The Most Important Unanswered Question Of ‘Stranger Things’: Is Winona Ryder’s Performance Pretty Good Or Kind Of Bad?

Based on unofficial criteria — the crackerjack ratings, the generally positive reviews, and the overwhelmingly enthusiastic buzz in my social media feed — Stranger Things appears to be the highly enjoyable distraction from real-life misery that this summer desperately needs. Everything about Stranger Things goes down with the ease of scrumptious comfort food: the pleasurable nods to ’80s nerd culture, the unashamedly derivative plot, the synth-y score, and the cast, which seems magically teleported from some lost 30-year-old sci-fi classic that’s only been recently rediscovered.

Of course, the star of Stranger Things, Winona Ryder, actually is an ’80s icon. (As is the other big name, Matthew “Vision Quest” Modine.) Ryder naturally has been singled out for praise by critics, who have classified her Stranger Things performance as a comeback. (Apparently there aren’t many Experimenter fans in the TV press corps.) But I wonder: Is Winona Ryder truly pretty good in Stranger Things, or is she actually kind of bad?

Let me be clear: I love Ryder, as does anyone born between 1972 and 1980. The idea of Winona Ryder in Stranger Things is definitely pretty good. But as I binged on the show a few weeks ago, I found that Ryder in practice was one of the few things about Stranger Things that I didn’t always enjoy. Which is strange, because Ryder is typically among the best things in any Winona Ryder project, even the bad ones. (Why else would a human watch Mr. Deeds?)

Now, there are definitely things about Ryder’s performance in Stranger Things that I enjoy. But overall it just doesn’t seem … right.

I know, I don’t understand it, either. Let’s try to break it down. As I see it, there are five essential components to Ryder’s performance in Stranger Things. What works and what doesn’t?

1. Winona Holding an Ax

This was among the first promotional images released for Stranger Things, and with good reason: Who doesn’t want to watch a show where Winona Ryder sits in a dark room with an ax? It’s a powerful image that cuts across many demographic lines: Men, women, horror fans, sci-fi heads, ’80s kids, cutlery enthusiasts, etc. If you asked people, “Why did you feel compelled to binge-watch Stranger Things as soon as it appeared on Netflix?” I wouldn’t be surprised if “I wanted to see how Winona wound up with that ax” was in the top three responses. Some actors just have innate ax-charisma – Kubrick probably cast Nicholson for The Shining based primarily on this criteria. PRETTY GOOD

2. Winona Smoking

Winona is pretty good at holding an ax, but she is excellent at smoking. In the ’90s, every two-bit town had a Perkins with a smoking section clogged with artistically inclined brunette girls that tried to smoke like Winona Ryder in Night on Earth and Reality Bites. Having Winona smoke in Stranger Things wasn’t necessary for her character, but it was required for the world. Having Winona smoke in Stranger Things is like Tarantino making up an excuse to have John Travolta dance in Pulp Fiction. Not having Winona smoke in Stranger Things would be like casting The Rock and telling him to wear sleeves.

Caveat: You could make the argument that David Harbour pulled a coup and upstaged Ryder in the smoking department.  Tell me you wouldn’t accept cancer as a fair price for looking this awesome.

Caveats aside, Winona has already earned the Joe Camel Award for Lifetime Achievement. PRETTY GOOD 

3. Winona Crying

Unfortunately, ax-holding and smoking are tied for second on Ryder’s list of jobs for Stranger Things, and it’s a very distant second. No. 1 on the list is “crying.” Winona cries pretty much non-stop throughout the series’ eight episodes. Stranger Things undoubtedly presented the most emotionally taxing challenge of Ryder’s career, and that includes dating Johnny Depp for four years. But it’s also a somewhat thankless role. While Ryder is ostensibly the star of Stranger Things, she isn’t afforded much range. This is Ryder’s emotional spectrum: About to cry; crying; crying temporarily overcome by anger; and barely holding it together, post-crying. That’s it! Inevitably, this gets to be a bit trying as a viewer. Meanwhile, more exciting stuff is always happening elsewhere. At some point, as a viewer of Stranger Things, you either end up with the cute, plucky kids trying to abscond with the girl imbued with telekinetic powers, or with Ryder in full-on hyperventilation mode. It’s clear who ended up with the less palatable piece of the narrative pie here. KIND OF BAD

4. Winona Communicating with Lights

This scene is probably Ryder’s biggest dramatic centerpiece of the whole series. At least one person considers it one of “the most powerful and authentic depictions of maternal love and loss I’ve ever seen onscreen.” I would agree that it is among the most authentic depictions of a person talking to Christmas lights ever put on film. Other than that… this is Ryder at her shaky, weeping, and heavy breathing apotheosis in Stranger Things. And while she’s doing what this show requires, I just wish that this wasn’t all Ryder had to do. Back when she was Hollywood’s It Girl, Ryder was effervescent even when she was channeling a generation’s angst. She hinted at something deeper and darker in women who killed off their classmates or dated guys with scissors for hands. But she was always a capital-M Movie capital-S Star. Winona’s greatest talent was being Winona. Winona being Winona was so amazing that sensitive alt-rock dudes used to write songs about it. That magnetism is mostly missing here. As much as I like Stranger Things overall, it downplays Ryder’s star-power to the show’s detriment. KIND OF BAD

5. Winona Reacting to the Clash

Like anyone who finds watching sensitive nitwits drink beer in the year 1980 relaxing, I liked Everybody Wants Some!! However, what I didn’t like is Richard Linklater bogarting “My Sharona” from Ryder, who will forever own that song, along with six packs of Minute Maid and Steven Zahn’s doofy early-’90s glasses. Having said that, I’m more than happy to see Winona annex Combat Rock into her on-screen persona. PRETTY GOOD

Is it wrong that I prefer this “Winona communicates with her missing son via household appliances” scene to the Christmas lights Emmy clip? And is it doubly wrong that the reason I prefer this scene is that I like to watch Ryder respond to early ’80s New Wave hits? Because that’s what Winona is supposed to do!

If I’m wrong, call up Modine and have me whisked off to a mysterious government laboratory. The heart wants what it wants, and I get weak at the sight of Ryder being freaked out by Mick Jones. I want Stranger Things to stick around for at least a few more years so we can see Ryder get haunted by the meat of The Cure’s discography. Make it happen, Netflix! Let Winona be Winona!