It’s a cliche for a reason; the tricky second album, the Premier League title defence, the long-awaited sequel to a smash hit show.
It only took 10 episodes for Stranger Things to become arguably Netflix’s greatest original success. That might be doing a disservice to the long-standing excellence of Orange is the New Black and House of Cards, and it might also make a lot of Marvel fans want to shout at a small circle with a pixellated version of my face in it, but as I sat down last night to watch the premiere of the first two episodes of Stranger Things 2 at Topshop’s flagship Oxford Circus store, I tried to think of any other show that could completely take over one of the capital’s biggest and busiest shops as the Duffer brothers’ creation has.
Game of Thrones - that was the only answer I could come up with. There may be a number of bigger shows currently out there than Stranger Things, but none that straddle that line of achieving grand, mainstream success while its fandom still treats it with all the love and devotion of a cult hit.
The gigantic Topshop store has essentially transformed into a Stranger Things merchandise outlet. The entire outsides have been decked out to look like the Upside Down, and all the staff wander round in T-shirts with the show’s logo emblazoned on the front. Even the Topshop and Topman branding has been changed to the famous Stranger Things font - it’s clear the show has come back a whole lot bigger than it was before, which is exactly what so many fans were worried about.
When a film or TV show achieves huge commercial and cultural success these days, we are incapable of just leaving it alone. What are meant to be stand-alone films are milked into giant franchises until they are bled dry in the name of cash. As fans, we’re often torn between wanting to see more of characters and stories we’ve fallen in love with, but at the same time not wanting to have them ruined by sub-par sequels. Stranger Things, to me, felt like a perfectly contained eight episodes of television that didn’t really need revisiting. I remember feeling disappointed when Will coughed up that slug at the end of Season 1, because it signaled a certain return, and the possibility that Hawkins and its inhabitants would be stretched out into something they were never meant to be. What were they going to do next? Surely the only possibility was to go bigger?
The trailers for Season 2 showed that yes, bigger is exactly how the Duffer brothers decided to go, with the Demogorgon replaced by a gigantic, shadowy beast that fills up the entire sky. But also, damn if they weren’t brilliantly produced. I didn’t want to jump the gun, but with each trailer my fears were assuaged a little more, to the point that by last night, as I sat down for the start of Season 2, I was 100% confident it would deliver. I was hyped.
By the end of the second episode, I felt stupid for ever wishing this show’s future away. The Stranger Things world is everything as brilliant and beautiful as it was before, but now there’s more of it. Bigger works.
However, while the new season hangs off everything being magnified - how the threat to Hawkins is more enormous and terrifying than anyone could have even imagined - it’s the show’s tiny moments that make it such a joy. It’s the minutiae that really stick with you, and you will think about as you lie awake long into the night.
The already outstanding actors have got even better in their time off. Gaten Materazzo is still a constant delight as Dustin - the show’s bightest source of light - while Caleb McLaughlin is being allowed to add a little more humour to the role of Lucas. The first two episodes see these two bounce off each other perfectly - moments I expect will feel like the distant past as Hawkins descends further into darkness as the season goes on.
Two of my favourite scenes were ones where nothing really happens. The first, where Mike is forced by his parents to fill two boxes with his old toys to take away to the charity shop. He protests that he can only fill one - “the others just have way too much emotional value” - and as you watch him take each individual toy in his hands, you can see him playing through the memories they shared together in his mind, before dropping it into a box or placing it by his side, unable to part with a piece of a childhood that must feel a lifetime ago after everything he’s been through. Memories of an easier time.
The second is a moment between Will and Jonathan which is just such a pure depiction of two brothers at different stages of their lives. Jonathan, the protective older brother, is desperate to help Will, to be there for him. Will, the teenager who’s been mollycoddled for months, desperate to be independent - to show he’s strong and can stand on his own two feet. It takes Jonathan displaying his own weakness, speaking to Will with raw, emotional honesty and treating him like his closest friend to make Will realise that we don’t always have to be strong, that’s it’s OK to rely on the ones we love sometimes. Especially if less than a year ago you were trapped in black, horrifying hellscape with a demonic beast who wanted to kill you and all your friends.
There are so many other developments to touch on - intriguing new characters, troubling progressions with the ones we already know, and finally some happiness for Joyce, but these are much better left for you to explore on your own, probably in their entirety as you binge through all nine episodes (one more than last time) in a weekend.
Expect Season 2 to take Stranger Things to a whole other level of cultural impact. This show is a huge deal, and will make the careers of at least Millie Bobby Brown and Finn Wolfhard, if not each one of its child stars.
But while everything is necessarily ten times the scale, make sure you pay attention to the little moments, because they’re the ones that will keep it cycling towards all-time excellence.