Stranger Things Season Premiere Recap: The Return of Will Byers

Stranger Things

Season 2 Episode 1
Editor’s Rating 4 stars

Stranger Things

Season 2 Episode 1
Editor’s Rating 4 stars
Photo: Courtesy Netflix

Three-hundred-and-fifty-two days have passed since Eleven disappeared with a poof and Will was rescued from the Upside Down. Almost a year for Barb’s parents to wonder where she’s gone, for Joyce Byers to hone her helicopter parenting techniques, for Dustin to get some front teeth, and for Eleven to replace the daughter that Chief Hopper lost years ago. But let’s start at the very beginning.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that there are more “prototypes” like Eleven. After all, her name implies that ten children came before her. But still, it’s a thrill to see Stranger Things 2 kick off with another telekinetic young woman (played by Linnea Berthelsen), intuiting the streets of Pittsburgh like a regular Rand McNally and performing feats of structural engineering that would blow Eleven’s mind. The shock isn’t that she brings that tunnel down in front of the police car chasing their robbery getaway van; it’s that she either reassembles it in seconds, or possesses the ability to implant false visions in strangers’ brains. Either way, the season-two intro offers a glimpse into how the Duffer Brothers might catapult Stranger Things into Orphan Black territory: If there’s more than one victim, there’s more than one story.

Back in Hawkins, Indiana, it’s full-throated, stone-washed-denim-loving, New Wave–manic 1984, and we’re plopped right into the nexus of Mike, Will, Lucas, and Dustin’s life at the arcade, with the dada synth chords of Devo’s “Whip It” on top. Although the song was actually released a few years earlier, it’s the perfect anthem for the moment we meet back up with the boys — dance-y and upbeat in tone, its lyrics actually poke fun at American optimism, and its accompanying video (which is memorable especially for the band’s Lego-like red hats) features the four male band members whipping the clothes off of a haughtily dressed woman in the midst of that most American of atmospheres: a dude ranch.

At the arcade, the boys are in for a rude surprise. There’s a new leader on the board for Dig Dug, someone called “Madmax,” and for a group of prepubescent boys in small-town Indiana, you can imagine what a bone-rattling blow this would be to their psyches. But for Will, who ended last season coughing up interdimensional slugs in his bathroom and experiencing a surreal return to the Upside Down, Dustin’s demotion to second-place in Dig Dug isn’t such a world-ending event. Instead, Will is preoccupied and terrified by another Upside Down “episode.” The arcade goes dark and his friends — in fact, everyone — is gone. The floating particles of the Upside Down swirl around him, and when he steps outside to discover what a low rumbling sound might portend, the sky takes on the sheen of an apocalyptic hellscape. Then just as quickly, the vision is over.

It’s a long-mocked quality of horror movies that the action comes to a tidy conclusion, the monster or bad guy is killed, and nobody bothers to worry about the raging PTSD that will surely crop up in the living victims. Although the Duffer Brothers love to cave to the cheesiest of notions about ’80s films (see: the squealing tires of new hottie Billy’s Camaro, and the “look at that ass” comment from admiring teen girls), they also love to upend them, and so Will’s continuing trauma is the centerpiece of the season premiere. Of course, this is Stranger Things, so the idea that these “episodes” are all in Will’s head is laughable. But still, Joyce, Jonathan, and the other boys all treat him like “he’s going to break,” which justifiably enrages him to no end. (Also, that mean “Zombie Boy” news clipping slipped into his locker proves that kids are the actual worst. How could anyone be mean to Will?)

While the other boys ride to the arcade on their bikes, Will is dropped off by an appropriately apprehensive Joyce, who is strict in her instructions that he not ride or walk home. Honestly, it’s amazing she even lets him out of the house, but then again, if your house had served as a portal to a shadow world inhabited by a vicious creature that kidnapped your kid, maybe nowhere would really feel that safe. Joyce is concerned enough by Will’s visions that she and Hopper take him regularly to visit a doctor — although the fact that they trust another doctor at Hawkins National Laboratory to give them honest answers about Will’s state of mind and well-being should have us all wondering about their parenting abilities.

Played by a kindly-seeming Paul Reiser (in a role that harkens back to his Aliens days), Dr. Owens puts Will through a battery of tests and listens carefully to his descriptions of his “vision.” When he tells Joyce and Hopper that Will is simply experiencing PTSD, his diagnosis sounds right. But then, when Owens descends into a subterranean room at Hawkins Lab and wishes well an explorer heading into the Upside Down with a blowtorch in his hand, it becomes pretty clear that, lest we’d forgotten, the death of the demogorgon didn’t close the hole to the Upside Down. And given the discovery of green-slimed (hello, Ghostbusters reference!) rotten pumpkins strewn across Hawkins farms, it’s obvious that something else is creeping out of that portal now.

Meanwhile, an investigative reporter named Murray (Brett Gelman) is lurking around town, and he’s sniffing a little too close to Eleven for Hopper’s tastes. So Hopper does what authority figures have done to reporters who get a little too close to the truth for decades: He tells him he’s a nutter and that nobody will believe his baseless theories about aliens and a young girl with a shaved head who can move trucks with her mind. But Murray isn’t just poking around. He’s also promised Barb’s sweet, desperate parents that he’ll help them find their daughter — and they’re even selling their house to pay him for his services. Which raises an important question: What do the townspeople of Hawkins know about last year’s events? A beloved diner cook was murdered, a young boy and teenage girls went missing, several cars flipped in the midst of a police chase, the middle school was the scene of a bloodbath, and a young boy turned up dead, only to be found alive even though his body was supposedly buried. Will’s “Zombie Boy” newspaper clipping proves there has been some coverage of the bizarre week Hawkins had in November 1983, and yet the citizens aren’t up in arms demanding answers. Barb’s parents don’t even know she’s dead — a point that (finally) causes Nancy some anguish. There is really no easy way of explaining to them what happened to Barb, but still, this is cruel.

During the check-in at Hawkins Lab, Dr. Owens predicted that as the anniversary of Will’s kidnapping approached, he would experience more “visions.” Up in the middle of the night to pee — in a scene that is practically a shot-for-shot homage to The Sixth Sense — Will again hears the rumbling of thunder. He opens the front door, where swirling red clouds and flashes of lightning suddenly reveal a monster that puts the demogorgon to shame. It seems to be a Thessalhydra, a D&D monster that was foreshadowed at the end of season one, and it’s not just in Will’s head.

Will’s house may not be safe, but Hopper’s trailer — formerly a beer-can-strewn pit of bachelor debauchery — is remarkably clean and put together. Two tinfoil-wrapped meals wait on the table, and an Eggo sits half-eaten to the side. And there she is, curly-headed and wearing overalls. Eleven is back, and Hopper has a little girl again.

Side Quests

• Joyce has a new boyfriend and he is wonderfully basic. Bob (or “Bob the Brain,” as he was known in their schooldays) loves the Michael Keaton classic Mr. Mom — and he definitely loves Joyce, too, based on those juicy kisses in the storeroom. He’s played by Sean Astin, who most people know as Samwise Gamgee from Lord of the Rings, but who, of course, also headlined the best kids movie of all time, The Goonies.

• Speaking of love, Steve and Nancy aren’t shy about tossing around the L-word, but come on. Steve wants to avoid college and stay in Hawkins so he can … watch Nancy be a senior in high school? And all this while she’s making eyes at Jonathan?

• We only get a glimpse of a gorgeously mulleted Billy (Dacre Montgomery), but I’ll bet that Levi-clad booty is going to have a lot more screentime.

• The “Madmax” leading the Dig Dug board turns out to be the boys’ new classmate Maxine (Sadie Sink) — or Max for short — and their confusion turned glee at seeing a pretty girl who plays video games will remind you both of the dumb nonsense that little boys believe and how little things have changed in 30 years. Here’s to Max being an ass-kicker.

Get all your Stranger Things 2 questions answered at the show’s Vulture Festival LA panel on November 18! Tickets available here.

Stranger Things Premiere Recap: The Return of Will Byers