Stranger Things – S2, E1 – Everything Is Not Okay

Stranger Things is back! I’ve been tasked with covering this season for Reel, and I’m thrilled and terrified to do so. No doubt, some of you had already finished this season before I got out of bed this morning (the release date). Others of you have adult lives and responsibilities, and will indulge in an episode after you’ve had a sensible dinner with vegetables and only on weekends. I hope to split the difference here, and review digestible bits (one to two episodes at a time) and finish the show in about a week.

Episode one starts surprisingly – in a car chase that ends with the reveal of a new telekinetic character a few cities away. Is this just an expansion of the world, or will we be seeing more of this character (and numbers 001-007, 009-010, or even 012 and beyond)? Either way, it’s nice to see that this show is aiming to surprise and do some new things right from the start. A show can err by growing stale, or by jumping the shark – I’d put this opener right in the middle, where it needs to be.

Then, of course, we get back to our favorite characters. A friend of mine perfectly classified this particular sub-genre of sci-fi as “Kids on Bikes.” Think E.T., The Goonies, and Super 8. It’s so nice to be back with them. I’m most excited to get back into their world, as much as I enjoy the teens and adults, and the cast of characters that make them up. (RIP, Barb.)

But what was most noticeable was the one kid NOT on a bike. Will, who spent most of last-season in the upside-down, doesn’t get to ride his bike to school or anywhere else anymore. He is driven around and watched over like a hawk by his mother and brother (and by the government) as a result of last season’s experiences. This episode is really playing with the idea of trauma in a way that most shows or movie franchises ever care to do, and I think it’s really important.

For one, it’s a continuity issue with most shows and movie sequels where you sometimes find yourself shouting, “Did you learn nothing last time!?” But more importantly, it’s a poignant rejection to the instinct we have to move on without properly dealing with what we’ve gone through, both personally and systemically. In considering only the most recent news, the Harvey Weinstein allegations gave voice to millions and millions of women who have experienced sexual assault or harassment whose voices were never given the time of day, whose trauma was silenced. The shooting in Las Vegas, the deadliest mass shooting in recent history, has fallen out of the news cycle after less than a month.

Knowing this, it would be easy (and lazy) for Stranger Things to simply move forward. Instead, every character is wrestling with the trauma of last season, whether the loss of a friend or daughter, the trauma of almost losing a son or brother, or having experienced the unimaginable and being forced to stay silent about it. Episode one holds space for that, and playfully projects everyone else’s trauma onto Will. Every other character, unwilling to engage their own pain, assumes that Will is experiencing PTSD when he skips like a record into the upside-down. The only character able to see what is coming will be ignored because of his “trauma” while the rest of the characters pretend that nothing happened, unable to name their own.

The only character to seemingly move all the way through trauma is Chief Hopper, who lost his daughter prior to the events of season one. Season one gave him the opportunity to process that pain and reconcile to the world through saving Will and the town. In season two, he is uniquely poised to lead others through the trauma of season one, and as revealed at the end, has been refined by it all to be a father once more to Eleven, who is very much alive, and still very much enjoys waffles.

A couple new characters, and our first glimpse at a new monster, do start to push us forward. I’m already obsessed with Sean Astin (of Goonies fame!) in this role as unbearably cheesy sitcom dad in love with Joyce. He is so hammy and delightful and represents all of the faux-complacency that these characters think that they want. We also get to see Brett Gelman, normally a hilarious comedic actor, as an investigative journalist stirring up all the things that everyone is trying to keep secret. But mostly, I’m excited for Max, the titular character of this episode, who can hopefully bring a new energy to what is really a “Boys on Bikes” genre. (Eleven is a girl, of course, but her super-human abilities and limits keep her from filling this void.)

I’m so glad that Stranger Things took the time to show that everything is not okay, and that everyone did not live happily ever after. We might do well to take an hour every once in a while ourselves and look back, asking, “Are we okay? Do we need to talk about anything?” Our propensity towards quick resolution or forgiveness, without the proper work of reconciliation or confession, is evident all around us: in our families, in our churches, and in our nation. This episode reminded me that before we launch forward, it’s important to look back – and to listen to and learn from those who have gone all the way through and come out the other side.