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Stranger Things 2: a spoiler-free rundown of what to expect

Here are five important things to know about the highly anticipated new season of Netflix’s hit ’80s thriller.

Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

Stranger Things 2 is finally out on Netflix, and a year of frenzied speculation and buildup can finally be put to rest in favor of discussing the newest freaky occurrences in the town of Hawkins, Indiana.

Season two is rife with more of what fans loved in season one: more cheeky and charming preteens, more frantic Winona Ryder, more strange supernatural happenings, and more ’80s references. Overall, it’s a solid showing from a series with astronomically high expectations riding on its second season.

But for some fans, knowing less is more, and the fewer expectations they have going in, the better their chances are of enjoying the new series without any preconceptions. After all, that element of pleasant surprise is exactly what made the experience of Stranger Things’ first season so delightful for so many.

With that in mind, here are five non-spoilery things to know about what to expect from Stranger Things 2. In other words, just enough general information to whet your appetite for all the fun season two will bring.

Stranger Things 2 kicks off around Halloween 1984, a year after the events of the first season

Stranger Things 2 opens in the final week of October, in the days leading up to the one-year anniversary of Will Byers’s weeks-long disappearance in season one. Outside the world of the show, the main reason the timeline is jumping forward is that the production has to keep up with its young ensemble cast, who are all growing up fast.

Inside the world of the show, however, the approaching anniversary means that a number of characters — most notably Will and his friend Mike’s older sister Nancy — are experiencing a resurgence of emotions and trauma tied to the events of the previous year. Those emotions are what jump-start two of the main plots that drive season two.

Stranger Things 2 is less like a typical second season and more like a separate series that focuses on the same characters some time later

Though Netflix’s original renewal announcement touted a second season of Stranger Things, the company quickly began billing it as Stranger Things 2 — which implied, more or less correctly, as it turns out, that the second season is more like a second series set in the same world.

In essence, the new season is more like a sequel exploring a new storyline than a direct continuation of the plot of season one. Though there’s plenty of continuity in the narrative and the characters are dealing with many residual issues from season one, Stranger Things 2 isn’t necessarily interested in simply picking up where season one left off. Instead, there are new monsters to battle and new journeys to take.

In other words, as co-creator and showrunner Ross Duffer has said, "These characters have changed and the audience has to sort of fill in those gaps of what went on in that year." Director Shawn Levy elaborated further, describing the trajectory of season two as “continu[ing] with this set of characters while ... unearthing new problems.”

Don’t be too alarmed, though. In its second go-round, Stranger Things is still easily recognizable as the nostalgic thriller fans know and love — courtesy of familiar faces, familiar tropes, and, of course, familiar ’80s references.

Nearly all of Stranger Things 2’s originally announced episode titles have changed

Last year, Netflix released a short teaser video revealing the tentative title for each of season two’s nine episodes. The titles generated plenty of speculation and debate among fans — but in the end, most of the titles were changed.

The actual episode titles for Stranger Things 2 are as follows:

Episode 1: “MadMax”

Episode 2: “Trick or Treat, Freak”

Episode 3: “The Pollywog”

Episode 4: “Will the Wise”

Episode 5: “Dig Dug”

Episode 6: “The Spy”

Episode 7: “The Lost Sister”

Episode 8: “The Mind Flayer”

Episode 9: “The Gate”

If you compare these to the original list, you’ll see that only the first episode title, “MadMax,” is fully intact. Meanwhile, “The Pollywog” was originally the title of the sixth episode rather than the third.

Season two introduces six important new characters

The main additions to Stranger Things’ ensemble include three new adult characters and three new teen characters.

The adults are played by Sean Astin, Paul Reiser, and Brett Gelman. Astin and Reiser’s roles are very much meta-commentaries on famous roles they played in the ’80s — specifically, Astin’s role as an original Goonie and Reiser’s role as a corporate flunky in Aliens. Meanwhile, Gelman plays a wry journalist turned conspiracy theorist.

As for the new kid characters, one of them, — originally vaguely identified by the name of “Roman” — is played by Danish newcomer Linnea Berthelsen. Roman was initially intended to be an adult character with a troubled history, but Berthelsen’s character is much younger, and her backstory is far more intertwined with what we know about the town of Hawkins and its shady underbelly than the early details released about Roman would lead you to expect.

The other two new characters, a girl named Max and her older stepbrother Billy, don’t have as direct a connection to Hawkins. But Max plays a major role in season two, and helps continue Stranger Things’ nostalgic emphasis on those awkward coming-of-age moments that are part and parcel of middle school. Billy, meanwhile, is the kind of character who seems designed to be a poster child for ’80s excess and hypermasculinity. He sports a laundry list of over-the-top alpha male character traits lifted straight from your average Patrick Swayze flick, muscle car ad, or Top Gun ripoff — complete with all the camp that implies.

Stranger Things’ creative team has clearly been listening to critics’ complaints about season one

In the raging aftermath of Stranger Things’ debut, as the show seemed to temporarily consume all of popular culture, several prominent themes emerged as dominant criticism:

  • Stranger Things often seemed to forget about its female characters — and sometimes did so quite literally, as in the case of its most popular breakout character, Barb.
  • Meanwhile, the show’s other breakout character, Millie Bobby Brown’s telekinetic superhero Eleven, was often used more as a plot device and the “token girl of the group” rather than treated as a person in her own right.
  • In showcasing its fondness and nostalgia for ’80s movies and tropes, as well as its reverence for the work of Stephen King, Steven Spielberg, and John Carpenter, Stranger Things season one was often clunky and derivative. Overall, while the show tried hard to be a cheeky meta-parody of great ’80s movies with original elements, it was more frequently a direct copy of a number of the decade’s movies; some observers found it to be a wholly unoriginal pastiche, albeit one that was so stylish and well-acted that many of its flaws didn’t become noticeable until those same observers gained a bit of distance from the series and its hype.

Stranger Things 2 confronts all of these concerns head on, in multiple ways. There are more female characters, they’re more developed and complex, and plot-wise, they have more to do. The show also goes out of its way to remind fans that their beloved Barb is gone but not forgotten, all but directly referencing the “justice for Barb” mantra that became a meme last year.

As for complaints about Stranger Things’ lack of originality, the new season nobly takes those on too. Though season two is still very obviously centered on Spielberg/King/Carpenter in terms of its ’80s references, it reaches further afield as well, notably drawing inspiration from the work of James Cameron, Ivan Reitman, and John Landis, among others. And at one point, it even directly references the criticism of season one as being too derivative, in a humorous moment that reads as a meta-address to fans.

Most of all, Stranger Things 2 clearly makes a concerted effort to avoid repeating its season one habit of leaning too heavily on well-known storylines from the films it’s paying homage to. However, references to those storylines abound, providing plenty of comic relief. For example, there’s a moment where season two strongly hints that it’s about to adapt a famous plot point from a famous Spielberg movie, only for the idea of such a development to be summarily rejected by the characters themselves. The message is clear: Stranger Things 2 is doing its best to transcend the sum of its parts.

And overall, as you’ll learn once you watch it for yourself, it succeeds.

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