Few other returning series this season were met with as much fanfare as Netflix’s Stranger Things. After garnering a seemingly overnight cult following in summer 2016, the Duffer brothers’ spellbinding sci-fi series returned on Friday — just in time for Halloween.
Season 1, which scored a 96% on the Tomatometer with 68 reviews, left us with plenty of questions about our beloved Eleven’s whereabouts, Will’s mental and physical health since escaping the Upside Down, and the future of Hawkins, Indiana, and conspiratorial Hawkins Labs. Season 2’s nine episodes, which began streaming Friday, wasted no time in tying up loose ends, introducing new characters, and packing on one surprise after another.
The critics have weighed in, too, resulting in a 94% score on the Tomatometer (as of this writing with 85 reviews) and making it abundantly clear that the Duffers have successfully avoided the sophomore slump.
Rotten Tomatoes caught up with identical twin creative partners and showrunners Matt and Ross Duffer to discuss the new season’s twists and turns — plus what’s to come in the already highly anticipated third outing.
Benjamin Lindsay for Rotten Tomatoes: I think one of the biggest talking points from season 2 is Eleven’s character arc. She spends so much time by herself this season before making her way back to Hawkins. How did you two decide on what her journey was going to be for this season, and why do you think her departure from Hawkins was so paramount to her development?
Matt Duffer: We had actually kind of a rough idea of what we wanted to do with her, even by the time we’d finished writing season 1. We really always liked the idea of putting her and Hopper together. We just thought that those characters would work really well together. David and Millie were two of our powerhouse actors, and we thought something interesting or exciting was gonna happen if we paired the two of them together, so that was always sort of the plan, that’s why we had him leaving the Eggos at the end of last year. [But] we had to sell [the idea] to Netflix, because so much of the success of the first season rested on Eleven’s interaction with the boys, and we were going, “We don’t want to do that at all, really.” That was just [us] trying to make sure that this thing would feel different from season 1. We wanted to explore new flavors and new relationships, and we didn’t want to repeat ourselves too much.
So that led to the Hopper thing, and then ultimately we wanted Eleven to have her own journey of self-discovery, to have her —without anyone helping her, without the boys, without Hopper — learn more about her past and where she comes from, and deal with all of her very complicated emotions about her past. She was very much locked up in a cage her whole life, and now she finds herself locked up again [with Hopper], and so she’s dealing with a lot of really complicated emotions. At the same time, she’s growing older and maturing, so we wanted to give her this journey of self-discovery.
The plan was always for her to come back eventually, to find her way back to her true home, which is in Hawkins with Mike and the boys.
RT: Right. I got a little worried come episode 207. With the influence of this sister character, Kali, you think that Eleven might go to the dark side.
MD: Right, exactly.
RT: Kali—has she always existed in the Stranger Things universe in your mind, or was she drummed up for Season 2?
Ross Duffer: We’d always talked about other numbers, and if they were still out there. That was one of the first ideas. I mean, it’s an obvious one, it was one of the first ideas as we moved into season 2, so she was sort of created at that point. We thought it was important for Eleven to toy with going to the dark side and then come back in order to defeat the evil. She wouldn’t have been able to do that otherwise.
RT: So what does the relationship with Kali and Eleven look like now? Is it safe to assume that we haven’t seen the last of Kali?
RD: It’s definitely possible. It’s hard to say. Something funny we found out with season 2 is that we started introducing these characters, whether it was Bob or Kali or Billy and Max, but we already had so many characters, and then you fall in love with new people like Erica, who plays Lucas’ sister, and it really becomes this balancing act of making sure everyone gets their time. We want to continue to develop the characters that we already have come to know and love, so I think that’s what we’re figuring out moving into season 3: What do we have time for, and can we also get to know our characters better who have been there with us since the beginning?
RT: Speaking of Bob, I think people are really gonna miss him. Was he always written as the hero who pays the ultimate price in the end?
RD: No. The funny thing is, he was always written to die, but he was gonna die much earlier on. He was originally written as more of just a dope. And then when we saw Sean Astin, that really altered the course of that character in a major way. We loved Sean’s energy and how likable he was, and so he helped us create Bob. And then we kept being like, “We can’t kill him, he’s too good.” And we kept him in. We just loved writing for Sean, and we loved directing him. Then eventually, as hard as it was, we kept to our original plan of killing Bob. That was a hard thing for us to write once we got there, because we came to care about both Sean and then also this character so much.
MD: That was the hardest scene to write. Because we knew it needed to happen from a narrative point of view, but emotionally, we really didn’t want to do it. But that’s what’s fun about TV. I love that an actor like Sean can come in and transform the story in the way that he did. The same way that Winona [Ryder] did in season 1. I love that, and I love that it can evolve.
RT: Winona was the first one cast who has that real-world ’80s flavor. And then of course Sean Astin and Paul Reiser came on. Do you have a dream guest star down the line? I was thinking maybe one of the original Ghostbusters…
RD: That’s actually a pretty good idea. I hadn’t thought about that.
MD: Yeah, we haven’t seen enough Dan Aykroyd, have we? Get Rick Moranis out of retirement. I don’t know. I convince myself we’re not gonna do that because we’re gonna get flak for it, or it’s too “cute” or whatever. And Sean was not planned. That’s not why we cast him. But it happens to be an age of actor, these really great actors who you’re not seeing enough onscreen anymore. And so really more than looking for someone who was a star in the ’80s, we’re looking for actors who I feel like are missing from our lives as moviegoers or TV-watchers. Great actors who you haven’t seen enough of lately.
RT: Season 2 also raised the question of whether or not Dr. Brenner, in fact, died in season 1, which I think isn’t really a possibility that a lot of viewers considered. We never saw him take his last breath.
RD: Our thing has always been, if we were gonna kill Dr. Brenner, we would’ve actually killed him. He deserves a brutal death. The fact that it was very quick and off-screen — we purposefully left it a little ambiguous there.
RT: What would mean for Eleven if he was secretly still around?
MD: Well, she has a super complicated relationship with him. Even though he kept her in prison, he still is, in a way, her father figure. Millie Bobby Brown is even conflicted about how she feels about him and that character. If you talk to Matthew [Modine] or Millie about it, neither of them particularly view Brenner as a bad guy. There’s a lot of rich, complicated stuff to explore there that I think it’d be fun to get into at some point. That’s definitely the plan, too — at some point. I don’t know if it’s season 3 or what.
RT: And in the interim of his absence, Jim Hopper (David Harbour) takes on kind of a father figure role. But as this character is prone to do, he kind of gets in his own way. Is he capable of being the guardian figure that Eleven needs?
MD: I think he comes around, or seems to have grown and has a sort of self-awareness and admits what he did wrong by the end of the season. He’s the sort of person with tons of potential. Deep down, he’s a really good guy, and so I like to think things could work out, but we’ll see.
RT: Why do you think adding Max (Sadie Sink) to the boys’ party was so pivotal to their dynamic this season?
RD: Max was one of our first ideas, coming into season 2, and I think we were excited about the idea of introducing the new girl into the party. The first season was so focused on Mike in a lot of it, and we wanted a girl that, in sort of a twist, is someone that Mike is not interested in letting join the party, but the other boys are much more interested in. And also, these kids are getting older, so their interest in the other sex is continuing to become a big part of their lives.
We just thought it was an exciting way to really shake up that party, and then also get in a bad-ass character that doesn’t have superpowers, but is still strong in her own way, and proves to be a pivotal piece to this party moving forward, in terms of how they’re able to defeat this evil.
RT: The monster for this season was scarier, it was larger, there are more Demogorgons, obviously. The scale of this thing and the things that are at stake are magnified in a way that we didn’t see in season 1. What was the inspiration for this shadow monster?
MD: Last year, we always referred to the Demogorgon as like a shark. Like Jaws — a shark in another dimension that would every once in awhile breach into our world and yank its victim back down into its dimension. [This season,] we wanted to talk about: Is there something higher up on the food chain? Is there something more sentient? Sort of the Sauron, the Voldemort. So we started to talk about that. We started to talk about, obviously H.P. Lovecraft, and we started talking about cosmic horror. We talked about Clive Barker. We talked about what scared us, generally, growing up. And eventually, it developed into this Mind Flayer.
Then we started to work with concept artists. We have a couple of amazing concept artists who helped us figure out what the hell we wanted this thing to look like. And that’s when it really started to take shape.
The trickiest thing about the monster was we wanted it to not be solid, but made up of all these little particulates, which is obviously a very complicated thing to do, as far as computer graphics are concerned. It went through a lot of different iterations, but we’re really happy with where it ended up.
RT: And I love the idea, personally, of it being a virus and of Will being a host. It all being interconnected in that way.
MD: Yeah, I think the hive mind thing, that came pretty early. That would tie all the various threads together. Anyway, it was fun. We learned a lot about visual effects this year.
RT: And then the hive mind, that also gives Joyce a reason to replaster her home with — this time not Christmas lights — but she has Will’s drawings.
MD: Some critics were giving us shit for that.
RT: It just speaks to her character. She’s a dedicated mother.
MD: Well listen, here’s the thing: She’s never gonna put stuff up on her walls again, I promise you. I promise the critics that. They gave us enough shit about that this year. But no, we didn’t even mean for that to happen. It was always gonna be Will’s drawing, and eventually he had so many drawings, we just had her end up sticking them up on the wall. I think it made the house look really cool, so I don’t actually have any real regrets about that.
RT: I thought it was so genius and cheeky that it ends on “Every Breath You Take” by the Police. It’s such a fitting song at the school dance, but then it switches over to the Upside Down and the monster is watching every breath they take, every move they make. Are we meant to believe that Hawkins, Indiana’s battle with the Upside Down isn’t quite over yet?
RD: Yeah, the hope with the Mind Flayer is that we would establish a villain that could sustain through multiple seasons. The entity didn’t even know that Eleven existed until right there at the end. And so the idea was that last shot at the end, you know, they shut the door on him, but he is very well aware of these kids that thwarted his plans.
We had tons of cliffhanger ideas of where we think season 3’s gonna go, and we decided not to box ourselves in. So we thought this was a good way to end it, to clarify that the threat is still out there, but it gives us a lot of flexibility moving forward. Certainly, the Mind Flayer will play a major role in seasons to come.
Stranger Things 2 is now streaming on Netflix