'Stranger Things 2' Chapter One recap: Return that frown to the Upside Down

Photos: Netflix
Photos: Netflix

Warning: This recap of the “Chapter 1: Madmax” episode of Stranger Things contains spoilers.

Like a Tasmanian devil dressed in a backward cap and baggy overalls, nostalgia can be a li’l tornado of mischief sometimes. When it comes to the entertainment we consumed as children, about 90 percent of it was genuinely terrible, and that’s a fact. But that’s just nostalgia’s cue to burst through the back fence and purée the memories of what we’d seen, mixing the bad with genuinely good, leaving us with the impression that entertainment was wall-to-wall excellence back then! But, no, it wasn’t. Nostalgia’s just being a rascal again!

Here is the thing: I was born in the ’80s, and while I can confirm that much of its entertainment was terrible even to a know-nothing kid, sure, some things were really great and certainly deserving of our most glowing hindsight. But my fondest movie memories involved staying up late to watch a local TV station’s nightly broadcasts of entire horror franchises. We’re talking four consecutive nights of Jaws movies, or nearly two weeks’ worth of Jason Voorhees’s explorations of his complicated feelings toward teen sexuality. In other words: SEQUELS. I love ’em. Sequels have always been crass cash grabs, but back then it felt like producers genuinely wanted to deliver the goods to people who craved new spins and concepts. Like, holy s***, it’s Jaws at Sea World! Now let’s make her psychic and send her to the Bahamas! Everything’s just so damn tasteful now. Sequels feel spreadsheet-motivated, and every new blockbuster comes with an unwelcome promise of a trilogy or a — *shudder* — shared cinematic universe. No thanks! Just add a number to the title and get slightly crazier and we’ll let you know if we want more!

Well, the sanest of us wanted more Stranger Things, and now Netflix has gifted us with Stranger Things 2. And it is so good.

I’ve never been much of a spot-the-references guy, so these recaps won’t be great for that. But part of why I fell in love with this show in the first place was that I didn’t need to spot the Easter eggs or get every reference; I just instantly adored the people of Hawkins and how much they all seem to love each other. Stranger Things 2, like its predecessor, is terrifying mostly because its characters display so much heart, emotion, and humor that I don’t want anybody to get hurt! That’s mostly due to the universally lovely performances by an incredible cast. Yes, even Winona, who in my opinion is serving one of the most hilarious, full-bodied performances since Amy Sedaris first donned her Jerri Blank wig. But I have a lot more to say about this show. Would you wanna watch with me? OK, let’s do it!

We began, as most worthwhile stories do, in Pittsburgh, where a group of whimsically masked robbers ran out of an alarmed building and jumped into a getaway van!

Who were these rascals and what had they stolen? It didn’t matter, because the cops were right on their tail! In times like these, you can really use a telekinetic friend willing to use her powers to elude danger, and as it turned out, this gang had one of their own!

That’s right, the chic woman riding shotgun closed her eyes, raised a fist, and caused the cops behind her to hallucinate that the tunnel they’d just driven into had collapsed! And if you needed further evidence that Eleven hadn’t been the only surviving test subject using ESP out in the world, we caught a glimpse of this lady’s cool wrist tattoo: 008. Ladies and gentleman, we had another superpowered lady on our hands, and her group of friends was decidedly less innocent than the boys of Hawkins. Game on!

Meanwhile, in Hawkins, our beloved BMX gang was about to embark on a heist of its own. But it mostly involved quarters snatched from couch cushions or stolen from piggy banks. It was arcade night, and in a reality where literal monsters no longer seemed to be a problem, it was now the biggest thing going on for Mike, Dustin, Lucas, and Will.

Apparently, the kids were done with Dungeons & Dragons for the time being. They now had the laserdisc-based arcade game Dragon’s Lair to while away their hours. Not that it didn’t also put them in direct contact with orcs:

As a reminder that this story takes place pre-Internet, this arcade attendant was just strolling around in public trolling people to their faces. Also, we were presented with a mini-mystery. Who was this “MADMAX” who’d beaten all their high scores? How very rude of that person!

At this point, poor Will began hallucinating that the arcade was empty and full of overgrown vines and floating ash. Yes, the Upside Down was back, and it had something to show him.

Specifically, a very foreboding sky making very foreboding noises. What you up to, sky? Will did not care to find out.

The next day we checked in with everybody’s favorite gold-hearted crank, Sheriff Hopper, who was now spending most of his time smoking and scowling. He was paid a visit by a local crackpot played by Brett Gelman, who insisted there was a superpowered girl (possibly a KGB castoff) roaming these parts. Which meant that as many people had witnessed Eleven or had direct knowledge of her existence, it was still mostly kept a secret from regular folk.

Later we checked in with all our favorite teens and their wonderful haircuts, including Nancy and Steve, still very much together and in like-like. He’s now applying to colleges but accepting that he’ll probably just stay in town working for his dad. Meanwhile, Nancy’s eye was definitely still wandering. Like, for example, toward the new kid:

Obviously a grade-A dreamboat, and not merely because he arrived in a muscle car blaring “Rock You Like a Hurricane” while sporting a sweet mullet and jeans so tight some nearby girls lost the ability to speak English.

In other words, TELL ME MORE. Who was this guy? Is he the best or the worst? I’m sure we’ll find out, and I’m sure the answer will be very annoying to Steve either way. The one thing we DO know about him is that he has a surly little sister who enjoys riding skateboards and sneering.

Meet Max… Yes, the “MADMAX,” who’d beaten the boys’ high scores at the arcade. I think it went without saying that she became an immediate obsession of theirs, not least because they were currently down one female friend. Unlike Eleven, Max actually does speak freely, but unfortunately she did not seem interested in speaking freely to them.

Meanwhile, Winona Ryder (as herself) seemed to be doing fine now that Will was back and safe. She’d even been able to hold down a job at the local drugstore and date a nice guy (Sean Astin, as himself). Sure, he seemed impossibly uncool, but he was very into Winona Ryder, and I for one was happy to see them so happy. Y’know?

Anyway, probably as a scathing satire on the state of Reagan-era health care, Will had been accepting free doctor’s visits from the Hawkins Department of Energy, particularly whenever he’d had sudden visions of the Upside Down for no reason.

His doctor was played by Paul Reiser (as himself), and he seemed nice enough, except for the fact that he was played by Paul Reiser. If you’re keeping score, Stranger Things‘ casting remains utterly inspired and perfect. Anyway, Dr. Paul Reiser determined that Will was fine and would probably keep having visions sparked by the one-year anniversary of his abduction, but that he’d be fine. Except, after dismissing everyone from his office, Dr. Reiser took that elevator to the hell dimension in the basement and casually watched a man blowtorch the tentacles growing out of the rift in the basement wall.

Just a normal day at the office park! (And, yes, loved the Aliens reference here. I got that one.)

Oh, this was borderline BURIED in the episode, but Dustin has front teeth now. And there was a running bit where he liked to show them off while purring like a tiger, and it was both charming and unsettling. This guy knows what I’m talking about:

That is how I look when I watch a Transformers movie or read my Twitter timeline. Some looks are just timeless.

OK, so here’s when I started crying. Nancy and Steve had promised Barb’s parents they’d join them for dinner, so what followed was the saddest scene in TV history maybe? Beginning with this array of Barb’s baby photos.

And then not only did Barb’s parents serve them Kentucky Fried Chicken for dinner (crying harder now) but they informed Nancy that they were selling the house so they could hire Brett Gelman to help them find their daughter. They explained that they were finally starting to have hope that Barb might be alive somewhere. Personally, I had to pause the scene and take a breath because it was almost too much to bear. For her part, Nancy excused herself to go sob in the bathroom. Not that we needed further reminders of how special this show is, but this scene was a way for Stranger Things to maintain its stakes by keeping Barb dead while also reminding us of her importance to the other characters. It’s rare that dead characters are honored so thoroughly, and Stranger Things deserves all the credit for not just inserting a cheap, fan service-y flashback or dream sequence to get Shannon Purser back in the mix. Barb’s death was crucial to the horror of this show, but at least her presence lives on. So good.

In a variation on that theme of loss, it killed me that Mike still spends a lot of his time sitting in Eleven’s (fully maintained) cubbyhole while checking his walkie-talkie for any signs of her. It had been nearly a year since he’d seen her, but he was still holding out hope that she had somehow reconstituted herself and might show up again. Honestly so heartbreaking. But then … suddenly … was that her voice on the walkie? It sure sounded like her! Maybe Mike’s heartbreaking optimism wasn’t so crazy after all. (It ended up just being Dustin.)

But the heartwarming moments kept coming, as in this scene where Will fretted that everyone around him was treating him like a damaged freak, and his brother Jonathan tried to convince him that being a freak was cool and that Will was his favorite person in general. Ugh, these boys. It was also at this point when I realized that Will was BARELY in Season 1, so he’s essentially a new character. Very excited to have him back in the mix.

At this point, things took a turn. Around town trashcans began to rattle, and the night-duty guy at the Department of Energy was confronted with a control panel going haywire. Something was in the air, and for Will that meant another terrifying hallucination!

As he ventured out into the Upside Down again, he saw what had been brewing in the sky: A GIANT MONSTER. And as he’d told Dr. Paul Reiser, he could sense that the monster wanted nothing more than to “kill everyone.” Efffffff.

In our final scene, we learned that Sheriff Hopper no longer lived in that mobile home on the outskirts of town. He now lived in the remote, dilapidated cabin from Evil Dead. And he had a roommate!

Eleven! She’d been living in seclusion with him, just growing her hair out and munching on waffles. Sheriff Hopper was now her secret guardian, but that’s all we know for now. How had she survived literal evaporation? Was she still powerful? Will her new look be iconic enough to be a good option for your Halloween costume this year? Stay tuned.

“Chapter One: Madmax” needed to do a lot of reintroduction and setup, but it did all that and then some. This episode was filled to the brim with good writing and wonderful acting, not to mention hints and teases about the weird terrors to come. What was up with those poisoned pumpkins? Why did that crow scream at Sheriff Hopper? What’s that giant monster so mad about? Need to know more! Let’s keep going.

Stranger Things is streaming now on Netflix.

Read more from Yahoo Entertainment:

‘Stranger Things’ Season 2 Chapter Two recap: Going crazy together
‘Stranger Things’ Season 2 Chapter Three recap: Reunited and it feels so slimy
‘Stranger Things’ Season 2 Chapter Four recap: What happened to Baby Jane?
‘Stranger Things’ Season 2 Chapter Five recap: Tangled and Strangled
‘Stranger Things’ Season 2 Chapter Six recap: They’re heeeere
‘Stranger Things’ Season 2 Chapter Seven recap: Baby’s day out
‘Stranger Things’ Season 2 Chapter Eight recap: Blackout forever
‘Stranger Things’ Season 2 Chapter Nine recap: Ward and savior