The Strangeness of ‘Stranger Things’
The second season of Stranger Things is just around the corner. Set to debut on Friday, just in time for Halloween (when else?), Netflix’s return to Hawkins, Indiana, should prove a test as to whether the show can maintain what made it a standout in this new media environment: namely that it resisted many of the sentimentalizing or dehumanizing elements of contemporary film and television. It did this without preachiness, without subservience to politically correct pieties or ideological dogmatism. The beating heart of Stranger Things is its moral depth and seriousness, which is the strangest thing about it.
The show’s creators, Matt and Ross Duffer, apparently had to work at successfully pitching the concept. Duffer told Rolling Stone that the show was turned down by 15-20 networks, which were confused over what it was supposed to be about. Particularly hard to understand, he recalled, was that the show stars children but is intended for adults, and neither sentimentally overemphasizes cheap innocence nor wallows nihilistically in degradation, violence, and gratuitous sex (think Game of Thrones and Westworld). Thankfully they were given a shot on Netflix and the rest is history.
Stranger Things leans heavily on its 80s milieu. The kids on bicycles, the painstaking attention to period set design, the dated hairstyles, and the 10-hour Dungeons & Dragons sessions are all there. The show slyly cultivates a sense of loss about those things: We have traded the imaginative, social experience of D&D for passive screen time in which the game does the imagining for you. We are also drawn to the unencumbered freedom the children have tearing around the town of Hawkins, and to the preteen-friendly space the boys set up in the basement of the Wheelers’ house. There they can exercise a limited sovereignty appropriate to children on the cusp of adolescence without constant adult intervention and supervision. Still, the sense of loss is not without a healthy critique: We quickly recognize that the children’s freedom is a product of parental neglect, born either from incompetence, in the Wheelers’ case, or from distraction, as in the case of the divorced and abandoned Joyce Byers.
The story of Stranger Things begins when the 12-year-old Will Byers is abducted biking home alone from the Wheelers’ house after a late-night D&D session. The same freedom that we are attracted to, and that will ultimately allow the young protagonists to protect the imperiled girl named “Eleven” later in the series, is also what puts Will in peril at the start. The good things we nostalgically long for are presented unflinchingly, that is, without a sentimental gauze obscuring their darker sides. They have their trade-offs.
The show’s fundamental lack of sentimentality is evident when comparing it to the master of self-conscious sentimentality, Steven Spielberg. His films Close Encounters of the Third Kind and especially E.T. were obvious source material for the plot, characters, and look of Stranger Things. The kids on bikes, the realm of children’s freedom away from neglectful adults, the sinister government scientists up to no good, and the elfin visitor from another place who combines touching vulnerability with extraordinary power, are all there. E.T. and Eleven even disguise themselves in blonde wigs and perch on bicycles driven by our boy heroes. But that is where the similarities end. As if they sensed, appropriately, that their Gen-X audience would recoil without it, the Duffer brothers added the realism and perception of modern film sensibility—without the Spielberg touch.
In E.T., the cuddly, barely articulate alien with the glowing heart is a kind of apotheosis of romanticized childhood; it functions as a Spielbergian critique of rationalistic adults who have forgotten how to love and feel. Eleven, in contrast, is not a wise space elf; she is an abused child. E.T. doesn’t speak much because he is Spielberg’s Rousseauan icon of pre-linguistic innocence; Eleven doesn’t speak much because she has been traumatized. E.T.’s lack of speech reflects this innocence; Eleven’s lack of speech indicates a violation of her innocence. Unlike the scientists in E.T., the adults in Stranger Things don’t characteristically lack feeling or love; they either lack the knowledge of how to act on their love appropriately or the will to do so. They lack virtue, in other words. Their imaginations and desires have been stunted by a soul-sucking suburban existence that demands very little of them outside the very basics. The boys, on the other hand, are capable of helping Eleven because they live more fully relational lives: they are a “party,” in Dungeons & Dragons parlance. While initially skeptical about Eleven’s powers and origins, as well as the bizarre events that have enveloped their friend Will, their highly developed imaginations have both prepared them to accept the existence of “stranger things” and to deliberate about what to do in the face of them. They have received an imaginative training in courage, which prepares them to face the dangers of searching for Will in the face of quasi-demonic powers and of protecting Eleven from the adults who wish her harm. This is no sanitized vision of childhood emotional innocence versus the unfeeling reason of adulthood.
Whereas both E.T. and Stranger Things treat childhood as a prominent theme, the breakdown of the family is only a backdrop in E.T.: it is there, but there is little reflection on its significance. The contrast with Stranger Things could not be starker. The fact that Winona Ryder, such an iconic Gen-X star, plays the most prominent mother in the series, underscores the mixture of nostalgia and critique levied against the familial breakdowns that are so crucial to the plot and characters. In a way, the primary sets of parents, Ted and Karen Wheeler and Joyce and Lonnie Byers, are the flip sides of the sexual revolution. Lonnie is a hedonistic deadbeat who abandons his psychologically unstable wife to raise their two children alone; the Wheelers are relatively affluent, bourgeois suburbanites who, according to their daughter Nancy, probably never loved each other in the first place and treat their children with (seemingly) benign neglect. Both fathers are absent: Ted because of disinterest and incompetence, Lonnie because of selfishness. Both mothers are in over their heads. Joyce is a single mom who is incapable of giving her children the attention they need; Karen does not know how to channel her maternal concern.
Despite the truncation of parenthood we see in the series, it is also true that there are glimpses of better things. When we see fatherhood and motherhood exercised well, it is in remarkably traditional terms. Arguably the most touching moment in the series is when Joyce consoles the terrified Eleven, who has just undergone a frightening ordeal to help Joyce find her absent son. Joyce draws the supine, trembling Eleven into her arms, saying, “It’s okay, we’re right here.” Despite her nearly overwhelming desire to find her son Will, Joyce is able to give Eleven something she has never had before: the embrace of a mother. Eleven, who, it is strongly implied, was taken away from her mother by deceit and who has never known any maternal figure, clutches Joyce and calms down.
On the paternal side, the series works hard to set up two main father figures, one good and the other bad: Chief of Police Jim Hopper and Dr. Martin Brennan. Brennan is malevolent and manipulative. In a show full of monstrous images, the most horrifying of all is that of Brennan sending tiny, weeping Eleven into solitary confinement for refusing to comply with his commands, while she pleads “Papa! Papa!” the whole time. On the other side is Hopper, who is large, physically confident, competent at his job, but a wreck on the level of his personal relationships. He used to be a husband and father and apparently a rather good one, which we get to see in flashbacks to the time before his daughter died of cancer. The series strongly implies that her death destroyed his marriage and sent him down a path of episodic sexual encounters with a variety of women around town. Nevertheless, when he is suddenly responsible for vulnerable children and a traumatized mother, he rises to the occasion. In a scene interspersed with flashbacks, we see Hopper extending the same kind of care he gave to his sick daughter and his frightened ex-wife to Joyce as they search for her son in the terrifying Upside Down dimension. His self-sacrifice and openness to the children contrasts severely with both Ted Wheeler’s apathy and incompetence and Lonnie Byers’ irresponsibility. He shows himself to be a man of well-chosen words and courageous deeds.
At the conclusion of the series, even the hapless Wheelers and the distracted Joyce have changed the way they interact with their children. The adolescents’ domain in the Wheelers’ basement is left mostly intact, but now Jonathan Byers appears in it at the end of the evening to find his brother and drive him home. The freedom of the children is fundamentally upheld, but also moderated by the prudent—but not intrusive—attention of their elders.
Stranger Things doesn’t just avoid the sentimentalism and dehumanization of too much popular entertainment; it pushes back against it. The first season was deeply moral without being moralistic. In so doing, it worked against the regular assaults on innocence and human dignity in much of what passes for entertainment today. If this season can avoid those same cheap traps, it will continue to be a standout in today’s “golden age” of serial television.
Thomas P. Harmon is dean of humanities at John Paul the Great Catholic University in Escondido, California, where he also lives with his wife and four children.