TV reviews

Stranger Things 2×01 – ‘MADMAX’ – Review

Hello, Hawkins, Indiana. We’ve missed you.

No other show in the world (save perhaps for Game of Thrones) has been as breathlessly and eagerly awaited in the past twelve months than runaway hit Stranger Things, a slow-burn of an Eighties love letter that combined nostalgic vibes with an intriguing, character-led sci-fi horror plot.

The show’s success has catapulted the stars into global stardom and the expectations for Season 2 to succeed even more than its stellar first outing had. It’s an intriguing choice that the Duffer Brothers (creators, writers, and sometimes directors of the show) made then, to have the first episode back, the excellently titled ‘MADMAX’ be more about setting up our various and beloved players into their new formations, ordering the chessboard into play, much like the D&D campaigns that framed season one.

This focus on character setup over immediate plot development works well in the show’s favour, as we receive updates on the inhabitants of our favourite fictional town (sorry Pawnee). The core four of Will, Mike, Lucas and Dustin are all attempting to move on into normal school life, with varying levels of success. Mike (Finn Wolfhard) still pines for Eleven, the blanket fort in his house an echo of the innocent intimacy they shared last year, and urges into an empty radio channel for her to let him know that she’s safe.

Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) share an emerging and competing attraction to the feisty new girl Max (a redheaded Sadie Sink who skateboards, argues with her step-brother, and kicks video game ass; her handle acts as the episode’s namesake). Will (Noah Schnapp) meanwhile undergoes sinister MRI scans and exams from Dr Owens (Paul Scheer!) and continues to experience visions of the Upside Down, dominated by a spider-shaped shadow monster who seems connected to Will in a way sure to play out this season and give the underused Schnapp plenty to work with this time around.

The other players have plenty to do as well; Nancy (Natalia Dyer) struggles with her knowledge of BFF Barb’s death, culminating in a bathroom breakdown during a dinner with Barb’s parents, aware that they’re selling their home to pay for a private investigator to find their daughter. She also has romantic entanglements too – her relationship with redeemed jock Steve (Joe Keery) is sweet but staid, and she has much more chemistry and connection with Will’s moody brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) who she maintains a friendship with.

Even Joyce (Winona Ryder) is having some luck relationship-wise, hooking up with kind but boring Bob (a wonderful Sean Astin in a genius piece of casting), and finding some stability in her life, even as she struggles to avoid rushing to the phone as characterised her panic last season. Sheriff Hopper (David Harbour) has no romantic threads for now, but instead fends off conspiracy theories about Soviets and space, and investigates a rot in town that’s targeting pumpkins. Something seriously creepy is afoot.

Despite this great character building, the best parts of this solid and enjoyable season opener fall to the scenes that bookend the episode. In the former, a squad of thieves escape the police in Pittsburgh with the help of a girl (Linnea Berthelsen) who conjures apparitions to stop the police in their tracks. This girl? Adorned with a half-shaved head and an ‘OO8’ tattoo that matches Eleven’s own. Looks like we’ve got another Hawkins experiment survivor on our hands, albeit one with different abilities to Eleven’s.

Speaking of, the show’s final scene of Hopper sitting down to a ready meal with his new lodger is a brilliant subversion of expectations as Eleven, healthy if agitated, with a crop of seriously curly hair, appears and shares dinner with him. Gone is the expectation that the start of season two would be about Hopper’s journey to find El; somehow they’ve already found each other and Hopper is now her protector. Or maybe she’s his. Only time will tell.

One thing is for certain though: it’s damn good to have Stranger Things back in our lives.

Stranger Things Season 2 is now airing on Netflix. Let us know what you think of the season.

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