Until indicated, this review is spoiler free. If you’ve seen it, skip below for analysis.
No one saw it coming. No one. Like an alien invasion or a paranormal event, Stranger Things is a bolt of 80’s goodness out of the blue.
On a cold night in November of 1983, young Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) disappears in his hometown of Hawkins, Indiana. As the search gradually begins, spearheaded by the haunted Sheriff Jim Hopper (David Harbour), Will’s mother Joyce (Winona Ryder) has strange revelations as to the whereabouts of her missing son. Her antics grate and worry her eldest child Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) who starts his own investigation, eventually crossing paths with Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer) and plain crossing her new boyfriend Steve (Joe Keery).
Meanwhile, Will’s friends Lucas, Dustin and Nancy’s brother Mike (Caleb McLaughlin, Gaten Matarazzo and Finn Wolfhard respectively) decide to buck the rules and search for their missing chum despite the danger. Instead they find a strange girl in the worlds named Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) and are pulled into a far greater mystery that is part man-made, and part not…
There are absolutely no limits to the 80’s references in the show. Showrunners Matt and Ross Duffer gently borrowed ideas and hints from a myriad of movies and shows, or even just used toys and games of the era. These ranged from hints of Aliens to Stand By Me, The Goonies, E.T., A Nightmare on Elm Street and It (although that was released in 1990), to impressions of Yoda. Yet despite the reliance on nostalgia the show stands on its own, entertaining whether or not the audience is familiar with these titles.
That last point raises a critical question about whether or not the show is suitable for younger children. The show’s heroes range from adults to teenagers to kids, pulling in audience from all age groups, giving appeal for the whole family. But although most of the violence happens off screen and the gore is subdued, some of the scarier elements risks nightmares for the youngest. This is especially true during the mesmerizing finale.
That said, Stranger Things is the engine of fan conversion. The perfect blend of science fiction and horror, carefully balanced between concerned and aware adults as well as a group of lovable children. No one is immune to the charm of Lucas, Mike and especially Dustin who all flip from their goofiness to concern just as real kids do. And although Stranger Things is a quintessential homage of the best of a decade, the show is a phenomenon no one can, or should, resist.
Analysis and spoilers follow from here on.
Before continuing, I would highly advise reading the interview with Matt and Ross Duffer to cover a few theories for next season. But just as the boys open the show with playing either Dungeons & Dragons or some spin-off thereof, a great of deal of what is to come seems to be about trying to figure out the rules of the Upside Down.
Let’s start with the “Demogorgon” monster, portrayed by Mark Steger. Unlike the references of all the movies made before, the monster feels like the show’s most unique element. Sure, you could find similarities between it and the Xenomorph from Alien (especially considering the “egg” that was found in the last episode as Hopper and Joyce visit the other side). Its stalker nature is somewhat reminiscent of Jason Voorhees of the Friday the 13th series, and perhaps its attraction to blood could be a cue from Jaws. There is no lack of inspirations to draw from.
But none of these shared traits are compelling enough to declare the monster as derivative work. While it stalks and scares and its motivation is primal hunger, there’s a fair bit of distinction in its Venus flytrap-like appearance and especially its hunting methods. It’s manifestation in our world (we’ll cover this in detail in a moment), its “stealing” of people to the Silent Hill–esque Veil of Shadows and above all, it’s unusual behavior regarding how it handles its prey.
The “laws” on that last point aren’t exactly clear just yet. On one hand, the monster ate the deer in our reality. On the other, it stole both Will and Barb (Shannon Purser), kidnapping them to its poisonous reality and suggestion a distinction in how prey is handled. Was the purpose to store food for later? Or was it a kind of reproductive cycle the monster undertook? Or, given the “growth” that was in the labs and covering the other side, was the monster actually feeding a larger entity— could the monster actually be a kind of “hunting” extension of world-invading life form? Like a worker-ant returning food for the queen?
And then there’s the fate of poor Barb.
It’s almost certain that Barb as we know her is dead, especially given that the Veil of Shadows is toxic. And the body that Elle psychically saw in the seventh episode certainly looked like Barb, which could reasonably conclude the matter. But when Will vomited a slug in his final scenes, we’re left wondering if it was simply a nightmarish vision or some residual effect of the worm in his stomach. If it was the latter, then were there meaningful physiological changes happening to Barb? Was she just being digested, or was she being impregnated or cocooned, to be transformed?
This leads to many unanswered questions regarding Will. Whether psychologically or physically, his connection to the Upside Down was not fully cut in the conclusion, though whether due to the toxic atmosphere or the worm (or both) is unclear. It’s also not impossible that the two effects, the vomiting and the “flash” to the Upside Down, were the result of the worm and the toxins respectively, a distinction that could be very important in the future. But was there a reason he was not hooked up to the worm until later? Barb was almost immediately “processed” while Will was in his fort, either hiding or being stored.
Perhaps deeper than the 80’s, there’s a Lovecraftian element in play deep down behind the scenes. The alternate universe has many terms; the Upside Down, the other side, the Veil of Shadows. All of them describe a twisted dimension not unlike ours but corrupted, perhaps “outside the ordered universe” as written in The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. Whatever fauna that exists there seems to see all other life only as prey, and the show’s (barely) human antagonist Dr. Martin Brenner (Matthew Modine), seems determined to keep poking the bear no matter how many lives are consumed in the process.
Dr. Brenner’s antics are best described as the kind of moth-to-flame madness akin to those who are drawn to the Old Gods, the friction of his ambitions against the monster’s carnal nature creating a mutual, utter disregard for life. And the nigh indestructibility of the monster (suggestive of omnipotent power, a hallmark of the divine) does hint at the dark deities.
Although, this is likely accomplished by abusing an “immaterial” existence on a material plane. Perhaps only certain energy patterns cause “disruption” between the two planes. Thus why Nancy, Steve and Jonathan were able to harm the creature with fire and the armed soldiers couldn’t. Still, it may also suggest that the Demogorgon could have been slain by gunfire, at least within the Upside Down.
At last, let’s come back to Sheriff Hopper and Elle. While Eleven’s backstory was well covered this season, her fate remains ambiguous. Still, consider that the box in the woods that Hopper left the food within was there before, and was empty when he placed the Eggos within it. Although it’s not impossible that someone is stealing the food, it seems slightly more likely that the box is covering another “focal point,” just like the opening in the tree that Nancy slipped between worlds, or the Byer’s house that the monster stretched through.
No, the real concern is just what passed between Hopper and the G-Men, who showed up just as he was leaving the hospital. Seeing as how he and Joyce physically ventured to the Upside Down and returned, it’s quite probable that Hopper is now “one of theirs.” Unwilling to risk exposing Joyce Byer to further torment, it would make sense for Hopper to shield her by acquiescing to the government’s requests. Or, was his daughter just a Lost flashback, or is there more to it than that? I mean, Eleven is more a number than a name…
Just as unanswered questions is another trait of the Lovecraftian, Stranger Things seems to thrive by never giving just one answer to any question. Rather the show prefers to create several possibilities to draw us in, leaving us desperate for a second season. The Netflix jury is still out on whether we’ll receive that. But if so, I’ll be counting the days…