The first season of STRANGER THINGS hit Netflix on July 15th and, within days, it seemed, everyone had seen it. I had been tangentially aware of the development of STRANGER THINGS, seen the trailers, and looked forward to it, but I did not—could not have—anticipated the splash that the series would make. I went to my annual two-week residency for my MFA program on the very day it was released, and by the end of the first weekend I was there, I had received phone calls and text messages from friends urging me to watch it as soon as possible, eager to discuss. Residency swept me up, and I didn’t get a chance to watch it at all during those two weeks, but I turned it on within minutes of getting home. Happily, I have now had a chance to dissect STRANGER THINGS’ premiere season with my friends—and now, with you, too!
STRANGER THINGS is a science-fiction/horror hybrid which, in the vein of a new wave of nostalgia television—THE GOLDBERGS, RED OAKS—takes place in the 1980s, in the heart of the American Midwest. At the crux of the series are four pre-teenage boys, realistic in their sometimes-exasperating blend of geekiness, naïveté, and sheer cuteness. Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Will (Noah Schnapp), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) play Dungeons & Dragons, where they band together to defeat mythical beasts like the dreaded Demogorgon. “Something’s coming … something thirsty for blood,” Mike announces to his comrades as they finish up a ten-hour D&D campaign, and this first line of the series foreshadows everything to come. Strange things indeed come to Hawkins, Indiana: a beguiling stranger, a monster from another world, and a mysterious government site that could be the cause of it all …
SPOILER ALERT: THE FOLLOWING REVIEW INCLUDES SPOILERS FOR THIS EPISODE OF STRANGER THINGS.
Directors: Matt and Ross Duffer (as “The Duffer Brothers”)
Producers: Matt and Ross Duffer, Dan Cohen, Karl Gajdusek, Cindy Holland, Shawn Levy, Matt Thunell, Brian Wright
Writers: Matt and Ross Duffer
Stars: Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobby Brown, Winona Ryder
One of the things that creators (directors, writers … and brothers!) Matt and Ross Duffer do best is this kind of subtle foreshadowing. It’s easy to miss if you’re hanging on to every inch of plot development in a state of sustained suspense (which you usually are) but, rewatching the series a second time, I’m amazed by the seamless blend of exposition and foreshadowing in the writing. The last time that Mike speaks to Will before his abduction, Will admits to him that he lied about the number he rolled, which rendered him unable to use the fireball against the monster. “The Demogorgon,” he says. “It got me.” Mike, far from angry, nods in understanding. The group parts … and all hell breaks loose.
When Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), likely the show’s most well-loved character, hits the scene, we know little about her. She wears a torn hospital gown covered in grit, bears a tattoo with the number “011.” This is when we realize that the reason why we know so little about Eleven is that she knows next to nothing about herself—thus far in her young life, she has been treated less as a person than as a commodity. When she enters Benny’s (Chris Sullivan) diner, herself the first physical relic of MKUltra, the diner too seems to transform, moving back in time to the psychedelic sixties, when MKUltra was in full swing. Jefferson Airplane—emblematic of the drug-addled counterculture of the sixties—plays on the jukebox: First “She Has Funny Cars” (“Your mind’s guaranteed / It’s all you’ll ever need / So what do you want with me?”) plays during Eleven’s debut onscreen, then, later, when CIA goons arrive to retrieve Eleven for MKUltra experimentation, “White Rabbit” plays (“When the men on the chessboard / get up and tell you where to go / and you’ve just had some kind of mushroom / and your mind is moving slow …”). In this way, the audience’s first inkling of MKUltra is heavily abstract—more a creeping notion of danger than a literal explanation, which is far scarier.
Eleven is easy to empathize with, a child who shows clear signs of abuse—malnutrition, a tattoo that was almost certainly not consensually given, and symptoms of severe PTSD—and possesses all of the shy sweetness that the rambunctious boys lack. We immediately love her and, more powerfully, fear for her. This fear drives us to keep watching much of the time.
You want to know who I don’t empathize with?
Nancy (Natalia Dyer) is Mike’s older sister, a teenage girl who is, it is implied, a nerd dating a popular guy. If you think this is uninteresting, wait until you have to listen to her drone on about this crap. Ninety percent of her dialogue is boring shit about her life, such as “I hate my parents” and “Steve is so dreamy.” (Okay, not those exact words, but you get the gist.) The main aspect of Nancy’s “story” is that she is dating the aforementioned Steve (Joe Keery), an extremely dull, two-dimensional popular guy.
All you really need to know about Nancy is that she sucks and, unfortunately, you’ll be subjected to a lot of her over the course of this season. In my reviews of STRANGER THINGS, I will keep a running tally of all of the shitty things that Nancy does. In this episode, she is largely on the sidelines because the writers are too busy introducing characters and building exposition, but she still manages to demonstrate her extreme shittiness. When her mom asks her not to go out one night because Will’s captor has still not been apprehended, Nancy wails, “This is all Will’s fault!” In case you missed it: Nancy is blaming a small child who has been kidnapped for preventing her from sucking face with Steve.
But, thank God, Winona’s back:
In the span of a single episode—less than an hour of screen time—Winona Ryder as Joyce, Will and Jonathan’s mother, manages to steal the show (to no one’s surprise). With all of the emotional power that she has brought to her work since the ‘80s—and it’s no coincidence that they brought in an ‘80s icon for this show—she portrays a mother who doesn’t always get it right, but loves her sons with fierce devotion. Waving a cigarette in the police station, eyes ablaze, Joyce is mesmerizing—a female character in a male-dominated show whose complexity and ambivalence do justice to women everywhere.
Lastly—and if you’ve kept reading for this long, kudos to you—each episode of STRANGER THINGS is delightfully wrought with pop cultural references that viewers who lived through the ‘80s and ‘80s pop culture enthusiasts (like me) alike will be tickled by. I’m just sticking to overt references, because picking apart the blend of STAND BY ME (1986), THE GOONIES (1985), and E.T. (1982) is nearly impossible, so seamlessly combined are they. Here is the list of the pop culture references I caught in this episode (and feel free to comment with any I missed)!
- THE KARATE KID (1984)
- Dungeons & Dragons
- Mister Fantastic
- The Hobbit
- POLTERGEIST (1982)
- Walkie Talkies
Be sure to check STRANGER THINGS now, only on Netflix.