To honor Noah Schnapp who stole this season, I used shots of him in all of the images, except for the finale, which is an Eleven episode all the way, and the abysmal episode 7, which is also an Eleven episode. (See here for the season 1 rankings.)
Episodes 9: The Gate. 5 stars. The finale starts on Mike’s strongest moments, finishes on his earned reward, each involving the re-entry of Eleven into his miserably shattered life. It’s everything I hoped for in his story arc, and the right place to reconnect El with the main cast. Any earlier than the finale would have cheapened her sacrifice in season 1. Mike and El’s reunion is powerful because he’s been an empty shell for a year; to see him come alive again is sublime. In a particularly heart-rending scene, he goes ape-shit on Hopper, screaming at the sheriff and physically attacking him for keeping El hidden all this time. The reunion is short lived, of course, as Eleven must leave right away with Hopper to close the gate. But first Will needs an exorcism, since closing the gate will kill everything the Mind Flayer controls, including Will himself. Throughout this season I kept expecting Will’s possession to turn lame and laughable, but it remains dreadful to the end. Having just been strapped to a chair and worked over in episode 8, he is now tied to a bed, and Joyce proceeds to burn the Mind Flayer out of him by shoving three electric heaters close to him on full blast it’s a wonder his skin doesn’t fry. As both Will and his possessor roar in agony, Jonathan begs Joyce to stop, and Nancy seems equally appalled by this humiliating cruelty, until she outdoes Joyce by grabbing a hot poker and jabbing it into Will’s gut (a scene that still astounds on repeat viewings). Meanwhile, Steve and the kids do their part by going down into the Mind Flayer’s tunnels and burning the hub, which draws most of the demo-dogs away from the lab to attack them, giving El and Hopper some breathing room. El’s closing of the gate is a wondrous moment, but believe it or not, the Snow Ball epilogue is the series’ best scene, as we see all the boys ending up paired with the “right girl” in the right ways, dancing to the creepy ’80s stalker song, “Every Breath You Take”. It’s so moving, so right, and far more than I dared pray for this season.
Episode 4: Will the Wise. 5 stars. After the first three episodes comes a shift in tone. Will, having taken Bob’s well-meaning but stupid advice, is no longer just infected by the Upside Down. He’s possessed by the Mind Flayer. Possession is a scary concept to put on screen, but it’s also the riskiest because it’s hard to do right. Thankfully the Duffer Brothers know what they’re doing, and Noah Schnapp nails it in every frame, with subtleties Linda Blair could have never pulled off in The Exorcist (which demanded the more overt approach to possession). He deserves an Emmy for his scenes in this episode; they’re that good. There are no jump scares here, just the slow creep of dread as Will alternates between being shaken and terrified, to making resolute demands (that his mother run him a freezing bath, because his possessor “likes it cold”), to stalking about the house confused. Eleven also gets in her best scene of the season, as she and Hopper have a shouting match when she returns from stalking Mike in episode 3. They’re both trapped: Hopper keeps her confined under strict rules for fear of losing another “daughter”, while Eleven accuses him of being no better than “papa” — she feels just as caged in the cabin as she was in the lab — resulting in her telekinetic tantrum of hurling things at him and shattering windows. Finally, the episode ends on the first death of the season: Dustin’s cat, devoured by his pet pollywog that’s molted into its next stage — a baby fucking demogorgon. Will the Wise is easily my second favorite episode, even if there’s not much action, and I could make a case for it being number one. Will’s and Eleven’s scenes contain some of the best moments of child acting ever seen on television.
Episode 6: The Spy. 5 stars. There’s a heavy Exorcist vibe running through this season, but it becomes most blatant in the medical scenes of The Spy. The opening scene (above pic) is clearly inspired by Regan McNeill’s hideous PEG procedure (which drained fluid from her head so that her brain would show up more clearly on an X-ray image), and Will Byers is having it even worse, convulsing under the doctors who ask him where it hurts, to which he can only scream “Everywhere!” Winoda Ryder, for her part, plays the hysterical mother as convincingly as Ellen Burstyn did, and Joyce even shouts down a table of doctors for their incompetence as Chris McNeil did when professionals tried explaining Regan’s possession as mental illness. “What are you even treating him for? What is wrong with my boy?” practically channels the famous Exorcist line, “Eighty-eight doctors, and all you can tell me with all your bullshit is that you’re sorry!” Later it seems that Will is working against his possessor. He tells Mike he knows how to stop the creature: that there is a location in the tunnels which his possessor “doesn’t want him to see”, and so a team is sent to investigate. The location is the same hub where Hopper was attacked in episode 5, and it turns out to be a trap — Will was just lying, almost completely possessed now, and an ugly slaughter ensues. The episode is a ripper in other parts too, notably Steve and Dustin’s, who are now joined by Lucas and Max in a rather foolish attempt to bait Dustin’s demogorgon into the open and kill it. When a whole pack of demogorgons shows up, Steve and the kids become the bait and trapped inside a bus as the beasts assault them, another intense scene in an episode that stays in full throttle. The bonding between Steve and Dustin is handled extremely well, and involves some of the season’s best character moments.
Episode 2: Trick or Treat, Freak. 5 stars. The Halloween episode has tremendous rewatch value. I get a fever for Ghostbusters every time the theme song plays over the montage of the kids in costume, and Mike hilariously bitching at Lucas for dressing up as the leader Venkman instead of (the African-American) Winston, to the latter’s indignant cries of racism. Mike is right, Halloween is the best time of the year, and here the frights are out in full force: Max scares the shit out of them with her Michael Myers costume, and Will gets the biggest scare of all, as he gets knocked over by a group of bullies and then finds himself in the Upside Down being chased by the tentacled Mind Flayer blotting out the sky. I had a bad moment when Will crouched behind the building and the creature funneled its way down the stairs to grab him… until it turned out to be Mike in the Rightside Up. Mike takes him home (with a rude parting blow to Lucas, Dustin, and Max that he’s bored with them anyway), and back at the Byers’ house, the two boys have a touching moment (above pic). It’s my favorite Mike-Will moment as they take some comfort in each others damage. Mike thinks he’s losing his mind — knowing Eleven is dead but that he can sometimes hear her — and offers Will the companionship of “going crazy together”. I also love the initial flashbacks which pick up right after Eleven banished the Demogorgon in season 1. She barely escapes from the Upside Down and returns to Mike’s house (the only place she’d ever felt safe in her life), but finds the police all over the place, and Mike being grilled on her whereabouts. As she spies through the living room window, it’s hard to say if she thinks that Mike has sold her out or not, but her look of pain is heartbreaking as she realizes she can’t return to him yet.
Episode 8: The Mind Flayer. 5 stars. The first half combines Aliens and Jurassic Park, neither of which I’m a big fan of, but which are used effectively for the season’s crowning action sequence. It results in the death of Bob, and the sight of him being torn apart by a pack of demo-dogs is almost enough to turn Joyce into a gibbering lunatic. The only weakness is that Bob’s death is telegraphed a little too obviously (at three particular points I said to myself, “He’s not going to make it”), but other than that, the lab siege is superbly executed. We — like Dr. Owens, Hopper, Joyce, and Mike — watch the cameras in horror as the demo-dogs feed on corpses in every other corridor. The second half of The Mind Flayer is even better. All the main characters come together at the Byers house, and Mike gets the idea that if they kill the Mind Flayer, which functions like a brain, they can perhaps kill the army it controls, and stop its tunnels from burrowing into the town of Hawkins. He suggests that Will may know how to kill the Flayer (given the intimate connection to his possessor), and thus begins an emotional ordeal by which Will is strapped to a chair and worked over in turns by Joyce, Jonathan, and Mike. They share intimate memories with Will, and in particular Mike’s recollection of becoming friends with Will on the first day of school is a tearjerker. Will continues to speak like the damned, but these stories do break through and allow him to tap a message using Morse code, which is to “close the gate”. That will apparently kill the Mind Flayer, or at least everything it controls, and it is at this moment — rather conveniently, but without feeling like a cheat — that Eleven makes her glorious re-entry, to an overwhelmed Mike.
Episode 3: The Pollywog. 4 ½ stars. Of all the episodes in season 2, The Pollywog channels the spirit of season 1 most visibly. The boys are in fine form working tightly together, and even Mike comes out of his shell to take a proactive role, as he chastises Dustin for harboring a creature from the Upside Down. Sensing hostility, the thing makes a dash for the corridor, and the boys engage in a mad chase through the school halls, and into bathroom stalls, until Dustin secretly finds it and smuggles it under his cap. The Stand-by-Me bickering is what we loved so much about these kids, and it’s on full display here, as Dustin is willing to defend his new pet against the others no matter the cost. Then there is Mike’s jealousy over Max; he tells her point blank that she’s not welcome in their party. It would be an amusing hypocrisy given Lucas’ jealousy over Eleven last year, except that it’s genuinely sad. That sadness is compounded when Eleven, furious with Hopper, decides to break his rules and pay Mike a visit at the school. She sees him in the gymnasium with Max and draws the wrong conclusion, and it’s truly heartbreaking. Up until now she has been using static from the television in Hopper’s cabin to “visit” Mike telepathically — the same way she used sensory deprivation tanks in season 1 to locate people without them seeing her — but a year’s worth of stalking Mike on the shadow plane has grown old. Now in the gym, it looks like Mike has moved on and forgotten about her. The final scene announces serious business ahead, as Will (very foolishly) faces down the Mind Flayer and gets possessed for his efforts.
Episode 1: Mad Max. 4 stars. Let’s be clear that the arcade is not the table top, and our first sight of the kids playing Dragon’s Lair doesn’t have the same magic as their D&D game of season 1. That out of the way, the arcade is still an inspired setting, and is put to good use in showing us how Will remains infected by the Upside Down. Suddenly the arcade shifts into the shadow realm, and the world outside becomes an apocalyptic hell. It’s clear that everything will revolve around Will Byers as before, but this time by inverting the premise: instead of him vanishing into the Upside Down, the Upside Down is coming to him. He won’t become possessed until episode 4, but he’s in a bad way suffering PTSD on top of these hellish visions. Worse still is that Joyce and Jonathan condescend by treating him with kid gloves, which pisses him off, and it doesn’t help that nasty kids at school leave him taunting “zombie boy” notes in his locker. Joyce, for her part, has become the Helicopter Mom from Hell, which to be fair is more than understandable; I wouldn’t want to go chasing after my kid in the Upside Down ever again either. What the premiere establishes above all is the cost of last year’s events. The innocence of Hawkins has been lost. Mike is still pining for Eleven and calls her in vain on his walkie talkie; Nancy hasn’t gotten over Barb; and Hopper is guilt-ridden for being complicit in the oath of silence the government demanded of them at gunpoint. This all adds up to a fine way of reintroducing us to the old characters who will never be the same. New characters, like the titular Mad Max, seem rather extraneous by comparison.
Episode 5: Dig Dug. 3 ½ stars. The middle episode is pretty good but brought down by the obnoxious character of Murray. I have to say he almost ruined Nancy and Jonathan’s story for me. He’s a conspiracy theorist who plasters his apartment walls with misinformation and crackpot ideas about a mystery girl (Eleven) in Hawkins who is a Russian plant. When Nancy and Jonathan enlighten him with the truth, he hatches a plan to sell their story to the media, but only if they leave out the wild parts no one will believe, which is pretty much everything pertaining to the psychic realm and the Upside Down. By watering down the truth (suggesting that Hawkins Lab is guilty of poisoning people) they stand a better chance of convincing the public. Which is all fine and well; it’s his zany and obnoxious behavior that grates, and he somehow feels misplaced in a Stranger Things drama. Meanwhile Hopper has discovered the Mind Flayer’s underground tunnels, which are spreading into the town, and he becomes trapped and incapacitated. This allows the character of Bob to show his use, as he realizes that Will’s drawings of “vines” are actually tunnels under Hawkins connecting to lakes and quarries, which enables them to go rescue Hopper. Eleven gets the best part of this episode, as she flees Hopper’s cabin in search of Terry Ives. When she finds her mother, she obtains more misery, as if that were possible; Terry has been living a waking nightmare ever since being electroshocked into a blank state.
Episode 7: The Lost Sister. 2 stars. As someone who loves bold episodes that go outside the box — like Breaking Bad’s Fly and Doctor Who’s Love and Monsters — it pains me to say that The Lost Sister is an embarrassing misfire. As an excuse to give Eleven something to do before reuniting with the other characters, we’re treated to an excursion to Chicago where she finds her long lost “lab sister” Kali, who also has telekinetic abilities, but instead of moving objects she makes people see things that aren’t there (or not see things that are). She leads a street gang who hunt down and kill scientists who worked for Doctor Brenner, and the episode focuses on Eleven coming to terms with her power and ultimately rejecting the use of that power for murder. It’s a fine enough idea, but Kali and her crew are thoroughly uninteresting characters, and most of them painfully annoying. On top of that the episode is horribly placed, coming in between the episode 6 cliffhanger which demands an immediate follow up. I understand what the show writers were trying to do here, by holding off El’s reunion with the others until the final episode. That was the right move, since El’s sacrifice in season one doesn’t mean anything if the others don’t suffer through her absence, especially Mike. But this detour to Chicago was a poor way of going about that. I hoped that The Lost Sister would get better on more viewings but it hasn’t. It feels like a pilot for a lame spinoff series. I give it 2 stars instead of 1 because Millie Bobby Brown is always good, even in a bad script.