We just cheerfully spent Halloween night finishing the last few episodes of the second season of Stranger Things, which dropped last Friday. And I think that — two seasons in — I’ve settled on a sense of what the show actually is. Spoilers for both seasons ahead!
Like many people I found the first season incredibly entertaining … and a bit confusing. The entertainment aspect is clear enough, right? Great 80’s nostalgia, products, and references, and plenty of nods to other movies and storytelling of that era. The show was pretty perfectly paced, giving good suspense around the various revelations, keeping you guessing just a bit, and keeping a number of things wrapped in enough mystery that you didn’t know what might happen next. The writing wasn’t cheap: coincidences got characters into trouble more often than they got them out of it!
For me the confusion wasn’t around the mysterious content or the unresolved questions. The confusion was back outside of the television: what did I just watch?
No, I get the basics: a psychic girl pushed by unethical scientists blew a hole in reality, and some faceless horror wandered back through and stole a kid. But what IS the show? Is it a superhero show? Is it horror? Is it mystery? And if it IS any of these things, does it owe something to the genre?
Part of what makes genres great is they help us understand what kind of mirror fictional content holds up to us: heroic action can teach us bravery: sometimes you have to stand up for or against something. Science fiction can offer a fantastical ground to think through our own ethics (Jurassic Park‘s “You were so worried about whether you could you never stopped to ask if you should,” for instance). Mystery seems to me to be always, on some level, an exploration of our ultimate alienation from one another, and the question of what can be hidden and what must come to light, and how — The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is an eerie presentation of what can be hidden in broad daylight (the villain) or when no one wants to look (Lizbeth’s court-appointed guardian) … while The Girl on the Train shows how the tenacious sense of connection the protagonist feels to a woman she’s only seen through train windows can ultimately unravel the shroud around her disappearance.
So working within an established genre can offer a pretty powerful toolset for doing work with narrative content. Which is part of what left me such an itch to pin Stranger Things into one: if we could figure out what tools it’s using, maybe we can understand more of the layers its story creates!
After the second season, I’m willing to commit to two working metaphors for Stranger Things. Unsurprisingly, both come from the show itself.
The first is this: Stranger Things is a DnD campaign set in the supernatural 1980’s.
Obvious, right? The kids lay it out there for you from the first episode of season one. They even belabor the metaphor for you: the kids are “the party,” Eleven is “the mage,” and the monsters are “the demogorgon” and “the mind flayer.”
Seriously, this is the genre toolset. Each character has strengths and weaknesses. Hopper and Steve are tanks or heavy’s. Elle is a mage. Dustin’s a bard. Nancy’s throwing off the role of princess in favor of becoming a striker or damage dealer. Lucas and Jonathan are rogues or rangers. Mike and Joyce are healers.
Why does the toolset matter and work? Because in Dungeons and Dragons, everything is in the service of playing together and telling a story together. Entertainment is the goal … but any really rich campaign will let something else come through too: you get the gift of insight from the relationships between the characters. And, depending on how much you identify with the character you yourself are role-playing, you might get a glimpse into yourself, too.
How does that work? In some ways, the same as heroic action does. You’re a step removed, so you can think about what you want to do. Sometimes, that means you can pay attention to parts of yourself that you don’t pay enough attention to. Ever feel like just smashing through the locked doors to take out the smug nobleman who’s swindling the peasants and getting away with it because he’s rich? You know better in the real world, because the police would arrest you and nothing would change … but maybe your ogre barbarian doesn’t, and he can smash his way to a world free of tyranny! Psychology has plenty of technical language around “transference” and “projection” to give voice to a reality we intuitively understand: play and imagination let us express ourselves.
The other thing that the DnD metaphor helps lay bare is that the relationships between the characters are more important than the plot, however much fun the plot might be. This is what forgives Stranger Things 2: Strangerer Things from being, as MadMax puts it in an obvious raspberry to critics, “a bit derivative.” Are we rolling our eyes more than a little bit as a weird plot road crowbars in a theme of home for Eleven to keep her out of the action until she can swoop back in and do what we always knew she was going to do? Maybe … but we’re not rolling our eyes when she throws a pre-teen fit at Hopper and blows out all the windows because the two of them can’t find a way around their individual rough edges to communicate about their real hopes and fears.
The show is an invitation into this family of characters. To live alongside their loves and dreams and heartbreaks and pains. It isn’t going to push the boundaries of storytelling and cinema … but it will masterfully invite you into the party. (And if you have trouble getting in, it’ll let you ride along with MadMax’s frustrated skepticism, or roll your eyes with Erica’s mocking smarm at her older brother, Lucas).
The second working metaphor? The show is a walk between worlds whose barriers are breaking down.
I think this is happening on three levels. First, there’s the plot hole. Not a hole in the plot … but, y’know, the hole under Hawkins Lab … which is a plot point, right? Okay, bad joke … but seriously, the first level is that the show is literally about holes appearing in whatever wall there is between the fictional Hawkins it presents and the fictional Upside Down it uses to tantalize our speculations about the show’s supernatural context.
Level two is the show’s own breakdown of genres and plot evolutions. The show refuses to just be Carrie, with a psychic girl protagonist. It refuses to just be Alien, with a parasitic life form taking up a host and then breaking forth to prey on the unsuspecting (Will Byers could have had it worse, just saying). It refuses to just be Stand by Me, where kids have a parentless adventure that has them grow up too fast for a day and realize they need to relish childhood friendships. The show refuses to just be ET with a bald girl, hiding the alien being in the closet with the stuffed animals. Are parts derivative? Sure … but have you seen how we put them together?!
Level three is that we’re living in a world where the walls are breaking down.
Here’s the meaty stuff that I’m convinced is somewhere in all fiction, whether its original purpose was to entertain, to remind, or to educate. In 2016 and 2017, the barriers that used to define our world are breaking down. On the macro level, globalization is diffusing nation states into an interconnected economy, and the internet is connecting people who previously had no means of communication. We see reactive responses to both of those — isolationist national policies and echo chamber social media cul-de-sacs — but the gateways between worlds exist, and many people feel like the things that enter through them are threatening beasts. On the level of human relationships, we encounter plurality much more often. People living today are far more likely than any previous age to have friendships, romances, and acquaintance across lines of race, religion, culture, sexuality, etc.
What’s powerful about Stranger Things is that the characters who can stand up against the new dangers that come through the holes between worlds are the characters who can, themselves, travel past barriers. For the high schoolers, that means jocks and popular girls banding together with the AV club kids. For the adults, it means the town sheriff joining forces with the crazed mother of a missing boy. The adults who trust the old walls don’t make it: “Are you sure about that glass?” is a pretty good question for the series, coming from one of the last episodes of season 2.
For me, all of that enhances the entertainment value. I love watching the nostalgic romp through the 1980’s. I enjoy Eleven’s side-plot tour of different possible homes before she decides — like Luke Skywalker leaving Dagobah in Empire Strikes Back — that she’ll rest in the identity of going to save her friends. But I also love watching a DnD party I’ve had the chance to ride shotgun with take on fearful metaphors of the present age by insisting that crossing barriers in order to connect with others can give us all the strength we need to stop demogorgons and mind flayers. See you at the gaming table!