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STRANGER THINGS: CHAPTER 1: MAD MAX
I felt this evil, like it was looking at me. – Will Byers
It’s good to be back in Hawkins. It’s good to look at these spectacular hairstyles and hear this music, especially the fantastic series theme, and it’s good to have entertainment back in our lives. Stranger Things has returned, and as I said in my spoiler-free overall review on Friday, it’s bigger and better than ever. It didn’t lose what made it special, in fact it merely enhanced what already existed, for the most part dodging the sophomore jinx and the sequel curse.
Season 2 begins with Will Byers, also known as the unluckiest kid on earth, walking from the highs of hanging out at the arcade to the lows of the Upside Down. Yes, it didn’t take long to get us here, and Will’s survival merely set the stage for the second act. In last year’s finale, he coughed up a hideous monster, and that was apparently not an innocuous act. This poor kid is never going to catch a break. I was almost praying for his death…
…on his behalf.
We meet Sean Astin’s Bob Newby, a nerdy, somewhat passive (he hates horror movies, which was a funny nod to the show itself), anti-Hopper male figure that gets directly in the way of any potential relationship between Joyce Byers and our favorite police chief. Last week, I wrote that Astin was unlikable, but I realize I left out a very important word: EARLY.
Bob did nothing wrong, but most fans were invested in the idea of a Joyce-Jim pairing, and here we get an obstruction to that possibility. This is a very common television move, as the goal for a writer is to make an audience want something, then delay it for as long as possible. The key is in pulling the trigger at the right time, and not becoming irritating.
We also get a look at Paul Reiser’s Dr. Owens, who certainly seems sinister, but one can never be sure. To call this an intriguing casting decision would be an understatement, but if we learned anything from shows like Breaking Bad, it’s that the unconventional can work. If Bill Burr can somehow work in Albuquerque, I suppose Helen Hunt’s fictional better half can pull off this unique role. Even if he’s not a monster, he’s a monster. Why? Well, because his favorite candy is Mounds. Folks, that’s not okay. He’s clearly under the control of a malevolent force.
Owens does posits an important early theory about Will after examining him, namely that Byers is dealing with something akin to a psychological “Anniversary Effect,” which opens neurological floodgates and often becomes much worse before it gets better. It’s comparable to a form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and Will’s general weirdness, which no doubt has always existed to some extent, now has a definitive cause and effect.
One of the best moments of the episode comes as Owens waves to Hopper before the latter takes his leave, and Jim merely stares at him, turns around, and drives away. How could anybody not love that dude?
We’ve got a rotten pumpkin patch, and there’s simply no way that can just be bad fertilizer or poor farming techniques can it? I’ve never been around a rotten pumpkin, much less a field full of them, but the assumption would be that’s not an ideal scent, nor an ideal place to find oneself. Hopper, of course, ends up investigating it, which should tell you all you need to know about its importance. It’s festive, times out well with our actual lives, but I’m almost waiting for a pumpkin to come to life and eat someone’s face off.
Welcome Max Mayfield (Sadie Sink), and also Billy Hargrove (Dacre Montgomery) to the party, and you can tell almost immediately SHE is going to be fun…and he isn’t. Even the manner in which he approaches Steve proves his antagonism. The question is whether he’s just a nutcase or a jerk, or if there’s a larger, deeper reason for his troubles. Things don’t generally happen inside a vacuum, except for actual cleaning procedures. Max going HAM on Dig Dug was a nice touch, as it made her the object of every young boy’s dreams. Well, the ones that play Dungeons & Dragons at least.
Do you remember where you were when Dustin Henderson revealed he had teeth? I will never forget it, and good for Gaten Matarazzo. We find out about it in the best way possible, as he verbally jousts with Lucas over Max’s affections with quite the one liner. “She will not be able to resist these pearls. Grrrrr.” Also, that purple brontosaurus hoodie from the Minnesota Science Museum WILL be sold somewhere, and you’ll see a hipster in your downtown area rocking that thing. If not, I know nothing about this country.
Mike Wheeler is in search of Eleven, and we’ve gone 352 days now since the last time those two were in contact. It’s relatively sad, although it provides the perfect means to reunite them near the end of the season. Watching him pick up the Millennium Falcon toy while boxing up items to be given away was an excellent way to get across his longing without him having to say it. Call that an educated prediction, and although I’m writing these reviews after watching the entire season, I’m composing them from an “I’ve only seen to this point” perspective, so don’t worry if you’re reading as you watch.
Doc Owens isn’t quite Doc Brenner, but he’s into some interesting stuff to say the least. After getting the Hopper snub, he heads down to a secure area where dudes in protective suits walk through oxidation chambers and use flamethrowers to burn an ominous looking mound. No one actually believed there was just ONE creature in Stranger Things, right? That was always something that rang false to me, that after taking down the Demogorgon, that was somehow it. Luckily, the first season ended with the reveal we expected.
Another thing we obviously knew was that “011” was not the only numbered child as part of Brenner’s experiments. Enter “008,” who appears to have been taken in by a crowd much different than Mike and his crew. However, as we get to the end of the opener, we see exactly where El has ended up, and it’s not exactly a surprise. Jim Hopper has taken her in, and is in fact hiding her from everyone else on planet earth. She’s got hair now, and that’s never going to look right. But, you could have worse guardians, and the scene at the very end of the episode with the two sitting down for dinner in their remote cabin in the woods is reminiscent of the end of the first installment of the series as a whole, where Mike and the fellas run into her for the first time…also in the woods.
She’s the big reveal here, just as she was there.
Barb is still very much dead, but her memory lives on. Nancy and Steve go to her house to chow down on some KFC with her folks, and here we get the first of Stranger Things‘ larger lessons. Everyone expected Steve Harrington to be a total douche from day one, and he had his moments, but if there’s anything we’ve been able to decipher, it’s that first impressions are only introductions. People can indeed grow, and they can change. Keep that in mind as you watch Bob navigate his way through a difficult situation with the Byers family.
Also, Barb’s parents have hired a conspiracy theorist named Murray Bauman to try and find what Hopper, who they blame for the lack of answers, couldn’t. Brett Gelman plays Bauman, and he’s phenomenal. He’s one of the naturally funniest people in nearly anything he shows up in, but he can also play the creepy vibe that’s necessary to pull this character off. He’s a joy as the season goes further.
What’s amazing is as much as we want Nancy and Jonathan to ‘ship, we actually kind of dig Steve as well, and that’s something I never expected to see happen. No one in this show is PURE villain, with the exception of Brenner and company, and of course the monsters, including this new terrifying tentacled thing that haunts Will’s dreams and even his days.
Bob likes Mr. Mom, and guess what, so does my dad. I enjoyed it as a kid, but it creates a place for “square” dissonance and distance between the new man in Joyce’s life, and her children. Jonathan, who might spend Halloween night listening to the Talking Heads and reading Vonnegut, might not be in for Michael Keaton’s mopping hijinks. He says Nancy’s description of his 10/31 sounds like a pretty good night. I agree, although I’d probably replace Vonnegut, but I’ve spent many an evening with the sounds of David Byrne.
Finally, before we roll the credits, we see things getting weird again, with the security officer noticing all the lights and buttons going insane at his post. Yeah, there’s eight more episodes. It’s going to be a long few days, holmes.
All in all a fine start to the season, although the romantic entanglements were a bit contrived, and it’s at least arguable that Hopper hiding El is a bit of a stretch. Not perfect, but entertaining and it’s nice to catch up with the guys and gals and see what everyone has been up to. I feel sorry for Will Byers, but by the end of the season, we might feel sorry for everyone. Billy was an eye roll, though Montgomery was good, and we’ll see how long it takes before Nancy and Jonathan rekindle what was obviously blooming late in the first season. My condolences to Steve.
Tomorrow… Chapter 2 (and perhaps 3, might double up, as they play together well). What’d you think?
I’m @JMartOutkick. I’d rather be Bowie.