This article contains spoilers for Stranger Things 2.
Leading up to its highly anticipated release last Friday, Stranger Things 2 faced a familiar challenge for surprise breakout hits: How would it recapture the magic of the original while offering something surprising and new the second time around?
The Netflix original show’s wildly popular first season managed to make Dungeons and Dragons and ’80s fashion endearing to all ages and generations—and its second season does not disappoint. It has all the warm nostalgia and nerdy kid innocence that made the first season so delightful. Instead of reinventing the wheel, though, Stranger Things 2 simply tells the next chapter of the story: a chapter that manages to balance being darker, deeper, and more hopeful than the first.
A year after the events covered by the first season, Hawkins, we discover, has experienced a superficial return to normal. The majority of the town has been shielded from knowledge about the gate that was opened into the “Upside Down,” and our beloved gang of geeks are more concerned with their scores at the arcade and their Ghostbusters Halloween costumes than fighting monsters from another dimension.
Except—maybe they’re not. Will may have returned to this dimension, but he experiences frequent “episodes” in which it seems like he’s back in the Upside Down, facing a new and bigger threat. Mike is still mourning the loss of Eleven (“El”), counting the days that he calls out to her on his radio and hears nothing but silence. Nancy’s guilt about Barb’s death and the lies she has to tell Barb’s parents is slowly eating away at her. And perhaps most hauntingly, Eleven struggles to discover more about her family and her powers, her efforts deeply complicated by her traumatic past.
This season’s second showdown with interdimensional monsters makes for gripping entertainment, and the plot is tighter and more well-constructed than its predecessor. But the real heart of Stranger Things 2 is its compelling portrayal of how trauma manifests itself in the relationships, identities, and bodies of the people who have experienced it. Most obviously is the way that Will’s experience in the Upside Down literally haunts him until it physically inhabits his body. He faces constant reminders of the terror he’s been through, until his mother’s boyfriend’s trite advice causes his residual connection with the other dimension to take over his body.
While Will’s experience of trauma plays out in dark, theatrical ways, Eleven’s story almost seems like the real-life explanation for Will’s metaphorical one. It’s not until the last episode that Eleven and the rest of the gang are reunited, and until that point, her story runs parallel to theirs. Eleven’s circumstances are certainly extraordinary—but dealing with childhood neglect and abuse are unfortunately not nearly as unusual. Watching her navigate the effects of her trauma leads us to the most gutturally heart-wrenching moments of the season. She and Hawkins police chief Hopper awkwardly (and violently) hash out their past hurts and losses as they learn to love and care for each other, and her dramatic rescue of the gang at the last minute comes as a result of her own difficult path towards healing.
This portrayal isn’t perfect. The already-controversial seventh episode, for instance, is dedicated entirely to Eleven’s journey to find her “sister” (another child subjected to Dr. Brenner’s testing and gifted with unique psychic powers). Young Millie Bobby Brown’s performance is stunning, but the episode loses all the smallness and familiarity that makes the show both haunting and heartfelt. Instead, Eleven’s short foray into vigilante justice in a big city feels fantastic and foreign. Ironically, it seems like a different world.