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.
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!