Stranger Things is back today for a much-anticipated second season, which means we'll be spending all weekend breaking down and talking about our return to Hawkins and the Upside Down. Things are a bit different this time around, with new characters and new dangers for our friends from the '80s, but it's still unmistakably Stranger Things. There's a lot to like, which begs the question: What did we like the most?
Honestly, you could go on forever about the best parts of these nine episodes, but given the show's most notable number, we decided to aim for 11 (get it?). Here are our picks for the 11 best things about Stranger Things 2, from characters to plotlines to moments. Check 'em out, and tell us your favorites in the comments.
WARNING: It should go without saying, but given that the show just returned we wanted to very sternly warn you this contains spoilers all the way up to the season finale. So, if you haven't seen the full season yet and you're worried about us ruining things, listen to the wise words of Dustin Henderson and "ABORT." Also, please do come back later when you're done binge-watching.
In Season 1, we all fell in love with the kids of Hawkins, and they've been regular fixtures on talk shows and at awards ceremonies ever since. They're all delightful, which makes it even more challenging for a new young talent to integrate herself into the group and win us over. Sadie Sink pulls it off. As Max, the fiery new redhead with an abusive stepbrother and an affinity for Dig Dug, she adds something special to the show. She could've been the stereotypical angry kid with a dark background, or she could've been the new kid who just wants to belong. What we got is a vulnerable, intriguing hybrid of both, and that's due in large part to Sink's performance. She adds depth to what's never been a subtle show.
The love affair between Stranger Things and Dungeons and Dragons is nothing new to the show. In fact, we were introduced to it in the opening minutes of the series. The main characters are nerds, and one of the ways they demonstrate that is by frequently getting together in Mike's basement with their character sheets and their 20-sided dice. The show's D&D addiction is, ultimately, a metaphor for how these kids process the real world through fiction. In Season 2, that metaphor expands to include Dustin and Lucas frequently referencing "the party," meaning the group of adventurers they've become as friends. It's the kind of thing a nerdy kid would very obviously say about his or her friend group, but as the season goes on it becomes a more potent metaphor, particularly when they have to consider whether they're actually going to let Max be a part of everything that's happening. By the end, the party is bigger and stronger, and they're all better for it. In a show that frequently refracts the "real" lives of its characters through its fiction, this is the most potent analogy by far.
One of the key differences between Season 1 and Season 2 is the evolution of Will Byers into "the spy," the kid who can actually see and feel The Upside Down in ways his friends never can. In yet another fictional metaphor applied to the lives of its characters, the kids begin referring to Will as somewith with "true sight," a common fictional device that allows a person to see what others simply cannot. In Will's case, it begins with a vision of the Shadow Monster outside of the arcade and continues right up until he very nearly becomes a monster himself. It's not a welcome addition to his life by any means, but it does provide the show with a new connection to its dark parallel universe, and it deepens the mythology of The Upside Down in ways we still don't fully understand.
Dustin's larger role
Dustin Henderson may be Stranger Things' greatest character, with apologies to other triumphs like Hopper and Eleven. This is a show that's clearly powered by other stories, and more than any other character on the show, Dustin is powered by stories. He sees the world through movies and comic books, video games and RPGs. As the mythology of the show deepens, he's often the one who can see the truth behind all of the weirdness, perhaps even more than Will. His relationship with the creature Dart is one of the driving forces of Season 2, and in the end it actually leads to him becoming one of the season's great heroes. Plus, his final moments in the finale will legitimately bring a tear to your eye.
Eleven and Hopper
BIG SPOILERS HERE
At the end of Season 1, we saw Hopper placing a container of food -- including those beloved Eggo waffles -- in a box out in the woods, so that Eleven could find it. Their connection is not subtle: He's a broken man who lost his daughter and she's a broken girl who lost her family. In some strange way, they need each other, and Season 2 explores that need in much greater detail. Their scenes in the cabin together rank among the show's best moments ever, and the fact that Eleven finds her actual family, then a surrogate family in the form of some misfit kids, and then still realizes she needs to go back to Hopper and Mike and the gang is the most emotionally potent thing about this show so far.
Plus, there's this genuine tearjerking line from Hopper: “I want you to eat all the peas, even if they’re mushy and gross.”
Joyce's new obsession
Last season it was Christmas lights.
That's how Joyce Byers ultimately figured out a way to communicate with her dimensionally-displaced son Will, setting up lights and using their electric pulses as a kind of Morse Code. This season, Joyce and Will spend most of their time together, but the Byers home is still covered in its own weird new mystery: Will's drawings. After understanding that he can't really convey the infection of The Upside Down in his head with mere words, Joyce asks him to draw what he's seeing. The result is a massive map of the weird roots beneath Hawkins, which becomes so large that they run out of paper and start using old Christmas wrapping (a nod to Season 1, no doubt). It provides Winona Ryder with another chance to play the obsessive, loving mother and wander around her house in a panic, but as an added bonus the show also ropes in Mike and Bob to raise the stakes. It's a clear derivation of what came before, but in this case, it feels like it was worth it.
Nancy and Jonathan
Sometimes you just want the romantic tension to break.
Last season Nancy Wheeler and Jonathan Byers danced around each other to an almost maddening degree, and it really felt like it was going somewhere... and then Nancy picked Steve. This season, riddled with survivor's remorse over what happened to Barb, Nancy shuns Steve and turns to Jonathan once again as the two head off on a conspiracy theory-fueled road trip. After a truly bizarre journey of discovery (which also gets them a bottle of vodka), they finally end up together. Even if you just wanted the "Will they/won't they?" dynamic to just end already, it's a satisfying moment, and they go on to fight monsters together once again.
Bob is the new Barb
Few supporting characters could ever hope to capture the public imagination as much as Barb did in Stranger Things' first season. Her look and demeanor were instant hits with fans, so much so that everyone not-so-secretly hoped that she wasn't really dead after her journey to The Upside Down.
Well, sadly, Barb really has left us (though she has a couple of cameos this season). If we have to pick a new Barb for Season 2, though, it's most likely Bob, Sean Astin's new character. As a new guy entering this conspiracy-riddled world, it would be easy to wonder what exactly he's up to. As it turns out, he's just a nice guy, happy to be dating Joyce and making Dad Jokes while driving Will to school. Like Barb, he was not well-equipped for the supernatural world that was about to envelop him. He was really good at puzzles, though, and his death scene was maybe the most heart-wrenching in the show's history so far.
As questions swirled around Season 2 and whether or not it would actually include the dearly departed Barb, creators The Duffer Brothers only said that there would be "Justice For Barb." At the time, we didn't know what that meant. Now it's clear. Barb is gone, but Nancy and Jonathan's tireless pursuit of understanding what happened to her did lead to the shutdown of Hawkins Lab, and to government officials being held accountable for her death. Now, how much impact that will actually carry into the future of the show's universe isn't clear, but Nancy and Jonathan did manage to let the world know about their departed friend. Barb got justice, in some form.
Stranger Things succeeds with so many fans, in part, because it has a habit of mixing the visually awesome with the emotionally powerful. In the season finale, we got that in a way that we've perhaps never gotten before with this show. Eleven, descending through the lab with Hopper, reached out with all the power she could muster and "closed" The Upside Down. It would be a powerful scene in any context, but now in particular it feels important. We tell little girls to restrain themselves, to hold back. Eleven spent a year hiding from who she really was, and years before that in confinement. When she finally lets loose she quite literally alters the landscape of the world. Stranger Things is not a subtle show, and neither is the metaphor for what's happening here. It matters quite a lot anyway.
Stranger Things is not over. Creators the Duffer Brothers have more seasons planned, and the foreboding final shot makes it clear that the threat to Hawkins is not yet contained. All that said, our heroes get one hell of a send-off this season. United at one school dance, as The Police play in the background, everyone gets a version of what they want. Dustin gets to dance with Nancy, who we know he's been crushing on since the pilot, and he gets to understand that his nerdy appeal will get better with time. Lucas and Max dance together and even embrace. Mike and Eleven share a kiss. Even Will "Zombie Boy" Byers gets a dance partner, and gets to have some fun after all he's been through. Yes, the Shadow Monster still looms, and there are more threats to come for these kids. But this night, as they all get to share in a moment of happiness, is a feeling straight out out of the best John Hughes movies.