Yes, I am late to the band wagon when it comes to watching (and praising) Netflix’s short, 8 hour, nostalgia-fieled romp. When I first saw previews, I thought that it was some kind of strange children’s show. Then SNL did a skit, it flooded the Halloween costume market, and it popped up on my “Recommended for You” feed. But perhaps most importantly, a friend told me to watch it. So I did. In the same way that throughout the 80s and the 90s, before social media and online streaming, I watched the tv and went to the movies that my friends went to. I knew about bands from my friendly radio DJs and from the cooler kids at school.
The show is great for a number of reasons. It brings back that sense of nostalgia, in the same way that Super 8 did a few years ago. It appeals to those of us that grew up on a diet of The Goonies, Stand By Me, and Stephen King made-for-tv specials. It’s great for the underlying suspense, the well-plotted, tightly knit story, and for the stellar soundtrack that combines both the music from the times (The Clash! I didn’t realize I missed you until now) with the creepy synthesizer sounds of all the sci-fi greats. But those are all things that have been done before. What is great about the synthesis of what’s gone before, with a nod and wink to where we are today.
Okay, yes, there are more single white male heroes in this show than any other. But it’s also a show set in the 80s, and in a way that feels real. So no, a nice suburban school in Indiana isn’t going to be ethnically diverse. But, very quietly, the Duffer Brothers still allow a sense of inclusivity in their film. You can begin by looking at the triad of young heros; Mike (a little reminiscent of Mikey in the Goonies) is the quintessential young white nerd. But he’s best friends with Lucas, his next door neighbor. . .who coincidentally is black. Nobody comments on his race, except for the bullies at school. Otherwise, it’s entirely unmentioned. Then there’s Dustin, who suffers from a genetic abnormality — once again, a fact that nobody remarks upon, and that makes no difference — except for to the bullies. Then, if you look to the three principal story lines (more on that later) each is anchored by a strong female character. Sure, Winona Ryder’s mother is crazy as a loon, but she’s also right throughout the movie, and her heroism and courage is equal to Chief of Police Hopper, who she is paired with through the movie. Nancy, a pretty, academic teenage girl turns out to have more balls than the two men she is paired with for her narrative. And, in a fun twist (and something that would never have happened in the 80s!) when it turns out that she’s a better shot with a gun than her male counterpart, it’s handed over to her. No questions. Not just that she gets a gun AS WELL as the men. . .she gets it. Period. Clearly, nothing needs to be said about how Elevan’s psychic powers overwhelm her counterparts. Even the baddies, mostly interchangeable white men in suits, get a female and a male lead. And nothing is ever said about it. No “you shoot good for a girl” or “You’re a lady, stay home.” Even if it’s not much diversity, it speaks volumes for inclusivity.
2. Something for Everyone
The show has three stark narratives: there are the two adults, proceeding on their investigation. There are the teenagers, who devolve into a Red Dawn, zombie apocalyptic fighting team. And finally, there are the kids, who without cars are relegated to conducting their adventures on bike or in their middle school gym. What’s fun, particularly in the first few episodes, is how each arc pays homage to its own genre. Winona Ryder’s mother is a trademark psychological thriller at the beginning. She hears voices nobody else can hear, and believes her son is communicating with her via blinking lights and electrical surges. She transforms her house into a mad men’s den, complete with thousands of Christmas lights, black paint in the walls, and huge holes in the walls. Hopper, the Chief of Police, is embroiled in a more traditional governmental-conspiracy thriller. He’s in a crime show, hunting down leads, interviewing witnesses, and slowly being led to the shady corporation that exists on the edge of town. Meanwhile, Nancy, the pretty plucky teenager, is enjoying a John Hughes romance that’s reminiscent of Heathers, before going into full-out Red Dawn warfare mode. Hers is a horror film complete with unseen monster, bobbing flashlights, and bloodied bandages. And finally there are the trio of kids, who engage in the ET adventure of running from adults, finding a secret with amazing powers, and somehow stumbling right into the center of everything without ever knowing what everything is. There’s one episode where all the stories converge, and everyone shares the little pieces of the truth that they’ve discovered — and then they disperse to finish up their own mini-movies.
3. Growing Up
This isn’t a Coming of Age story, per se. In fact, most of the characters end up right where they were at the beginning — Hopper is still a sad, lonely cop; the Byers family is back to not having a lot and having a sort of crummy home life but being together; Mike and his gang are back to playing Dungeons and Dragons, and even Nancy is back with her poofy-haired boyfriend. What it is, however, is a nuanced look at perception. All three ages (adult, teenager, youth) are dealing with the exact same monster and the exact same parallel universe. Yet the way they perceive it is completely different. Notably, the adults never actually see the monster — at times it stretches walls, they hear it scream, or they see the blood — but they never actually have to confront it. For them, the Upside Down exists inside a pseudo-government facility. They wear scientific suits to confront it, and it’s existence is focused around human experimentation. They don’t see the monster, but they travel extensively through the Upside Down. The teenagers, meanwhile, only flirt with the Upside Down. Nancy visits, but only briefly. They confront the monster by drawing it to their world, and by fighting it with their weapons. They don’t know, or care, about a government conspiracy. They only know that this thing hurt their brother/friend, and they’re going to fight back against it. And then there are the kids, who actually never enter the Upside Down. They stay firmly rooted in reality, and confront the monster with the only weapons that they know — stones and a slingshot. They spend the show running from the government (but can only call them the Bad Men) and they name the monster after a character from their Dungeons and Dragons game.
Does it mean something that the younger ones never enter the Upside Down whereas the older ones do? Maybe. Maybe it has to do with how malleable our world is. As children, it’s easy to imagine that fantastic creatures live around the corner. How many of us, after all, played at searching for faeries, or battling dragons? There’s no need to enter a parallel dimension. It already exists. For an adult, to bring the fantastic into our well-ordered world would be to destroy everything. As Hopper says during the penultimate episode: “This never happened.”
The show works well in triads – the three storylines, the three boys on bikes, the three teenagers battling the monster, the three cops that investigate Will’s disappearance. Then there are also the three families at the heart of the show. The Byers family, with the broken home; a father who left and didn’t care; a mother who failed at raising her eldest but is wholly focused on her youngest; and a son caught somewhere in the middle. Then there’s the Wheelers, the picture perfect nuclear family with a father, wife, son, and daughter, who live in a delightfully well-manicured colonial home. And finally there’s Hopper, who had an idyllic, loving marriage and a beautiful daughter. . .and who is now completely alone. There are several lovely moments with the Wheeler family, where the mother is desperately trying to be available to her children, asking her daughter to talk to her, checking in on her son. This is then contrasted with Joyce Byers and her son Jonathan. There’s a scene when everyone is getting ready to go to a funeral. Mike’s father helps him with his tie, Nancy’s mother fixed her hair. . .and this is juxtaposed with Jonathan trying to put on a tie, and throwing it aside in frustration. This one little moment, without commentary, speaks more to the relationships among the characters than any other scene. It’s beautiful then when, near the end of the movie, while Joyce is in the Upside Down and Jonathan has just finished fighting the monster, he calls out to his mother and she hears him. Somehow, he knows that she heard. It’s a reconciliation between the son who tries so hard and the mother who is so focused on another son that she just doesn’t see it. These little moments suffuse the show, and add a depth to the character.
5. The End
The first seven episodes of Stranger Things were great. Amazing, even. It definitely fizzled in the final episode — much like most science fiction and horror movies. When we confront the beast, and see it, it becomes much less scary. It’s finitely scarier when it’s a shadowy shape beside the pool, or a group of men in traveling vans, or a simple surge in the electricity. Similarly, it’s hard to tell how to come down from confronting The Big Bad. There are some dynamite scenes in the final episode; there’s Hopper and Joyce cradling Will’s unconscious body; Lucas standing up to the monster with only a slingshot (and the brief moment of amazement when the boys think the rock has succeeded); even the scene of Nancy aiming a gun at Steve’s head and yelling at him to get out. But Eleven’s gratuitous sacrifice (no, it’s not coming full circle to say she brought him out so she must go back with him — and it doesn’t explain why the beast can suddenly create it’s own portals in the woods, or suddenly hop into people’s houses and sheds) feels a little cheap, and Will’s resurrection is too easy, and it’s hard to tell what loops are left open knowingly and which ones just can’t be closed (and also — no one’s going to drag poor dead Barb’s body out of the Upside Down? Her poor parents!). What is great is what comes after, in the mini-epilogue. First, you get the way that everyone deals with their trauma. Hopper is, presumably, now somehow involved with the Bad Men. Joyce couldn’t care less — she has her son back and healthy and is fine with that, no questions asked. Nancy is back with a redeemed Steve, but now there’s a sadness in her eyes, and you just know that there’s a little rebellion in her heart (as Dustin says to Mike, “Your sister is a badass, now.”). And then there are the boys, who are able to recreate trauma into a childhood adventure — they saw multiple men die, but have changed it to a video game sequence. There’s no PTSD here — just boys back to another Dungeons and Dragons campaign. There’s a nice little wink and a nod there — the boys complain that the game was too short, there are too many loose ends, it was too easy, and we as the viewer have to agree. It was too easy, and too short, and nothing was really answered. And after the boys announce that to the readers, the show tells us just what is still missing; we get a box in the woods, PTSD flashbacks, a coughed-up slug, and our reminder that Hopper might actually be a Lando Calrissian. . .we just haven’t reached Episode VI (which, remember, back in the 80s, would have felt like Episode II). What the End does is beautifully set up a second season; and distinguish the show from a mini-series or an epically long movie (though it feels like one at times). And, what’s sort of refreshing — it demonstrates that sometimes a life-altering experience only manifests itself in the tiniest of ways. In friends having their backs for you in a way they didn’t before (see their reactions to casting a fireball) or in the looks in someone’s eyes.
If you haven’t been sure whether it’s worth watching Stranger Things, I would highly encourage you to do so. If you’re in your 30s or 40s, you’ll enjoy the callbacks and the nostalgia factor from your childhood. For those who are younger, it’s still a reminder that life was plenty exciting, and there was plenty of room for connection, in a time when Walkie Talkies were more useful than cell phones, and watching TV was something you did with the whole family.