Television

Stranger Things: Season 1, Episode 4 - "The Body"

Garret Castleberry

The meta-textual impulse in Stranger Things is one of the ways in which it could serve as the televisual successor to Mad Men.


Stranger Things

Cast: Winona Ryder, David Harbour, Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobbie Brown, Caleb McLaughlin
Subtitle: Season 1, Episode 4 - "The Body"
Network: Netflix
Amazon

This review contains spoilers up to episode four.

Stranger Things episode four, "The Body" works better than the average mid-season bridge episode. As a serialized chapter to a shortened season, "The Body" moves the narrative along (thanks to a script credited to Justin Doble and direction from industry vet Shawn Levy) without sacrificing the little moments that give this sci-fi horror drama its spark. Perhaps most importantly, Chapter Four partially answers an important question at the core of Chapter Three’s cliffhanger, but only enough to add narrative momentum without undo heavy exposition. In terms of continuity, the story flows on and builds toward a tense climax with subtle Abrahamic moral gravity.

Nothing Good Comes From the Woodshed … Which Is Sometimes a Good Thing

The town grieves, specifically the Byers and Wheeler’s households. Chief Hopper (David Harbour) tries to comfort Joyce (Winona Ryder), but senses she's well into a mental breakdown in her grief. As a genre mixing homage to '80s horror cinema, Joyce rushes out the back to the woodshed where she quickly retrieves and returns brandishing a wood axe. The meta-textual moment adds narrative intensity just as it provides a quietly comical visual gag, recalling both Jack Nicholson's manic performance in The Shining and Bruce Campbell"s Ash persona in The Evil Dead.

From Sheds to Ted

A news briefing on TV announces "David O'Bannon" to be the man who tipped off authorities to the body (perhaps a nod to screenwriter Dan O’Bannon, known for Alien, Aliens, and Total Recall). Mike's dad Ted (Joe Chrest) continues to operate in passive neglect mode. He asks Karen (Cara Buono), "Should I go down and talk to Michael?" Karen reverts back to trickle-down parent-nomics, "Give him time. He'll come to us when he's ready."

At this point I can only imagine these two on their honeymoon:

Ted: Should I, uh, order the oysters, or?

Karen: Just give it some time, hon.

Both go back to watching the television above the hotel barstools, and scene.

Down in the basement Mike (Finn Wolfhard) reaches full panic, unsure what to do next. El (Millie Bobby Brown) holds up the giant transistor walkie-talkie. Over the speaker, clearer than ever, the voice of Will (Noah Schnapp), soft and still, quietly sings the Clash's "Should I Stay or Should I Go". Mike rushes over to respond, but the signal breaks. As he looks over at El, her nosebleed returns (signaling her telekinesis use and its mental/physical toll on the body).

The next morning Mike pulls an "Elliot" (right out of E.T.) and fakes being sick to stay home from school. In the episode"s best (and most authentic) line appropriate to the era, mom Karen tries to console him in the most '80s way possible:

"I need to drop off Nance, and I'm going to check in on Barb's parents. Why don't you grab a book or something and come with me. We can, stop by the video store on the way back, pick out whatever you want—even R-rated."

The last line, particularly the dual promise of 1) video store nirvana and 2) R-rated permission synthesizes everything the Duffer Brothers understand and get right about how life happened for kids and parents and the dynamics between them in the '80s. If she would have whipped out a couple of packages of Garbage Pail Kids trading cards, her attempt to cheer him up couldn’t have been any more perfect.

More Than Meets the Eye

Of course, Mike has an ulterior motive. The boys coordinate via walkie-talkies. Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) asks about Will's looming funeral, but Mike is now on the Joyce bandwagon, a firm believer that Will isn't dead. Likewise, at the funeral home Joyce remains unconvinced even after the coroner shows them the body (through a glass window). Hopper believes Will dead, but is still suspicious of the government facility and whoever phoned in the body. He finds out "The State" performed the autopsy, an unusual move for their small town. Repeated references to "the State" or "Staties" offers by the Hawkins Police offers an appropriate counterbalance of power alliance and recognition of small town distrust toward outside factions.

The teen angst fallout continues as Nancy (Natalie Dyer) tells Steve (Joe Keery) about the faceless person she saw in his backyard. Steve plays the pompous coward, unwilling to help Nancy at the risk of his parents finding out about the house party. Whatever street cred Steve built up early on is quickly fading. All signs are clear that as the episodic mid-point nears, a narrative shift in character alliances is desperately warranted.

Joyce and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) blow up at each other right in the middle of the town square. As several Internet bloggers have already noted, the downtown more than resembles the Hill Valley town square in Back to the Future. The storefront windows and municipal courthouse add a serene quaintness that becomes fractured by the intrusion of emotion

The boys argue over whether or not El's signal is really Will communicating. Mike persists: "All I know is Will's alive". Mike's steely determinism is an interesting continuation throughout the series. It's tricky to get a handle on the implications here, at least beyond the obvious friendship mechanism of bonds between boys (and later El). Given the numerous references to Will's ambiguous identity, I'm reminded of the subtext often associated with the protagonist/antagonist relationship central to William Wyler's Ben-Hur. If anything, the ambiguity sparks curiosity and open-ended interpretive agency for audiences.

Ambiguities and Normalcy Performances

In another E.T. sighting, the boys think of how they can disguise El in order to sneak her into the school with them. They grab a bunch of makeup (from mom or sis) and find a babydoll type vintage blonde wig that is one-part The Shining, one-part Children of the Damned, and all-parts Drew Barrymore in the umpteenth visual homage.

Speaking of visual reference, the Hazmat agents can’t quite see beyond the gooey under-terrain. Thus, they send in a brave volunteer (*cough* Redshirt *cough*) to investigate beyond the organic barrier. Later, the Hazmat agents unsuccessfully reel back a gory fragment of the steel cable harness as the organic crevice reseals itself. While not too gory, it's a vivid reminder that genre mixing also equals blurred boundaries.

The Hawkins Police deputes interview Nancy about Barb's (Shannon Purser) disappearance. Also at the school, a counseling service is held for the students in light of the news of Will's death. Mike confronts the two jerkwad bullies after the service. The ringleader moves in to pound Mike, but halts suddenly under El’s telekinetic power. He then pees his pants in front of the many gathered schoolmates. Laughs abound, and the toady friend abandons him for maximum public humiliation. El's childlike gesture is a total hegemonic power move but equals a geek win for the Maple Street weirdoes(!) The pants' peeing as an act also taps into dreamscape realism in so far as fear of water/urination and public humiliation rank among the primal dreams experienced by adults and children alike.

El isn't the only undercover agent on mission. Chief Hopper appears to go off on a bender at the local bar, but the scene quickly proves to be an off-duty cover to get closer to the man who "found that Byers boy". Hopper is really showing some moxie by Chapter Four, willing to follow any lead necessary to protect his town and bring comfort to the families and townspeople of Hawkins. Getting close to the proverbial edge, Hopper slugs the man several times out back in the alley, striking him until he confesses to having been tipped off to the quarry and Will;s body. Hopper asks, "Who do you work for, the NSA? Hawkins lab?" The man responds, "You're gonna get us both killed!" just as a car spying on them peels out across the street. Increasing paranoia throughout Chapter Four heralds in a tonal shift at the mid-point of the season's narrative arc. Hopper's deep cover attempt to produce answers is a nice change of pace, albeit a strong breakaway from the hung over Mayberry malaise in which we first find him.

Parental Figures Finding Frequencies and Breaking Boundaries

Flashbacks continue to flesh out El's tortured relationship with Dr. Brenner (Matthew Modine). In terms of drawing from Firestarter (see episodes two and three), the Dr. Brenner flashbacks tease a benevolent father figure more interested in exploring (and exploiting) El's gift by way of paternal power dynamics. His emotional abuse is manipulative and isolating for El. Extreme isolation also speaks to her stunted speech patterning and blatant distrust of adults. Such close attention to character detail continues to authenticate El's onscreen psychology.

El helps the boys tap into Will's frequency through the school radio station, only this time they overhear the panicked call Will sends out to Joyce. At the Byers residence, Joyce makes contact through the wall with Will once more, only for the organic vortex to disintegrate before her. She nabs the nearby ax and whacks away at the wall -- conjuring imagery of Jack Nicholson in The Shining as a result -- but in a twist ending to previous interactions with the house, Joyce inadvertently chops through to daylight on the other side. No Will, no vortex.

In the dark room, Nancy joins Jonathan to reexamine his film negatives, since she spotted an (alien) anomaly in the last seen picture of Barb on the diving board. Together they find another clue and move one step closer to The Goonies cool/uncool romance swap that's being foreshadowed.

Mortuary Alters, Abrahamic Thresholds

Hopper heads back to the morgue, punches out the guard on duty, and breaks in to see Will's body once more. He's awash with disappointment when he looks over the corpse, but must reach down deep within his soul to garner enough strength to cut into the corpse with his knife. The mortuary scene is rich in Abrahamic symbolism with Hopper's conflicted act (as a parent who’s lost his own daughter) weighted against a heavy moral burden. He must make a decision based upon faith in his intuition (or spirit); there's no going back from the moral consequences of this consecrating act. With a deep breath he brings the knife down, piercing the skin, and to his own shock and surprise (and the audience's relief!) he reaches in to find cotton innards.

Theorizing Nostalgia, Chapter Three

Reading Stranger Things as a serial mystery provides some insight into its deliberate and exhaustive employment of visual and narrative cues from '80s cinema. On one hand, the continual Easter eggs function like what popular culture theorist Marcel Danesi calls "postmodern pastiche", or a patchwork of identifiable references to previous texts. Postmodern pastiche functions as a meta-narrative for certain audience segments, particularly children of the '80s that now serve as a primary demographic for marketers and advertisers. To bring in a second, more familiar term, the series relies upon intertextuality as a primary language of its storytelling apparatus. In so many ways, these sometimes obvious, sometimes hidden intertextual references (or references to other comparable cultural texts) become more significant than the master narrative. The retro semiotics go deeper than that, however, and there's a clear labor of love produced by The Duffer Brothers and company.

On the other hand, the continuous flow of '80s references -- not just in the visual symbols but also the musical cues like The Clash’s "Should I Stay or Should I Go" -- serve a strategic narrative purpose. These cues direct and misdirect audiences, distract and point to the larger narrative endgame. They're playful -- as is pop culture in general -- a game, a language, or lexicon in aesthetic experience. It's an immersive technique and one that, while heavily steeped in the process of borrowing and remixing, is relatively innovating as a televisual tool of mass communication.

Of course, Stranger Things isn't the first show to haunt its audience through reconstruction of material culture. Mad Men already paved this ground using the codes and symbols of the '60s toward a revisionist affect and a more contemporary commentary. It's interesting, however, that Mad Men focuses on the postwar generational shift to Baby Boomers as a narrative theme in later seasons. In a natural paratextual progression, Stranger Things picks up a rhyming commentary, with the latter's timeframe showcasing the generational effect Baby Boomer suburban absenteeism left on what would be identified as Generation X. Only time will tell if Stranger Things's televisual tapestry adds to the momentum crafted by its acclaimed TV parent.

"Wow … she looks, pretty."

The scene when Mike "transforms" El from shaved head orphan psychic to passable school girl is a little bit clumsy, a little bit graceful. Here's a boy disconnected from femininity as a worldview, and yet trying his darndest to summon something close to his perception of reality (Hmm, kind of like the Duffer Brothers?). El's look is retro even by '80s standards ('70s at best). It's an honest effort, and yet in that honesty there's this flicker of raw endearment. Their silence amidst the melodious synthesizer soundtrack tells an emotional story with muted dialogue (Hmm, kind of like Eleven herself). Their next scene features El riding on the back of Will’s bike as they head through downtown Hawkins. The wind whisks through El's blonde wig. In her incognito disguise, El is experiencing perhaps her first peek at freedom and childhood "normalcy".

Meta-Televisual History

Chief Hopper's actions shift gears dramatically in Chapters Four and Five. In some ways, Hopper transitions from mild-mannered agent of the state (albeit local law enforcement, not an actual state agent) to law-bending conspiracy theorist. Hopper's straight-laced adherence to the small town status quo flips upside down (not unlike Mike’s D & D board), where instinct replaces rationalism. If Fox Mulder of The X-Files lore represented distrust of governmental agencies against the grain of Y2K progressivism, then Hopper's growing dissonance with the supposed US Department of Energy posits a complementary doppelganger for Reagan-era Cold War paranoia.

Of course, Hopper offers a quintessential "hero" for contemporary audiences, in a political season topsy-turvy with logical fallacies, abject plagiarism, civil unrest, and accusations of media bias that undermines Middle America. With the Abrahamic leap of faith in Chapter Four, Hopper joins Will and El as a liminal figure, operating on behalf of the law and outside its boundaries. His white privilege is exonerated only because his intuition proves correct. It's funny to imagine how audiences might side against him if Hopper was shown to be entirely incorrect while acting under the same impulse power. It's a funny feeling to feel right.

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