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Stranger Things 2 Review: Episode 1, "Madmax" Got Right Into The Action

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Reunited at last

Spoilers for Stranger Things 2, up through Episode 1, "Madmax," below

Stranger Things Season 2 is finally here, and it wasted no time in clearing up some central mysteries:

  • Eleven is alive, and she's living with Hopper.

  • Will is indeed unwell, as the Season 1 finale hinted at when he barfed an alien slug into the sink.

  • Yes, there are more psychic kids like Eleven.

Props to the show for that banger of a cold open. Number 008's reveal--let's call her Kali, like her friends do--was a perfect way to expand the scope of Stranger Things' universe, answer a burning question, and make viewers excited for the season that we're about to binge in one long, sunlight-deprived session.

Unfortunately, that was all we got of Kali/Eight in this season premiere, which for the most part concerned itself with catching us up on various events and characters in good old Hawkins, Indiana.

Reunited after last season's events, "the party"--Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Will (Noah Schnapp), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin)--are mostly living life as normal, besides Will's occasional check-ins at the government lab. Joyce (Winona Ryder) has turned understandably overprotective, but her new beau Bob (Lord of the Rings' Sean Astin) is a happy influence. Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and Steve (Joe Keery) are trying to move on, and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) still has it bad for Nancy. And, of course, everyone's favorite alcoholic sad dad/gruff-but-lovable police chief--David Harbour's Hopper--has been harboring Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) for a good chunk of the year since Season 1 ended.

Besides that opener, nothing much really happened in Stranger Things' Season 2 premiere, "Madmax." It felt great simply to return to this world and see everyone in it relatively happy, especially Joyce, who went through the ringer last season and really deserves a big, dorky hobbit to hold onto. What the episode did do is set up some conflicts to come:

  • Will is trapped in some limbo passing between our world and the upside-down, and things are not looking great in the latter.

  • The episode's titular character, Max (Sadie Sink), is an intriguing addition to the party that's sure to cause strife, especially with her sexy-but-dangerous older brother (Power Rangers’ Dacre Montgomery) in the mix.

  • Irate farmers coming to Hopper about their poisoned fields is a humorous frame, but there's clearly something sinister going on with those crops.

  • The doctor (Paul Reiser) doing Will's check-ups seems like a nice guy on the surface, but given their experiences last year Hopper and Joyce are probably right not to trust him.

  • Nancy and/or Steve might hit a breaking point with Barb's parents, who are selling their house to hire an investigator (the conspiracy theorist who Hopper met with earlier in the episode). The "Justice for Barb" movement might get their wish, but what will it cost these characters?

Most importantly, when will Eleven re-enter the story proper? Nerd that he is, Mike must be well aware of the age-old rule that if you don't see a character die, chances are they're coming back. He hasn't given up on seeing Eleven again, and for a second it definitely sounded like she was calling his name over the walkie, before Dustin interrupted. Given what Eleven is capable of, that's definitely a possibility.

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And although we glimpsed some of Will's symptoms, we didn't find out exactly what crawled out of him in last season's finale--though there's something suspicious rumbling around in Dustin's trash cans.

Mysteries and conflicts aside, Stranger Things continues to be a top tier show, even when not much is actually happening. The majority of "Madmax" was set-up, but given how far south things can go, it was nice just to live with these characters in their everyday lives for a while. They've changed a lot, too, since Season 1; Joyce is a good mom who's trying not to smother her son, Steve is trying really hard not to be an idiot, Mike is acting out, Will has PTSD, and Dustin has teeth now. And the '80s, with all its Dragon's Lair, Devo, and hairspray, is still a super fun setting that Stranger Things uses smartly.

In its first episode, Stranger Things 2 feels like a horror movie's opening hour. It's playing with our expectations that there's trouble brewing, from Will's visions of "evil" to Hopper waving his big revolver around in a cornfield. He may have been spooked by a bird, but there's sure to be worse than that plaguing Hawkins soon. The relative peace in the meantime was enjoyable enough.

Best reference or easter egg:

The American Psychiatric Association didn't define post-traumatic stress disorder--PTSD--until 1980, only four years before this season's events. That explains why Joyce was so skeptical of it. Hopper's assurance that PTSD is a real thing could be a hint toward a part of his background we haven't yet learned of.

Check out our Stranger Things 2 Funko Pop giveaway, and then head back to our Stranger Things 2 hub for more episode reviews, theories, references, easter eggs, and more!

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