Stranger Things: Season 1, Episode 3 – “Holly, Jolly”

Stranger Things continues to recreate unique film genre fixtures of a bygone decade in a fascinating ongoing televisual experiment.

This review contains spoilers up to episode three.

Episode three of Stranger Things continues down the serialized rabbit hole initiated by the Duffer Brothers in the first two episodes. Film veteran Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum series, Real Steel, Date Night) directs episodes three and four. Levy’s film canon is rather limited to softer broad audience comedies, but his experience with child actors and a background in television help bring continuity to the storyline established by series co-creators and showrunners. However, it’s noteworthy that Levy serves as an executive producer on the series, and perhaps played some larger behind the scenes industry role helping the less experienced and essentially unknown Duffer Brothers develop their project for Netflix.

Coy Soundtracks and Cold Open Payoffs

In true serialized fashion that owes much to Netflix’s streamlined production design, Chapter Three cold open picks up with episode two’s disappearance cliffhanger. Bruised, dirtied, and a bit bloodied, Barb (Shannon Purser) wakes up in another realm. The atmosphere is dark and cold and damp, not unlike the inside of the facehugger hive on the colony in Aliens.

Once Barb starts to orient herself, however, some familiarities come into focus for her, and for the audience. She’s in the bottom of some vessel or container. A lean white creature stirs, its back to the audience. A brooding hiss amplifies, the now familiar noise associated with the unidentifiable being(s). Barb rushes over and pulls away the dark matter residue from what resembles a ladder within this container. Crawling up to the topside, it’s now clear she’s at the bottom of the swimming pool outside Steve’s house, only the atmosphere seems deteriorated and vacated. The atmosphere contains what looks like floating ash, which should tip viewers off as similar to the inner tunnel of the underground governmental compound where the otherworldly organic matter is first showcased in Chapter One.

In a coming of age juxtaposition, Barb screams for help while the other teens are upstairs making out. The early Barb scenes crosscut against Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and Steve’s (Joe Keery) make-out session, both females falling victim to creatures of the night with divergent degrees of consent. The interior scene features Foreigner’s “Waiting for a Girl like You” in the background, synthesizer affectively pulsating as the moment (and scene cross-cutting) intensifies. Certainly the words can be played against both situations with irony, and perhaps a bit of black comedy. In the exterior setting, the empty haunted darkness Barb experiences confirms the theory posited by episode two, that Barb (and most likely Will [Noah Schnapp]) now exists on an alternate dimensional plane parallel with earth.

Unfortunately, with no help in sight, Barb gets pulled back into the swimming pool hole. Levy frames a slow zoom into a close up shot of Barb’s upper body before the sudden jerk and disappearance from onscreen. The take is a classic shot that echoes dozens of previous horror and action films, and yet retains its genre sting due to the tight focus, silent pacing into intrusive monster sound, and the lack of follow up to confirm Barb’s status.

Meanwhile Nancy wakes up, having fallen asleep with Steve, you know, afterward. Director Shawn Levy paces the post-coital scene, giving Nancy (and the audience) time to reflect with mixed emotions on her way out and once she gets home. Sneaking in the front door, Karen flips on the light (busted!). In a surprising twist, Karen (Cara Buono) then tries to open a dialogue instead of invoking the stupid lazy parent cliché (concerned moms scorecard: we now have TWO!).

Oppositional Grief Is Not a Placeholder Storyline

The next morning, Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) wakes to find Joyce (Winona Ryder) calling out to Will in the living room. She’s surrounded herself with lamps (in what looks like a shout out to the remote country home water cups sequence in M. Night Shamalan’s Signs). What works for the “worried mother” plotline with Joyce (and Ryder’s performance) is how science fiction/horror scene creates a natural pivot for others to misinterpret. Joyce experiences cathartic heartbreak and hope, which are in theory oppositional emotional conditions.

Her grief is also tethered to contradictions between ’80s materialism (which has been established as a replacement tool for absentee parenthood), and the deconstruction of modernity in the electrical and structural transformations within the Byers house. Joyce is both grieving and holding onto hope, a stabilizing mechanism between two oppositional forces. Yet the outside world can only see a destabilizing mother on the edge (and she is) of sanity.

Finding Purpose In Material Culture

The boys hatch a plot for finding Will. As Mike (Finn Wolfhard) and Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) check batteries on their walkie talkies and other practical outdoor gear, Dustin dumps his bag, which is full of survival snacks, which makes sense according to kid logic and, you know, because Dustin is the best (!)

Once again Mike and the boys must go to school. They leave El (Millie Bobby Brown) at Mike’s home, but instead of cowering in the basement, El ventures into the upstairs area. She tries out the living room recliner, which Mike previously showcased as a premiere spot to sprawl. He marked it as “Dad’s chair”, which is vintage 20th-century masculine coding of material culture. Full disclosure: both of my grandfathers had “their chairs” or the recliner “spot” on the sofa, which needed to either remain unoccupied or freed up once they returned home from work. Mike also happened to mention his dad typically sleeps there at night; again, so much character psychology offered through limited or unsuspecting dialogue.

Relegated to standby once again, El does her best to survive alone in Mike’s house. She ventures upstairs to explore the suburban domain. Her next scene initiates with a close up that pans left to right across a coffee table littered in junk food trash. (A freeze frame reveals that El’s quite fond of Vanilla Wafers, Pez, some other candies and/or cookies, but has left most of an apple and banana in tact. Ha! Visual confirmation El is both a child and indeed human!) The scene follows with a shot of El using her telekinesis to levitate a Millennium Falcon Star Wars toy in yet another visual gag that doubly works because of its callback to an earlier scene in which one of the boys cheaply ask for a demo of her abilities. (Of course, Star Wars junkies will also appreciate the softball reference to her using “the force”.)

El’s home alone experience leads to the first of several heartbreaking flashbacks that continue to add narrative momentum while piling up the Firestarter influences the Duffer Brothers draw upon. The first flashback shows El using telekinesis to smash a Coke can, while the second shows her accidentally killing two guards when they try to toss her back into the tiny copper prison cell against her will. These scenes play with material culture and the role it inhabits in everyday life, as well as intimate memory of space and place.

At school, Nancy (or “Nance” as her mom calls her, which sounds way more personal and sassy) walks down the hall with a look on her face like she’s just waiting for the other shoe to fall. Surprisingly, Steve still seems sweet when he checks on her at the locker. Then, in class Nancy realizes she hasn’t seen Barb since the night before and starts asking around.

At the Byers residence, Joyce works on transforming her home into a transcommunicational receiver. Stocking up on colored bulbs (it’s the holidays, lest we forget), Joyce adds to her lamp consortium by tethering bulbs from corner to corner, dangling across the majority of her ceiling. Director Levy does a strong job pacing out each character’s wild theory. This gives each something to do that’s central to their character and the development of the plot, which I’ll theorize more on in a bit.

In the high school dark room, Jonathan processes his film from the previous night’s photography session (FYI, the red room throwback is so much more interesting than if a contemporary Jonathan and company found clues on their Instagram accounts). Unfortunately, he’s terrible at hiding the photos he took of Steve’s makeshift pool party, and a girl tattles to the group. Technically, this is totally fair on her part, but sad to see unravel nonetheless. The posse confront Jonathan in the parking lot, take the photos, tear them up, and then break his camera. Any chivalry points are lost as Steve and Tommy (Chester Rushing) both act like major boneheads as they bully him.

Nancy, although still guarded and vulnerable, shows more empathy. (Do we sense slow-burning romance switcheroo in the works?) Jonathan stands there, awkward and outnumbered, and in that moment the slight squint in his eye conjures the visual appearance of a young Stephen King. It’s not the first time I picked up on the eerie physical similarities between King and actor Charlie Heaton. If you don’t think about it too hard, the resemblance is striking. I’m sure its pure coincidence and not stunt casting. Not this show. Nope.

Growing concerned about Barb, Nancy returns to Steve’s family property, where she finds Barb’s car still parked. She noses around the backyard and into the woods, where an unidentified creature shoots by and scares her away. Given Barb’s disappearance and the creature’s mysterious woodland location, Nancy gains incentive to question her original alliance with Steve and consider the implications a Jonathan might offer instead. (Hmm, Nancy Wheeler is starting to inch closer to Nancy Drew.)

Finding Purpose in Municipal Labor

Chief Hopper (David Harbour) and his two deputies drive up to the guard station at the “US Department of Energy” complex. The guard is quick to reject their entrance, but Hopper talks his way in for a remedial grounds tour. Making their way to the video surveillance room, Hopper asks who’s in charge. The unhelpful tour guide responds, “Dr. Brenner” (finally an official name for Modine’s character, assuming audiences haven’t investigated IMDB by this point). The suits show them surveillance tape but no evidence. As the Hawkins Police head out, an exterior shot zooms in on an outdoor ventilator shaft.

The vent shot cuts to fan blades rotating as the camera pulls back and pans left to reveal the underground bunker. The bunker is the same that featured the odd atmospheric dust as well as otherworldly organic weed-like extensions across the walls. Dr. Brenner and his Hazmat henchmen drill a motorized steel cord into the ground. (A follow-up scene in episode four shows the group attaching the steel cable to a volunteer who approaches then disappears into the organic crevice within a large crack in the wall. In formulaic fashion, the volunteer inevitably does not reappear from within. The cable snaps and the retrieval fails [more on that later]). However, the bunker scenes are effective in affirming otherworldly threat, the existence of a hellmouth-type portal, and to inject a ration of humanism into the government suits.

Chief Hopper takes his suspicions to the city library (which is hilarious and awesome because, like Jonathan in the dark room, no digital device or Internet) where the squad goes microfich(ing) for information on the shady organization. Thoughtful investigative groundwork by local small town police? I would call that a bonus innovation to standard formula. Hopper is tipped off to Brenner, and then connects the hospital gown and previous accusations of a missing girl case gone cold. On top of that (no pun intended), the scene introduces a jilted librarian who previously dated Hopper. Given his spaced-out response to a different mousy brunette in episode two, it would appear he has a type and a patterning trail of broken hearts. Dad bod strikes again!

Collectively, through the young boys, Joyce, El, Jonathan, and Hopper, we see distressed arrangements of material culture and the way artifacts organize life, promise progress, and invigorate hope. Indeed, the post-Enlightenment Victorian sensibilities and Holmesian genre tropes manifest throughout “Holly, Jolly”. In true Arthur Conan Doyle fashion, there’s even a twist ending that can also be logically deduced if one pays attention to the clues as they unfold.

Living Cabbage Patch Kids and Lite Brite Magic

Karen’s young daughter accompanies her to the Byers home. She’s dressed in pink overalls and a horizontal striped sweatshirt with dueling symmetrical pigtails, recalling Soleil Moon Frye’s outfit on TV’s Punky Brewster (1984-1988), as well as a combination of Gertie (Drew Barrymore) in E.T. (1982) and Carol (Heather O’Rourke) from Poltergeist (1982), while Levy’s low angling within Will’s haunted bedroom mirrors Tobe Hooper’s directorial work in Poltergeist as much as Stanley Kubrick’s congested hallways in The Shining (1980). The freshly imported light fixtures hail the young girl down the hall, where light bulbs serenade her toward the horrific morphing wall. Joyce snatches her up and away just as the protrusions thrust forward.

That night, Joyce sits rocking a bushel of lights, cradling them and talking to the bundle as if it was Will. Suddenly, the lights illuminate as if in response. She asks them to blink once for yes and twice for no. The lights appear to confirm that Will is “alive” but not safe. Joyce extends the communication line further by painting the alphabet across her living room wall, each letter above a different colored light. Her communication contraption functions like a living Lite Brite in a surrealist holiday nightmare. The energy captured in the shot sequence plays with audience relief and concern alongside Ryder’s endearing performance. When Joyce asks where he is, the wall lights spell, “Right here”. However, when she asks what she should do, the wall simply replies, “Run”. The back wall then bubbles outward until the wallpaper tears open. A faceless alien creature births in the floor in its clearest view yet.

The Emotional Gut-Punch of Peter Gabriel’s “Heroes”

If the sum total of character actions in “Holly Jolly” set up the prospect of discovery through intuition, investigation, and steely resolve, then the episode climax flips this premise on its head to the emotional detriment of everyone (audience included).

As a standalone episode viewed in the traditional spaced-out format, Holly, Jolly ends with an absolute gut punch. Just as the audience finally experiences emotional relief with Joyce receiving Will’s purported message, the episode closes on a tragic note. The young boys follow the wail of sirens from local emergency vehicles back at the water reservoir. Chief Hopper exits his cars and wishes against reality, “Oh God, please tell it’s not the kid.” Levy organizes the camera to move in slowly on Hopper’s shadowed face, silent and defeated. Meanwhile, the boys approach from afar and peak from behind a fire truck. The slowed-down rendition of Gabriel’s “Heroes” amps up; ironically, since the boys’ willful desire to heroically find their friend reaches a crushing halt.

A wide shot shows a pair of rescue workers retrieving a body from the water. A distant shot of the body captures the visual perspective of the boys. The vintage red-orange sleeveless vest worn by Will in the series opener is unmistakable; iconic material culture the clearest feature that maximizes emotional devastation. Across the woods, Joyce and Jonathan fall into one another, weeping in front of the car headlights. United in mission, everyone becomes fractured and fragmented by grief.

Overall, Holly, Jolly does an excellent job moving the plot forward while keeping the character moments and relationships front and center. With a career vetted in film, director Levy understands pacing but never loses focus of the Duffer Brothers’ overarching vision. Common practice among many TV productions, Levy helms back-to-back episodes (Chapters Three and Four) just as the Duffer Brothers co-direct the first two that work together like a single pilot episode. However, one key difference emerges in how the story knives between episodes three and four, which is a keen trick considering the variant ways audiences consume streaming properties. I’ll tackle this with more detail in the Chapter Four review.

Nostalgia Theory, Chapter Three

Recreating unique film genre fixtures of a bygone decade presents a fascinating ongoing experiment for both Stranger Things and the Duffer Brothers. On one hand, many noted TV critics and casual fans are quick to identify “nostalgia” as the key ingredient here. On the other hand, another resourceful term that spring to mind is simulacra. Simulacra holds a rich etymology that can be traced back to the ancient Greeks but is now closely associated with theorist Jean Baudrillard’s oft-cited, Simulacrum and Simulation (1981). How appropriate then that this existential text produced in the early ‘80s ruminates on themes of symbols, meaning, and their role in organizing society. The most frequent shorthand when referring to simulacra is “a copy of a copy with no original”, or rather, that sameness patterns repeats in so many forms that the original over time cannot be recalled.

Indeed, the nature of genre storytelling is that genres comprise formulas and conventions that are established namely because of their association to and in conversation with one another, as well as their distinction or proximity to other taxonomies with generic conventions and formulas and so on. For the entertainment industry, genres work as classification systems as much as they provide distinct marketing tools.

Thus, the practice of borrowing isn’t innovative in that all genres borrow from one another. The goal, of course, is to invent whenever possible, and the continual recombination of these two dichotomous tensions (imitation and innovation) are what keep genres fresh and audiences interested. What helps Stranger Things succeed are a couple of important adherences to genre theory. First, the production staff plays with a relatively fresh or unused “period” in the ’80s. The ’80s are relatively recent for many and American culture has only begun looking back at that decade as “historical” for a short while.

In fact, many Baby Boomers and Gen X’ers still watch content from the ’80s without atrophied distance; maybe that’s because so much culture from that period has yet to rotate out of media circulation.

Or perhaps groups have taken a break from vintage ’80s content, the kind of programming and entertainment a generation was raised on, and now see a cinematic past refashioned into a televisual present (or present-past). This is what I might call nostalgia as an active agent in the experiential enjoyment of time and space and place and material culture together. Of course, it’s all simulacral, because every generation shares stories or story forms with unique temporal and cultural specificity.

Meta-Televisual History

In a combination of boredom and curiosity, El ventures through the house and over to the television somewhere around mid-episode. The TV model is basic and relatively small, nothing fancy. The tube flips on when El rubs her hand down it. A broadcast of President Reagan’s speech concerning the spread of Communist extremism into Syria lights up her face. She switches channels instinctively (I see what you did there, producers) and over to another hegemonic icon of the ’80s: He-Man (another outright amusing juxtaposition and a subliminal ideological critique I might add). Just as He-Man utters his self-empowerment phrase, “I have the power” El switches channels again. She’s now channel surfing with style. A jewelry commercial airs before the next flip leads to another cultural touchstone of ’80s marketing: Coke. The infamous “Coke Is It” campaign aired throughout 1982, and would’ve stayed in circulation for most of 1983 as well.

Like the juxtaposition of ironic soundtrack placement between dueling Barb/Nancy scenes to open “Holly, Jolly”, the “Coke Is It” ad plays ironically, since its magical power to transport the consumer in this case revisits old wounds in the case of El’s imprisonment and experimentation under the malevolent government scientist, Dr. Brenner. For El, as with the consumer and the audience member, TV has the power to modify (and codify) sense-making and social orientation with and through popular culture. The question, as always emerges, whether such power will be used for good or for evil.

RATING 9 / 10