Imagine that you are sitting at home, thinking about what to eat, when a chocolate cake spontaneously appears on your coffee table. It looks good! Not too big, not too small, iced by hand. You cut into it. It’s two layers and smells normal. You decide that you’re going to have a bite, whatever its provenance. It tastes great, exactly how chocolate cake is supposed to taste. Over the next few days (or few hours—it’s your cake), you eat the whole thing. With each slice, it becomes clearer that the only surprising thing about this delicious cake was its unexpected arrival.
On Friday, another cake will appear on your coffee table, when Stranger Things’ second season arrives on Netflix. The Duffer brothers’ sci-fi ode to ’80s childhood, Steven Spielberg, Stephen King, Star Wars, and just about everything else was an unexpected breakout hit when it premiered in July 2016. Stranger Things told the story of a Dungeon & Dragons–playing crew of middle school boys who team up with the telekinetic escapee of a top-secret government program to rescue their friend and their town from a Demogorgon who resides in the Upside Down. It was a mega-pastiche that had no hang-ups about its various inspirations, on which it riffed with proud gusto.
For a show so unanxious about influence, a sequel is not just a commercial form but an organic one. If you squint, the first season of Stranger Things was itself a kind of sequel: deeply familiar, delivered with just enough swerve to feel fresh. Even with all that mimicry baked in, Stranger Things felt exciting because it caught its audience unawares. The show debuted with no advance press, no great expectations, no buzz, no fuss, no muss, the unheralded TV equivalent of an apparating chocolate dessert, dropped into your viewing queue by the magical power of Netflix’s enormous budget. A second season of Stranger Things can borrow and remix with all the abandon of the first, but it can never be a surprise. Does that change the taste?
The new season begins a year after the events of the last. Things in the town of Hawkins, Indiana, have quieted down. The survivors of the attack maintain an uneasy truce with a team of government scientists, led by Paul Reiser, who are keeping the Upside Down at bay. The quartet of boys at the heart of the show, Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), and Will (Noah Schnapp) haven’t seen Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) in a year, but are otherwise doing all right: dressing as the Ghostbusters for Halloween, moving on from D&D to arcade games. Will’s mother, Joyce (Winona Ryder), is still nervously protective of her son but at least dating a nice man named Bob (Sean Astin, whose very casting is a referential hat trick for Stranger Things, pointing to sentimental favorites The Goonies and The Lord of the Rings and wrenching apart the pop-culture continuum by suggesting that Rudy somehow got to date Winona Ryder). Mike’s older sister, Nancy (Natalia Dyer), continues to grapple with her guilt about the death of her best friend, the internet meme known as Barb, while being caught between big-hearted high school boys, Steve (Joe Keery) and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), with, respectively, the worst and best hair on television. Chief Hopper (David Harbour) continues to grumpily swagger his way around Hawkins, where a massive pumpkin die-off suggests something nefarious is going on. Also suggesting something nefarious: Will’s vision of a monstrous spiderlike being from the Upside Down.
The new season of Stranger Things isn’t as good as the first. The Empire Strikes Back and The Two Towers notwithstanding, sequels hardly ever are. Though, as with so many sequels, what happened before happens again only more so, it is somehow more than the sum of its disparate parts. Last season, Joyce had an epiphany that she could communicate with Will using Christmas lights and strung up a wall of crazy. This season, she has another, less convincing epiphany that results in an entire house of crazy. Longed-for reunions are delayed: Though we see Eleven in nearly all of the episodes, she does not interact with the majority of the cast for a frustratingly long time. That cast expands. In addition to Reiser and Astin, there’s a truth-seeking, match-making journalist; a red-haired skater girl; her mulleted, needlessly evil older brother; and a character whose given name Netflix made me sign a legally binding document promising not to reveal but who responds to both “plot of Season 3” and “future spinoff.”
More effectively, the new season gives last season’s supporting players bigger roles. Comic relief Dustin and Nancy’s boyfriend, Steve—the popular jock from a John Hughes movie if he were given the good edit—pair up in the season’s most inspired and unexpected storyline. Lucas, who spent all of last season mouthing skepticism, this season gets to crush on a girl. (Stranger Things seems to have heard the criticism that, despite Eleven, it didn’t have that many vibrant female characters. Sadly the Duffers have attempted to solve this problem by introducing the red-headed Maxine, a cool girl with nerd credentials who spends the majority of the show being kept out of the action by those very nerds.)
And then there is Will, who spent most of last season captured in the Upside Down, but who takes over for Eleven as the emotional center of the series. None of the boys have aged with the crazy overnight rapidity of, say, Bran Stark, but Will seems not to have aged at all. He’s slight and fragile, and when he sleeps, he looks almost like a toddler. Stranger Things has a sweet way about it: There’s a lot of Goonies camaraderie in its DNA. But there’s horror there, too. You can see it in the cutesy Gremlins-like creature who turns out to be a death-mawed hellion of evil. And you can see it the pain that is visited upon Will’s body and soul. One of the most terrifying scenes in the new season arrives when Will, guided by Bob, tries to stand up to a bully and fails so completely the results are metaphysically catastrophic. Here, the supernatural becomes a terrifying metaphor for the difficulty of surviving in the real, unmagical world, where little boys and girls may be able to stop evil, but only at a great psychic cost.