Photo: ‘Stranger Things’
Overview – ‘Stranger Things’
‘Stranger Things’ set a milestone for streaming service productions when it first premiered in 2016. As Hawkins, Indiana prepares to welcome us back on May 27th of 2022, let’s dive into what made this show so uniquely successful. This is a given, but beware, spoilers ahead!
Our character introduction opens with a game of Dungeons & Dragons. The game had apparently dragged on for ten hours, to which all I have to say is that these children should go outside and touch grass. Close to nine the lads get kicked out by Mike’s mom, Karen (portrayed by Cara Buono), and Will (portrayed by Noah Schnapp) races home with Dustin (portrayed by Gaten Matarazzo). But we all know how that race ends – with the viewer asking how come this middle schoolboy knows how to load a shotgun.
“Winona Ryder is in this apparently” was one of the main selling points of the show before its premiere in 2016, and she sure is! Giving us the beyond iconic lines such as “where’s my boy!?” – Winona really carried the show on her back for a second. The character of Joyce Byers is so unbelievably unhinged that she actually drives the plot by advocating for some of the craziest stuff you’ll ever have the displeasure of hearing. Luckily, when Will wasn’t home in the morning, Joyce went to the police immediately. Because mornings are for coffee, contemplation, and Amber Alerts. Of course, those weren’t a thing at the time, so Chief Hopper (portrayed by David Harbour) organizes a search party after discovering Will’s bike crashed in the woods. And so the story begins.
Parallel to Will going missing, Eleven (portrayed by Millie Bobby Brown) escapes the lab in which she was raised. She finds refuge in a diner, where the owner calls social services – of course, the agent that shows up at the door turns out to be an imposter and kills the diner owner. Eleven bolts into the woods in the rain, where she is found by our lads who are out looking for Will. They hide her in Mike’s basement where it is revealed just how unaccustomed she is to normal human behavior. The next morning Mike (portrayed by Finn Wolfhard) tells El to go to the front door and get Karen to help her, but El informs him that they will all die if she does that. Eleven fears that she made a mistake by escaping, though she knows she can’t go back.
At this point, Joyce starts “talking” to Will through the lights and everyone thinks that she has lost her damn mind – and to be honest, we’d think the same thing. Winona probably woke up every morning wondering why her back hurt so much while they were filming that portion of the season, and it was because she put her whole back into that performance – we don’t talk about it enough. As all concerned mothers do, Joyce spends all her money on Christmas lights and proceeds to cover the entire house with them so that Will can talk to her. Oddly enough, it works. Though, after Will’s body is found in the lake, it becomes even harder for her to convince anyone that she’s right.
As the lads take care of Eleven she reveals that she knows what happened to Will. Lucas (portrayed by Caleb McLaughlin) is very put off by this development. When Will’s body is discovered, Mike also lashes out at her, saying that she shouldn’t have made them believe that Will was still alive.
Shortly it is revealed that the body was a fake and that the real Will is trapped in the Upside Down. Mike, El, Lucas, and Dustin set off on a mission to find the gate to the dimension by using a compass. However, assuming it’s too dangerous, El messes with the compass. Long story short, tiny Finn Wolfhard throws hands with Lucas and El runs away, stopping by a grocery store to rob them of their Eggo waffles.
Eventually, our party teams up with Joyce and Hopper, as well as Nancy (portrayed by Natalia Dyer), Jonathan (portrayed by Charlie Heaton), and Steve (portrayed by Joe Keery). Together (with the help of the show’s favorite quick-fix, Mr. Clarke) they get Eleven to contact Will in the Upside Down. Joyce and Hopper take it upon themselves to break into the lab to save Will, however, they are not very good at being sneaky and getting caught. Hopper puts on his male manipulator pants though and talks the military and scientists into letting them into the gate. Getting to Will at the last second, they are successful in their rescue mission.
While Joyce and Hopper are saving Will, the kids are fighting a Demogorgon in the school…by throwing rocks at it? I don’t exactly know how they thought that would work, however it gives El the chance to come in and save the day, as per usual. She explodes the Demogorgon with her mind, you know, as one does. But unfortunately for Mike this amount of energy sends her into the Upside Down, making our party believe that El sacrificed herself to save the world.
It’s Christmas and everyone is home with their families, except for Hopper who accepted the L and instead chose to steal cookies from his office Christmas party. Will throws up a slug, obviously in his Ron Weasley arc. Hopper leaves the cookies and a stack of Eggos in the forest. Steve buys Jonathan a new camera and has Nancy give it to him. And that’s about it for the season, except that’s not even close to the whole plot.
Now I will never shut up about how Noah Schnapp was absolutely robbed of his Emmy for his performance in season two of ‘Stranger Things’. He didn’t even get a nomination and I think that is genuinely ridiculous. He was all of 13 years old when the second season premiered and yet the performance he brought to the table was genuinely some of the best work by a child actor, if we’re being fair. Will Byers truly cannot catch a break, and apparently, neither can Mr. Schnapp.
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Getting into the season itself, we get a pretty quick introduction to Max Mayfield (portrayed by Sadie Sink). She likes video games, skateboarding, and slasher movies. This is very much a breath of fresh air for the show, because if I had to watch another season of middle school boys rolling dice to attack with a fireball, I think I would actually lose it. Because our party has no idea how to behave around people, they decide to stalk Max. Surprisingly, this strategy works and Max agrees to hang out with them.
The very beginning of the season dumps a lot of information onto the viewer. Part of that information is Will’s new monitoring arrangement which requires him to go into the lab that had hosted the gate to the Upside Down in the previous season on a regular basis. The doctors tell Joyce that she just has to wait out Will’s PTSD, and as someone with PTSD I have to say that this is very accurate to the way PTSD patients are treated in the American healthcare system, so brownie points to the Duffer Brothers for keeping things realistic! Will’s nightmares and episodes just get worse and worse, until the theory emerges that these are not episodes at all. What if Will can see into the Upside Down?
Finally, we also find out where Eleven has been for the past year. Turns out, after figuring out that she has been wandering around in the forest, Hopper took her in during the winter and they’ve been living in a hidden cabin in the forest ever since. El has been gathering people skills from the TV, much like an immigrant child learning pretty much their entire vocabulary from Nickelodeon (it’s me, I’m the child). And her hair is growing in very curly which means they either gave Millie Bobby Brown a perm or that she’s wearing a poodle wig and I don’t entirely know which option is worse.
The main conflict of the season centers around the lab hiding a secret passage to the Upside Down, the underground tunnels in Hawkins, and the addition of a new monster – the Demodog. The Demodog is just a Demogorgon but smaller and running on four legs, the chihuahua of the Upside Down (if you will). Dustin actually raises one on nougat chocolate bars. Single fathers really don’t get enough hype. The tunnel system is sort of like the nervous system of the Mind Flayer, which is the entity that controls the living things in the Upside Down. I know, there are a lot of plotlines to keep track of. All you really need to know for this season (in order of importance) is that Noah Schnapp was robbed, Eleven isn’t the only kid who was experimented on, and if you kill the brain the body will die.
In one of the most forgettable plotlines of the entire show, Eleven goes off in search of her mother. By connecting to her mother’s distorted memories, El finds a girl who was also experimented on and has similar powers. Together with her sister’s friends, El does a bunch of shady stuff for funsies, before going back to Hawkins where she saves all her besties from a Demodog. It really feels like the Duffer Brothers have a quota of how many times Eleven has to save everyone, grown men included, per season. But this isn’t just the obligatory rescue scene! It’s a reunion too. And just like Mr. Schnapp, Finn Wolfhard and Millie Bobby Brown were robbed of those Emmy wins/nominations. These full teenagers are putting their whole backs into these roles like this is the last thing they’ll ever do, and we really don’t talk about that enough either. Child actors don’t always get the deserved recognition because they merge with the role and it becomes difficult for people to understand that they are in fact acting.
While Eleven is committing assault, theft, fraud, DUI, breaking-and-entering, solicitation, armed robbery, shoplifting, aggravated assault on a police officer, and more (!) with her sister, Hopper is investigating the tunnels that appeared beneath Hawkins. He and Joyce discover that Will knows these tunnels when they ask him to draw how he’s feeling. Soon, it is revealed that these tunnels are connected to Will’s nervous system when he collapses to the ground as the live, root-like creatures in the tunnel get the torch treatment. In a shocking turn of events, and by shocking I mean completely predictable (though no less entertaining), it turns out that Will is infected by the Mind Flayer and is being used as a double agent. So what now? Well, the obvious solution is to knock him unconscious via drugging, which is exactly what they do.
Unconscious Will is eventually taken to Hopper’s secret cabin, where the Mind Flayer is heated out of him…quite literally…with a bunch of heaters. Everyone was unbelievably sweaty, and I’m confused how nobody fainted, but that is a quest for another day. The Flayer needs to be heated out of Will because if Eleven were to close the gate with the Flayer still occupying Will’s body, he would die. And after spending two seasons trying to save him, it would be kind of counterproductive to let him.
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Eleven manages to close the gate. There is a lot of screaming and blood is aggressively leaking out of her face, but she presses on and succeeds. The acting in this scene was particularly impressive on Ms. Brown’s behalf and actually earned her an Emmy nomination. So happy for her, as she should, however, I still refuse to shut my mouth about Noah Schnapp.
Finally, the audience was given what it deserved. A summer season! Filled with bright 80s fashion, ice cream, and cougars – season three was a complete aesthetic shift. The passage of time also means that our kids grew up a little and are now awkward teenagers, how exciting.
The good news is Mike and Eleven finally learned how kissing works, the bad news is they will not stop doing it. This is especially unfortunate for Hopper, who insists that they keep the door open a minimum of three inches so that he can keep an eye on them. One night he drags Mike out of the cabin to take him home and gives him a very threatening speech, this speech spooks Mike enough to lie to El to avoid seeing her. Eleven, in turn, goes to Max for help and quickly learns a rather valuable life lesson – boyfriends lie. After a trip to the mall, El bumps into Mike which reveals his lie. This is the moment that gave us the iconic “I dump your ass”.
After graduating, Steve got himself a job at the mall, slinging ice cream for Scoops Ahoy. Over the summer he has continued being the group mom for our kids, but Dustin has been away at camp, so it’s a rather sweet moment when they are reunited in the ice cream shop. This is also where we are introduced to Robin (portrayed by Maya Hawke) – Steve’s new coworker. Robin is asking the real questions this season. Such as “how many children are you friends with”?
Billy (portrayed by Dacre Montgomery) got himself a summer job as a lifeguard at the pool where he caught the attention of a group of cougars. And while good for him, he is barely legal so this whole bit is a little questionable – especially when Karen Wheeler agrees to meet him at a motel for “swimming lessons”. On his way there, Billy crashes and ends up in an abandoned warehouse where he takes over as the Mind Flayer’s host. The next day he shows up to work very ill, and that somehow escalates into him kidnapping his co-worker Heather in order to expand the Mind Flayer’s army.
The Russians are also involved in this season because for whatever reason they thought it was a good idea to open a gate to the Upside Down. As the kids are occupied with the Mind Flayer, Steve, Robin, and Dustin are occupied with the Russians. This is because they accidentally intercepted Russian communication and decided to translate it which led to them being trapped in an underground base of operations beneath the Starcourt mall. Season three truly does test the limits of how many drastically different subplots you can fit in a series, however, this experimentation is barely noticeable. One of the best qualities of ‘Stranger Things’ is its ability to mesh random materials together in a way that is still cohesive and aesthetically pleasant.
In this season, the main monster is the Mind Flayer from season two, except this time around it has a body of its own. This body consists of broken down rat corpses meshed together to create a spider-like creature. And that was probably one of the grossest sentences I’ve ever written because oh my lord, however lucky for me it doesn’t end there! As the season progresses, the people that Billy infects with the Flayer also break down and join the makeup of the monster. Eventually, it grows to surprising sizes and breaks out of its warehouse.
Since Hopper and Joyce are busy holding that one guy from everybody’s summer of 2019 TikTok profile picture hostage; Steve, Robin, Dustin, and Lucas’ little sister Erica (???) (portrayed by Priah Ferguson) are busy being captured by Russians; and Jonathan is off trying to figure out if rats have rabies with Nancy; it’s up to a group of literal middle schoolers to fight a 20 or 30-foot beast made up of corpses. Because that’s clearly how every “happily ever after” story starts.
As per usual, there is a massive battle between good and evil. There are also a lot of fireworks, which is actually kind of genius from an aesthetic point of view. This battle takes place in the Starcourt mall which is an oddly perfect setting. Eleven completely drains her powers fighting the beast until she’s inches from death, but Billy gains control of his body at the last second and stops the monster, sacrificing himself. At this point, Joyce and Hopper blow up the machine that the Russians used as a key to the Upside Down and Hopper mysteriously disappears (his death is assumed by the characters). By shutting the gate, Joyce and Hopper also kill the Mind Flayer – if you kill the brain, the body dies.
In the final episode, we watch as the Byers pack up their house and move out of Hawkins, with Eleven coming along. Her powers have not been restored since the battle in the mall and now she has to ask taller people to reach things for her, like a peasant. She reads a speech Hopper wrote for her and Mike – every empath cried. There’s a lot of crying in general within the final episode. Will ugly sobs, probably because he’s still not over Mike insinuating that he’s gay. The Byers drive into the sunset and that seems to be the end. That is until the credits roll and an additional scene is played in which it is revealed that the Russians have an American prisoner, and that they are holding a Demodog in a cage. These Russians are simply full of fantastic ideas!
‘Stranger Things’ is a very odd show. Primarily because of how many plots it is able to juggle successfully. Elements from each season bleed into the next and create a sense of unity for the whole show, while also keeping every season distinct enough to keep the viewers from losing track of events. The wildly differing aesthetics of each season also aid in keeping seasons clear. ‘Stranger Things’ was a massive success for a reason, at the end of the day it established a whole new era for streaming services and continues to do so with each premier. Truly, it’s hard to imagine a show that would top what ‘Stranger Things’ brought to the table, but it sure would be funny to watch them try.
By Micha Jones
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Micha Jones is a writer and aspiring television producer who is dedicated to education and equity. Writing review and feature articles for The Hollywood Insider, they focus on the ways in which media can tell marginalized stories. Through reflecting on the portrayal of social and environmental issues in TV and film, Micha aims to make positive changes in the entertainment industry. Micha’s work often carries The Hollywood Insider’s signature “mic-drop” perspectives and makes an effort to tell educational and socially progressive stories. They strongly believe in accurate representation in film and emphasize the power of the community.