and Max take us through a classic love vs friendship story, while Max herself goes through the uphill battle of opening up to people despite the tenuous foundations that trust is built upon, I look forward to seeing how she develops.

But what could season 3 hope to pit against our young heroes? The season finale rather wraps the Upside Down in a nice little ribbon, surely the world is safe from the Demogorgon hordes and the power of the Mind Flayer. And yet season 3 is already locked into the Netflix schedule. In the mean time, nothing to do but wait a few weeks for The Punisher.

I swear Netflix are not paying us, I just have a lot of respect for some of their original content. I’ll find something to be bitter about next week.

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