The Upside Down: 8 questions about ‘Stranger Things’ season 1

On Friday, Netflix debuted the eight-episode first season of Stranger Things, an unapologetic ode to Steven Spielberg, Stephen King, John Carpenter, and all the other horror and suspense tropes of the early ’80s that the Duffer Brothers love. I reviewed it last week, and I’m assuming some of you watched it all over the weekend, which means it’s time to talk about the show – with full spoilers for the whole season – coming up just as soon as I steal some Eggos from the supermarket…

Rather than do an episode-by-episode breakdown of something that’s very much just one long story – and one that, as I said in the earlier review, avoids the usual Netflix pacing problems by only running eight hours – I thought I’d pick eight of the topics and moments from the season that struck me, starting with…

How great was that hug on the edge of the quarry?

The biggest advantage of doing this as a series rather than a movie was the amount of time we got to spend getting to know the characters, and particularly in understanding the dynamics among Mike’s group, and how they were upended by Will’s disappearance and the arrival of Eleven, who has never known friendship or any other kind of love thanks to her upbringing. There were a lot of wonderful moments about the friendship in the season’s second half, like Dustin acknowledging that Mike is closer to Lucas than to himself, but the highlight was that hug after Eleven broke Troy the bully’s arm and suggested that maybe she was the monster everyone was chasing. A lovely moment, set up well over the course of the previous hours, well acted and filmed by all involved. Other scenes in the second half were flashier, like Eleven’s final showdown with the actual monster, but that hug is the one most likely to stick with me.

How well did the show tie Hopper’s past to the search for Will?

It’s a staple of most genre fiction, and not just the Spielberg/King type, to give the hero some kind of trauma in the past that the present-day adventure offers closure on. Some of those parallels are done more gracefully than others, though, and the gradual revelation about the death of Hopper’s daughter from cancer was thankfully one of those. It had long been implied that he had lost a child, but having his own kid go missing like Will (or, in the end, like Eleven) would have been too on the nose; his daughter’s decidedly non-mysterious death offered enough of a contrast to Will’s circumstance that it didn’t feel heavy-handed at all when the climax began cutting between the hospital room and Hopper doing CPR on Will in The Upside Down.

Winona Ryder + Christmas lights = awesome?

Ryder didn’t exactly go into retirement, but it’s been a really long time (perhaps 2002’s Mr. Deeds, but probably 1999’s Girl, Interrupted) when she had a lead role in a high-profile project. Even her performance last year in Show Me a Hero, while good, was fairly brief. This, though, was her bringing that same anxious, off-kilter energy that defined her teen and young adult roles into a part where she had to play aggressive mama bear, and it was a treat. In particular, the sequence in the early episodes where Joyce is just buying telephones and hanging lights and doing everything she can to communicate with her son basically leaned on her (pardon the pun) force of will, because she’s solo for so much of it. And even though we know Jocyce isn’t not crazy, it would be very easy for her manic quality to become grating. Ryder carried the show for long stretches on her own, and combined with David Harbour to give the climactic sequence in The Upside Down its big punch.

Is it ever not fun to watch people build things out of spare parts?

Characters jury-rigging weaponry and other gadgets is among the easiest ways to please me, perhaps because I grew up in the ’80s watching shows like The A-Team (where the highlight of every episode was the guys welding together a tank out of stuff they found in a junkyard) and MacGyver (coming soon again — now with 100% less mullet! — to a CBS affiliate near you). It’s not a specifically ’80s thing, of course — Home Alone and Skyfall both had heroes booby-trapping houses to stop intruders, and of course there’s Burn Notice and The Martian, and so many others — but the sequences in the later episodes where the group put together a sensory deprivation tank in the school gym, and then when Nancy and Jonathan armed themselves to trap and kill the monster inside the Byers house, were absolutely in my sweet spot.

What about Barb?

Nancy’s best friend doesn’t exactly get forgotten. Her disappearance, after all, is what motivates Nancy and Jonathan to team up in the first place, and Eleven learns of her death during her trip into the sensory deprivation tank, which further inspires Nancy to want to kill the monster. Still, the story gave Barb short shrift compared to Will and the other people being endangered by the monster and by Brenner’s experiments. Even in an eight-hour version of the story (as opposed to the 100-odd minutes it would have been as an actual movie of 1983), there’s not room for everyone, and Barb’s absence and death were given much less emotional weight than Will’s potential demise.

What happened to Brenner?

The discovery of Will’s “body” at the end of episode 3 was shot at what seemed at the time like an odd distance for one of the biggest moments of the story so far. Episode 4, of course, revealed that the scene was presented that way because the body was in fact a stuffed fake rigged up by Dr. Brenner’s people. The quarry scene was shot ambiguously because it was supposed to be ambiguous.

There’s probably not supposed to be any ambiguity about what happens to Brenner in the finale, since the last we see of him is the monster leaping onto him in a school corridor. But if that was meant to be his death, it was a relatively bloodless one for a show that had no problems getting gory in depicting the monster’s actions, which has me wondering if the scene cut away quickly because the Duffers might have future plans for their other chief villain.

If so, I hope he gets written with more nuance the next time out, as Brenner turned out to not only be a fairly two-dimensional evil scientist, but one whose behavior with Eleven (as Willa Paskin also noted in her review of the series) never made much sense: if the girl is so desperate for warmth and companionship, why treat her like a prisoner or a mental patient most of the time? Then again, maybe Brenner was just incapable of it; the one time we see her being at all affectionate to her is right after she’s mentally snapped the necks of both her guards.

Did Nancy make the right choice?

The Jonathan/Nancy/Steve love triangle ended up being more out of John Hughes than any of Spielberg, King, or Carpenter, with the end taking the Pretty in Pink route of her choosing the flawed but ultimately decent hunk over the weird kid who’s devoted to her. Still, Steve’s face turn was something of a pleasant surprise — both that it happened at all and felt convincing — given that he and his friends had been portrayed as so consistently awful in the early chapters, with his occasional moments of kindness being framed as him trying to get into Nancy’s pants.

What comes next?

The epilogue also begins hinting at where the story might go if Netflix orders a second season (which, since Netflix renews virtually everything at least once, seems inevitable), including Will coughing up a slug from The Upside Down and Hopper leaving food (including more Eggos) in a box in the woods for Eleven.

The question is, would following both those threads just feel like a rehash of these eight hours? As it is, seeing the four boys go back to playing Dungeons & Dragons like nothing had happened — enthusiastic as ever about adventures with fake monsters after they’d all been through a real one — felt a little too much like the Duffers hitting the reset button in hopes to keep the show going.

What did everybody else think?