A Character Study of ‘Stranger Things’

Here’s a gripe about Stranger Things: where are the Larry Bird jerseys? This is Hawkins, after all, a fictional town set in Indiana, in 1983. Bird, who at this time had won Rookie of the Year and an NBA championship for the Boston Celtics, first became a basketball legend in his native French Lick, Indiana. He took his college, Indiana State, to the championship game in 1979. “Stranger Things” would have scored major points if one of the background characters — heck, even one of Steve Harrington’s bozo friends, adorned Bird’s famous 33 over an undershirt in a couple of scenes.

As it is, there aren’t many other oversights throughout the eight episodes to one of summer’s most popular shows. It is a crisp journey with rich characters and personal relationships that tug at the heart strings. The biggest problem with the show is that it opens with a central mystery — what was that thing that took Will Byers and what does Hawkins Laboratory know about it? — and doesn’t fully deliver on its implied promise to give us all the answers. There will be a Season 2, unfortunately. That gives Winona Ryder a job for next year, and it allows fans to make more memes about the hilariously lispy Dustin Henderson. Its good business for Netflix — it’s just bad in the sense that this could have been an unbelievable one-off show, forever pinned in time like a stat hovering over the Hawkins night sky. Would it have been so awful to make it a 10-episode season and have the story end there?

This shouldn’t deter viewers from enjoying the show altogether. It’s objectively great. Part conspiracy, part mystery, part adolescent adventure that harkens back to a Stephen King novel or a Steven Spielberg movie, Stranger Things has all the right ingredients for fans of almost any genre to enjoy.

Byers is taken one night after riding home from playing D&D with his boys. An alien/monster-type thing has escaped from a lab and it abducts him.Enter police chief Jim Hopper, an out of shape, unkempt mess who wakes up on his couch and downs alcohol and smokes cigarettes while looking the bathroom mirror. For God’s sake, it’s 8 a.m., man. He’s got this self-satisfied look while spraying deodorant, but his surroundings, and those pills he reaches for, suggest he’s in a bad way. He is. But Hopper is a good man, a reluctant hero for the people of Hawkins.

He teams up with Will’s mother, Joyce, Ryder’s opportunity to chew scenery at the sudden displacement of her son. She’s frantic, shrill and always on the verge of tears. It’s never a bad thing to see Ryder on screen, and Joyce’s mindset is obviously justified, but it would have been beneficial to tone down the character, maybe play her as a mother who blankly stares at walls while her other son Jonathan tries to coax her out of her proverbial coma. It’s only when true determination grips Joyce that she becomes tolerable to watch. She’s resourceful, no doubt, finding a way to communicate with her son through a series of light patterns in the house. But isn’t that a little too smart? Can a divorced mother — and we don’t even know her educational background — figure out this Morse code pattern to find Will?

She has help from Jonathan, Will’s older brother. Jonathan likes taking candid photos and developing them in the dark room, the only place he finds comfort. He’s morose, void of any humor, but there’s a sensitive quality to him. He’s in love with Nancy, the sister of Mike, Will’s best friend. We first see Nancy in episode one talking on the phone, shutting the door in Dustin’s face when offered pizza. She has a smile when rejecting the offer that belies the mean-spirited action.

But that scene betrays who Nancy really is. It is not a good introduction to a major player in the story. Nancy is sweet and oh so pretty, if not a tad too skinny. It’s as if the producers wanted to cast Emmy Rossum, but she was too big a name and didn’t have time. Natalia Dyer is a perfect replacement. Her petite frame suggests her position in Hawkins is not a good one. Being the new girlfriend of an abject jerk like Steve Harrington, when your personality clearly suggests you should be with someone else, can suck the life out of you.

Nancy’s best friend is Barbara, who sports a dorky hairdo and glasses. She’s out of place hanging with Nancy, Steve, and his immature gang. But she’s more full-figured than Nancy, more confident, more everything. She knows what she doesn’t need. Nancy does not.

But Barb goes. The monster nabs her. Why? Yes, because it sensed the blood from her cut. But did the show have to eliminate her altogether? Couldn’t this have just been a mystery about Will? Now that Barb is gone, Nancy is faced with moving on without anyone she can trust, until she teams up with Jonathan. She can’t trust Steve, even though a piece of her heart still wants to. Steve shows flashes of being a good guy, but with that flippant hair and smug smile, his narrative path is destined for destruction. He’ll be good for a while, and he’s not inherently bad, but Nancy should never commit to someone like him with all her heart. After Steve redeems himself, he and Nancy are on the couch at Christmastime. It won’t last. It can’t last. He’ll be next for the monster, or he’ll ruin what he has in his own way.

The most enjoyable aspect of the show are the kids, Lucas, Dustin and Mike. Dustin is the comic relief, because he talks funny, curses up a storm and likes junk food. Mike is our main protagonist who often fights with Lucas, the boy who can never fully commit to searching for Will. He’d rather do what Hopper tells them to do: sit down let the adults handle it.

Maybe the kids would acquiesce, if not for Eleven. She’s the girl who might not really be a girl, or an actual person. She’s a government experiment gone wrong, and now she has psychokinetic powers and an extremely limited vocabulary. The writers should have packaged her with a cassette demo of Bon Jovi’s “Runaway,” the perfect theme song for her.

Mike begins to fall for her, because what junior high boy doesn’t want a girl with shaved head who can barely speak? None of that matters to him. She can make bullies piss their pants and flip government vehicles over with her mind. Those God-like powers gives her a bloody nose, but you can see where Mike is coming from, here.

So El holds pretty much all the answers. She knows where Will went, the Upside Down, a parallel universe where grey-skinned monsters with no face and several layers of teeth wander. The idea of the universe is explained by the boys’ science teacher Mr. Clarke, who amazingly survives the season. Admit it: when that woman who killed the chef came knocking, Mr. Clarke was as dead as Barbara, right? Anyway, Mr. Clarke is a go-to for the boys’ questions about all things science. It will be interesting to see how he is used next season for whatever problems they need solving.

Eleven is the girl who might not really be a girl, or an actual person. She’s a government experiment gone wrong … the writers should have packaged her with a cassette demo of Bon Jovi’s “Runaway,” the perfect theme song for her.

The kids look like they’ve never seen a gymnasium before, but that’s where they set up a sensory deprivation pool so Eleven can reach Barbara and Will. Hopper and Joyce set out to rescue the boy, which becomes a redemption story for Hopper. His daughter died of disease several years prior, so he needs this for himself. Superb editing contrasts scenes of the beautiful memories and the dying moments Hopper experienced with her to the struggle to resuscitate Will in the Upside Down. When Will awakes, a giant weight only Hopper knows how heavy has been lifted.

Jonathan, Steve and Nancy fight off the monster, who reentered the real world. Jonathan would like to have done it solely with Nancy,  but he’s lived a tough life so far. Nothing is easy. He wants Nancy but he can’t have her. Something will always get in the way of what he wants. That’s his lot in life. So Steve cuts in, a last-ditch effort to prove he’s an okay guy.

Eleven eventually destroys the monster, or so we think. She expends every bit of energy to tear him apart, and it swallows her to an unknown place. But Hopper has made a deal with Dr. Brenner, the man in charge of Hawkins Laboratory. What was the deal? And what’s going with Terry Ivey, the supposed mother of Eleven? In the dead of winter, Hopper drops food in a safe for Eleven (Eggo waffles, her favorite while staying at Mikes’). He knows something the rest don’t. So Eleven will be back, even though this plays out like the Iron Giant, another great story that undercuts its powerful theme of sacrifice by having the dying character return. Eleven is the coolest person thing on the show, after all. When you have the chance to run something into the ground, you take it.

Will also knows something his family doesn’t. He’s coughing up slugs, something still associated with being in the Upside Down. He’s not all the way better. And Nancy, too. She gives Jonathan a new camera for Christmas (Steve broke the other one for the act of spying the night Barb was taken). She returns to Steve on the couch, as previously mentioned, with a knowing face that things are not okay, and they might get worse. But Steve thinks he’s won, so good for him!

The boys are back in the basement, playing D&D. El is gone, and Mike will forever be changed by events of 1983, but he’s also just happy to have his friend back.

For now.

 

 

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