Stranger Things 2 spoiler-free review: does the Netflix sensation still have the magic?

It’s time to go back to Hawkins and the Upside Down in our spoiler-free review of Stranger Things Season 2

Given that Stranger Things so perfectly hit that zeitgeist-y sweet spot and so clearly enjoyed its pop culture success, we had our concerns about whether Matt and Ross Duffer would be able to perform the same trick twice. No one likes a second season slump. So, good news: we didn’t need to worry. For the most part, Stranger Things 2 is a resounding success as the brothers take us back to Hawkins, Indiana for a more character-focused follow-up.

Now, what that means is that the pace is somewhat less breathless for the first half of the season. Rather than plunge us straight in at the deep end, Season Two picks up one year later and shows us where everyone’s got to and how they’ve been picking up the pieces. “What’s wrong with Will?” is less dynamic and urgent than “Where is Will?” but it’s to the show’s credit that it’s treated with the same amount of importance, as Joyce (Winona Ryder) and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) struggle to balance support and paranoia, and the friendly Dr Owens (Paul Reiser, nicely unreadable) brings him into the science lab for regular tests that don’t seem to helping…

The Will (Noah Schnapp) situation is very much at the forefront, which obviously results in much more screentime for the character, but there’s also more room made for Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), both at home and in their attempts to strike up a relationship with Hawkins newcomer Max (Sadie Sink). While she is a little reminiscent of IT’s Beverly at times, her no bullshit attitude, big heart and troubled relationship with her unstable older step-brother Billy (Dacre Montgomery, going full-tilt for “Stephen King bully”) make her a strong character in her own right and an excellent new addition to the cast.

Speaking of new additions, the Duffers are clearly giddy about having 80s genre faces like Reiser and Sean Astin (playing Joyce’s clueless but sweet new boyfriend) in the cast, and they know what they’re doing by casting them in these roles. Brett Gelman is also good value as an investigative reporter poking around, and there are a couple of other new faces that we really can’t talk about.

If we’re making it sound like Stranger Things 2 is light on the action and horror, all we can really say is: be patient. It’s much more of a slow burn, but when the show puts its foot on the gas, it’s just as scary and thrilling as it ever was. The monsters are coming.

With that being said, if we had to pick a quality to define Season Two, we’d go with heart. The creators really love these characters, and each group greatly benefits from more attention. Joyce is desperately trying to find some kind of stability, Hopper is trying to keep his town together, and the love triangle of Jonathan-Nancy (Natalia Dyer)-Steve (Joe Keery) is infinitely more interesting now that we know them all better.

If anyone feels slightly side-lined, it’s Mike (Finn Wolfhard), who’s been left feeling lost, angry and alone since the disappearance of Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) but he’s hardly absent.

So, what about Eleven? Well, that would be telling. We’ll just say that the character goes on a gripping personal journey that continues to prove just what an incredible talent Brown is. Will may be the big mystery but, when she’s on screen, it’s Eleven’s show.

There are one or two missteps as a result of the Duffers trying push the edges of their world (one very spoilery storyline in particular needs more time or less quirk to really work), and if you found the show’s 80s trappings self-indulgent in the first season then, one joke aside, you’re not in for a pleasant surprise this time round. It’s also hard to shake the fact that knowing that a third and probably fourth season are already underway doesn’t really help build tension as the final third begins.

But while it may suffer in direct comparison to its predecessor, Stranger Things 2 reaps the rewards from putting in the time and the work to make sure Hawkins and its heroes and villains aren’t just bike-riding meme-machines. There will be memes, for sure, but there’s real heart and soul here, so…welcome back.

Stranger Things 2 is available to stream on Netflix from 27 October.