Warning: This story contains plot points and spoilers regarding the first season of Netflix’s Stranger Things.
Whether you’re an ’80s baby, a ’90s nut, or an aughts oddball, you’ve likely spent the last couple of weeks chewing over Stranger Things, the Winona Ryder-led Netflix series that follows the disappearance of a young boy in small-town Indiana in 1983, and leads to the discovery of a telekinetic tween, a shadowy conspiracy, and a blood-crazed monster. Though Netflix doesn’t release ratings numbers, it’s hard to deny that Stranger Things is one of the biggest hits of the summer, as evidenced by the fact that no one will stop talking about it. A big part of the show’s appeal, of course, is the way it invokes, homages, and sometimes overtly cops from all sorts of Reagan-era pop culture: Even Stranger’s title font feels like it jumped off a dog-eared Stephen King paperback. Its opening credits and score has a serious John Carpenter feel (and a bit of a V vibe, as well). And throughout the show, we’re inundated to references to the decade’s sci-fi conspiracy flicks (Firestarter, Scanners), adolescent-adventure tales (It, The Goonies), and horror-flicks (Evil Dead, Poltergeist).
The strangest thing about Stranger Things, though, might be its final episode, in which the monster is finally killed by Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), the on-the-run ex-lab-rat who seemingly dies during her act of self-sacrifice. Thanks to Eleven–and her pals Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin)–the abducted Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) returns home safely … only to later cough up a nasty-looking worm-thing that indicates that a Stranger Things sequel might be in the offing (as of this writing, Netflix still hasn’t officially commissioned a second season). The finale, with its surprising turns and revelations, raised all sorts of questions: Is Eleven alive? Is the monster really dead? And, most importantly: Just where the hell is Stranger Things going, and how satisfying has the journey been so far? We don’t have all the answers, but because this is the Internet, we do have lots of opinions and speculation. Read on to find out what senior editor Peter Rubin and senior writer Brian Raftery think is going on with Stranger Things.
Brian Raftery: First off, Peter, sorry I’m so late with this. I’d originally tried writing to you via a Speak N’ Spell I’d hooked up to a TRS-80, a process that took forever, and that yielded little more than a few dot matrix-printed Foreigner lyrics. But maybe the delay was for the best: It’s been two weeks since Stranger Things premiered, and now that we’ve now both had a chance to digest this eight-part sci-fi mystery-machine, we can string up some Christmas lights on the walls and start digging into the show’s finale. It’s an episode that crystallized everything I dug about Stranger Things–and everything that bugged me, as well.
First, the good stuff: The kids! By far, the most satisfying aspect of Stranger Things is how it captures the latchkey slackness of ’80s childhood. Kids were more free-range back then, with barely a helicopter-parent to be found, and all those uncluttered, digital-distraction-free afternoons and evenings opened the world up to all sorts of adventures, both real and imagined. The young actors on this show–all of them great–perfectly embody that spazzy, restless spirit of the era. But like everybody else on Stranger Things, the kids are forced to grow up (and wise up) pretty fast, and in “Chapter Eight: The Upside Down,” their already-tested relationships are deepened even further: Mike asks Eleven to the dance. Nancy, Jonathan, and Steve put aside their squabbles and team up to trap the monster. And, of course, Eleven dissolves (and maybe dies?) while helping out her new friends, and all to save a boy she doesn’t even know.
So deep are the young bonds on the show that, by the time the kids rush Will’s hospital bedroom at the end of episode eight, their delight is genuine–and I will admit, maybe just a smidge weep-inducing. That’s because the show, at its heart, has always been about the deep, impossible-to-recapture kinship that you can find at that age. “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12,” is the great closing line of Stand By Me, a movie that Stranger Things creators the Duffer Brothers no doubt had in mind while writing the show.
But whenever the action shifted away from the younger characters, “The Upside Down” began to collapse on itself, much like the monster’s flowery mandibles. But before I dig into what I didn’t love, I’m curious: What did you think of that open-ended closing scene? Were you happy to learn that stranger things (and Stranger Things) might still be happening?
Peter Rubin: Brian, I’ll see your TRS-80 and raise you a VIC-20–though at least yours was the star of a fresh-to-death Radio Shack giveaway that was one of the first comic books I ever owned. I, like you, am this show’s Bullesye Audience Member. (Also, I just want an excuse to yell “BAM!” the way Emeril Lagasse did at you in that elevator.) The moment the series began, I got some serious E.T. vibes, and not just because Mike’s little sister was dressed exactly like Gertie. And, as you point out, those vibes not only continued, but broadened. Will was basically E.T.’s Elliott (or was he Goonies’ Mikey?); his mom Jocelyn re-styled her Silkwood hair with a Close Encounters freakout. I think it was Episode 4 when I made up my mind that I was tired of the pastiche … only to get sucked back in by the exact same thing. And at the end of it, while I knew deep down the show wasn’t much more than a trifle–equal layers of whipped cream, ground beef, and “37 Things Only ’80s Kids Will Understand” listicles–I was still ready to go back to Hawkins, if only to know why Chief Hopper (played with gruff-and-tumble charm by David Harbour) was leaving Eggos in a box in the woods.
And sure, I think that given the many questions raised by the finale–especially that weird cliffhangery closing scene that was basically Michael Jackson’s cat’s-eye smile at the end of the “Thriller” video–the Duffer Bros. are playing a little fast-and-Lost with their “don’t worry, we know the answers!” schtick. I mean, bully for your supposed 30-page dossier on the monster, but I’d rather not get all the answers. (Speaking of the DBs, I can’t be the only one who imagined two dudes with aviator sunglasses and bushy ’80s porn ‘staches when they first heard how the show’s creators are billed, can I?)
But also, I really don’t think the kids are the best parts of the show. (Except Dustin. Dustin is the Platonic ideal of the foulmouthed ’80s-movie kid archetype.) For instance, Hop’s arc in particular is fascinating to me: Where exactly was he a “big city cop”? Where was he going when he got in that car in the final episode? Why does he kinda remind me of Diedrich Bader in Office Space? When will he adopt the clearly parentless Dustin for sitcom purposes? My real question, though, is where we go from here. Is this best as a fun-and-done, or do we need to go back to shady Hawkins? Or, as I personally hope, could this be an anthology in the style of Haunted Indiana, the gloriously low-budget public-access show that influenced me as much as any of these movies did?
Raftery: I think we all have our own little version of Haunted Indiana–some long-forgotten ’80s relic that we loved as a kid, and had totally forgotten about until Stranger Things came around (for me, it was UFO Kidnapped, a 1983 Nickelodeon movie that scared the heck out of me). But despite my personal fondness for the days of Atari and AT-ATs, I was a bit more impatient with the show’s decade-centric pastiche approach than you were. The spot-the-reference game was fun for a while, but at a certain point, the cascade of homages and nods felt a bit like pandering (fandering?) to an audience whose members are as nostalgic for their pop-culture glory days as the boomers were in the Reagan years. By the time we got to episode eight, and Hopper was standing over an alien egg that looked like it could have been yanked from James Cameron’s pool cabana–the one in Monaco, not the one in Madrid or Malibu–I was starting to think Game over, man. Thankfully, my affection for the kids, and my love of mid-speed bicycle chases, pulled me back.
As far as a second season goes, the show certainly left us with a bunch of beguiling questions–some of them satisfying cliffhangers, some of them too-astray loose ends. Is Eleven’s number really up? (I doubt it.) Was Matthew Modine’s dapper mastermind Dr. Brenner devoured by the monster, or did he and his wondrous hair escape? And what’s up with Hopper? He sold out Eleven’s location in order to get to the Upside Down, and appeared to have been picked up by some of Modine’s minions after Will returned. Is he in cahoots (caHopps?) with the bad guys?
Ultimately, I’m torn as to whether I’d like to see these questions answered, or whether it’d be better if Stranger Things went the “Pine Barrens” route, forever leaving us to wonder who might be out in the woods–and if they’ll ever come back. Maybe we’d all be better if this was a one-and-doner: Trying to replicate the cozy vibes of Stranger Things’ first season seems like a tough task, especially since the show has already exhausted pretty much every early-’80s movie already (with the the exception of The Apple, of course). I’d much prefer an anthology-style show, perhaps one that draws from a different vein of ’80s horror or sci-fi each season. I’m sure the Duffers would have a lot of fun conjuring up their take on, say, Gremlins, or maybe even Hobgoblins!
One last question for you: What did you make of that beastie that crawled out of Will’s mouth, and the Upside Downness that followed? Was it actually Will who came back, or an impostor? Or did he simply become a host for a new critter? I’m going to go with the theory–one that’s completely easy to contradict–that the real Will is still somewhere in the Upside Down, and that this is some sort of body-snatcher version who’s been tasked with bringing the two worlds together. After all, we’ve had fake Wills before, and I was struck by how suspiciously quickly he’d re-acclimated to his home life (and by how casual he was about the whole puke-thingee he was). Is this a good theory? Nope! But I sure do like body-snatcher movies, and if there is a past-plundering season two of this show, I wouldn’t mind a little impostor-roar now and then.
Rubin: Puke-worm? That was clearly a lung-lamprey, and you know it. (The ’80s judges would also accept “throbbin’ leech.”) I like your Boychurian Candidate theory a lot, except for the fact that Will freaked right the hell on out when his bathroom went Downside Up. The timing points to Will being a freshly colonized specimen–the Siege of Castle Byers happened at the very end of Episode 7, and Barb and the Hawkins Lab redshirt are also in the monster’s kill-lair–though it’s a fair guess that the whole pinioned-meatsack-waiting-to-be-feasted-upon thing might have some deleterious effects on one’s innards.
You’re absolutely right about the many, many unresolved threads. Was Jonathan’s replacement camera a gift from Nancy Wheeler, or from contrite prep-jock Steve? Why did the tears between dimensions always heal–except for the one in Hawkins Lab? What did Carol see in Tommy H., anyway? Why was Troy’s mom so ready to believe that telekinesis broke her son’s arm? Why did I never notice Barb when she sat behind me in algebra class? Unlike Steve’s sweater, the questions far outnumber the antlers.
And the more I think about it, the more I’d love this to go the anthology route. Let’s leave the Upside Down alone, and instead open up a new mystery–maybe one with a little less MK Ultra. Ghoulies, Re-Animator, and a decade’s worth of slasher flicks are all ripe for the picking. UFOs? Golden Child-style arcana exploration? A non-Simpsons investigation of the “cursed videogame” urban legend? Hell, urban legends in general! This could be a a glorious long-arc mashup of Explorers, Kolchak: The Night Stalker, and The X-Files–and I have a feeling you’d be just as glued to the screen as I would.