Stranger Things; the exact nostalgia we need

Everyone at SDCC last weekend wouldn’t stop yapping about this new Netflix show, so I gave it a whirl and it sure as shit did not disappoint.  From the sublime John Carpenter-esque music to the opening title sequence that feels straight out of 1980, I was hooked from the start.

So like everyone else on the internet, I watched all 8 episodes of Stranger Things over the course of this past week. What I found was an exceedingly well-crafted love letter to Spielberg, Carpenter, King, a dash of Cronenberg, and the early 1980s. That sense of wonder I remember from devouring their films growing up is abundantly intact.

Spoilers within, ya jerks.

image courtesy of Empire Online

People seem to be shocked that showrunners the Duffer Brothers were born in 1984. Maybe they were expecting someone.. older? Who the hell knows. Seems just right to me. As someone born that very same year, I completely identify with their brand of time capsule nostalgia. I grew up on Spielberg movies, adored the messy houses with the wood paneling and earthtone aesthetic, the ever-present shaggy dog and over-stuffed fridge. The wonder with a whiff of darkness, something bigger than us. There’s rich character work in lieu of spectacle, and Stranger Things takes their characters to heart.

These characters, their actions and environments are familiar to me, as I’m sure they are to the showrunners. They have succeeded in not only purveying a certain time period, but did it with depth and feeling rather than surface level on the nose jokes and bullshit like “I CAN’T BELIEVE DARTH VADER IS LUKE’S FATHER, HOLY FUCK”.

There are so many familiar feelings and places in this show that I lost count, so much of it is nearly tactile. Plot brass tacks; small Indiana town, strange disappearance of a young boy named Will, tinges of the supernatural. Drunk weathered police chief Hopper going through some shit, frazzled single mother Joyce supporting Will and his older misfit artist punk brother Jonathan, and her idiot ex-husband. Strange mystery girl shows up out of the ether, nothing is as it seems. She befriends a ragtag band of 3 boys, who are determined to find their friend. There’s high school romance, government conspiracy coverups, a little Cronenbergian terror, an E.T. wig, Stephen King vibes, and a rattled community.

Joyce, feeling guilt-stricken and adrift, discovers that Will is still somehow around. He’s communicating with her via electricity, through the lights specifically. There’s a chilling sequence where she paints the alphabet on the wall tuned to lights, and he spells out his fear.

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image courtesy of The Telegraph

Naturally, this looks completely batshit insane to everyone else. She hacks a hole in her wall during a macabre Cronenberg moment, where Will is trapped in some sort of phosphorescent bodily goo within the walls. Nightmares.

Exploring the way each of these groups chooses to seek out Will is a really cool approach, and the plot and action move along at a good clip. Joyce works with Police Chief Hopper. There are a few hints at their previous relationship, and as he tragically lost his own daughter, he is determined to see what in the hell is going on and bring Will home.

Oh, AND there’s a fake dead Will body supplied by the Bad People in Power Suits. Hopper discovers this and is on Joyce’s side 100% after that mess.

Will’s friends are fantastic, they remind me so much of my own friends growing up, hanging out in basements doing nerd shit. Their conversations aren’t contrived or tryhard as they tend to be other movies and media of this vein, it was all believable and at points very funny.

Mike, Dustin and Lucas are the Indoor Kids playing D&D in the basement the night of Will’s disappearance. They approach finding Will with both science and science fiction alike, how to break into other dimensions, completely hellbent on finding their friend. The way they go about forming a plan and setting it in motion reminds me of a treasure hunt, an adventure. Running through the woods and taking off on bikes, seeing more to the world and the environment they occupy as only imaginative kids can.

The mysterious girl, Eleven, befriends Mike and lives in a pillow fort built in his basement. Mike and Nancy’s increasingly clueless parents are a good backdrop of the perfect 1980s couple, where nothing is really as it seems on the surface.

We get some sense of intrigue right off the bat as Eleven is clothed in a filthy hospital gown, eating the hell out of a burger in some rundown joint that is soon descended upon by the typical Bad People In Power Suits. What’s her story?

And let’s be real, her telekinesis kicks ass. Turns out it’s a side effect from the MKUltra experimentation done on her mother. Conspiracy theorists everywhere shit themselves a touch once that tidbit was dropped. Not unlike E.T., she’s into junk food and jacks a whole bunch of Eggos from a grocery store at one point.

We discover that Eleven’s abilities have torn a hole in spacetime and now this trash dimension is leaking into ours, which is pretty much the worst. The boys’ AV club teacher and fellow nerd teaches them about how alternate dimensions theoretically work, and they absorb it all intently, convinced that this is what has happened to Will.

Mike’s older sister Nancy is your pretty typical pretty high school girl, with down to earth Barbara as her best friend and the boyfriend Hunk(TM) Steve. OH yeah, and Barbara also disappears from a party at Steve’s house. Same deal, same monster taking her to the same trash dimension.. guess she didn’t hide as well as Will cause she went and got dead.

Jonathan is your American Beauty-esque artiste taking creeper photos of Nancy at said party before her and Steve have a ~romantical bang~. Naturally, Steve’s douchepocalypse friends find the photos, taunt Jonathan and break his camera like a group of total dicks. However, Steve is the handsome jock with a heart of gold who in actuality doesn’t end up being an asshole, so that’s pretty cool. Hey John Hughes! Didn’t fancy seeing you here.

Nancy sees more to Jonathan after that confrontation, and even more as she pieces one of the photos of Barbara together; she sees a faint glimpse of the monster. From there on out they form a bond, eventually entering the other dimension to find Will, and thoroughly booby-trapping Joyce’s house to lure the monster out to our dimension to light it on fucking fire. Pretty crazy shit.

It’s Saturday night and the AV teacher is about to get it in, when suddenly Dustin calls his house imploring that he teach them all how to build an isolation tank RIGHT NOW. They get it done, and let Eleven do her mind thing. She lures the monster and destroys it, sacrificing herself in the process. Really powerful stuff, I was sad to see her go off to wherever she ends up. Probably relegated to the ‘upside down’.

Joyce and Hopper actually enter that trash dimension, due to Hopper cutting a deal with the Bad Guy in the Power Suit. They both wear full body spacesuit-esque gear á la E.T., and manage to get Will the hell out of there just in a nick of time after some super violent CPR.

And, RIP Barbara. Too bad we didn’t see her parents freaking out about their daughter who literally fucking disappeared, save for one scene and a poorly executed runaway coverup.. what? Justice4Barb.

As an aside, I’ve been reading some criticisms of the monster design online, and as a non-horror type I’m pretty indifferent to that whole mess. I thought the monster was tangible and creepy, and even more, I love that this show wasn’t directly about the monster but more about the tension, the eeriness, that mist shrouding everything. The feeling of distinct unease.

And the ending is SUPER fucking disconcerting. It’s Christmas Eve, everything seems nicely tied up. The boys are back to enthusiastically playing D&D in Mike’s basement, Steve and Nancy give Jonathan a new camera, Hopper is hanging out at the precinct and enjoying some potluck food, yadda yadda yadda.

Will is sitting down to dinner with his mom and Jonathan when he feels strange and excuses himself. He coughs up some sort of nightmare slug in the bathroom sink, and suddenly we’re fully immersed in the trash dimension again, for a split second. W H A T. Is everyone now in this trash dimension? Is anything what it seems? What in the fresh hell is really going on??  Really frightening.

The last episode closes with Hopper leaving potluck food and some Eggos in a little snow-covered box in the woods, for whom we can only infer to be Eleven. It’s a quiet moment, and a nice one at that. Maybe Hopper found some peace in all that mess and can move forward with his life, knowing that he was able to save Will and help Eleven do her thing.

I can’t wait to see if they do another season of Stranger Things, these episodes were completely enjoyable and I’m excited to watch them again.

Thanks for reading!

Thoughts on Mad Men s7e8 + 9, “Severance” + “New Business”

thanks_marieimage courtesy of imgur.com

“A man is whatever room he is in.”

Sorry for the delay. I haven’t had much time to write as I’m a regular working stiff these days, but to be honest, I’ve had trouble stringing my thoughts together for these first two episodes. There’s so much David Lynch seeping into these episodes it’s difficult to formulate coherent sentences. Everything is so goddamn surreal! They’ve left me cold. These episodes have eerie, dreamlike qualities.. like nothing we’re seeing is quite right. I’ve read a lot of criticism that Weiner has lost the plot, but I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. My bet is there’s something afoot just under the surface that won’t all fit together until the finale, when we can take a step back and gaze at the season and the series as a whole.

Besides the constant looming of death around every corner, the recurring theme of this show is ‘can people really change’? And to tell you the truth, I have no fucking earthly idea. We ended the first half of s7 with Don clawing his way back up at SC&P, getting his shit together, trying to mend the damaged relationships in his life. Bert reminds him that The Best Things in Life are Free, a hard truth Don is learning. The whole nation was filled with hope for the space shot and the moon landing, all this hard work and thought and sweat and tears poured into this one mission, this singular defining event. And once you achieve this, once you make history, once you get to the top, once you get your corner office back.. then what? What comes next after such a huge achievement?

Enter April 1970, where “Severance” picks up.. ominously and appropriately bookended to the tune of “Is That All There Is?”. The real Don Draper died and handed Dick Whitman a new life. What has he done with that life? Has it made him happier? Where does Don go from here?

The time jump straight into nearly-mid 1970 is pretty great, and for a bit it looks like not much has changed in the decade since the show began. We go from a crazy decade that closed out with high hopes right into the me-me-me 70s and The Manson Family. The midseason premiere opens with Don being a vague creeper to a boilerplate Wholesome Hot(TM) 70s model, and we see that he’s once again hawking fur coats. Later, we see Don and Roger with hot models on their arms, the pair of swinging dicks/drinking buddies up to no good. Peggy and Joan’s verbal swordfight in the elevator, again. Kenny passing on his true calling as a writer for a corporate job, again. Joan being overtly sexually harassed. Don needing an answering service for his ~1100 women. Pete finding a way to bitch about being successful.. again. Peggy pulling a Don and trying to swing a spontaneous trip to Paris to run away with someone she just met. Don forming a weird obsession with a waitress who resembles some combination of Midge and Rachel Menken (but is in reality a Human Eeyore). Are we sure it’s 1970? I guess the hilar mustaches say as much, but there’s a lot of familiar 1960 shit going on here.. despite Roger looking like an oil baron. What in the fresh hell is going on??

Speak of the devil.. we’re back to creeper casting sessions at SC&P. Ted opens the door and I was happy to see Rachel Menken (Katz) on my screen. It’s about 10 years ago that her and Don met at that point. Then I was immediately filled with dread as I realised what was happening. Don sees a whole lotta dead people, lest we forget..

“I’m supposed to tell you — you missed your flight”.

“Rachel. You’re not just smooth.. you’re Wilkinson smooth.”

This Twin Peaks realness right here. Rachel, speaking in code, says something to Don that strikes all of us. Not that this is out of the norm as ghosts tend to say pretty devastating things to him (“Dying doesn’t make you whole.. you should see what you look like.” “It’s not your tooth that’s rotten.” etc) aside from Bert. Then Don, true to form as someone who has no fucking idea how to say anything meaningful outside of work, spits back ad copy. Pete lets her out of the room, since the men in Don’s work life are pretty interchangeable. Taking this dream as a sign for business re:L’eggs, he tells Meredith to schedule a meeting with Rachel.. and Meredith shares the somber news. And I can’t help but think of Kenny’s “Wanna hear something spooky?” to Don in that episode about getting fired the day he was going to quit. The life not lived.

Don goes to the Shiva for Rachel, and talks to her sister Barbara. Their entire interaction is laced with shots being fired, and Don likely doesn’t know that Rachel told her about their affair. Barbara tells him that she died of Leukemia, and he is visibly distraught; the same cancer that killed Anna. Yikes.

Don has a sad fling with the waitress Diana over these first two episodes, and she reveals to him that she’s abandoned her own family back in Wisconsin; a husband, a daughter who died, and an older daughter which she does not reveal until a touch later. Unlike Don, she does not want to forget about her daughter.. which is what happens when they’re having a bang. So she tells him to get out. It’s a brief arc, but it says a lot about his lonely-ass state of mind.

The women in Don’s life genuinely seem better off without him so far. When Betty tells him that she’s heading to Fairfield University (hey, my alma mater!) for a Masters in Psychology, I was pumped! She’s shown a lot of growth among the struggle, and seems to have found a good rhythm in life. Grad school seems like a great choice for her, as a woman who has consistently struggled with the rules that were thrown at her since she was born. Of course we don’t know any more about what’s really going on in the Francis household outside of that one scene, but goddamn Betty is doing well.

On his way out, Don looks back longingly for a beat, seeing the life he could’ve had. Rachel, though dead, got everything she desired and lived the life she wanted to live. Even Diana will be better off, because she chose to face her issues instead of pulling a Don and just running off; she’s just taking some time. The brief glimpse of Sylvia.. she’s still with Arnold, and doesn’t give Don the time of day. Drunk Arnold takes a bunch of jabs at Don, making me wonder if he knows about Don and Sylvia’s weirdo mess. Megan is going to get on with it in Los Angeles no matter what, though it’s not likely that check will clear.

Speaking of which, I have to address the Megan hatred head on. I’m one of those people who digs her, loves her as a character, the whole nine. After “New Business” aired, the internet was blasting hate for her across all channels and all I could think was “really??”. This time, it’s not just the neckbeards.

I love Megan. I thought she was good for Don, but he wanted to use that marriage as a crutch to right the (many) wrongs in his life, to run. He wanted to escape through Megan, to escape facing shit in his life like Dr. Faye wanted him to do (even though I don’t think Faye is right for him either). He’s even using humour as a form of escape now– that scene with Roger and Don in the trash diner with the models, he’s regaling a tale of his impoverished childhood framed with humour. And the fact that his escape hatch marriage didn’t work out seems to be really getting to him, on top of Rachel’s death to the same illness that claimed Anna.. the only person who knew everything about him and still loved him.

Megan maybe could have helped him so much more if he would’ve stopped pushing her away with both hands. That iconic sherbet scene at the HoJo’s from s5e5 “Far Away Places” is her standing up for herself, not wanting any part of the obvious “role” he wants her to play; she’s a real person, not some invented shit only for him. I feel like that was the very start of his resentment which only intensified once he got her that audition with Butler Footwear at the close of s5, cue iconic “You Only Live Twice” ending.. and then we see him throwing a bone to Sylvia in s6 once Megan’s acting career got that jump start.

I love that she called him on his garbage (“an aging, sloppy, selfish liar”), and he took it like a bullet. People on the internet are worked up into a froth over that sad phone conversation they had roughly 10 months ago timeline-wise, where she said he didn’t owe her anything; 10 months is plenty of time to find out about Don’s various indiscretions, the lies, and to let that anger build up after the initial sadness and reality that your marriage is ending. She was angry with herself for marrying him, for giving him the benefit of the doubt, for trusting him. So I understand why she was so pissed off. I would be too! And think about the day she’s had. Her mother, though ultimately on Megan’s side, openly trashes Don and brings those raw feelings to the surface. Her comments about what he’s done to their family are poignant and double-edged — she’s obvi talking about Emile as well. And hey, we finally meet Megan’s judgmental sister Marie-France living atop a fucking perfect mountain of morality!

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Marie with the truth bombs. image courtesy of The Daily Mail

I’ve seen a lot of complaints that the time spent with the Calvets was “useless”.. what? The scenes with Megan and her family really tell you a lot about who she is, and her motivations in life. She’s consistently struggling to be taken seriously by her own family, as well as agents, other actors, casting people and directors. Don didn’t take her seriously when she started auditioning, nor when she said she didn’t like foul orange garbage sherbet at the HoJo’s.

UGHHH speaking of foul, fucking HARRY CRANE is the proto Nice Guy(TM). She sets a secret lunch meeting with Harry to see if he could help her find a better agent in LA, knowing full well that he’s atrocious but maybe he has some connections she could gain traction with.. and he turns the creep up to 11. I used to think Harry Crane was a mere boob, but he’s a real piece of shit here.. and that scene was hard to watch. With the grace of a goddamn Hadrosaur, Harry laments how Megan deserves a great agent — the right person to get her into the right meetings with the right people, and then starts in with “I can’t believe Don threw you away.”

Fucking barely 2 minutes into their lunch meeting, this asshole propositions her for a midday fuck, and when she balks at this gross idea of following him up to his hotel room and shuts it down, he turns it around on her tells her this is why she’s had no success. FFFFFFFF- cue sounds of my head exploding. He’s despicable in this scene, then paints it to Don the next day as “SHE CRAY LOL” to cover his own ass.

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I SEE YOU, HARRY. image courtesy of ONTD

Yup. So, let’s think about the day Megan has had, leading up to the tense meeting with Don finalising their divorce. Her sister, in a weird way to show faux-support, claims her marriage failing is on her shoulders. Her soon to be ex-husband is already banging around in the apartment they bought together, which she decorated and where they made a home.  She’s between acting jobs and doesn’t want to (nor should she need to) resort to being some form of prostitute on the casting couch to get a job. Her mother has been criticising her marriage for awhile now, and then Megan finds Roger Sterling in her former home, having just banged Marie. What in the whole world. I’d be in a mood too, if I were her. Roger is the closest thing Don has to an actual friend, and it’s hugely disrespectful and devastating for Megan to find this all out and like.. completely fucking bizarre. Aaaaand apparently Marie is leaving Emile for Roger! Who knows what will pan out, but YIKES on bikes.

This is Megan attempting to regain control of her life and hitting every roadblock imaginable, and Marie is trying to do the same thing by fleeing to New York City for however long it ends up being. Her outburst that Don has ruined her life isn’t entirely true of course, but it sure feels like it after that disaster of a day. He certainly derailed her steady acting gig on that soap opera by floating the LA move, then reneging on it later.

The hits just kept on coming and she’d had enough by the time she meets up with Don. And the strange thing is, when he gives her that check, it’s the only bit of “support” she’s had that day. In reality the check likely IS a joke, since no bank is going to cash a personal check for a rock. Strangely (and admittedly shallowly), this is the only gesture directed at Megan that didn’t indicate she was worthless. Since Don doesn’t know how to be emotionally supportive, he tries what he knows best; throwing money at the problem.

Where is this season going? I think there’s more to the latter half of s7 than we think. Just gotta dig a little deeper.

Marie jacking all of the furniture is pretty hilarious though, especially empty Don in his empty apartment set to French pop music. C’est si Bon.

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image courtesy of The Daily Mail

“When a man walks into a room, he brings his whole life with him. He has a million reasons for being anywhere. Just ask him. If you listen, he’ll tell you how he got there. How he forgot where he was going — then, he woke up. If you listen, he’ll tell you about the time he thought he was an angel and dreamt of being perfect. And then he’ll smile, with wisdom, content that he realized the world isn’t perfect.

We’re flawed because we want so much more.

We’re ruined because we get these things and wish for what we had.”