David Harbour’s first days on the Stranger Things set felt like a real-life trip to the Upside Down. He thought the script for the pilot was the best he’d read in 20 years of film and television work, and he was ecstatic when the show’s creators, twins Matt and Ross Duffer, cast him as Jim Hopper, the chief of police in the show’s fictional Hawkins, Indiana. But at first, Harbour was a little too much like the neurotic lawman he plays.
“I got into shooting and I was like, Oh God, I’m the worst! It’s going to be a nightmare. I’m never going to work again,” says Harbour. “My neurosis going in was that we’d be the first Netflix show to not have a second season.”
Two years later, Stranger Things has five Emmys (and 18 total nominations) and is one of the most popular shows on the streaming network. And it most definitely does have a second season, premiering October 27. (Watch the final teaser trailer below.) Meanwhile, Harbour’s reward for his breakout work on season one—which earned him one of those Emmy noms—is an even more bonkers story line in this new nine-episode run.
And that’s saying a lot. (Season-one spoilers ahead, in case you spent last year living under a rock.) We’ve already watched Hopper break into a local government facility where operatives perform secret experiments; there, he discovers they’ve opened a portal into an alternative dimension, which fugitive kid Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), who has escaped from the same lab, calls the Upside Down. Hopper also helps Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) find her son Will, who has been kidnapped by an Upside Down monster nicknamed the Demo-gorgon by Will’s ragtag group of Dungeons & Dragons–playing friends.
So yeah, stranger than that.
“Any ball you throw at him, he knocks out of the park,” says Matt Duffer of Harbour. “So we just started throwing him crazier balls.”
For fans, that first and foremost promises a resolution to the first season’s cliffhanger, which sees Eleven seemingly disintegrate after a final battle with the Demogorgon. Later, Hopper leaves her favorite snack of Eggos in the woods.
“As you can see from the Eggos in the box, there will be a pairing of Hopper and Eleven,” Harbour says, adding that the reunion “will really peel the onion back on what both of them struggle with.”
The last episode of season one sees Hopper making a mysterious deal with the lab’s head bad guy, Dr. Brenner, that will surely be key to Eleven’s fate. “Because of his involvement with the lab and Brenner, and the deal he makes, Hopper has some understanding of what happened to her, how she still exists in some form out there,” says Harbour. “And his savior complex, which was awakened when Will was saved, sort of goes into this new other realm.”
Whatever’s in store for the next season, it will be grander—and creepier—than the first. “From the first five minutes of reading the script for season two, I was like, ‘Okay, you guys are really opening up the world,’ ” Harbour says. “It’s bigger. It’s darker. There’s a relentless pace that I don’t feel we had so much of last year.”
“I felt we could push a little bit with some of the horror elements,” says Matt. “I thought it could be a little scarier.”
“At the same time,” adds Ross, “what I love about the show that we tried to keep is that we can jump from a scene of pure terror to a scene of fun or romance. I love the juxtaposition of those tones, as opposed to having one big dark tone the whole way. In one scene, someone’s crying; in the next, they’re laughing.”
The second season opens a year after the events of the first, which gave the Duffers a chance to take a different approach with the story. “You don’t have a kidnapping within 15 minutes,” says Ross. “So in some ways it has slightly more build up-front, and then it just goes crazy. Which is what we wanted, because we felt that in the first season, because it started with everyone on such high alert, it was hard to sustain that for as many hours as we wanted.”
This second visit to Hawkins may give fans the opportunity to soak up more of the wide range of film influences and references the Duffers have brought to Stranger Things. Last season, the media focus was almost entirely on the show’s most obvious allusions—Stephen King, Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter. But most fans don’t know that the scene in which Hopper tears apart his apartment looking for a bug is an homage to Gene Hackman’s final descent into paranoia in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 classic The Conversation.
“It’s funny, because the only influences people talk about are the 1980s stuff,” says Matt. “But we’re just movie nerds, and The Conversation is one of my favorite movies.”
In fact, the golden age of 1970s paranoia films—Alan J. Pakula’s The Parallax View, John Schlesinger’s Marathon Man, William Richert’s Winter Kills—is a major touchstone for the Duffers.
“We fell in love with those in high school,” says Matt. “I love the aesthetic and the storytelling. A lot of it’s about the mood and this sense of dread that permeates every frame.”
The Duffers also drew on everything from spooky video games such as Silent Hill to anime titles Akira and Elfen Lied. (The latter’s story line has some eye-opening Stranger Things parallels.) One scene in the first season is a shot-by-shot remake of a scene in Witness, just because the brothers are huge fans of director Peter Weir. They discovered composers Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein, who wrote the show’s uncanny synth score, while watching director Adam Win-gard’s 2014 throwback thriller The Guest.
Incredibly, Stranger Things owes perhaps its biggest debt to director Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners. Like Stranger Things, the 2013 film’s jumping-off point is a child kidnapping. “Prisoners, the pace and the tone of it, we thought could have lent itself well to an eight-hour story,” says Ross. “This was around the time we started to see ads for True Detective and television was becoming more and more cinematic. That led to this idea: What if you had a child who went missing? And obviously then we added our childhood sensibilities to it.”
“We married that with an inter-dimensional-monster idea we had,” adds Matt. “That started to get us excited, and then it went from there. But yeah, Stranger Things would 100 percent not exist without Prisoners.”
Nor, it seems, would it exist without a widespread longing for a type of storytelling that once ruled the movies but succumbed to franchise fetish and CGI spectacle. Whether it’s the fear films of the 1970s or the coming-of-age tales of the 1980s, there’s a reason the Duffer brothers reached back into the cinematic past for inspiration, and a reason they struck a cultural nerve almost instantly. For countless viewers, the strangest thing is that the Upside Down feels like home.