Please note: This discussion of Stranger Things includes spoilers for the series.
Stranger Things struck a chord with Netflix viewers immediately. My own experience with the show was slightly delayed—having young children will do that to you—so I missed out on being able to participate in the huge cultural zeitgeist moment it had in August. I finally watched all of it recently, and after its slow charms sucked me in, you can count me in as a believer. One reason viewers like me fell for the show is its uncanny portrayal of what it felt like to be a certain kind of kid in a certain kind of small town in America, circa 1983. It also connects with audiences due to other less period-specific and more universal themes. First, it utilizes aspects of cherished pop culture artifacts of that era—including the X-Men, Dungeons & Dragons, and E.T.: The Extraterrestrial—both as a hook for viewers of a certain age and as a way to build its own rich mythology that complements those works. Second, it documents, in fantastical ways, the loss of innocence that all children experience at some point. Third, the series reflects the very real fears and anxieties we the audience feel about our own children’s safety.
Mike, Will, Lucas, and Dustin are best friends who spend hours after school playing games in Mike’s parents’ wood-paneled basement. Their character types are immediately recognizable to viewers of a certain age; namely those of us who grew up during that era doing these exact same things. At times, watching Stranger Things felt like a trip through the recesses of my mind, to hanging out in friends’ basements, our time spent playing games, reading comic books, and arguing over which superhero would win in a fight. This is the hook mentioned previously; it’s a big part of how the series grabbed the attention of Generation Xers who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, certainly. Set in that time period, with young children as the lead protagonists, and scenes filled to the brim with references to popular culture of the day, it was sure to draw the attention of thirty- and forty-somethings everywhere. The opening title sequence practically transports you back in time, with a font reminiscent of those used on Stephen King novels of the day. In fact, the tone of the series is heavily indebted to King, especially with its small town depiction of children and adults working together to stop an unspeakable evil. There are also the posters for John Carpenter’s The Thing and Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead hanging on walls and Dustin shouting “Lando!” repeatedly to convey his belief that they’ve been betrayed by Eleven. The boys, especially Dustin, make frequent references to the X-Men. These moments go beyond Easter eggs for fans—they’re essential to understanding the various layers of meaning at play in Stranger Things. There are clear connections to that most classic of all X-Men stories, “The Dark Phoenix Saga,” with Eleven (Elle) standing in for Jean Grey. Jean and Elle both wields great powers of telekinesis and both ultimately sacrifice themselves in order to protect others from a monster—for Jean it’s the cosmic force known as the Phoenix and for Eleven it’s the horrifying creature from a parallel world who’s terrorizing the town. And similar to how Jean is never really dead—the Phoenix signifies rebirth, after all—Stranger Things leaves us with the strong sense that Elle is still out there.
For most of us, stories like “The Dark Phoenix Saga” were as close as we ever got to such fantastical exploits. But for the kids in Stranger Things, those comics are just the prelude—and the preparation for—their journey into a bizarre world of frightening adventures that awaits them after Will is seemingly abducted in the woods one night. It’s after Will’s disappearance that the children’s loss of innocence occurs, but the later supernatural links to Will’s fate only further cement their new reality: these kids’ lives will never be the same. They’ve learned and experienced things that would make most adults cry. Yet they forge ahead on their quest, with the help of Elle, and two older siblings: Mike’s sister Nancy and Will’s brother Jonathan. In the grand tradition of 1980s film and television kids, their perseverance is impressive. Still, it’s apparent that we’re watching young children forced to grow up too quickly, facing things that no child should have to encounter, like monsters, portals to alternate realities, and secret government programs. That each of these “stranger things” also work as metaphors for entering the adult world only adds to the show’s impact. Mike, Will, Lucas, and Dustin are learning that all of the monsters and altered realities they role-play, or read about in comics, or watch in movies, are turning out to be all too real. Nancy and Jonathan transition into monster hunters because they have no choice—they can’t sit idly by while their loved ones are in danger.
Stranger Things also excels at depicting the absolute living horror that parents experience when their children are in danger. While the children delve further into the mystery of what exactly happened to Will (and the link to Nancy’s friend Barb’s disappearance), the adults are trying to cope. The specter of loss—both real and imagined—hangs over Joyce and Hopper throughout the series, yet they never fully lose hope. Will’s mother Joyce Byers begins to receive signs from her son; he is indeed still alive but trapped and scared. While everyone around her is grieving his loss, she tries desperately to find him and to get someone, anyone, to believe her when she tells them she knows he’s still alive. Chief Jim Hopper, who lost his daughter to cancer years ago, eventually believes. He makes it his mission to not only find Joyce’s son, but to also figure out the connection between Will’s disappearance and the increasingly shady activities over at Hawkins Laboratory. While Matthew Modine’s character, the serenely creepy Dr. Brenner, represents how adults can manipulate and abuse the trust of young children, Joyce and Hopper provide positive adult representations. Joyce’s relentlessly steadfast belief that her son is out there is a perfect example of the show’s most affecting theme: at its heart Stranger Things is about the power of a parent’s love for her child and the love shared between siblings or friends. In one heartbreaking scene between Joyce and Elle, we witness how Joyce’s motherly instincts don’t only apply to her kids when she consoles Elle after all that the young girl has been through. Hopper, driven by the loss of his own daughter, is equally relentless in his pursuit of both Will and the truth behind Hawkins Laboratory. After he’s introduced as gruff and curmudgeonly in the first episode, we see Hopper’s paternal love for the younger characters begin to reveal his more thoughtful and tender side, like when he assures Jonathan that he will do all her can to find Will.
Stranger Things certainly deserves the praise it’s been receiving, and should only grow in viewer’s estimation with successive viewings, as hidden meanings and clues to the story continue to emerge. The trick for the creators and cast will be to make the second season as quietly, yet powerfully, affecting as the first. They’ll need to strike a balance between the period details, the metaphorical aspects, and the supernatural elements. The series was highly effective at doing this in season one, so this viewer has confidence that future stories set in the world of Stranger Things will be up to the task.