Stranger Things

Y’all. Y’ALL. I’m devastated because I finished all eight episodes of Stranger Things [2016]. I had to post the opening credits because they are gorgeous and perfect, and I’m having awful withdrawals. This show is a rare case: there is just enough of it for you to savor but is also a finite amount of nourishment, leaving you hungry. Although there’s been no official word of a season 2, I’m ok with that. I really appreciate completeness in a story. There is a complete heroes’ saga told in these eight episodes, and it would really be ok with me if they left it as a miniseries. But I would shriek over a season 2 announcement, I won’t complain!

Stranger Things is a giant middle finger to the endless reboots we’re seeing these days. It doesn’t need to be done! You can still geek out over a period of time – in this case, the fabulous 80’s – and tell new stories. Even better, the show pays homage to the good ol’ classics with some subtle references (check this out for more). This story is a mysterious and surprising blend of sci-fi, horror, and kids’ classic.

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It’s 10 pm, do you know where your children are?

This show brings all of us adult-folk back to the days when we used walkie talkies to chat with our friends, and could be sustained on a day-long adventure with junk food, and it didn’t matter what was chasing us as long our bike tires hit the driveway by sundown. Stranger Things tugs at those threads but takes away the safety of that feeling, and sets it to synth sounds. These kids really suffer, and that’s why they’re heroes.

One of the biggest strengths of this story is how the kids’ Dungeons & Dragons campaigns parallel their own world. There’s a fortress containing a gate they must reach. They obtain a new companion in the woods. There is an ongoing monster threat that could appear at any time. I wouldn’t say that the characters of Stranger Things all fit into a D&D stereotype, but the show is definitely playing off of some of those roles: Mike (the leader), Lucas (the soldier), Dustin (the sage), El (the tank), Nancy (the princess warrior princess), Hopper (the retired knight). The night of Will’s disappearance, he blasts fireball at the Demogorgan instead of a vanishing spell to hide the party during a campaign, even though he knew it was a bad idea. He shows panic and reget to his friends. Then he’s taken by the monster.

Sidenote, but I also want to give a shoutout to their science teacher: he had a Saturday night date on his couch watching a horror flick, and still talked with Dustin on the phone for what was probably a long time about how to recreate a sensory deprivation tank. Science! I love how much science is in this.

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The Upside Down

Stranger Things is so scary because it’s told through the eyes of children. Even the adult stuff is child-sized – the science teacher’s physics explanation and the way the adults come to understand the parallel realm is using the kids’ term. All of the characters work to break into this other dimension. Once they all do, it invades the real world and becomes their real world. I love the particles floating around in there. It’s almost like this dimension is still forming into a mirror of the real world all the time. It’s always becoming more of a complete world. I don’t think that would be too far off, given that the first time El taps into this dimension, we can see the monster but everything else is black and empty.

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El definitely has a connection to this place that the others don’t. When she dematerializes the monster and herself in the finale, we wonder how much of the monster’s existence was because of her. Or is she because of this world? Bit of a chicken and egg scenario. Radio waves still carry through to the other side, which is way cool, because we get ghostly bits of audio sprinkled throughout the story but never everything being said. Will’s sweet singing of The Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go” is at first cute, and then morphs into something sad and longing and super ironic. We know he’s wondering if he should switch hiding spots, make a run for it, or if he should let go and let the monster take him. We ache with him and with his mother – sidenote, ma’Lord, Winona, love you – as they both have their hands on the veil but can’t feel the other one through it. The Christmas light communication is lovely and touching. Which brings me to the next point.

Space and time

This is placed at the perfect time of year: that point between Thanksgiving and Christmas where everything pauses for a second right before the holiday madness swoops in. It’s getting colder, winter is on the horizon, the days are shorter and the nights are getting longer. Sundown happens a lot sooner than it used to. There is a constant mention of snow coming. It’s all over in the Upside Down, and on the mind of Mike as he thinks about asking El to the Snow Ball. This puts our characters at more immediate risk due to the environment and turns something most of us might think of as comforting – Christmas lights – into something that could either save us or break us. Anyone tapping the other side crackles the electricity. In some scenes, they seem fairy-like, but in others, they flit and act chaotically to signal the arrival of the Demogorgan.

The Man (read: big government) is right on the edge of this small town. That was strategic. This group was counting on the fact that if anything went wrong, like apocalyptic-dimension wrong, only a small population would be affected, and they could be easily silenced. I constantly feared for the kids when they used ham radios and walkie talkies. I remember being a kid and listening to other groups of kids talk on their radios by tuning through the channels. Surely The Man was listening, right?

One of my favorite sequences was of Hopper breaking into the morgue to see what body The Man left in place of Will. Oh my God, that fake body. Incredible storytelling here: Hopper is having trouble approaching this child’s body, he’s clearly thinking of his deceased daughter. Then he cuts it open with a knife and pulls out white stuffing. That is so much worse than gore and guts. It’s so callous and upsetting. The Man didn’t even care enough to make a convincing fake.

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Oh God, not the tank.

The sight of El in the sensory deprivation tank had me despondent. She is so small and brave. There’s something spooky and old-school about the helmet they put on her. She can’t thrash around in the tank, or else the air bubble would leak out the bottom. They trust her to be brave, and they trust her to accomplish their anti-commie mission, and know and don’t care that she will suffer. The scene with Joyce and El in the homemade tank was even more emotional to watch. I don’t think El fully realized how alone and without love she’s been until that moment when Joyce comforts her before and during their recovery mission.

The Weirdo on Maple Street

I have to give El plenty of attention here. El really made this show for me. It was special before, but El gives the story a supernatural quality beyond the Demogorgan and the other dimension. It has to be said: El had to be a girl. She had to be. She could not be a boy character. I don’t mean because of the idea that young boys don’t understand young girls, so they are basically aliens anyway-thing.

El’s times of change and understanding are marked by her bleeding. Her femininity is taken away from her, in that it was never given to her. She doesn’t understand what it is to be a girl, or how to be a girl. She is afraid of what her body is capable of, but has to trust it in order to survive. Did I just describe El’s personal narrative? Yes, but do you know what else I just described? Every other girl who has ever lived’s personal narrative.

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Dr. Brenner keeps El without real clothes or shoes in a cold and colorless lab. She has one toy and a thin bed. All of Brenner’s gifts to El are manipulation, and are so bleak and small he may as well be giving her nothing. She knows her name is Eleven. A number. Other kids have existed before her and aren’t there anymore. What happened to them? When at Mike’s house, she nests in all of the comforting stuff like she just can’t get enough.

El’s moments of humor are so perfect. Her over-exaggerated and awkward movements at times, the way she flops on the couch when she’s exhausted, her obsession with Eggos. How silly and also sweet she looks in that blonde doll wig. We savor these moments because we have a feeling this heroes’ quest isn’t going to end well for her.

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(During this scene, imagine Biggie’s “Damn It Feels Good to be a Gansta” is playing.)

Snow Ball

So, let’s talk about the finale and the death of the Demogorgan. El seems to burn the monster from the inside out, and then she dematerializes along with it. Her features are dark and veiny, and she channels all of her rage into saving her friends. Later, we see Hopper leaving Eggos in a drop box in the woods. There are tire tracks on the spot he pulls into and snow on the top of the box. He does this a lot. Is El alive? I know there are more and more fan theories popping up now that people are finishing the season. Here’s my thought, and I welcome yours!: The Demogorgan is indeed dead, and El cracked into some new thing with her powers letting her pop between worlds (I’m thinking like a Jean Grey and the Phoenix type thing). She’s in hiding, which means she either sees a threat still out there for her friends and she wants to protect them, or she’s afraid of The Man finding her. We never saw physical objects pass into the Upside Down unless the monster took them or they went through a portal. There’s no portal around the drop box. So El is either moving between both worlds, or she is in the real world and hiding in the woods. Hmmm…

Let’s also talk about slugs. Is Will infected? He didn’t seem to notice that he pukes up a slug. A SLUG. Does he just have PTSD, or is he also affected by the monster to the point that he can enter both worlds, like El?

Please, oh please tell me your fan theories, geek out over anything you liked in Stranger Things, or if you need to grieve it being over, you can do that here too.

(RIP, Barb. You are an unsung hero.)

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