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.

strangerthings_wall

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 รก 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!

Let’s talk about House of Cards.

I’ve been seeing a ton of hate for s3 of House of Cards recently, mostly because I think people missed the goddamn point. This post contains spoilers for s3, so if you haven’t watched it, don’t complain about spoilers.

We blasted through s3 last weekend/most of this week, and while some things didn’t work overall for the season (like fucking Doug and his manpain bullshit), I’ve been thinking a lot about Claire Underwood, and her relationship with Frank and what it all means and how it all relates. All the reading I’ve been doing about this season has made a theme emerge; people keep labeling her as ‘incompetent’ and ‘the new Skyler White’ from the neckbeard contingency, and this shit is just incorrect. But then again I think the naysayers and the room-temperature intellect types watch the show because Frank Underwood is their ultimate dudebro fantasy on steroids and thus miss the goddamn point.. like the Walter White proponents from Breaking Bad.

I keep thinking about the uncomfortable/overall sad fights Claire and Frank had this season, and how they left me cold. s3 is a lot about their marriage, it’s a recurring theme they keep coming back to. I kept thinking of those questions Nick Dunne posits in Gone Girl;

I suppose these questions stormcloud over every marriage:

What are you thinking?

How are you feeling?

Who are you?

What have we done to each other?

What will we do?

And I think Claire knew exactly what was going to happen when she asked Frank to fuck her in no uncertain terms that night in Iowa; of course she knew that he wouldn’t be able to do it. She wanted to force him to admit that he was incapable of giving her what she wanted and needed.

Frank does not see, and never has seen his wife as a sexual being or someone to be desired.. he respects her too much. And Frank doesn’t get off on respecting his sexual partners, especially the lady partners. He doesn’t get off on love; remember, he reminds the audience via Oscar Wilde that sex is about power. When Frank bangs a woman, the absolute last thing on his mind is whether or not he loves her, and he loves Claire. As much as Frank Underwood seems incapable of loving anybody, he loves Claire. She’s his partner, his sister, his friend, his confidante. He has no family to speak of, save for Claire. She’s as much a part of him as his own two hands. And sure, he likes to be intimate with her (maybe? I think?), but it’s not really sexual to him.. it’s more like giving a friend a backrub or a hug or something along those lines. It’s all very comforting, affectionate, and uh, pleasant? Baseline shit. We see at the beginning of s3 that he wants to be in the same bed as her, but it’s purely from a comfort standpoint. He wants her body in the bed next to him and that’s about it; a comforting presence. And there’s a reason every single sex scene on House of Cards is entirely fucking uncomfortable, sterile, and unsettling.

Claire understands all of this, and for almost 3 decades she’s accepted Frank’s sexuality as part of who he is, and part of what their marriage is. In a way, it made them stronger as a partnership and as if their love transcended sex.. almost. Because Claire always harboured a lingering resentment, just bobbing there under her well-manicured, stoic surface. When she figures out Zoe, she feels exposed and raw. When Frank banged dudes, Claire could rationalise it, but not so much with Zoe. When Claire went to Zoe’s flop apartment and looked around at the stained carpet, the shitty bare mattress, the peeling paint, the bugs, she was forced to face reality. Hearts and minds and all that. She knew Frank had fucked this girl in every single way he could think of; Claire also knew it was a business transaction. Yet on a purely visceral level, Claire was jealous. She hated that she was jealous, but she couldn’t help it; she loved Frank. She desired Frank. She wanted it to be her, and Frank knows it, too. When Claire visited Zoe and then ran off to New York City to be with Hot Older Man(TM) Adam, the message was clear; he had crossed a line, and he had really hurt her. Frank took no pleasure in that whatsoever – he doesn’t like hurting Claire. But it’s like.. he can’t help it, he can’t help himself, though he tries not to; it’s just who he is as a man, we all know a man like Frank. Some of us have dated a man like Frank. Frank is the type of man who loves, but repeatedly hurts the type of woman Claire is, and she can’t help herself. She alludes to this push and pull to Yates when she’s in the blood draw haze on the verge of blacking out – that she hates how she needs Frank. And in Frank’s most unselfish moments (which obvi don’t come around too often), he is point blank ashamed of himself.

I feel like that’s why he does a lot of what he does; as Dr. Rosen dropped that truth bomb on Mad Men, people will do anything to alleviate their anxiety. Frank doesn’t dwell on it, but it’s always there; his nagging sense of inadequacy is just under the surface, the monkey on his back dating back to his childhood. Anyone notice how Frank doesn’t break the fourth wall as much this season? Or how his trademark ring double-tap was glaringly absent? As the President, he never quite feels in control like he has in the past. His confidence is shaken, which is a large reason he’s been uncharacteristically lashing out at times he shouldn’t. He cannot narrate a situation which he cannot control.

That uncomfortable bedroom scene in Iowa was about Claire confronting her own fears and demons. She was admitting Frank’s inadequacy to herself and then, in a fit of anger, throwing it right in his face. She taunted him with it, and she did it again in the Oval Office and received the horrifying response she knew was coming from him. “You couldn’t even give that to me” and “You’re not enough” were clearly meant to jab him in the spot that she knew he was most vulnerable. And obvi, Frank had it coming for a whole slew of reasons.. but it was still genuinely nasty of her. It was the meanest (and most truthful) thing she could have possibly said. She pushed him to snap, because she was already emotionally prepared for it to be over. And then she split. Claire is 120% done.

Let’s backtrack a bit with Claire’s character development up until this point. I feel like people are dismissing Claire’s s3 arc as ‘bad writing’ or that ‘she’s an imbecile’ or ‘her emotions control her lololol women’ because they’re unable to reconcile nuanced characters who are pretty close to real people on television, much less a female character who has agency and is written like.. gasp.. A REAL WOMAN. What the Fuck on God’s Green Earth. People don’t know what to fucking do with themselves when they’re given a character like Claire, or Skyler White, or Carmela Soprano, or Peggy Olson. To me, Claire Underwood is the lady TV character I always wanted and and didn’t know I needed. A woman who is unapologetic about having had an abortion, who was unbroken by that experience; a rape survivor at that. A woman who is unapologetic about her choice to not have children, her overall disinterest in that lifestyle choice, yet she is not judgmental of other women who choose to have families, and doesn’t make it A Thing(TM) that defines her personality. Seriously! Claire is my Lady Hero. She’s smart and calculating and puts careful thought into who she’s meant to be, what she’s meant to do. Career aspirations aside, I relate to Claire on an innate level.

In s1 we could see from Claire’s interactions (i.e. that uptight woman who told her not to run in the park, the bum outside her building who gives her a paper crane made from the $20 bill Claire gave her, her clear remorse for Russo’s kids) that she is capable of empathy and has some semblance of a conscience. A different tune to Frank’s overall nonchalance about standing on whomever’s shoulders he needs to to achieve what he wants at any expense.

In s2, one of the most powerful moments was when she broke down crying on the stairs in the season finale. Claire had been confronted with the fact that was hated by the public, labeled as Satan incarnate (I mean, God forbid a woman who has an abortion not be fundamentally broken..), had driven a depressed rape victim to attempt suicide, and destroyed the career/reputation and marriage of the only woman to consider her a friend (Mrs. Walker). Her breakdown was a crucial moment for her character, and people hating her on the internet seem to be forgetting that happened. These actions she was taking in Frank’s best interest really cost her a whole lot, and she doesn’t manipulate people with grace and ease like Frank. Frank killed Zoe, for fuck’s sake, and it doesn’t really faze him. Claire carries that, I think.

In s3 she started thinking that all of this might be worth it, and by seizing the opportunity to go for the UN Ambassador position, she could begin to directly benefit from all the awful shit they had done. I guess I could attribute most of the ‘incompetence’ that people keep yammering about to the fact that her unraveling had already begun a touch in s2, and as the days went on it was slowly tearing her apart. She was physically ill at the idea of confronting Frank about the Ambassador nomination, and her ensuing outburst at the hearing was that stress manifesting itself outward. She and Frank had done unforgivable things to get to that point, and she was more full of doubt than ever. On top of all that, she can’t even use running as an outlet since she’s too high profile.

When it comes to the whole Russia mess, the more I think about it I feel that she did the right thing by publicly condemning Petrov. It was very risky and overall not a good look (and literally WHO sleeps through someone hanging themselves, that shit is LOUD) but I think that they almost had an obligation to condemn such a horrific/jank-ass culture. It was a good move in that it got the public opinion back on her side (the USA saw her as a hero), and she managed to salvage the situation with her UN business until the attack in the Jordan Valley and the false flag accusation. Internet people complain that she was easily manipulated, but she was manipulated BECAUSE she was Frank’s wife. She was targeted because Petrov wanted to drive them apart the way they drove apart the Walkers. She was forced to resign because she was being used as a weapon against Frank.

Shortly after, she was very very close to having her personal secrets about her past abortions exposed to the entire world, as a weapon against Frank potentially wielded by Dunbar. Fucking Doug..

Claire knows that she’s more likeable and would probably make a better politician based on that alone, but her affiliation with Frank has led her to take part in unforgivable, dark things. On a grander scale, she has actively prevented herself from accomplishing her own goals in pursuit of Frank’s. She left her lofty position at the CWI, she dropped the sexual assault bill, she resigned from the ambassador position, and she did all of it for Frank’s best interest. Yikes.

Frank spent this season burning his final bridges and alienating any allies he had when he wasn’t in Absolute Power. Absolute Power stripped away all of his skills of manipulation and ‘whipping’ that he used to have, and brought out the monster that was underneath the whole time. Claire saw it first as horrific, slept on it, and then saw it as being of absolutely no benefit to her. So she’s splitting. I’m so curious about what they will function like as individuals.

So uh, I have a lot of feelings about the Underwoods.