[Recap] STRANGER THINGS 2, Episodes 1-5: What Goes Up, Must Come Upside Down

Stranger Things just debuted its second season on Netflix. Last year’s breakout viral sensation garnered critical acclaim and audience goodwill for its heady mix of nostalgia and horror, appearing on multiple end of year lists and snagging two Golden Globe nominations.

So how does the “sequel” (as series creators The Duffer Brothers have taken to calling it) fare? Read on for my recap of the first five episodes of season two.

   

Overall thoughts on Season 2

Immediate thoughts upon finishing the season: it’s more of the same, though that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The Duffer Brothers clearly know the show and their audience and even if at times they’re prone to replicating elements from Season One, I would argue that the season wraps up in a more satisfying fashion. Noah Schnapp (Will) proves to be the show’s secret weapon: the young actor has an uncanny ability to play a range of different roles to perfection. Bonus points for a more successful climax in round two, as well.

Episodic Breakdown

As people make their way through the new episodes, Nightmare on Film Street has prepared episodic recaps so be sure to bookmark this page and come back when you finish each episode. Look for the recap of episodes six – nine tomorrow.

Noah Schnapp
Will doesn’t fit in in the season premiere of Stranger Things “Mad Max”

Episode 1 – “Mad Max”

Online chatter suggested the first episode back was slow, but ‘MadMax’ is simply a table setter. We need this reintroduction to Hawkins, Indiana and its denizens in order to set up the season. That means introducing new characters like Sean Astin’s Bob, Paul Reiser’s creepy Dr. Owens and new schoolmates Billy (Dacre Montgomery) and the titular Max (Sadie Sink) – though neither of the kids are given much to do.

“Mad Max” has a few intriguing supernatural occurrences to whet our appetite, including the mysterious poisoning at the pumpkin patch, the lit up control board at Hawkins Laboratory and, of course, Will’s visions of the looming insect-like threat (which would be more striking if it hadn’t been spoiled in Every.Single.Trailer). As for everyone’s favourite Eggo-eating, telepathic feral little girl, the Duffer Brothers naturally keep Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) hidden until the very end of the episode as one of several examples of characters keeping secrets from each other.

At once point, Dr. Owens tells Joyce (Winona Ryder) that things will get worst before they get better. For her, that’s terrible news. For Stranger Things viewers, that can only means good things ahead.

Odds and Ends:

  • The cold open features a series of unknown characters getting chased by police before one passenger displays Eleven-like powers that allows them to escape. This will clearly be paid off later (see episode seven in tomorrow’s recap – or rather don’t), but for now, it’s little more than a distraction from our reintroduction to Hawkins.
Four male child leads of Stranger Things
Danger looms for Will on Halloween night in 2×02 “Trick or Treat, Freak”

Episode 2 – “Trick or Treat, Freak”

First off, let’s address the ridiculous #JusticeForBarb storyline that’s dominating the Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and Steve (Joe Keery) story line. The Duffer Brothers clearly want to address the outcry for the fan favourite from Season One, but can we all agree that they’re leaning into it a little too much? Thankfully all it takes is one drunk party for the real fireworks to come out: Nancy drunkenly confesses about the inadequacies of her relationship with Steve and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) gets to put the object of his affection to bed. Just remember kids: repression is bad because it manifests as a giant red punch stain on the front of your First Lady/Figure Skater costume.

The other element that stands out about episode two is that there’s a lot more comedy: the four boys are the only ones who dress up for Halloween at school, Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) and Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) struggle to speak to Max, Eleven passes her time watching soaps and dimwitted Officer Callahan (John Reynolds) mistakenly touches poisoned crops with his bare hands.

That last piece – the mysterious crop damage storyline – also begins to take shape as we learn that most of Hawkins’ farms have been affected by a mysterious poison, hinting at bigger things to come.

Odds and Ends:

  • Are the Duffer Brothers candy addicts? First Will and Dr. Owens debate Reese’s Pieces last episode and now there’s a prolonged discussion about the terribleness of 3 Musketeers bars? (Which, for the record, are delicious)
  • Initially it seemed like this episode was going to offer more insight about contentious siblings Billy and Max, but aside from their chicken-inspired driving on the highway, they remain obscure figures on the periphery. What’s their deal?
Sean Astin, Winona Ryder
Bob and Joyce share a quiet moment in 2×03 “The Pollywog”

Episode 3 – “The Pollywog”

While I appreciate the effort being put into developing Sheriff Hopper (David Harbour) and Eleven’s relationship, I don’t think that the amount of screen time dedicated to this plot line is well spent. Three episodes in and we’re seeing the same content covered repeatedly: she was lost in the woods in winter, Hopper found her after a few feral encounters and they set up a temporary home with three “don’t be stupid” rules. We get it Stranger Things. At this point it just feels like the Duffer Brothers are delaying bringing Eleven back together with the gang.

Thankfully the second season’s dual mythology plot lines continue to develop nicely:

  • Hopper enlists Dr. Owens to investigate the contagion affecting the crops, which we learn is accounting for the odd smell that Billy and Max described in the last episode.
  • Meanwhile, Dustin names the “pollywog” creature that he finds in his trash D’Artagnan (because 80s!). A quick examination of the new species reveals that D’Art is a) afraid of the light b) growing exponentially and c) tied to the thing that Will spit into his sink at the end of Season One. Unfortunately the unnatural occurrences end in disaster when Will takes Bob‘s advice to confront the monster head on and he’s literally infected by the smoke monster from his visions. Oops!

Odds and Ends:

  • Was anyone else surprised to see Shirts vs Skins in gym class was a real thing? I won’t lie: all of these scenes felt remarkably homoerotic. It’s tantamount to a late night flick on Cinemax.
Gaten Matarazzo, Noah Schnapp, Winona Ryder, Sadie Sink
The aftermath of Will’s attack in 2×04 “Will The Wise”

Episode 4 – “Will The Wise”

After the cliffhanger possession ending of the last episode, we pick right up with Will, who claims not to remember what happened to him. After some prodding by Joyce, Will reveals that the creature wanted inside him and their parasitic relationship is deepened when Will refuses to take a hot bath, proclaiming “He likes it cold.”

When Hopper finally arrives at the Byers residence (following an uncomfortable battle of wills with Eleven after she abuses his 3 rules), there’s no narrative clarity about what’s happening, but it still feels like forward momentum. The result – Will confiding in Hopper and Joyce, Mike (Finn Wolfhard) revealing Will’s secret to Dustin and Lucas – makes “Will The Wise” the most satisfying episode of the season to date.

Unfortunately I simply cannot care about the stuff with Nancy and Jonathan and Barb’s mom. The only element of this story line that worked for me was the editing of the sequence in the park, which effectively highlighted Nancy and Jonathan‘s paranoia. The suggestion that these high school students could pull off a covert sting operation against the Hawkins Lab guys is a bit of a laugh, but we’ll see where it goes.

Odds and Ends:

  • Eleven‘s investigation into her history hits the jackpot when she discovers Hawkins Lab boxes hidden under the floor of Hopper‘s cabin. From there she’s able to connect with her very-much-alive mom, who identifies Eleven as “Jane” before disappearing in a literal puff of smoke.
  • I’m definitely losing interest in Billy and Max‘s storyline. Is there anything more to this than the fact that he’s racist?
  • RIP Mews. It always sucks when animals are killed on TV and that poor dead kitty didn’t deserve to be D’Art’s snack. 🙁
Finn Wolfhard, Noah Schnapp
Will’s illness is finally address in 2×05 “Dig Dug”

Episode 5 – “Dig Dug”

This is essentially a “choose your own adventure” episode. Most of the characters venture off on their own: Hopper spends the episode foolishly investigating the tunnel system without back-up; Joyce, Mike, Will and Bob decode Will‘s drawings; Lucas catches Max up to speed, and Nancy and Jonathan and Eleven go on separate road trips.

I definitely appreciated the grotty visuals of what Hopper encounters in the tunnels (the blast to the face by a not-at-all-anus-like vine is particularly visceral and icky). Meanwhile Bob earns his high school “Brain” nickname when he deduces that the drawings are a map of Hawkins, though admittedly, hadn’t we all figured this out well in advance? It seems pretty obvious.

The two mythologies finally collide when Will‘s map leads to Hopper, whose survival ironically depends on his smoking habit. Luckily Joyce, Bob and the Hawkins Lab army show up just in time, ending the episode on another cliffhanger when it is revealed (unsurprisingly) that Will‘s physical health is connected to the tunnel vines and he winds up in Grand Mal territory.

Odds and Ends:

  • I’m glad that Dustin is no longer acting stupid about how dangerous D’Art is. It was evident from the start that the unknown creature was dangerous and “Dig Dug” confirms that as D’Art grows, he becomes more of an (unnatural) threat.
  • Let’s take a moment to recognize the comedic genius of Lucas‘ sister Erica (Priah Ferguson), who is officially the Dustin of this season. She’s equal parts annoying and hilarious. I love her.
  • Finally, Eleven‘s storyline continues to (annoyingly) exist completely outside of the main narrative. This episode she meets her Aunt Becky (Amy Seimetz), a Clea DuVall-esque woman looking after her mother. What follows is essentially a redo of Season One: Eleven‘s mom communicates via flickering lights and there’s a whole extended flashback that’s basically the Stranger Things version of Hodor’s “Hold The Door” backstory from Game of Thrones.

Check back tomorrow for recaps of the final four episodes of season two. In the interim, leave your impressions below in the comments!

Stranger Things 2 Titles

Joe Lipsett

Joe is a TV addict with a background in Film Studies. He co-created TV/Film Fest blog Bitchstolemyremote.com and has written for Anatomy of a Scream and Bloody Disgusting. He enjoys graphic novels, dark beer and plays multiple sports (adequately, never exceptionally). While he loves all horror, if given a choice, Joe always opts for slashers and creature features.