Spoiler alert: Do not read until you’ve watched the complete second season of “Stranger Things,” which debuted Oct. 27 on Netflix.
The reviews are in — and the consensus, say critics, is that the second season of “Stranger Things” doesn’t disappoint. Which comes as a big relief to the Netflix drama’s creators and executive producers, the Duffer Brothers.
“I didn’t really know what to expect,” Matt Duffer tells Variety. “We haven’t really had time to process it ourselves so you know the critics are processing it for us.”
They admit they felt pressure living up to expectations, given the sleeper hit’s first season, which garnered not only fan adulation but plenty of kudos from the industry, including 18 Emmy nominations.
“With the first season, we didn’t even know if it was going to work at all, much less if people were going to watch it,” says Ross Duffer. “So that was really scary. This season, at least we had a firmer grasp of what the show was. We knew people were going to watch it so those fears went away. You have new fears, which is can you live up to people’s expectations? A lot of people like that first season so much and we don’t want to let them down. But at the end of the day it was just us going let’s shut out all the noise and just tell a story that we’re excited about like we did Season One and hopefully people respond to it.”
Here, the Duffer Brothers talk to Variety about that heartbreaking death, getting justice for Barb (finally!) — and what’s in store for season 3.
How would you describe Season 2 vs. Season 1?
Matt: I think it’s scarier. It’s bigger, scarier, darker. All the big cliches, but it turned out to be true of the season. I think when people see it they will realize that we are not lying about that. We looked at a lot of our favorite movie sequels for inspiration and they keep a lot of it familiar but then they also pivot in new directions and they tend to scale it up. So we wanted to try to do all that and experiment a little bit this year. Structurally it’s different in the sense that it doesn’t start off with a child going missing, but each episode builds. It starts out a little slower and then builds and builds and builds until the final episode, which is insane.
Was this the original story arc you had intended for the season, or did things change as you went through the creative process?
Ross: They always change. You have a plan and then it just changes. Characters don’t do what you expect them to do and sometimes it just feels forced. In the case of this season, we came into it loaded with ideas, and when we started writing we had too many ideas and we were losing sight of our characters. So we excised some ideas and we’ll maybe play with them in Season 3 or even maybe 4. Once we gave room for our characters to breathe, we really found this season.
This season, we see surprising combinations of characters play off of each other. How much of that was planned?
Matt: Last year, at the end of Season 1, we were like, we’ve gotta put Hopper and Eleven together. I really wanted to put David (Harbour) and Millie (Bobby Brown) together so that was an early idea. I thought that something interesting was going to happen if we put those two together and you start to get a feeling about actors who are going to work together. Let’s try it. It’s almost like a chemistry experiment. My favorite this year is the Dustin and Steve combination, which actually wasn’t in the initial pitch to Netflix. It was something that kind of evolved as we were writing the show and Steve was kind of getting sidelined. He had nothing really interesting to do. And Dustin found himself cornered with no one to go to and that led to this Dustin and Steve team up which turned out to be so much fun. When you have that much fun writing it and the actors have that much fun shooting it, I think all bets are off. I think that translated to the screen in a really special way. Even though we’re movie guys, we’re starting to fall more in love with television because it allows you to have all the stories in that way. Had we sat down and written all nine episodes in one go we would never have that storyline. So the fact that the actors can influence the narrative in that way is really cool to me.
You ask a lot of Noah Schnapp (Will Byers) this season. How confident were you that he could deliver?
Ross: In Season 1, we were really careful when we cast Will because we knew even then that he was going to come back from the Upside Down and then as a result we knew Season 2 would center around him. But you never quite know. He just came in this season and he stepped up in a big way and it reminded us a lot of Millie in Season 1. Her auditions were great and we thought she was special, but once we saw what she was capable of in front of the camera, it just blew us all away. And we really felt the same way with Noah this season. He’s just evolving into a pretty powerful little actor.
Matt: The truth is you don’t know. You get a feeling about actors and then you take chances on them. It doesn’t always work out but you just trust your instincts as much as possible. And we had a feeling about this kid Noah, but he definitely took it to another level. I think we were all really blown away. Us, Netflix and all the other kids in the cast — no one knew he had that in him.
And as great as Millie was in Season 1, we get to see a whole new side of her: Bad–s Eleven.
Matt: Millie had a lot of fun doing that. It was hard because we had to make a decision this year really early on to not have her with the boys for pretty much the entire season. We wanted to put her with Hopper and we really wanted to explore different relationships. We had done a lot with Eleven and the boys in Season 1. They were the heart of Season 1, so we wanted Millie to show her range, and give her new actors to play off of. And I wasn’t surprised at at all. Of course she stepped up.
We knew when Hopper left the Eggos in the woods last season that those two would have some kind of connection.
Ross: They are two powerful actors. We didn’t really see them together very much at all in Season 1. So we wanted to see what that would be with two very broken people. And we got excited by the idea of could these broken people heal one another. And also the idea of teenage girls are tough enough, and what if they have super powers? How hard is that going to be to raise a girl like that? We thought that would be a fun combination to see. And an Eleven tantrum was one of those initial ideas that set of the stage for what the season is.
You’d joked early on that Paul Reiser was the character’s name you’d always envisioned for Dr. Owens. Did it work out the way you’d hoped?
Matt: Exactly how we wanted. It was a perfect fit. He brought exactly what we wanted. You know it’s funny with actors: You have an idea of who they are as a person and then you meet them and you’re really disappointed. But Paul Reiser is exactly who you want Paul Reiser to be. He was the Paul Reiser of my dreams. I just loved working with him. He was a joy to work with and he’s just a really smart guy. And I think he had a lot of fun. He doesn’t usually get to act in stuff like this. One moment we were shooting in the Hawkins Lab and it was Winona Ryder, Sean Astin and Paul Reiser and I had to slap myself. I mean these are all these actors I grew up idolizing!
Speaking of the ’80s, there was no shortage of references to the pop culture of that era. Have you exhausted that or do you still have more to mine?
Ross: There are infinite ’80s references to mine. We try not to be too egregious about it, but sometimes we can’t help ourselves. To me it’s just this is a love letter to the stuff we grew up loving and we just want to tip our hats to them. Best case scenario, there’s some 12 year old kid watching the show and maybe he hasn’t seen some of these films. And maybe our show will be the gateway drug so to speak leading back to these classics that inspire us.
I feel like you should put out an annotated version, just pointing out even the most subtle 80s jokes.
Matt: I know we got some flak for it (last season) so we try to be careful about it, but at the same time we enjoy it so I don’t want to lie. You want to stay true to what we like and what entertained us and not worry too much about the flak we’re going to get from certain critics.
Especially the music: “She’s A Little Runaway” had me cracking up.
Matt: Yeah, it’s really subtle. Subtlety is our strength. (Laughs.) Some of it we write into the script, some of it are needle drops, and then mostly we just kind of test out various songs over the scenes until we find something that clicks.
Barb finally got her justice this season. Was that always planned, or was it in a response to the fan outpouring last season?
Ross: It’s hard to know. We had Barb’s parents and Nancy dealing with it long before this season; we were working on Season 2 long before that came out. It’s so hard to know how much effect it had, but we certainly wanted a big idea for this season to be the characters to be dealing with the trauma of what happened in the past. We wanted people to react realistically for that, and for someone like Nancy who feels guilty because she played a part in her best friend’s death, that’s not something you can just brush aside and get over in a year. So we needed her to be dealing with it. So that storyline was already set in motion by the time the Barb stuff came out which took us all completely by surprise. We were not expecting that.
Did you have a bigger budget this season so you could play more with visual effects?
Matt: Yeah, it’s bigger. I think it was 15 percent or something. We didn’t want to go crazy because you don’t want it not to feel real. The “less is more” approach is an effective one, but we did want to introduce some sort of big budget spectacular visuals into the show. Although the budget reported by the Hollywood Reporter is not accurate. I was like, that sounds really high to me, and I checked and it is really high. It’s not right. There’s a difference between gross and net. (Laughs.)
This season definitely has more comedy to it; is that a reflection of you getting more comfortable with the storytelling?
Ross: You get to know what these actors can do and a lot of them are really funny. Gaten (Matarazzo) is an incredible improv-er. So is Joe Keery. So some of it is just these guys inventing on the set. Someone like Sean Astin just brought some much levity which is not planned or expected. What we do love about making this show is we’re able to bounce around someone crying and then there’s a scary scene and we can have fun something fun and light to lighten the mood of that. I guess we have one self-aware joke in there but we don’t like the ironic or self-aware stuff. We want it to be coming from a real place for these characters and this story.
Matt: It’s true. You start to figure out who’s got the improvisational skills. Gaten and Finn (Wolfhard) and Paul Reiser, who’s amazing at improvisation. That’s something we really didn’t do much in Season 1. And you start to find out how truly gifted some of these actors are and you let them go.
Let’s talk about the big death. Was it always the plan that Bob (Sean Astin) wasn’t going to make it?
Matt: Yeah. The interesting thing about Bob is he was going to be Joyce’s dorky, boring boyfriend and then he was going to give Will some really bad advice and he was going to meet it around episode four. And then we found Sean Astin, who actually put himself on tape (to audition) because he loved the show. I was not imagining Bob like Sean Astin at all. And then we met Sean and I kind of fell in love with Sean and his real-life personality and so we sort of fused him with this character of Bob. It created this character who was so much more lovable and interesting than the one we had initially written. I think he had the biggest impact on the narrative of the show this year. Very much the same way Winona (Ryder) did in Season 1 when we cast her, because Bob went from being a character who we didn’t really care about to a character we cared very dearly about and an actor who we cared a lot about. We kept postponing his death until eventually we got to Episode 8 when it couldn’t be postponed anymore. I think it was still narratively the right thing to do but for me it was the hardest scene to write because I really didn’t want to do it but I felt it had to be done. Sean really didn’t want to leave the show either. So it was hard to part ways with him.
Joyce can’t seem to catch a break.
Matt: Nope, and she probably will continue to not catch a break for a while. I think we need to give Will a breather, though, because he’s been through it two years in a row.
So who’s next on your list? Who’s going to be the victim come Season 3?
Matt: I don’t know. We have some ideas but it’s all too early. All of our ideas will probably change within a month or two. They always do. They always evolve so that why I’m not going to say anything.
I know there was a lot of drama in Season 1 about the kiss between Millie and Finn. So how did those kisses in the finale play out on set?
Ross: So much drama around that! Whenever we make them kiss it’s like oh my god, it’s like a two month buildup.
Matt: Give me a break! They had to kiss three times. You’d think it’s the end of the world. But I guess it’s a big deal. Caleb, I think it was his first kiss. It was definitely Sadie’s first kiss. But then even Millie and Finn had never kissed before. Actually though neither of the kisses were written in the script, so we kind of dropped that on them the day of and caused a major panic. But they did it. It was fun. I love it. You have to torture them a little bit. You know you’ve got to entertain yourself some way. And we have all these children who are just fun. I know exactly how to push their buttons at this point.
Can’t wait to see what torture you have in store for them for next season.
Matt: Yeah, maybe some making out. That’s the next step. I’ve already started teasing them about it.