Sunday, October 29, 2017

REVIEW: 'Stranger Things' - Everyone Is Trying to Move On From Their Own Trauma in 'Chapter One: MADMAX'

Netflix's Stranger Things - Episode 2.01 "Chapter One: MADMAX"

As the town preps for Halloween, a high-scoring rival shakes things up at the arcade, and a skeptical Hopper inspects a field of rotting pumpkins.

Stranger Things was one of the big surprise hits of Summer 2016. It seemingly came out of nowhere. It dropped its eight episode first season on a random Friday in the middle of July. It seemed destined to get lost amongst the mountain of content on Netflix. But instead, it broke through in the cultural zeitgeist in a way that Netflix and series creators The Duffer Brothers probably weren't expecting. It was a solid first season. The creatives had to have known that. But it broke out in such a massive way. There was some toxic flaws to the fandom as it pertained to Barb. She was never an important character in the actual story. She was nothing more than a plot device whom the writers killed off in order to increase the stakes of the narrative and make it a more personal story for Nancy. She served no role outside of that. But it was a mistake that so much of the narrative ultimately revolved around rescuing Will from the Upside Down. It was his survival that was foremost on the show's mind. Barb was just an afterthought. That was a problem that then spun out into this big thing that somehow got Shannon Purser an Emmy nomination. That was weird. And yet, the show deserved all of the other Emmy nominations and wins it got for the first season. The casting was impeccable especially with the child stars. The writing and directing was strong as it paid homage to these kinds of horror films from the 1980s while still being its own individual thing that plays effectively in 2017. Stranger Things is a strong show. It has flaws. But the way it handles emotions in a very small and intimate manner is one of the most impressive things. And so, the show returns with a premiere that is basically all about the various characters dealing with the trauma of the past season.

Of course, The Duffer Brothers are looking at this season of the show as a sequel movie instead of the second season of a TV show. That could easily be the source of a thousand word rant on my part. They aren't making a movie! They chose to make a TV show for Netflix! They understand how they need to do things episodically so that there is a desire to keep moving forward from one hour to the next. This isn't a movie but the creators are treating it as such. And so, I won't be referring to this season as Stranger Things 2 like they want me to - even though I'm forced as such with the show's Twitter hashtag. This is Stranger Things. The content itself proves that to be the case. The first season ended with all of these little teases about what the future holds for this world. That finale was somewhat problematic because it wrapped everything up fairly early on and then just spent the rest of its running time establishing new mysteries for the following season. Over the hiatus then, the audience was questioning what had happened to Eleven and what was going on inside Will after escaping the Upside Down? And now, the show understands it needs to provide answers to those questions after setting them up last year. But it's very slow and deliberate with those reveals in "Chapter One: MADMAX" as well. It understands the power of being patient while still ultimately delivering on what the audience actually wants. That's where the power of this premiere comes from.

So last year, Will coughed up a creature after escaping the Upside Down. It was this ominous tease that he would forever be changed by his experiences there. Just because he escaped doesn't mean he can just go back to casual nights of playing Dungeons and Dragons with his friends. He went through this traumatizing experience. That moment proved that he's not just struggling with PTSD. There is a physical component to what's going on with him. This premiere doesn't really touch on that. Instead, it highlights how Will is seeing things that aren't actually there. They are absolutely terrifying. They appear in random locations. But they completely change his view of the world. He's just with his friends at the arcade when the world around him just completely disappears and he sees a red storm on the horizon. He's just going to the bathroom late at night when he sees the same storm outside that now reveals this huge and ominous creature. It's a terrifying sight and the show does a phenomenal job in capturing the dread and intrigue of these moments. It's confirmation that something is going on within Will that no one can completely understand. As such, it's very smart of the show not to keep that as some big secret. Will is open about what he's seeing with his family. But this mystery takes him right back to the organization that destroyed his life in the first place. Dr. Brenner is no longer the one running Hawkins Labs. He has been replaced by Paul Reiser's Dr. Sam Owens. He wants to be seen as trustworthy to the Byers family. He has a smile on his face and is willing to joke around with Will. But Joyce and Hopper remain skeptical. It's hard to trust someone when he keeps saying that he should be trusted. Plus, the premiere even teases that Hawkins Lab is still dealing with this portal between worlds.

All of this is very enticing while highlighting the trauma that everyone in this story is feeling. Will is the one dealing with the physical ramifications. He's the own who actually traveled to a different world and is seeing things that couldn't possibly be there. But this hour shows that other characters are still stuck holding onto the past despite it now being a year later in their lives. Joyce is still traumatized whenever the phone rings. She doesn't know if it's just going to be a genuine call, a prank call or her son calling out for her help once more. She's trying to move on with this new relationship with Sean Astin's Bob Newby. And yet, the narrative also points out that he's the normal guy in this extraordinary world. He's a guy who may be smart - with his expertise of electronics probably coming in handy at some point this season - but may be ill-prepared for all the supernatural things that have plagued the lives of so many in Hawkins. Meanwhile, Will sees himself as the zombie boy who is a freak the world can't understand. Jonathan is basically the same as a teenager who would rather hang out with his family than make friends at school. But that's a valid reaction as well. And so is everything happening with Mike, Dustin and Lucas. Mike is the one who can't take down the blanket fort in the basement because he seeks comfort in going down there and trying to contact Eleven on the walkie once more. He's desperately clinging onto the hope that she's still out there. But Dustin and Lucas are already moving forward. They are the ones obsessing over the arcade game and stalking new girl at school, Max. That's a little too creepy for the protagonists to be acting. Plus, it's weird that they are so surprised by a girl being a badass. But it's still a new mystery for the season.

Elsewhere, the show is perhaps course-correcting a little too much with the lack of focus on the aftermath of Barb's death in the first season. Now, it's something that has actually affected Nancy. At first, she's right back to being the older sister who is annoyed by Mike stealing money from her while trying to help her loving boyfriend, Steve, with his college applications. But then, she actually goes to see Barb's parents. She and Steve are still keeping it a secret from them about what happened to Barb. They know that she's dead and that it defies any kind of rational explanation. That's what makes it so destructive and manipulative that they are allowing Barb's parents to have hope in their lives once more because they've hired an investigative journalist. They are selling their house in order to pay for him. It's a tragic piece of news that does destroy Nancy. And yet, she still doesn't tell them truth. They have no idea of the prison that they are in. They two of the few people who don't know what happened to Barb. And yet, they are the two people who mean the most. They deserve to know the truth. The longer the show keeps them in the dark the more tragic and destructive it will become. But also, this doesn't need to be an ongoing story. If all Nancy does this season is actually mourn Barb, then it feels like fan service instead of the show actually doing something interesting with her as a character.

The premiere then ends on a couple of intriguing and ominous notes. Will has the escalating visions that now include that huge monster. There is something going on in the basement of Hawkins Labs that the tech isn't on top of. But most importantly, Hopper comes home to a cabin and reveals that he is taking care of Eleven. That's such an emotional and moving moment. His struggles with his own daughter were a huge component of his story last season. And now, he sees a new opportunity to be a father. And yet, Eleven can never be a regular girl in the world. The journalist believes she's tied to a crazy conspiracy theory he believes is rooted in this city. She is locked away in this cabin for her own protection. It's a cabin where codes and signals need to be implemented. Hopper is remaining a consistent part of her life. He's trying to be a good influence for her. But this living arrangement seems unable to be maintained over a long period of time. It's survived for a year. Eleven has longer and more straggled hair now. But she doesn't have contact with anyone other than Hopper. That could be just as personally devastating to her. She's safe but Mike is living in fear over what happened to her. He formed that instant connection with her and has no idea that Hopper has done this. Of course, Hopper will need to explain that sooner or later. He knows the bond the kids had with her. And yet, he's chosen not to let any of them in on this grand secret. It's still a huge reveal to know that Eleven is being taken care of. It's just not the life Mike wanted to give her last season.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Chapter One: MADMAX" was written by The Duffer Brothers and directed by The Duffer Brothers.
  • The season opens far away from Hawkins. It instead starts with a bank robbery in Philadelphia. The robbers are only able to get away because of a girl who also has powers. She is able to make the officer driving the lead car believe that a tunnel has collapsed during this chase. That's not true at all. And so, this character will clearly be important this season while also showing the effects of the supernatural extend far beyond Hawkins.
  • Further complicating Joyce's relationship with Bob is the fact that she and Hopper are still incredibly close. He attends Will's visits at Hawkins Labs as well. Dr. Owens treats him as Will's father. There is an intimacy shared between them. Hopper wants to be the first one Joyce calls if things continue to escalate with Will.
  • Dacre Montgomery makes his debut as new student, Billy. And yet, not a lot is actually revealed about him. He and his sister, Max, are largely just being observed by the other characters in the school environment. However, Billy's introduction is pretty fun because it's this very over-the-top moment that is set to "Rock You Like a Hurricane."
  • There's a brief moment where Dustin feels there is something just lurking outside of his house. That's ominous as well. This show has shown so many creatures that go bump in the night that have terrorized this community. It's apparently safer now. But there is still this brief moment where the audience doesn't know if something is about to happen to Dustin.
  • It's also pretty clear that there is something actually going on within the community of Hawkins as well. Hopper has more to do as police chief than just tell the journalist that he's crazy for thinking the Russians are testing a new weapon here. But his investigation into the sudden destruction of pumpkins by poison doesn't actually go anywhere either. It's just an unsettling sight.

As noted in previous reviews from this show, every episodic review was written without having seen any succeeding episodes. Similarly, it would be much appreciated if in the comments, the conversation would only revolve around the show up to this point in its run.