A Close Look at “Stranger Things”
by David Ottlinger
This essay assumes that one has watched Netflix’s Stranger Things, Season One, and contains spoilers. Season Two has just aired and will be the subject of a future essay.
There was no particular reason I should have loved Stranger Things. It followed the usual formula for a streaming show: a dense plot, rich atmosphere, large cast, mystery etc. And while everything was well-executed, no single element (with the exception of Millie Bobby Brown) seemed all that exceptional. Yet the show retained a hold on me. I found myself haunted by it. It returned again and again to my thoughts. At first I could not say why, but more and more it seemed to me to have captured something of the mood of the times. Something in these characters, in this story seemed to have gotten hold of our contemporary malaise and for a moment, alleviated it.
To begin with, there is the mystery of the monster, which is named the “Demogorgon,” after a powerful demon in the game Dungeons and Dragons, which the young boys who comprise the central core of Stranger Things’ cast play together. I don’t know that I have ever seen anything featuring a monster in which it is so unimportant. Its insignificance begins with its very appearance. Its most recognizable feature, perhaps the only one on which all characters agree, is no feature at all but the absence of one—it has no face. Beyond that everything seems up for grabs. Joyce reports that it looks almost human. Nancy thinks it looks like a bear, or, giving a very different impression, a man in a mask. Clearly we are not meant to ascertain much from such nondescript accounts.
But perhaps there is a point to this monster’s blankness. There is, after all, a proud tradition of monsters who serve as a screen upon which we project our anxieties. Michael Myers and Jason Vorhees had empty white faces that hinted at the violence brewing beneath by omission. On to these their victims project their fears. Other girls her age are out with boys, but Jamie Lee Curtis’s Laurie Strode is trying to avoid this inevitable transition. She is opting to hide among children, by babysitting. Michael Myers’ arrival is the intrusion of the sexuality and maturity Laurie cannot indefinitely avoid. Of course none of this is to be ascertained from Michael Myers’ impassive face and expressionless movements. It has to be found in the dramatic context and particularly in the victim and her abstract dread.
Could the Demogorgon in Stranger Things be such a monster? In trying out this idea, I originally thought of Joyce’s parental anxiety. It is quickly established that even prior to the monster’s arrival, Joyce is just barely managing to juggle her family and work and is living close to the poverty line. A monster would be a suitable stand-in for such fears. But Joyce is only ever menaced indirectly. The monster comes for Will. This would not be fatal if Will had the same anxieties as his mother, but he seems not to. He can roll with the punches. He looks forward to seeing his estranged father in spite of rough treatment at his hands. When his father fails to appear, he copes quickly. In spite of a troubled home life, he is a good student. At Christmas he eats soupy potatoes and canned ham without complaint. And if there are no red crayons he will gladly paint his fireballs green. For a boy in his circumstances Will is surprisingly without grievance. He is just the proverbial good egg. The monster could not be an avatar for Will’s anxieties for the simple reason that he has none.
The monster’s only other victim of consequence does not help the theory of monster-as-mirror. Unlike Will, Barbara has her own anxieties and apprehensions, but they parallel Joyce’s only in the broadest of ways, if at all. Barbara is worried about being abandoned by her friend. When her fears are realized and her friend ditches her at a party for “cool” kids where she knows she doesn’t belong, the monster strikes. But so different are Barbara’s anxieties from Joyce’s that the monster could hardly stand in for both.
I have come to the conclusion that this monster just does not “mean” anything. But this failure is instructive. This series always will redirect our gaze from supernatural elements to people. Doctor Brenner, a soulless, Eichmann-esque bureaucrat, is a deeper and more profound villain than the monster. This series is not interested in monsters. This series in interested in people. People are much stranger things.
Stranger Things regards people in more moralistic terms than any series in recent memory. Series like the Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Jessica Jones, Orange is the New Black, Mad Men and others all trade on moral ambiguity. They invite audiences to question what is and is not moral, whether anything counts as moral, and above all to what extent characters can be held responsible for their immorality. In contrast, Stranger Things is refreshingly firm in its moral judgments. Certain characters are ambiguous (notably Steve and to a lesser extent Nancy), but others are held resolutely in contempt, including Steve’s delinquent friends, a group of schoolyard bullies, Johnathan and Will’s absent father Lonnie and two uncommitted and ultimately irresponsible police deputies. None of them shows any sign of redemption and the show makes no effort to elicit sympathy on their behalf. They begin as shit-heels and shit-heels they remain.
But more than its judgments about who is admirable, the show has strong commitments regarding what makes life worthwhile. Those characters whom are held in high esteem are branded by their peers variously as “faggots,” which in the parlance of the early 1980’s, in which the show is set, was often used to mean “un-cool.” In this sense, Stranger Things is resolutely pro-faggotry.
There are many things that earn the characters faggot status. For the boys it’s the fact that they play Dungeons and Dragons, belong to the AV club and are comic book enthusiasts. For Johnathan it’s his devotion to post-punk and photography. Nancy is not exactly eligible characterized as a faggot, but she is held at arm’s length—as “Miss Perfect”—by her peers, for reasons of un-coolness that are similar. She is judged to be too fond of studying. These all seem like rather modest enthusiasms, and some may even seem frivolous. But, really, they are all age-appropriate ways of being interested in storytelling, art, and science — the sorts of things that make life worthwhile. By contrast, the likes of Steve and his ne’er-do-well friends spend empty hours shot-gunning beers and trash talking each other and everyone else, and once again, the show is clear in its view of these two camps. Those who value art and science and other substantive pursuits are worthy of admiration. Those who spend their time on empty pursuits are worthy of contempt.
But this is not the only dimension to what makes life worthwhile. More fundamental are relationships and personal bonds. Here too the series offers well-defined views, and at many points, the story emphasizes the idea that shared involvement in meaningful projects breeds and reinforces intimacy and connection. A particularly rich example can be found in a casual, cozy domestic conversation between Will, who is drawing at the kitchen table, and Joyce, who is making toast and casually questioning Will about what the picture depicts. She learns that the character he is drawing is Will the Wise, a D&D inspired alter-ego, who prefers to eschew violence and live by his wits, though he will fight — by way of casting fireballs — if he must. From this drawing and Will’s expounding on it we – along with his mother – learn a great deal about Will, his values, his sense of himself and his sense of his own power. He is comfortable with using his intelligence to avoid conflict, rather than fight. Other kids may think he is a faggot. He prefers to see it as wisdom. But if his back is against the wall, he will fight and fight well. This knowledge of how Will sees himself and the world cannot help but inform and deepen Joyce’s relationship to her son. Will’s ability to express what he did rests on his having developed his imagination in drawing and role-playing. Art made it possible for Will to imagine himself as he would want to see himself and to express that self-conception to his mother.
At another point Jonathan helps Will work through his anger and disappointment with his negligent father with a little help from The Clash. Will, as usual, is ready to roll with the punches. But the more naturally belligerent Johnathan sits him down and argues that he has a right to resent his father. He may resent him not only for being absent but also for trying to mold Will into something he is not. Will, Jonathan urges, has not deserved this, and while he is making his case, the jagged chords and ambivalent, resentful lyrics of The Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go” are blaring, expressing the anger Johnathan believes Will needs to feel. The events of this scene not only bond Johnathan and Will together, but they teach Will something about relationships; what they are and what they mean and why they are important. The series seems to think art plays a fairly crucial role in such development.
Serving as a counter-point to this kind of healthy development is the other central child-character, referred to only as “Eleven.” Possessed of powerful psychic and telekinetic powers, Eleven plays the role of a changeling. She appears as soon as Will is absent and effectively replaces Will among the boys. When Will returns, she promptly disappears. Those searching for Will mistake her for him and inadvertently end up chasing her instead, reinforcing the idea that these two characters are to be identified with one another. In many places her story parallels Will’s but at almost every intersection, it is a study in contrasts. Throughout the story, Eleven is a kind of photo-negative of Will. Or perhaps it would be better to say she is Will “upside down.”
The most direct comparison occurs when Joyce and Hopper compare a drawing of Eleven’s to a drawing of Will’s. The contrast is stark. The most immediately obvious differences are in their level of composition and detail. Will’s drawing is dynamic and full of detailed, realistic figures. Eleven’s is startlingly bare. She has drawn only two stick figures with grim expressions and a rudimentary depiction of a cat. A table consists only of perpendicular lines. The gap in their abilities raises disquieting questions about Eleven’s development.
More disturbing still is the stark contrast in the content of the two drawings and what they suggest about these two children’s sense of identity. We have already had occasion to consider how much Will’s drawing tells us about him and about how he sees himself and relates himself to others. Next to this, Eleven’s picture is disturbingly ambiguous. Children often draw themselves with their pets and their parents. But Eleven has drawn a picture of herself with a pet who is not a pet and a parent who is not a parent. The cat on the table obviously recalls the test subject which Eleven is asked, but refuses, to kill. Here she has liberated it from its cage, perhaps suggesting a new role for it as a pet. But Eleven remains in front of and facing the table, exactly how she was in the experiment. It is impossible to know the cat’s relationship to Eleven from the drawing. It may be the beloved pet Eleven is yearning for, or it may be the subject of Eleven’s torture. The blank expression Eleven has given herself in the depiction offers no disambiguation.
This becomes only more alarming as we turn to the second stick figure, depicting Dr. Brenner. Brenner likewise has been given an impassive, inscrutable expression. He stands well apart from Eleven. There is nothing to suggest warmth or nurturing. It is almost a shock to see that Eleven has scrawled the word “Papa” above his head. This indicates that Brenner ought to stand in relation to Eleven as a parent while Eleven stands in relation to the cat as a girl and her pet, completing a nice family scene. But much more alarming interpretations seem equally supported by the nature of the drawing. Brenner stands in configuration to Eleven much as Eleven is configured with respect to the cat. And in this context it is important to remember that Eleven is every bit as much a test subject as the cat. With this in mind, Brenner could be considered as standing in relation to Eleven as torturer and experimenter, exactly as Eleven tortures and experiments upon the cat. This captures the dichotomy of their relationship in one terrifying image. Superficially resembling a family, they are more a dark parody of family in which relationships are defined by exploitation and the calculated infliction of suffering.
In the middle of this is poor Eleven. In contrast to Will she has very little sense of herself and how to situate herself in the world. She lacks the kind of art that would make it possible for her to articulate and express that. Eleven’s drawing illustrates how little she understands her role. While Will’s drawing expresses a certain understanding of the world surrounding him and how it might be confronted, Eleven does not know how to define her relationships and so does not know how to define her own role. She does not identify, at least resolutely, as a daughter. Such an identification would give her some direction. Identifying as a daughter means identifying with the duties and privileges of being a daughter. It allows one to say, Of course I will do as you tell me, because I am your daughter. Or, You should spend more time with me, because I am your daughter. Conversely, if Eleven were to see herself as a test subject and prisoner, that would mean seeing rebellion and the rejection of Brenner as the path forward. But Eleven is trapped between these two images of herself and her relation to her surroundings. There is nothing in her drawing to tell her what to do.
These problems of Eleven’s are crystallized in a short scene late in the series in which she and Mike, during a quiet moment, are contemplating their future together. Mike hopes Eleven will stay with his family. He imagines them eating meals together and having a normal, stable life. Eleven asks if this will make her Mike’s sister, a question parallel to the one she asks by way of her drawing of Brenner and herself. Who am I? How do you see me? Where do I belong? Mike, who by this point has developed romantic feelings for Eleven, immediately dismisses the idea that she might be his sister, which leaves Eleven confused. If not a sister then what?
Faced with this question Mike has the unenviable task of having to explain to Eleven a social role that she probably did not know existed. Indeed, she doesn’t even really know how to be a girl, which itself requires skill in a certain kind of art. The boys have to initiate her into such arts when they dress her up to pass for normal. This is Eleven’s first exposure to things like dresses, lipstick and face powder — the things that mark a girl as a different kind of thing than a boy. At first Eleven has no inkling of this differentness. She does not even know, much to the boys’ horror and no doubt fascination, that she shouldn’t undress in front of boys. When she comes through the door in her “normal” clothes and make-up, after her transformation, she is suddenly set apart from the others. “Pretty,” Mike remarks, and she is. But being pretty is different from being a girl. The former is, as the saying goes, skin deep. The latter is a way of being a person. Eleven, in her new disguise, may appear to be a normal girl, but she lacks the complex socialization required to fill the role.
Mike’s approach is telling. He says that he hopes Eleven can go with him to the “Snowball,” which he describes as “a cheesy school dance.” If Eleven were his sister, they could not go to the Snowball because brothers and sisters (by definition) do not go to school dances, which exist so that young people can discover what a girlfriend or a boyfriend is and how one behaves in those roles. They are trial runs for later relationships, created so boys and girls can explore and experiment with romantic relationships. Of course, to understand this you have to actually go to the Snowball, and as Eleven hasn’t, she remains in the dark. Mike further tries to explain that you go to a dance with someone you “like.” When that fails, Mike decides to take a different course and kisses Eleven on the lips. She finally understands or at least glimpses what it is to “like” someone, an understanding that she signals by smiling.
In many ways, this moment communicates what the characters are struggling towards better than any other in the series, but even then it is momentary. (As soon as Mike steals his moment – and his kiss – he instinctively runs off.) But however brief, it holds out the promise that barriers can be overcome and that real connections can be made. It would be wrong to over-emphasize that it is expressed wordlessly; wrong because for all the reasons just adduced it involves both characters having the right conception of themselves and of each other. Only when they have the right view of themselves can they relate to each other, and once the right conception has been reached, words become unnecessary.
In these themes of alienation and the possibility of genuine connection, which is its opposite, we begin to approach the heart of Stranger Things and what elevates it from a rote horror exercise or a nostalgic pastiche of references to something resonant and haunting. Above all it exudes the powerful need for contact. Not the cruel parody of contact for which Dr. Brenner labors, but human contact, bringing intimacy, trust and quietude — the restless heart wishing to rest in someone else. For most of the characters, most of the time, this contact remains elusive.
Unfortunately for the older characters, reaching out to each other is a somewhat more complicated affair, and none of them share this kind of self-transcendence. Much of this has to do with the fact that they are already embedded in various social roles and positions. If the youngest struggle with too little identity, the older often struggle with having too much, demonstrating that the drama the youngest characters enact will have to be repeated at various points in life. The youngest have to find roles to play. The older often need to escape roles they are already playing. For the older, many identities become stumbling blocks to the kind of connection Mike and Eleven briefly find. They become sources of stubborn estrangement which hangs over many of the characters.
Probably the best example of this is Cara, Mike and Nancy’s mother. Throughout the series she is warm, intelligent, empathetic, prudent and almost completely ineffective. She is ever available to her children, repeatedly telling them, “You can talk to me.” She is careful not to be scolding when she knows it will do no good. She respects her children’s boundaries, but is prepared to be there for them when they need her. For all her troubles, she is consistently lied to and rarely knows where her children are or what is going on under her own roof. (Johnathan and Steve come and go unnoticed, and Eleven lives in her basement without her being any the wiser.) In spite of her best efforts, she and her children remain very much apart.
Understanding Cara’s isolation means understanding her role. Cara is a natural domestic. She wraps the feminine mystique around her like a warm blanket. She accepts her husband’s detachment from his family and is deferential to his opinions, even when they are obviously obtuse. When Will Byers goes missing, she diligently looks after Joyce, even bringing her a casserole at one point, a classic expression of American house-wifery. Her every action is in keeping with a certain feminine ideal: the community pillar, the doting mother, and the obedient wife.
Unfortunately for Cara, her daughter is an entirely different sort. Nancy gives the audience her view of her mother when Jonathan is teaching her to shoot. She describes how her mother, in her view, married not for love but for convenience, because her father offered her a good income and a respectable living, because he came from a respectable family and because he could offer her the suburban family life she craved. And as Nancy narrates this history she is looking down the barrel of a gun, her expression murderous.
This goes a long way to explaining Cara’s ineffectiveness. The irony for Cara is that the more giving, the more compassionate, the more open she is, the more her daughter will resist her, since in doing so, she is embodying the feminine ideal that her daughter despises. Ultimately this role isolates Cara from everyone else as well. Her daughter resents her and the ideal she lives by. Her husband remains detached and aloof. And her son ignores her with an arrogance that is his birthright as a male. (For Mike, Cara is only an obstacle to gotten around.) And so in spite of Cara’s thoughtful and caring actions, she remains a stranger in her own home.
Across town, Sheriff Hopper is trapped in his own role. Hopper had lived years ago as a husband and father, but lost his child to cancer and under the stress of that tragedy, divorced from his wife. So deep runs the trauma from that experience, that when the series joins him, he has assumed a lifestyle that is the exact opposite of a stable father and family man, as if to erase the idea that he ever was one. He plays the part of the carefree bachelor to the hilt. He drinks, pops pills, shows up late to work, engages in casual hook-ups and generally gives himself over to a detached, hedonistic existence.
But try as he might to resist it, hunting for missing and kidnapped children raises something in himself he cannot ignore. Both Will Byers and Eleven become images of his lost daughter. Saving them becomes a chance to (symbolically) save her. With this shift, his need for attachment begins to overwhelm his wish to avoid emotional investment and its concomitant risks. But the road back to other people is steep and narrow. In his new life he is surrounded by people such as his deputies, who are hardly suitable confidants. He attempts to open up to his paramour, who can only look at him with bafflement. Why has he forgotten the rules? Eventually he tries to call his ex-wife. There is a certain desperation to this gesture. His wife is perhaps the last living character with whom he has had a real emotional connection.
She starts the conversation by asking why he is calling. Hopper says only that he regrets nothing and that his years with her meant everything to him. She asks if he’s been drinking, and why not? After all, she is only interpreting Hopper in terms of the role he has chosen for himself. He has styled himself for years as the unattached and irresponsible bachelor. He denies that he has been drinking, truthfully, but no sooner has he stated this, than he can hear his wife’s baby crying over the line. As she coos over it, he realizes that they are too far apart; following entirely different narratives and playing entirely different roles. Hopper’s wife is married to another man and has begun a completely different life, apart from him. There is no way to reach her across that great divide. He falsely confesses that he has been drinking, after all, hangs up the phone and stands up to leave the house.
As he walks to the door the phone rings. He pulls the line out of the wall.
The series leaves us with little hope for its older generation. But the same cannot be said for Stranger Things’ middle generation. This group is comprised of high school students who are halfway between the unformed children and the too well defined adults. Already their problems more resemble the problems of the older generation than of the younger, as each of them already seems to be locked into a certain identity. Nancy, as we mentioned, is playing “Miss Perfect,” getting good grades and staying out of trouble. Jonathan Byers is playing at the artistic loner, wandering around by himself with his camera and listening to Punk. Steve is playing the role of a teenage rebel, not only falling in with a bad crowd but leading it. He struts around with a devil-may-care attitude and joins his friends in a listless existence of drinking and minor delinquency. Each has chosen their role and is playing it.
Of course, these are not merely familiar figures from actual high schools, they are also familiar figures from high school stories. Almost no fictionalization of high school life in the past thirty years has been without some version of these characters. Consequently, the audience has a number of expectations about them, something about which the show demonstrates great awareness. No sooner are we exposed to these characters and the roles they are playing than we are introduced to the discomfort they feel in those roles. Nancy is tired of playing Miss Perfect. She has received overtures from Steve and means not only to connect with him but with his brand of rebellion. She appears at Steve’s party with her redoubtable – and distinctly un-cool friend Barbara in tow. Immediately Nancy seems to go native, affecting the studied ennui and Sans Souci of the cool kids. “This isn’t you” Barbara frets, but Nancy is lost in the allure of this new world and Barbara’s warning falls on deaf ears. Nancy announces that she is going upstairs “to change,” by which she means more than simply putting on different clothes. She hopes to be “changed” by sleeping with Steve, both as a person and in terms of her social role.
There is a significant moment the morning after Nancy chooses to go to bed with Steve. She is the first to wake and tries to rouse Steve, who remains unresponsive. There is a sudden stab of anxiety. Up to this point he has been solicitous, even gentlemanly, treating Nancy and Barbara with a ceremonious respect. But now that he has “gotten what he wanted,” perhaps everything will be different. After all that is the next act in the story we have all seen before. The story sets up a love triangle with Nancy at the top point and Jonathan and Steve at the base. Steve is, as the handsome and daring rebel, superficially appealing, but his character and motives are suspect. Jonathan, as a mumbling misfit, is less outwardly attractive, but conceals hidden depths of intelligence and soulfulness. Hollywood logic would dictate that Nancy first be attracted to Steve but eventually come to prefer Jonathan and an allegedly more mature kind of love. This is the part of the story where Steve should begin to prove himself a cad.
The next time we see Steve, the setting is the area around Nancy’s locker at school. From out of the frame, he throws the locker door back, and the audience is treated to a harsh clang, hearing it as Nancy would, given that she is only inches away. Only then does Steve step into frame and announce himself, the ominous moment giving way to a surprise. Steve is thoughtful, understanding, even supportive. He promises discretion. He shows genuine concern. If he has been scripted to turn into a cad, no one told him.
This pattern recurs several times. At one point Steve tries to urge Nancy to cover up Barbara’s disappearance, a classic display of lack of empathy and self-involvement worthy of a Hollywood cad. But then he shows up at Nancy’s home, repentant and once again shows concern. Later he assaults Jonathan, breaking his camera. But his anger is justified, and his actions, if misguided, nonetheless demonstrate real concern for Nancy. At yet another point, he joins his friends in making graffiti the purpose of which is to publicly humiliate Nancy. But then he personally scrubs it away in a gesture of silent penance. It is always as though Steve feels the pull of a familiar narrative, but also a consistent urge to resist it.
Much the same can be said of Jonathan, who is cast in the role of the Goethesque loner, which he fulfills in a number of ways. He proves to be a thoughtful person with deep emotional insights into himself and those around him. (Some of these have already been discussed above.) But other actions of his don’t fit with this narrative at all. Most notable is his deeply transgressive decision to photograph Nancy and Steve in a sexual encounter. This is profoundly contrary to the logic of the Hollywood story. Jonathan should be the sympathetic suitor, the one the audience naturally prefers to Steve. But often Jonathan has an edge to him. He is dismissive of other people. We come to see he is not an outcast entirely because he was cast out by others. He relishes his role as outsider, sometimes seeming to take pleasure in his own misery. The role of high-school misfit is not just one that exists for the audience. It is also one that exists for him. He enjoys playing it. And sometimes he overplays it.
What happens in the end seems to be a function of no familiar narrative. It defies what is foreshadowed earlier in the story. Indeed, it defies all of our expectations. Steve and Nancy remain together, but not as Miss Perfect and The Teenage Rebel. Steve gives up on his “cool” friends and his need to be the leader of a pack. Nancy abandons her Miss Perfect role, but also rejects the idea of rebelliousness for its own sake. Their relationship seems authentic because it is negotiated on their own terms. It is not the end to any Hollywood story, nor is it some anti-Hollywood counter-narrative. It is a story of two people choosing each other as individuals, rather than for the type they exemplify. For that reason it is real, personal and convincing. In the beginning no one would have seen it coming. But Stranger Things have happened.