Before beginning Stranger Things I was keenly aware that show creators the Duffer brothers had meant the series to be a tribute to 80’s TV and film classics like Twin Peaks, E.T., The Goonies and Stand By Me (to name a few). It’s the reason I was so excited to watch in first place. Stranger Things is so much more than a tribute though. It’s a time machine.
The moment the perfectly 80’s font-ed title flashes across the dark sky backdrop something just feels right (and wonderfully wrong). Crickets chirp in the background as the camera tilts to reveal an ominous looking steel clad building. As we move inside the building florescent lights flicker and the chirping is accompanied by distorted David Lynch building noises. Much has been written about the MANY influences The Duffers weave to create this wonderfully eerie, familiar atmosphere. It’s impressive. More impressive, to me is how real the experience feels. It never winks at the tropes or clichés of the decade it immerses you in the style. I felt like a kid watching E.T. for the first time. There were sounds in the show I haven’t heard on television in 20 years. Real kid noises. Bikes racing through gravel, kick stands scratching the pavement, Walkie-talkie antennas being pushed up, Walkie-talkie static, the snap of a tape deck creaking shut.
The first scene of dialogue is a pretty lengthy (by today’s TV standards) Dungeons and Dragons campaign between: Mike, Dustin, Lucas and Will. It’s immediately irresistible as the four leads easily convey the camraderie of a lived-in friendship. They are sarcastic, foul-mouthed, hilarious and trying not to be vulnerable as they roll the dice and try to escape the Demogorgon. Their 10 hour game is almost cut short by Mike’s mom, but Will saves the day and sacrifices himself to the monster. When the group disperses Will is stalked by a real life monster. The unseen monster is terrifying. It slithers and growls and is seen only though the horror in Will’s eyes. Will’s disappearance sets up the mystery and the metaphor that carries through the eight episode first season. The metaphor (clearly) is the loss of innocence and the rest of the group band together both to get Will back and protect their childhood.
Change continues to threaten this friendship when a new person is thrown into the mix. A mysterious girl with a shaved head shows up when Will vanishes. Eleven (brilliantly played by Mille Brown) comes from that scary building in the opening scene. She doesn’t speak and has mysterious powers. Mike almost immediately trusts the stranger. He makes her a blanket fort house in his basement and brings her eggos. The other two are more resistant to this change. When Mike brings Eleven new clothes and she reaches to lift up her shirt; all three boys turn away in horror. Watching a girl change would mean giving up a bit of childhood and they aren’t budging. At least not without Will.
Watching Stranger Things, I was struck by how the series palpably conveyed change. The best example I can think of is the Wheeler house. It took on different feelings as the series progressed. It felt safe and small when the group is playing Dungeons and Dragons. It contained all the familiar colours and patterns of my childhood. I had the same couch even. It started to feel bigger when Eleven moved in. The blanket fort in the basement gave the house an entirely different feeling. It was too big and lacked the safety of the mismatched sheets and pillows. It lacked the warmth that glowed from the nightlight. When Will and Eleven are left alone in the house it felt enormous. The way it feels to explore your own house when your parents are away. You can pick any seat you want as Will demonstrates by pointing out the lazy boy. “This is where dad sleeps,” he says encouraging Eleven to climb on and trust him. Will is the head of the household here and while the two play with dad’s favourite chair something begins to change. You can feel the “growing up” and it’s exciting and terrifying and a little bit lonely.
The grownups in Stranger Things start as one-dimensional stereotypes who cut games short and mutter things like, “Yes dear” and “listen to your mother”. They only begin to develop through the eyes of the children. This is especially true of Winona Ryder. She begins as this mishmash of nostalgia bits. A 90’s icon trapped in faded 80’s clothing. There is something off about her. She seems too high strung and doesn’t fit into the Stranger Things world. She appears to be trying too hard. It’s her character Joyce Byers who doesn’t fit into the world. She’s thrust into motherhood without being ready and begins the series out of place and on edge. When her son goes missing it heaves her over the edge and Ryder gives an utterly captivating and manic performance that fuses with her 90’s rebel.
Joyce becomes a hero by becoming a mother to Eleven in a scene late in the series. [Without a major spoiler] she establishes a bond with Eleven that the little girl desperately needs. Eleven is not allowed to be a child until that one moment where she hands her trust over to Joyce. It is beautiful, sad and like nothing I’ve ever seen. Many shows (especially in the 80’s) are about growing up. This moment is about being a kid for the first time.
But the real heroes of Stranger Things are the four friends who band together and stop at nothing to protect their friendship and fend off change. As they come together to destroy the monster change is imminent. You can’t have nostalgia without change so I would like to thank the Duffer Brothers for this rare opportunity to be a kid again.