'Stranger Things': How Season 2 Plays Out

THR makes sense of the Upside Down. Spoilers ahead!
Courtesy of Netflix

[Warning: This story contains full spoilers for season two of Netflix's Stranger Things.]

And they all lived happily ever after ... the end?

At the conclusion of its second season, Stranger Things offers up a distorted version of the classic fairy tale ending: our heroes dancing together in a rare and well-earned moment of pure innocence, swaying at the Snow Ball, reunited with long-lost friends and new ones alike — all while the vicious Mind Flayer looms large in the Upside Down, towering over Hawkins, its next steps unknown.

The Duffer Brothers have already pulled the curtain back on the final notes of the season, saying they were always focused on achieving a mostly happy ending for the second year of Stranger Things, with the lone exception of that last lingering Upside Down image. Before the moment of levity, however, the men, women and children of Hawkins are forced to contend with foes and fears greater in scale and scope than ever before: pollywogs, "demodogs," and hive-minded spores/vines, just to name a few of the nasty horrors in play this season. And that's not even mentioning the new numbers surrounding Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown).

Here are the major headlines of how season two plays out:

• Despite returning from the Upside Down in season one, Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) has been unable to shake his connection to this shadow dimension. It turns out that he's being targeted by a massive smoke monster of sorts, nicknamed the Mind Flayer by Mike (Finn Wolfhard) and friends. A third of the way through the season, the Mind Flayer possesses Will, turning him into an unwitting "spy," all while sowing roots throughout the underground of Hawkins in an apparent plan to bring the Upside Down right-side up.

• For their part, Sheriff Hopper (David Harbour) and Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) are incredibly proactive in the new fight against the Upside Down. Hopper is the one who discovers the subterranean threat spreading underneath Hawkins, while Joyce immediately senses trouble within her son and sets about unraveling the meaning behind the "shadow in the sky," which she's able to see thanks to the help of a video recording and some tracing paper.

• Far away from all of this action: Eleven, who has spent the time between seasons one and two living in a cabin deep within the Hawkins forest, with Hopper serving as her secret guardian. Eleven gets frustrated with Hopper's overprotective rules and breaks out on her own, leading her to meet her own mother, learn more about the experiments at Hawkins Lab, and even meet one of the other members of the program: Kali (Linnea Berthelson), also known as "Eight," with the power to make people see anything she wants them to see. Eleven briefly joins Kali and her band of outcasts on their quest to kill everyone associated with the Hawkins program, but she eventually leaves because she senses the growing danger back home in Hawkins.

• While Eleven's away from her friends, another new girl enters the scene: Max (Sadie Sink), a skateboarding arcade wizard who immediately draws the infatuation of Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) and Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo). The group comes to accept Max, even if it takes Mike longer than the others before he's on board. (Eleven, for what it's worth, still needs some convincing.) Lucas and Max grow close over the course of the season, even leading to a kiss between them in the final scene at the Snow Ball. Don't feel sad for poor Dustin; he gets to dance with Nancy (Natalia Dyer) at the end of the day.

• Speaking of Nancy, she's caught in a temporary love triangle of her own, beginning the season dating Steve Harrington (Joe Keery). Their relationship ends around the same time Nancy and Jonathan Byers (Charlie Heaton) team together to seek justice for Barb (!!!), which they manage to achieve by watering down the truth of the season one story and sending it to numerous newspapers around the country. By the end of the season, Nancy and Jonathan are a romantic item, and their actions have caused the Hawkins lab to shut down due to public scrutiny.

• As for Steve, he gets one of the best and least expected stories of anyone this season: joining forces with Dustin and the rest of the kids as their veritable babysitter. The baseball bat with nails in it comes along for the ride, of course, which he thankfully doesn't need to use when he gets into a season finale fight against Billy (Dacre Montgomery), the new bad boy in town. The best part of it all: Steve shares the secrets behind his awesome hair with Dustin, which pays off in incredible fashion at the Snow Ball.

• The season winds down with all roads converging on the same mission: Eleven returns to Hawkins and finally reunites with Mike, just in time to use her telekinetic powers to destroy the Mind Flayer's reach from the Upside Down. Unfortunately, she arrives too late to save Bob Newby (Sean Astin), Joyce's new boyfriend who ends up getting killed by the "demodogs," the four-legged monsters who share a hive-mind attachment with the Mind Flayer. At least Will finally seems free of his connection to the Upside Down, once the portal closes, and after his loved ones are able to essentially burn the possession out of him ...

• ... but as the final note of the season makes clear, the Mind Flayer very much remains out there in the universe, waiting for a comeback as soon as (the likely but yet-to-be-announced) season three. Indeed, there are a couple of other similar cliffhangers, like Matthew Modine's Dr. Brenner supposedly still being alive, even though we don't see him except in visionary form this season — but by and large, season two ends in such a way that it's difficult to predict the exact direction for season three. According to the Duffers, they very intentionally wanted to close the second season in a way that allowed them some wiggle room as they conceive the next nightmare for the Hawkins crew. We'll just have to wait (likley) another year or so until we find out exactly what that is.

What did you think of Stranger Things season two? Sound off in the comments below, and make sure to follow THR.com/StrangerThings for all of THR's continuing coverage.