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Film & Television

Innocence and experience in ‘Stranger Things 2’

By Myke Bartlett
Can Netflix’s breakout supernatural hit transcend its nostalgia-fuelled premise?

The cliché says you can’t go home again. But going home again is the whole point of the Netflix series Stranger Things, the first season of which mined the pop culture of the ’80s to deliver a delicious nostalgia hit. Its real achievement, of course, was to sell the idea of an ’80s childhood (as depicted by that decade’s music and film) to an audience far too young to have actually experienced one.

To those of us who did live through the ’80s, it’s odd that a decade overshadowed by impending nuclear annihilation and social unrest is now celebrated as a time of innocence. But innocence – lost, found and regained – is at the heart of season two of Stranger Things. Having undergone serious and supernatural trauma, our gang of young heroes attempt to return to a normal, if misfitted, childhood. They go trick or treating, they play video games at the local arcade, they fawn over the new girl at school and basically do all the things kids used to do in American films.

Two of their number, Will and Eleven, aren’t quite ready to rejoin the party. Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), the psychokinetically talented stray, is holed up in the woods, where she’s being cared for by ex-drunken cop Hopper (David Harbour). This is unfortunate, for her as much as the audience, as it breaks the appealing dynamic of the original run, which saw the nerdy boys forced to adjust to a girl in their ranks. Writer–director–producer team the Duffer brothers attempt to mitigate this through the introduction of new girl Max (Sadie Sink), but there’s a sense of trying to capture lightning in a bottle twice. Max is fine, if a little textbook teen, but can she kill people with her mind?

It’s understandable that the Duffers should hold Eleven back. Confining her to the subplot ensures the boys are again vulnerable to the danger posed by the Upside Down – the poisonous parallel world pressing up against our own. And we’re sure there’s a kick-arse re-entry for Eleven just around the corner, or maybe the next corner, or the one after that.

Still, it’s hard to shake the sense that the first few episodes are stalling. Success might not have brought complacency, but it does seem to have stripped away any real sense of urgency. The Duffers seem to be trusting that, in the age of the binge, they can take their time getting to the point.

That said, it’s perhaps to the series’ credit that it doesn’t catapult straight into the next adventure, but rather addresses the post-traumatic stress disorder affecting Will (Noah Schnapp), the sweetest member of the gang, who spent most of the previous season stranded in the Upside Down. Of course, his troubling visions aren’t purely the result of trauma. A sinister connection remains between him and that other place. But this plays out as a metaphor for psychological harm, with Will having to quite horrifically confront his demons before he’s able to return to the childhood world.

Eleven follows a similar arc. Last year, innocence was her defining characteristic. Raised in the sheltered, if abusive, environment of the town’s top secret research centre, she was a stranger to our world – a charming fusion of Carrie and ET. In these nine episodes, she learns how to be a real girl. Understandably, it’s a painful transition involving ugly truths and, as with many teens, she goes too far when trying to prove her independence from parent-figure Hopper.

But innocence is never lost forever in the world of Stranger Things. There’s something undeniably appealing in the idea that we can always walk back trauma or bad decisions to return to the best version of ourselves. Here, childhood isn’t so much an ideal as a postcode.

Of course, there’s not a whole lot of childhood left for these characters. If the previous series borrowed from Stephen King’s Stand By Me, this one owes a bigger debt to his It – a comparison confused by the fact that actor Finn Wolfhard, who plays Mike (this is a series where the actors have less convincing names than their characters), appeared in this year’s big-screen adaptation of that novel.

A clumsy three-way romance plays out between Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), Max and perma-doofus Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), who isn’t as ready for adolescence as he thinks he is. Episode six takes a leap into serious John Hughes rom-com territory, with redeemed villain-come-babysitter Steve (Joe Keery) offering some questionable dating and hair advice to lovesick Dustin.

While the main cast is as strong as ever, Steve is the surprise star of this season, and not just because his bouffant ‘do pretty much blots out everything else onscreen. Although it certainly does help that Keery has the kind of insouciant handsomeness that brings to mind a strange gestalt of the entire ’80s Brat Pack. Steve is the soon to be ex-boyfriend of Mike’s older sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer), who disgraced himself last time around by slut-shaming her. Even then, there were hints of redemption, as he woke up to exactly how vile his comrades were. Now, he’s emasculated twice: romantically (we all knew Nancy was really supposed to be with Will’s angsty brother Jonathan, played by Charlie Heaton) and socially, as Max’s thuggish stepbrother Billy (Australian actor Dacre Montgomery) claims alpha male status on the basketball court. It’s the best thing that could have happened to Steve. Drawn into the supernatural goings-on, he finds a more fulfilling role as caretaker for the younger kids, smashing a few gender norms along the way. (His key line: “I may be a pretty shitty boyfriend, but turns out I’m actually a pretty damn good babysitter.”)

Indeed, there’s a lot to be said about the men of Stranger Things. There is no end of distracted, useless or violent fathers. The boys have grown up seeing girls as another species, to be approached with almost scientific interest. Violent, racist Billy embodies everything that was (and is) wrong about toxic masculinity.

But there are notable exceptions. Hopper is remembering how to be a parent, his smothering protectiveness a side effect of having already lost a child. And new character Bob (a totally loveable Sean Astin) provides an appealing model of atypical masculinity, a grown-up version of our geeky heroes who can work in Radio Shack and still date Winona Ryder.

And yet, without spoiling the details, you can assume it’s the women — mums, sisters and Eleven – who do the serious work of saving the day.

As with season one, this is the ’80s as we need to remember them, with social mores scrubbed up to gleam in the 21st century. Once again, it’s only the villains who truly subscribe to the attitudes of the day.

That said, the nostalgia does feel dialled down. While there are some obvious reference points (the Ghostbusters costumes, for one), it feels less like a Best of the ’80s clip show. The pop culture flourishes are set dressing, rather than the main event. Indeed, having chewed through so much in the first season, perhaps there isn’t much of the decade left to plunder.

As an encore, Stranger Things 2 feels like a gift to the faithful, expanding on the successes of the first without breaking the format. There’s an undeniable sense of attempting to hit the same notes from a different angle (the only girl in the gang, the death of an underdog), but that sort of rear-view mirror revisionism is written into the show’s DNA. If there’s to be a third act (there will be), things will need to change. Stranger Things will face the difficult balancing act of embracing the future without spoiling the past. Or, to put it another way, of growing up without ever having to leave home.

Myke Bartlett

Myke Bartlett is a writer and journalist whose work has appeared in The AgeOverland, The New DailyThe Big Issue and The Weekly Review. His children’s novel, Fire in the Sea, won the 2011 Text Prize.

@mykebartlett

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