Back into the Upside Down, ‘Stranger Things’ Evolves

Stranger Things

Is Barb ever going to leave the Upside Down? Who was Chief Hopper leaving food for in the woods? Seriously, what was that slimy, tentacle-like substance that Will coughed up before Christmas dinner? And most importantly, where is Eleven?

These are just a few of the questions Season 1 of the hit Netflix original Stranger Things left flickering in the minds of viewers since it first debuted in October of last year. The show, set in the small town of Hawkins, Ind., skyrocketed to fame due to its incredibly talented child stars and mysteriously horrifying plot. The highly anticipated second season of the show premiered on Netflix on Oct. 27.

Unlike other shows in its sci-fi genre, Stranger Things plays up the psychological aspects of childhood hysteria involving the popular game Dungeons and Dragons. Mike, played by Finn Wolfhard, and his group of friends, Dustin, Lucas, and Will, played by Gaten Matarazzo, Caleb McLaughlin, and Noah Schnapp respectively, are all avid “D&D” players until Will mysteriously disappears in the beginning of Season 1, causing the boys to take it upon themselves to find their lost friend.

With the help of Will’s family, Mike’s older sister Nancy, the local policeman Chief Hopper, and a little girl with supernatural powers simply named Eleven, the boys retrieve Will from the “Upside Down,” what seems to be a supernatural alternate dimension. Demogorgons, terrifying Dungeons and Dragons creatures with a tall, slimy bodies and who appear wherever there is blood, roam freely in the Upside Down.

“Chapter One: MADMAX,” opens with an action-packed car chase through the streets of 1984 Pittsburgh. It appears the masked criminals will be caught by the police, but a female passenger utters the word “boom,” and causes a bridge to collapse and three police cars to collide—or at least it seems so. When one of the officers gets out of the ravaged car, he sees the bridge is in perfect condition and the van is nowhere in sight. As the van speeds off, the young woman’s nose begins to bleed, a tell-tale sign of her supernatural abilities.

The first episode is named for Maxine, a mysterious skateboarding tomboy who has moved to Hawkins from California. The boys suspect she is “MADMAX,” the name given by the person who broke their high score in Pac-Man at the local arcade. The boys stalk the red-haired girl until deciding to invite her to join their “party” in the following episodes.

Besides Maxine, “Chapter One” also introduces viewers to bad-boy Billy (Dacre Montgomery), who moved from California with Maxine and attends high school in Hawkins. Billy is the quintessential ’80s heartbreaker, with his curly mullet, George Michael earing, and Camaro, which he loves to rev the engine and drive recklessly, nearly running over Lucas, Dustin, and Mike in “Chapter Two.” Montgomery flawlessly portrays the character’s in-your-face disposition and general dissatisfaction. The first three episodes, in which Billy delivers a legendary keg-stand in the Halloween party scene and destroys Steve’s friends in a game of basketball laden with true-to-era short-shorts and headbands, however, fail to develop any human qualities for the rebel whose cause is not yet clear.

“Chapter One” delves into Will’s battle with the side effects of returning from the Upside Down as he continues having episodes which suddenly thrust him back into the dim, desolate alternate dimension. There he encounters what he describes as a “huge shadow in the sky” that thrashes about, in an effort to reach out to him.

The first episode also introduces several new plot lines, including a romantic relationship between Will’s mother Joyce (Winona Ryder) and a local electronic salesman, Barbara’s parents’ earnest investigation into her disappearance, and the whereabouts of Eleven, who viewers must wait until the last four minutes of the episode to see. The final scene reveals Chief Hopper entering a shack in the woods to sit down at a dining table with a plate of half-eaten Eggos at its edge. Seconds later, he is joined by Eleven, who sports a slightly longer, curlier hairstyle, indicating the time that has passed since viewers last saw her.



“Chapter Two: Trick or Treat, Freak” opens with Eleven pacing through the school in the Upside Down during the moments following her powerful destruction of the Demogorgon. She sprints through the halls in all directions, calling out for Mike, until she finds a hole between the Upside Down and real dimension. Much of the episode details the months she spent after escaping from the Upside Down and the audience sees a vulnerable side of the beloved heroine, as she treks through the snow and sustains herself on forest animals while living on the run.

This episode gets its title from an altercation Will has with older trick-or-treaters who bully him and call him “zombie boy,” an allusion to his apparent rise from the dead. The episode also includes shaky point of view scenes shot on a video camera by the boys, a tactic made famous by The Blair Witch Project and employed recently in American Horror Story: Roanoke.  

Sprinkled throughout the dark episode, which features more of Will’s encounters with the Upside Down and the unsettling notion that the Upside Down may slowly be making its way into the real dimension, are subtle reminders that the main characters on the show are actually children. The moments in which Dustin mistakes “presumptuous” as a good thing and the boys argue about which Halloween candy is the best provide not only comedic relief, but also an element of innocence in face of the often mature and serious danger the kids encounter, a character trait that makes them lovable and real to viewers.

The third episode, “Chapter Three: The Pollywog” details Dustin’s meeting with a strange creature, which Lucas describes as a “living booger,” from the Upside Down. The pollywog-like animal escapes in the school and runs off to hide. During the boys’ search, Eleven escapes from her home in the woods to find Mike, whom she has been ‘visiting’ dream-like episodes, appearing to be flirting with Maxine. Upon this Eleven uses her powers to throw the girl off her skate board and she storms off, lamenting her first heartbreak.

The first three episodes of the second installment of Stranger Things are marked by visually appealing cinematography and a greater commitment to placing the show in historical context. Scenes at a rotting pumpkin patch utilize bright sunlight and tones of yellow, orange, and brown to create an almost Wes Anderson-worthy screen grab. Meanwhile, time markers such as a Reagan-Bush ’84 sign and the heavy ’80s rock soundtrack that accompanies the series make a greater effort to place the show in a historical context.

Furthermore, the second season pays greater attention to character development and allows viewers to explore the vulnerability of many of the show’s favorites. Additionally, the second season deals with remnants of Cold War-era hysteria and even takes a jab at race issues when the boys argue over who has to be the “black Ghostbuster,” Winston, on Halloween. Caleb McLaughlin, who plays Lucas, delivers a sobering retort to Mike when he says that Mike expected him to be Winston only because he is black.

Despite piggy-backing off of the storylines of the first season of Stranger Things, Season 2 deals with the trauma of the first season in a way that does not seem recycled or tired. The Emmy-nominated series continues to leave viewers eager to prolong their Netflix binge-watching sessions.

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