Stranger Things has been the surprise hit of the summer. While movie studios mostly failed to draw audiences to their blockbuster tentpoles, an off-beat original love story to all things Amblin Entertainment took over the conversation. Stranger Things may focus on the coming-of-age of four suburban boys, but they are surrounded by some seriously fascinating women. Yet while everyone is waxing poetic about Barb (Shannon Purser), celebrating Winona Ryder”s fantastic performance, and writing praise about Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), someone is getting lost in the shuffle.
We need to talk about Karen Wheeler.
Played by the amazing Cara Buono, Karen Wheeler fascinates me. Feeling instantly familiar to anyone who grew up in the suburban sprawl of the 1980s, Mrs. Wheeler is viewed through the lens of her children. A foil for Ryder”s frazzled Joyce Byers, Karen represents the matriarch of a picture-perfect family. She is part of the last gasp of idealized SAHMs (stay-at-home-moms) before a generation of latchkey kids. From the outside, Karen has it all. A stereotypical mother cooking dinner, making casseroles for neighbors, holding the family together during times of stress, bickering with her husband, perfectly coifed and dressed at all times. All while completely oblivious to what her older two children are really up to.
But right underneath the surface, you can see the boiling tempest that is Karen Wheeler”s life. At one point, Nancy Wheeler derisively tells Jonathan Byers (Charlie Heaton) that she doesn”t think her parents ever loved each other, explaining away their age-gap as her mother marrying her father for stability. And it's true, you can see the stress fractures in the Wheeler marriage during the dinner scenes. Or any sequence where Mr. Wheeler (Joe Chrest) tries to insert authority when he”s clearly an absentee father/husband focused more on work than family. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Episode 3 when Nancy returns home after sleeping with Steve (Joe Keery). Mrs. Wheeler waited up for her daughter. Mr. Wheeler? Not so much.
It is this same scene that opens another window in the soul of Karen Wheeler. Like most kids, Nancy and Mike (Finn Wolfhard) think of their parents almost as Greek gods. They sprung forth fully-formed, having no existence prior to the titles of ‘mom” and ‘dad.” Neither is old enough yet to have had the epiphany that parents are people too. But the audience can see it. Karen is well-aware of what is unfolding between her daughter and the Harrington boy. But instead of parental admonishment, Mrs. Wheeler goes the (television) road less traveled: understanding.
Over and over again throughout Stranger Things, Karen attempts to bridge the distance forming between her and Nancy. Even when Nancy throws it in her face – “Yeah I slept with him. Neener, neener, neener” – Karen doesn”t yell or even react poorly. She just wants to her kids to know she”s physically present and supporting them. She is trying so hard, you guys.
The same goes for Mike, albeit in a different way. Karen is adamant about letting Mike process his grief in his own way, and if that involves staying in the basement with his friends? So be it. She keeps interjecting that she”s here if Mike needs her, whether its skipping school to stay home or snuggling on the couch and watching an R-rated movie. She is the first one on the scene when her only son needs a hug and a good cry, going so far as to question* if the government really has Mike”s best interests at heart when he goes missing.
*A question that is quickly squashed by a condescending Mr. Wheeler.
While her older two children are in a natural state of pulling away, Karen has clearly become focused on her youngest, Holly (Anniston and Tinsley Price). Despite being three-years-old, Holly is treated with kid gloves. Mrs. Wheeler still has her in a high chair, feeding her by hand, carrying her everywhere. One could read this as an over-bearing mother, but I see something else. A woman trapped in a loveless marriage who has thrown herself into raising her children to paper over the void in her life. Only now the paper is fraying. Nancy and Mike are growing up, leaving Holly to receive the brunt of Karen”s affections. It”s a tale as old as time and one familiar to many kids growing up during the Great Divorce Surge™ of the 80s.
All this is to say, there is a complex internal life to Karen Wheeler and I want it. Who is this woman who married a man so much older than her? Why did she do it? As Stranger Things is set in the fall/winter of 1983 and Nancy is either fifteen or sixteen years old, the Wheelers probably married around 1966 at the latest. America was in the midst of Civil Rights, the Vietnam War, and the Hippie Movement. Karen has seen some s-t. Considering her very ‘Kumbaya” approach to Mike”s grief and Nancy”s burgeoning sexuality, the Wheeler children might do well to lean more heavily on their mother in future seasons of the show. I feel like Mrs. Wheeler could handle government-sponsored LSD mind control and inter-dimensional monsters.
Oh, and she definitely needs to divorce Mr. Wheeler. Cut the dead weight, Karen. Be free, girl!