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.