Why Season 2 Is Less Nostalgia-Obsessed
Now, nobody's going to say Season 2 doesn't have a lot of pop culture reference moments. It's full of that. You have the meta-textual casting of Sean Astin and Paul Reiser, a Halloween night full of Ghostbuster and slasher villain costumes and, yes, homage aplenty: Will being freed of the Shadow Monster by way of firestick is straight up The Exorcist, Steve taking the kids into the tunnels is obviously The Goonies, Bob in the facility chased by Demodogs nods to Jurassic Park, and there's so much more besides.
However, in Stranger Things 2 the irritating, obsessive recreation beats are simply not as prominent and gel more in the show's world. Pivotal moments with clear inspiration that last year would have been eye-rollingly obvious - Bob telling will to confront the fear in his dreams is pure The Nightmare on Elm Street - never feel reductive, rather genuine. Even when the Demodogs go all Aliens on the Hawkins facility, it feels like Demodogs and Hawkins, not xenomorphs and Hadley's Hope. In the words of last year's other horror-themed breakout star, Season 2 is "it's own thing."
Indeed, there's an overall reduction in the nostalgia obsession across the show's construction. Things 2 is no less 80s than its predecessor, but from its mind-wiping car chase opening where the money-shot is a tattooed number on an unknown character's arm, it's clear the show is evoking for its own benefit rather than remixing to cover up cracks. You can spot the references, but they're more background Easter eggs than the core viewing experience.
And this is all the result of an increased confidence in the characters. In Season 1, the Duffers had no way to know how viewers would react to the kids, the teenagers, the adults or the nefarious science whizzes and so doubled-down on what they knew people did like: classic movies. Now that Stranger Things is a hit and it's clear pretty much every character is loved in equal measure, they can go full force into them and not worry about the superficial flash. Aside from meaning we don't get condescending nudge-nudge shorthand to create key sequences, this leads to one hell of a tapestry; plainly stated, this is one of the best ensembles ever.
With that stronger grounding, you could probably have the-twist-is-there's-no-twist plot of Season 1 and it still feel complete, but along with confidence in character comes confidence in world. The plot of Stranger Things Season 2 is the evolution of a homage. It's got its specific inspirations and callback beats, yet overall does something focused with its mystery - and it is a mystery, with unknowns and unexpected turns that feel unique to what the show's built.
None of this is an accident. Stranger Things 2 is incredibly self-aware. Obviously, there are the fandom references - getting justice for Barb's death is Nancy's whole arc and winds up having the most concerted impact on wide Hawkins, while several characters wink towards the nostalgic nature (Max even calls Lucas' story derivative) - but the Duffer Brothers also seem to have tried to address the more substantive criticisms, among them the reference bonanza. The result isn't perfect - some of Season 1's irritating timeline flubs remain and the children have an uncanny knack for guessing what's going on with the Upside Down straight away - but, upping their game and fixing, they altogether made Season 2 into something truly great.
Much has been made how this is really a nine-hour sequel rather than a conventional "Season 2". Now, that sort of phrasing tends to be more about trying to elevate a TV show to the level of cinema, misunderstanding the different mediums earn respect in different ways, but in this case it feels apt. Stranger Things 2 is a complete story, one that follows on from the first and leaves room for more, yet is only ever in service of itself. The result is something truly special.