My wife is away on a trip to see her family. This is the time of year they have their annual family reunion, which had been canceled in recent years for obvious reason. Normally, I’d go with her, but her daughter and daughter’s boyfriend were both coming as well, making for a very crowded car and it was all a bit… much for me. My wife was so sweet in offering to let me stay home if I wanted, and being supportive of that choice.
But I miss her. Like a ton. Like, I’m fine with being alone, you know? Except now there’s this person in the world that lights up my every day and she’s not here and well… I’m a bit lonely. As an introvert, bouts of loneliness are very rare for me and leave me feeling out of sorts. So, I decided to binge watch Stranger Things again from start to the end of season 4 (so far). And I have thoughts about a show that digs into my heart and wrenches frequent tears.
Season 1 remains the best. It’s a tightly wound narrative with multiple perspectives that all come together gracefully at the conclusion. It’s both homage to 80’s horror and science fiction, as well as its own thing, and manages it with a delightful cast of characters who each bring strengths and flaws to the story. They get in your head, quickly, these folks. To the point that the ending of episode 3 is a tear jerker from top to bottom. I admit I cried watching Mike break down at his (soon enough to be overturned) realization that Will is dead and Eleven can’t help him. The grief was palpable, and all the actors – even the youngest ones – did beautiful work in that moment. God, there was so much sadness at the end of that episode. Nancy realizing Barbara isn’t just missing but may be dead. Mike’s anger at Eleven when Will’s body is found. All coming hard on the heels of Joyce having just spoken to Will through the lights. This is the tragic low point of the season, and it blew me away again.
What most surprised me about season 1 was the story around Barbara. I remember (perhaps incorrectly?) during its original airing that folks complained everyone had forgotten about Barbara in their focus on Will. But that wasn’t the case at all. Most of Nancy’s arc during the season revolved around Barbara and trying to find her. It’s how she gets involved in all the strange happenings. No one else had any reason to suspect she’s dead for most of the season. Nancy’s hope is raised when she learns Eleven can find Will. By the time Eleven enters the home-made isolation tank in the gymnasium, she’s looking for Will and Barbara. Will she finds. Barbara, she does not. Nancy’s singular focus ensures we, the viewer, never forget more than one person has been dragged into the horrors of the UpsideDown.
Oh, and that’s another thing! This constant allowance of the story to give the kids permission to define the horror using DnD references – or, in some cases, their own created words (UpsideDown; demodogs) – is brilliant and beautiful. I know there’s been a bit of a resurgence of DnD playing in recent years, and I wonder how much that can be attributed to Stranger Things. It’s homage again, and a very playful construct where the pretend is referring to its own fictional pretense. Story within a story. Plus it serves double duty in allowing the children to be the focus and drive for how the horrors are addressed by others.
When season 1 ends, we know it’s not over. It can’t be. There are hints Eleven is still alive and Hopper knows where she is, which is confirmed in the early episodes of season 2. We know the chief baddie hasn’t been addressed, and the rift in space/time remains open. Season 2 was a given with all the plot points left dangling.
For me, season 2 was more of a mixed bag. There’s a whole side story with Eleven running away to find her real home, which is poignant and understandable. It leads to her meeting a lost “sister” (former member of the experiments of which Eleven was but one child) which only lasts maybe two episodes and then is entirely forgotten again. I’m not sure why this character was introduced only to be discarded. We’ve seen neither hide nor hair of her since, either (and I must say, her hair was magnificent). And the whole punker alternate criminal lifestyle stuff seemed like a very stereotypical representation for the 80’s, which to me slightly degraded their attempt to create a grounded and reasonable facsimile of the time period to counterpoint the supernatural, not just play into tropes and stereotypes.
The main plot of the second season – the way the UpsideDown has literal roots in our own world and is spreading beneath the surface – absolutely rocked, though. A new character, Max, is introduced and finds a home in the narrative, partially as an outsider and partially as a growing friend of our party of intrepid adventurers. Her brother Billy is a bit more problematic, though. Like just down right nasty. He doesn’t overshadow the story, and we get pieces of his own broken history to absorb that put him in deeper context. Seeing it through the lens of a re-watch, he’s far more nuanced than I first thought and I admire all the emotion that seethes beneath his vicious exterior.
But for me – for many I think – the core of the second season is Dustin. He was a gem during the first season, but one of only many. With Mike lost in his concern for the missing Eleven, Will dealing with the after effects of his time in the UpsideDown in season 1 (eventually to become possessed by the Mindflayer), Lucas focused on gaining Max’s favor, and Eleven off on her quest to find a true home, Dustin becomes the heart of the story. Everything about him is perfection. From his cheerful-if-sweary demeanor, to his constant “curiosity quest” and love of exploration, to his adoption of an unusual pet he bonds with, to the growing friendship with much older Steve. He is the rock of neutrality and possibility around which the rest of the friends swirl.
The relationship with Steve is lovely. Steve serves as perhaps a surrogate father figure, or older big brother. Despite their age differences, their shared experiences in season 1 allow Steve to trust Dustin when he tells him his new pet has turned into a cat eating monster. Then he journeys with Dustin to track the wayward d’Artagnan, who is transforming into the creature Dustin names demodogs, while dispensing advice on relationships and hair products. Fights to protect him and the other kids when more than one demodog shows up. Finally gives at Dustin’s insistence they burn the tunnels and draw the demodogs away from the lab while Hopper and Eleven close the rift. Holds Dustin when they think they are about to be eaten by the creatures. And at the end, he is there to transport Dustin to the Snowball dance and dispense more useful advice to boost his confidence. It is a thoroughly delightful and wonderful story writing choice. Their relationship is loving, mutually admiring, hilarious, sometimes argumentative (like any siblings), and perfection.
Pausing for a moment to talk about that Snowball dance, too. Dustin looked devastatingly good in his suit, his bow tie, and with his hair styled. Steve and Nancy were both right; he is going to break hearts some day. And it about broke my heart when multiple girls rejected him, rudely and meanly. To see him sitting alone on the bleachers crying tossed me back to my middle school and high school years when I felt unloved and unwanted. Gaten Matarazzo so perfectly portrayed my own youth that I bawled like a baby. Kudos to him for his performance through all four seasons. I’m team Dustin all the way. And kudos to Nancy for putting a smile back on his face by dancing with him and offering her own sage advice. She’d been rude to him in season one, and her own growth and arc made that possible. Just excellent story writing and acting from top to bottom.
Season 3 has far more problems then 2, but also has some of the best moments in the series. I find the 80’s trope of simultaneously evilly competent while being insanely bumbling and almost completely unemotional Russians to be silly. Especially the fact said Russians built a vast secret facility in Hawkins, one that four children relatively easily infiltrated. How? When? In what way would it NOT be noticed that they were doing so? It’s, frankly, beyond believable, despite all the unbelievable horror stuff going on. The reason the supernatural works in a story is because the real world serves as a grounding point for the viewer. To toss in a secret Russian facility in the heart of the United States is both a very 80’s trope and ridiculous. I remember liking it my first watch through, but not so much this time. The story would have worked well enough if it had stuck to Will’s view that perhaps the creature inside him driven out in the climax of season 2 had never left our world.
But, the whole badness of the Russian subplot is counterpointed by the ongoing friendship of Dustin and Steve again, who discover and work together to stop the Russians. Dustin is sad and lonely because most of his friends (Mike and Lucas) are focused on their girlfriends (Eleven and Max respectively) and have no time to spend with him when he returns home from summer science camp. Steve, though, proves to be a true friend in one of the more delightful moments in the second episode when he greets Dustin with joyous enthusiasm when the latter arrives at the mall where Steve slings ice cream along with new character Robin, played charmingly by Maya Hawk. I’ve been pleased they’ve kept this relationship going, and thrilled they gave Dustin his own focus for the season again.
I really think the plot in season 3 was a big problem. There are things that don’t quite make sense to me in the way the first season did. The writing strays slightly from that strong DnD mirroring they were doing. Instead of straight analogies, now we get rats exploding, people eating fertilizer, people turning into a goo monster, and other oddities that don’t gibe well with the growing mythology created in previous seasons. The bedrock characters are kept apart far too long, each doing their own things and dealing with their own problems. The first two seasons really hinged on those friendships and how they played off each other, and the new configurations and dynamics felt a little off.
That said, creature design was absolutely lit. And the relationships continue to grow and develop in wonderful, difficult, weirdly familiar ways. And Suzie. We get Suzie and Dustin and their song. Which was perfection. I love that moment so much. At that point, the characters had been running and fighting for what seemed like many multiple episodes. Tension was through the roof. The moment of comic relief was perfectly timed and led right into our high-stakes ending.
It’s the characters that make this show work so well. The casting they did paid off big time. They couple strong actors with writing that routinely undermines stereotypes and tropes for deeper emotions. Steve started out feeling like Mr. High School Bully Jock. But by the end of season one, we see a different guy, one more thoughtful, protective, and understanding of others. Dustin could have been the typical overweight kid who acts as bumbling comic relief. Instead, we get the kid who is opening all the Curiosity Doors, who sees the world as a place of boundless interest and exploration, and who always seems to bounce back from failure stronger. Mike is a very open but easily frustrated young man, unable to handle emotions gracefully. Will is having difficulty with the growing up part of growing up, and handling the trauma the UpsideDown marked him with. Eleven is still trying to find her place in the world and become something more than just a weapon. Max is dealing with family issues even as she forges new friendships. Jonathan wants to protect his mom and Will, but needs to move on into adulthood and struggles with his decisions. They are complicated young people, living out typical lives, but ones where supernatural horror routinely invades the normality of the world and must be faced. Just as they each must face their own demons.
Just as Billy faces his at the end of season 3.
Love this series. While season four hasn’t been my favorite, it feels like we are hurtling towards the end of the show. An ending that will take us out with a bang, not a whimper. We’ve got a fine new character in Eddie the freak, guitar player, drug dealer, and DnD gamemaster extraordinaire, who proves to (once again) defy stereotypes and be a far more nuanced character than most shows give us. Accepting of others, even those who are far younger. Open to new ideas. Struggling with his own lack of courage, which flies in the face of his personal view that he fears nothing and no one and stands proudly defiant of society. His first scene made me cringe. By the end of the first part of season four, I was his fan and worried about what might happen to him. As I do all the main characters. We also get call-backs to the very real Satanic Panic of the 1980’s, which works well with the DnD foundation of the series. As well as a new generation falling in love with Kate Bush.
There have been some plot choices that feel like retconning to me of things that came before. Season 4 flashes back to explain how Eleven opened the rift, but that was already explained in season one, and the two moments conflict. Eleven’s “papa” has returned, despite the fact we pretty clearly (if off screen) saw him killed by the demogorgon in season 1. And we get more of the bumbling Russian stuff we didn’t really want or need, but needed to be addressed after the denouement of season 3. Interestingly, it seems most of the bad tropes revolve around the adults, while the kids keep defying expectations. I wonder how much of that is done intentionally.
Ultimately, none of what bothers me about season 4 really matters. I’m still loving the new season. I’m going to be sad to see this show finished. Sad to say goodbye to these characters.
And I’m going to miss Dustin like crazy.