TV: Stranger Things – Season 2 (2017)

November 16, 2017 | By

Film: Near-Perfect

Transfer:  n/a

Extras: n/a

Label:  n/a

Region: n/a

Released:  n/a

Genre:  TV / Science-Fiction

Synopsis: Will is taunted by lapses into the Upside-Down World, while Eleven breaks from her soft prison in search of answers to her past. Oh yes: and monsters threaten the safety of Hawkins!

Special Features:  (none)




Note: this review contains selective blatant spoilers!


Netflix’s hit series returned a week prior to Halloween with 9 episodes that offered a tonally different set of further adventures of the Byers family & Eleven (Elle), as two storylines head off in different directions until a sense of friendship brings them and everyone else together for a resolution that’s both satisfying for the characters and the series; should Stranger Things not be renewed for further seasons – highly unlikely, given its popularity – Season 2’s finale is just fine.

All the core characters from Season 1 are back, with Episode 1 launching the two main strands: while Joyce (Winona Ryder) is dating the town’s Radio Shack manager Bob Newby (Sean Astin), elder son Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) is getting the cold shoulder from supposed-to-be girlfriend Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer), and younger son Will (Noah Schnapp) is experiencing increasing intense plummets into the Upside-Down World [USDW], and sees a massive tentacled smoke creature rising from the distance and heading his way; meanwhile, Sheriff Jim Hopper (David Harbour) is keeping Elle (Millie Bobby Brown) in his family’s old cabin, safe from the feds who snatched her, and would undoubtedly want her back for further testing and possible military usage.

As Will’s flashes into the USDW intensify, he’s ultimately possessed by the black smoke, and undergoes a transformation that puts everyone in grave danger. His best buddies have additional stressors when not trying to solve Will’s dilemma: Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Lucas Sinclair (Caleb McLaughlin) have romantic eyes on new schoolmate Maxine ‘Mad Max’ Maxine Mayfield (Sadie Sink), while her wretched stepbrother Billy Hargrove (Dacre Montgomery) forbids Max from any fraternizing, and seeks to unseat Steve Harrington (Joe Keery) as the school’s top jock, basketball star, and biggest / weirdest hair stylist.

Showrunners Matt and Ross Duffer transform the USDW’s smoke monster into a virus-like thing, whose tentacles are reaching towards the town where Will lives, and using a kind of Venus Flytrap hounds as protectors and mutilators of anything it perceives as kind of immune system response to its burrowing.

Elle’s late involvement does subjugate the character’s importance in Season 2, and although she gets her own standalone episode (No. 7) where she meets a ‘sister’ equally traumatized by Season 1’s Poppa (Matthew Modine), she’s the secret weapon that saves the township, using sage advice from Kali (Linnea Berthelsen), seen in S2’s kinetic opening, and no doubt a character with her own special abilities prepped to return in a future season (although hopefully not in a daft spinoff ploy, as was attempted by NBC brass with Heroes: Season 2).

The Duffers’ design also changes the makeup of the super-secret organization, with its new head honcho initially coming off as a cold-hearted ass, but redeeming himself quite swell in the wrap-up and finale, which has the ‘smoke dogs’ racing to the base and picking off first lines of defense in the base’s own tunnel-like architecture, much like the mass of chest-busters swarming the stranded humans in James Cameron’s Aliens (1986).

One scene blatantly riffs / pays homage to the radar that becomes peppered with dots of the evil smoke’s dogs, and whether by design or a casting suggestion that proved perfect, Dr. Sam Owens, the new doc in charge of the base, is played by Paul Reiser, whose character in Aliens deservedly met an ignominious end because he never wavered from the corporation’s needs to preserve the aliens for possible military use.

Owens is more of a bureaucrat, and Reiser is great, underplaying the character and keeping him morally grey until he realizes Will’s condition demands some humane reactions and treatment. It’s a clever maneuver to play against Reiser’s Aliens type while shoring up Owens with intense Aliens-like action, and although he could turn subversive in S3, Owens’ come-around to being a good guy adds to the finale’s feel-good tone.

Many of the series regulars go through changes – as they should, since the actors are also a year older since S1 wrapped – and because of the show’s strong casting choices, none of the teen characters are weak. Some romances blossom, others dry up; friendships strengthen, and the most villainous behaviour isn’t a viral monster, but child and emotional abuse, neglect, post-traumatic stress, and manipulation from the federal to sibling level.

Sheriff Hopper, Joyce Byers, Bob, and science teacher Mr. Clarke (Randy Havens) are smart, but as is typical of vintage 1980s escapist tales, the kids are often smarter than the adults, and mother Byers & Bob excepted, all the other moms and dads are as dim as 10 watt bulbs.

The smoke monster upped the show’s needs for greater effects, and in most of the scenes, the tentacled thing is utterly terrifying, especially the first time Will sees it rise from beyond the town’s boundaries. The smoke dogs are nasty, but equally vivid is the base where the secret feds operate, like some cubic hybrid of 70s Brutalism and Soviet era government design, somewhat evoking the House of Soviets in Kaliningrad – often dubbed ‘the ugliest building in the world.’

Tighter scenes, dialogue, more frenetic action montages, and a richer percussive score by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein make S2 an intense experience, especially after Ep. 5; there’s little doubt the Duffers wanted to emulate the intensity of Aliens’ ‘massing’ sequence, and each episode ends with an insane cliffhanger that will push hooked viewers into binging.

Most curious about S2 is the partial filming in B.C. and Quebec, so while the Georgia locations still dominate, one can guess some of the verdant wide shots and maybe Sheriff Hopper’s cabin were shot in B.C., and Elle’s one-off backstory with Kali was filmed in Quebec. (The secret organization’s base, though, is the former Georgia Mental Health Institute.)

With ST seemingly guaranteed another 1-2 seasons, the Duffer Bros.’ challenges will including staying faithful to the characters, building on the USDW mythos without it collapsing from too much or contradictory info, and ending the series when it reaches its natural conclusion, not when the network deems it’s time.

An emerging conundrum for Netflix is how far it should maintain the exclusiveness of its wholly owned original series. The soundtrack albums for S1 have been released digitally and reissued twice on vinyl, and S2’s music is also widely available, plus Netflix created a themed USDW for Toronto’s 2017 Nuit Blanche – teasers designed to get people to sign up as Netflix users – but like fans of the music, fans of the show want to own, and the first foray into appeasing fans and enticing newcomers is releasing S1 as a U.S.-only, Target exclusive in a custom yet bare bones DVD-Blu-ray box (plus a 4K release); whether S1 will bleed out to regular online and physical merchants on DVD and Blu is unknown, but in creating a show that entices viewers hungry for legit and feigned nostalgia for an era rooted in physical media, Netflix really has no choice but to acquiesce. It’s simply inevitable, and the likely merchandising revenues from video sales are too lucrative to restrict to one chain in one country.



© 2017 Mark R. Hasan



External References:
Editor’s BlogIMDB  —  Soundtrack Album —Album Review — Composer Filmographies: Kyle Dixon / Michael Stein
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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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