Stranger Things: Season 1, Episode 2 – “The Weirdo on Maple Street”

Stranger Things continues to offer escapism and cultural touchstones to a bygone era for the audience to decode.

The Weirdo on Maple Street immediately addresses the episode one cliffhanger, in which Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) find the runaway girl (Millie Bobby Brown) alone, wet, and scared in the woods. Cut to the group back in Mike’s basement, their de facto secret headquarters. The trio (now minus Will) bickers over what to do with this strange mute girl. Mike brings her some fresh clothes (androgynously bland sweats), and as a riff on her ambiguous alienated personality, when she goes to pull off her soaking hospital gown, all three boys freak out and scream, turning around or averting their eyes in unison.

Like their occasional use of PG-13 salty language, this otherwise throwaway story beat is another tease reminiscent of the kind of adult-ish yet kiddy humor ’80s movies didn’t shy away from. The Duffer Brothers scatter these smaller intimate story beats to remind us of childhood innocence (and awkwardness), and just how young and naïve and funny kids can be.

The other cliffhanger resolve involves a mysterious phone call that Joyce (Winona Ryder) received at the end of episode one. Home alone with Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), the lights flickered amidst another nighttime thunderstorm. Answering their mustard yellow landline wall phone, Joyce hears several static hisses, almost like words. An electrical current chars the speaker and receiver and abruptly interrupts the call.

Episode two picks up the next morning, when Sheriff Hopper (David Harbour) checks in on the Byers family. Hopper speculates the storm caused the phone burnout, and a prank caller was the source of the interrupted static noise Joyce now believes to be Will (Noah Schnapp). As the representative of rationality and law enforcement, Hopper can’t buy into conspiracy theory, at least not at this juncture.

Absentee Parenthood as Visualized Through Food (Take Two)

At Mike’s house, he scarfs down two Ego waffles fresh out of the toaster while he pockets a third to give to “Eleven” (or “011” as is tattooed on her forearm) who remains hidden in the basement. (Recall episode one where the boys dined on takeout pizza in the basement.) Mike proposes that she slip out of the house and come around to the front properly so that he won’t get in trouble. He tells Eleven (shortened “El”) that his mom “will know who to call”, but El offers a firm “no”. She tells him “bad” people are after her and mimics a gun to their head to signal the danger adult awareness brings. This highlights another staple storytelling thread of childhood narratives in the ’80s, specifically the instinct that children know better than adults and adults never listen to or trust their own kids.

Across town, the kids must resume normalcy despite Will’s disappearance. At school, Steve (Joe Keery) sets up the prototypical teen party when he tells Nancy (Natalia Dyer) his dad is going out of town to a conference. Steve’s annoying toady friend Tommy (Chester Rushing) follows up that his mom is accompanying him because his dad needs a chaperone. (It’s so pitch perfect that we can understand Steve’s psychology by not even seeing his parents…and classic Tommy, who we “get” without even knowing.) Warning flags abound just as the scene shifts to Jonathan Byers hanging a missing child poster for his brother Will. Nancy shows high moral character by going over to console him emotionally, while the others stare and pass judgment.

Joyce drives to the nearby general store, her apparent job, and asks for a two-week advance as well as a new phone “and a pack of Camels” in lieu of her grief-stricken time off. Like Sheriff Hopper in episode one, Stranger Things does a great job a relatable plot device of its time (e.g., smoking) to suggest stress as well as working class conditions in a time where good-hearted people (and not just shady characters and villains) smoked.

An early scene at the governmental compound shows the pensive man-in-suit (a silver-haired Matthew Modine) as he reviews a recording of Joyce’s latest 911 call. The agents total ambiguity (and ambivalence toward their possible test subjects) mark them as virtual stand-ins for the DSI officials in Mark L. Lester’s adaptation of Stephen King’s Firestarter (1984). Thus, while Joyce and Jonathan are away, agents from the [alleged] US Department of Energy arrive unannounced to the Byers residence.

Exiting an unmarked white van, Hazmat suits fan out from left to right across the property. The deliberate slow pacing produces eerie haunted qualities, just as the tracking shot echoes the strongest camera work from Lester’s Firestarter, in which Hazmat-suited agents slowly pour out of the forest to converge on father-daughter telepaths (a young Drew Barrymore and David Keith). Inside the shed they find small remnants of the otherworldly ooze previewed in their underground bunker.

The seeping ooze cuts to a close up shot of a Star Wars Yoda toy on the desk in Mike’s bedroom. The quick-change scene juxtaposition is an interesting one. Mike slams Yoda onto his bedroom desk, mirroring the same gesture as the Demogorgon D & D board piece in episode one. Is this a kid showing off his toys to entertain El, or is it yet another clue into the nature of Will and his whereabouts?

“Weirdos” and the Androgynous Parallels Between Will and El

Jonathan drives to Indianapolis to speak with their estranged father. A song on the radio (or tape deck?) triggers an emotional flashback of him with Will. The flashback revisits a previous reference to Will’s possible queer identity, a theme that recurs but in typical ’80s fashion isn’t fully addressed. Listening to The Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go”, Jonathan advises Will, “You shouldn’t like things because people tell you to, especially him [Dad].” Big brother advises him groups like The Clash, as well as David Bowie and The Smiths “will change your life”. …Hmm, Foreshadowing? (Note to self: Better check those lyrics for clues!)

El’s shaved head provides androgynous qualities that parallel missing boy Will’s ambiguous and possibly “queer” identity. Their mirrored stories, her sudden presence amidst his ongoing absence, provide a response to a question I raised about the series’ ability to maintain the metaphorical power in so many standalone books and films of that period. Her muted voice in the early episodes suggests ambiguity, and also parallels Will’s limited ability to communicate after his disappearance. Both struggle to communicate, but communicate signs of unique power at the same time, both presence and absence.

Mike has to throw El in the closet when his mother comes home unexpectedly. She breaks down in the darkness, experiencing the emotional flashback of being dragged away from her “Papa” (Modine) and thrown into a copper-paneled prison cell.

El later displays her telekinetic abilities for the boys (or as Dustin calls it, her “superpowers”). When they bring down leftover meatloaf on a vintage tin TV tray, Mike asks if she knows what happened to Will. El moves to the D & D board and swipes the player pieces onto the floor. She flips the board over to the black bottom side, face up, and slaps a wizard figure onto the black undersurface. She then tells them that Will is “hiding”. My initial interpretation here is that El’s suggesting Will has gone on to another plane. The situation brings to mind Jacques Vallee’s “interdimensional hypothesis” as a representative explanation, since Will effectively vanishes just as the creature(s) that haunt numerous locations suddenly manifested.

Back at Jeff’s party, of course, the teens get to chugging beers and end up in the outdoor pool in November. But when everyone goes inside to “warm up” (The Duffer Brothers “go there” and shift into anti-nostalgia with a cringe-worthy underage bra and panties reveal from Nancy; outside, Nancy’s sheepish accountability partner Barb (Shannon Purser) sits on the diving board, feet in the water. Blood drips from her thumb and into the lit blue water (a la Jaws). The lights seem to flicker in response and the pool goes dark. A second later an unidentifiable being screeches upon her. When the lights return, she’s vanished.

Retro Experience and Teen Love Cinema

This teen love scene conjured way too many awkward memories of teen love movies taking things too far (No thank you, Corey Haim.). Nancy and Steve dry off upstairs in the bedroom. Steve’s room features checkered wallpaper that provides a framing of the would-be social square, Nancy; nice touch there. The scene then replays their encounter from Nancy’s bedroom in episode one.

Steve’s bedroom, however, offers three significant exceptions: 1) they’re partying, not studying, 2) Nancy’s parents were home while Steve’s are away, and 3) the lights are off, not on. Oh, and of course they are wet because, well, teens and pools and symbolism. Nancy asks for some privacy, so (surprisingly) Steve naturally turns around. But then she calls back “Steve?” and removes her sweater in front of the moonlit window. As a person well into adulthood, I didn’t screen Stranger Things with my parents. However, this scene lingers just long enough that I felt like a kid watching it with my parents despite being alone. In the words of Buffy, Wha-Huh?!

Outside, Barb sits pouting on the diving board, her bare feet swishing in the water below, holding her bandaged thumb. A drop of blood drips down and into the pool. The wide full frame shot of the pool closes in on Barb slowly. In the forest, Jonathan snaps photos of the group, and then Barb, the sounds of their screams having attracted his attention while shooting pics of Will’s last known whereabouts. As he leans down to reload film, a shadow and noise infiltrate the space. Barb starts to scream and disappears from sight by the time Jonathan looks up from afar.

Golden Oldies: Diegetic Horror

There are few sounds scarier in film, as in life, than the sudden shriek of a bell telephone. Joyce sits alone at home in the dark. The new phone in her lap startles her awake. Bypassing the standard false alarm build up, the Duffer Brothers cut right to the chase with dead silence on the other end. Joyce bursts into tears, “Will? Is that you?” Again, what the audience receives are sounds closer to ambient static bursts akin to Morse code; however, a mother knows. When finally we hear a clear “Mom” on the other side, the house lights flickers with each staggering syllable. The juxtaposition between silence and audible shrill orchestrates a rhythmic flow of scares throughout the scene, first with the ringing phone, then Will’s utterance.

Next, a pattern of illumination/delumination lighting draws Joyce down the hall before The Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go” blasts on from the bedroom boombox. Just as the audience either comforms to the sounds’ scare rhythm, or braces for the next diegetic noise, the wall physically contorts as if reaching out to snatch Joyce.

The moving wall is a vintage horror technique, a practical effect that still works, and is shockingly effective in this case. Joyce shrieks, an audience surrogate, and runs out of the house and into the car. But this momma ain’t leavin’ without her baby, so she then turns the car off and marches back toward the residence. The Duffer Brother conduct a bevvy of influences (Poltergeist and Nightmare on Elm Street most prominently) that give this scene a fresh remix with plenty of jolts.

Fantasy Metaphors and Absentee Parenthood

Fantasy motifs recur in narrative and symbolic form throughout Chapters One and Two, from the opening game of Dungeons & Dragons to the Lord of the Rings, and from The Hobbit references at mid-point in Sheriff Hopper’s office, to El’s conceptualization of Mike’s mindset to an explanation for Will’s disappearance. As with the replacement home-cooked meal in order out pizza, the metaphor of absentee parenthood in a pre-Internet age isn’t lost.

Nor is the point that once a child goes missing, suddenly Mike’s mom Karen (Cara Buono) is making meatloaf for dinner (a kind of inverted callback to the famous meatloaf scene in the 1983 holiday movie, A Christmas Story). These fantasy elements of interest serve as a reminder that a generation (or more) of youth required such immersive escapism to both stimulate their creative impulses, and blanket inner emotional isolationism and quasi-abandonment during a period in which adult supervision and parenthood are still paramount to mental and physical health.

Looming Questions on the Fate of Fan Service

Will the metaphors of ’80s childhood get lost in televisual translation? Metaphors of absentee parenthood and childhood abuse in, for instance, King’s novels often substituted supernatural accusations and demonic hauntings as a meditation on childhood trauma amidst physical and sexual abuse (rendered in fuller detail in It and The Shining, as well as King’s self-confessed early-to-mid-life struggles with alcoholism. What remains to be seen is whether such metaphors lose their potency as narrative devices when extended into long-form serialized storytelling. Will the desire to (re)produce nostalgic affect as a central audience aesthetic replace the taut gravitas ’80s films impressed upon young audiences?

Nostalgia Theory, Chapter Two

Part of the temporal immersion that works so well for Stranger Things is the close consideration for and use of commonplace technologies, and how people (and children in particular) interact with it. The boys handle giant walkie talkies with all the confidence in the world and none of the contemporary snarky self-awareness. Joyce sits in her home all day so as not to miss another potential call from Will on the landline corded wall phone. Attention to detail authenticates the narrative within its time: boomboxes, bicycles, and large clunky flashlights each play strategic and recurring roles within the show’s milieu. Each artifact composes elements of space and place, but also present tools with which to weave the story and hail the past.

Surveying audience reaction, from critics to casual fans, the predominant discourse remains a fixation on the show’s exhaustive encoding of ’80s material and popular culture. At its core, Stranger Things may signal a deeper awareness on the interactive capabilities of televisual content as both an immersive and interactive form of fantasy entertainment (a meta-entertainment not unlike the latter seasons of Game of Thrones). Like the D & D played in Mike’s basement, Stranger Things offers escapism from the cool kids club, where the repressed microexperiences of youth become a reorganized retro labyrinth of nostalgic genre-mixing.

The E.T. Effect

Part of the strategy in how the directors’ inoculate audience empathy for the young children is by shooting scenes below or at their eye level, a technique perfected by Spielberg with E.T., rendering the children’s emotion responses to their narrative reality with more personal and thus believable resonance. This effect is achieved by moving the camera to eye level with the children, or sometimes even lower, so that the audience identifies with their perspective and are likely to buy into their roles as masters of conspiracy and co-leads of the grand narrative. This specific vantage point repositions the audience perspective visually and emotionally. Mike calls Lucas and Dustin over after El points out Will in a picture. They argue over her ambiguous meaning (boys will be boys), but when Dustin and Lucas try to leave El reveals her telekinesis by forcing the door to slam shut as they near it.

Armchair Theorization

The Duffer Brothers keep cutting to the D & D board and chess pieces, indicating something deeper is there. In this episode, there was Will’s last seen (by the audience) whereabouts that cut to a Yoda piece on a table. Later, El flips the D & D board and places the wizard on the black side (the underneath side…the underworld?) or what we can deduce as an alternate plane (right?). In any event, both Yoda and Gandalf represent the Wise Sage in myth: the magician or mentor figure who’s ambiguous in nature and wields powerful magic because they have access to two worlds (that seen and that unseen). If this theory holds up, there’s still hope for Will. Then again, both Yoda and Gandalf died or passed on to another plane at least once, which is another genre trick that rewards audiences familiar with alternative texts, narrative formulas, and the symbols that bring these cultural artifacts into conversation with one another.

So, between the barrage of pop culture references, we’ve got the Duffer Brothers genre mixing between film, music, material culture, and television (see below) to create a contemporary serialized story for video streaming. Combine this with two central figures wielding psychic powers, and the resonant result bring new dimension to the phrase “playing with mediums”.

Meta-Televisual History

The episode two title The Weirdo on Maple Street offers homage to the The Twilight Zone‘s “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” (season 1, episode 22; 1960). The content of the episode loosely parallels “Monsters” in that a small town is suddenly disrupted by an unidentifiable phenomenon, which may or may not have to do with the government, that triggers intense paranoia and horrors of the unknown. “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” is a celebrated example of TV narratives that employ fantasy-horror themes as metaphors to address real-world concerns, specifically those of extreme prejudice in postwar America. Notably, Stranger Things also springs up in a late-Cold War timeframe, but is able to update its social commentary (for present viewers) using the milieu of ’80s cinema.

RATING 8 / 10