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Television

Stranger Things: Season 1, Episode 6 - "The Monster"

Garret Castleberry

"The Monster" is the narrative fork-in-the-road leading to the finale, as each character struggles to find their way out of real or metaphorical woods.


Stranger Things

Cast: Winona Ryder, David Harbour, Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobbie Brown, Caleb McLaughlin
Network: Netflix
Amazon

Stranger Things episode six, "The Monster" welcomes a culmination of protagonist/antagonist conclusions as each main character must overcome the (typically human) obstacle, often in the form of a mirrored opposite. For Joyce (Winona Ryder), this obstacle represents her ex-husband Lonnie (Ross Partridge), while Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) and his newly formed friendship with Nancy (Natalia Dyer) must face the dual threat of the creature in the woods, as well as the social consequences their innocent relationship faces from Steve (Joe Keery) and his sidekicks' jealous mob mentality.

Hopper (David Habour) stares into the proverbial abyss, and his willingness to descend into uncharted territory initiates a late-life heroes journey, as he faces past and future demons. Mike (Finn Wolfhard) and Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) square off against their schoolyard bullies in what could be a do-or-die showdown. Finally, El (Millie Bobby Brown) rages against her internal scars in the memories of Dr. Brenner (Matthew Modine). The fork in her road leads to torment in isolation versus weathering the storm with her new alliance in Mike, Dustin, and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin).

Otherworldly Cold Open

Chapter Six opens with Jonathan screaming "Nancy" ad infinitum while wandering through the dark forest. Likewise, Nancy (or Nance, as her mom Karen [Cara Buono] and I like to call her) scrambles through the forest in search of Jonathan. However, due to the Evil Dead-style ending of Chapter Five, Nance now hollers from the "upside down": the alternate dimension that appears to rest parallel with the town of Hawkins, Indiana. Nancy runs into "the monster" (as the episode title may or may not be referencing), and must elude the beast in a hair-raising cat-and-mouse close call.

Fortunately, the teen duo doesn't give up on each other and. through the luck of the tree portal, are able to hear and hone in on one another. Jonathan pulls Nance through the mini-hellmouth and back into the natural world. In a rad reaction shot just before the opening credits, Jonathan observes the unnatural as the tree grows back together over the portal. Whoa.

"The Monster" post-credits scene starts with Corey Hart's "Sunglasses at Night", the perfect Carpenterian soundtrack for a cast of characters that have collectively (yet so far separately) started to behave like Roddy Piper's Nada in They Live (1988). The song thumps along inside Steve's car, where the cool kids cruise around looking for Nancy. (I'm sorry, but those jerks don't get to call her Nance because they don't know her like we do.) Steve scales up the side of the Wheeler house like he did in Chapter One; however, his voyeuristic tendencies are upended when he finds Jonathan (innocently) sitting on the bed with Nance. The two now share a bond, one deeper than Steve's superficial social magnetism.

Clunky Continuity and Narrative Nitpicks

Over at the Byers residence, Hopper shows up incognito (Nice conspiracy fedora, Chief!) due to the bug from his apartment and, you know, the world gone topsy-turvy. The next morning, he and Joyce drive to a payphone (Payphones: "they live" again!) where Hopper obtains an address related to a missing girl cold case. Nancy [Drew] also plays detective, applying her scholastic knowledge of the animal kingdom to deduce the predatory nature of the creature she caught gnawing on deer in the wild. Points go to Nancy for paying attention in class. (She probably has perfect attendance too!)

The breadcrumb trail follows the combined cult film logics of Firestarter and Altered States, but also adds depth and back story to El's origin. The missing girl's aunt lays it on way too thick in terms of an on-the-nose plot exposition, including a rhetorical question about whether Joyce and Hopper "read Stephen King" as well as calling the El experiment "a weapon to fight the Commies". In terms of satisfying mystery, way too much information is given away when the clear visual clues have already mapped this out for audiences.

[Soapbox Side note: This dialogue and really the entire scene might be the first glaring narrative misfire to come from the writer's room. If the audience has bought in this far, then they (and by they I mean we, and by we I mean I) don't need the easy explanation. This isn't CBS. If we've come this far down the rabbit hole, we get what's going on by now. Or rather, it's a strong bet premium subscriber audiences prefer subtext and ambiguity.]

The overall continuity tethering "The Monster" can best be described as: "Everyone's up to something". Although that doesn't entirely sound complementary, the episodic flow works when reading the series as an eight-chapter format. This is one of several instances where it seems the producers studied the effectiveness of True Detective's first season (or to a lesser extent, the half seasons of The Walking Dead). The narrative arcs share small but noticeable pacing beats.

Fortunately, there’s also the sense that the characters' collective agency converges as Stranger Things shifts into the final stretch of episodes. The younger boys rally up for another outing as well. Dustin's infectious optimism brings Mike and Lucas back together, despite Lucas's reservations. As a result, Mike and Dustin head out to look for El, while Lucas travels separately to look for "the gate" to the Demogorgon world (where the boys have deduced Will is hiding). Although the young child actors cement the cultural resonance and nostalgic familiarity Stranger Things shares with '80s pop culture, the kids' scenes frequently devolve into a familiar cyclical pattern. The boys shout at one another in conflict, Mike turns to or supports El in conflict, and El almost always uses her telekinesis (e.g. “magic”) as a deus ex machina to remedy conflict.

Licking Wounds, Loading Guns

Having accidentally hurt Lucas in the junkyard, El's alone and isolated once again. She spends the night in the forest, where a dream flashback relays Dr. Brenner's familial manipulation of her over time inside the cold industrial facility. Further flashbacks show El forced to reengage the alien creature telekinetically by continued isolation sessions in the deprivation tanks. At this point, if the sessions aren’t grounds for the creature mauling Dr. Brenner at season's end, I don't know what is. I mean, not because I wish harm on him, but because '80s narrative convention dictates vengefully ironic "justice".

Darkly dressed Nance and Jonathan visit the local guns and ammos shop for crazy supplies (the best laugh of the episode), but afterward Nance spots the small town movie theater marquee, now spray-painted to read, "All the Right Moves starring Nancy the Slut Wheeler". (I'm going to pause here for a brief recollection of my grandfather's personal reaction to seeing Dances With Wolves for the first time. As a military veteran he wasn't particularly fond of the anti-American deconstruction of westward expansion, but his response to the cavalry killing Costner's animal companion was a war cry for narrative vengeance that he could get behind. In the spirit of that type of lowbrow audience manipulation and cinematic signposting, Steve and Tommy (Chester Rushing) now have permission to join Dr. Brenner as hors d'oeuvres on otherworldly buffet tables.)

Doppelganger Duels and Oppositional Opponents

Like the chivalrous knight that stands guard of Myers Castle (see "Chapter Two: The Weirdo on Maple Street"), Jonathan defends Nancy from the goon squad snickering in a nearby back alley. But, when Steve won't let up the insults, including remarks about his crazy family and dead brother, Jonathan snaps. The two get into a fistfight that's mostly one-sided in Jonathan’s favor. The back alley brawl goes on longer than anticipated, in another encoded homage to Carpenter's They Live (Also, remember we saw John Carpenter's The Thing poster in Mike basement once again a few scenes back).

But back to Nancy: in a kind of regressive callback to her earlier concerns after spending the night with Steve, including the uneasy waltz through the halls at school the next day, Nancy's conscience proved foreboding in the narrative sense, and in typical fashion she now faces social consequences despite her innocence.

At the rock quarry in the woods, Dustin and Mike run into their doppelganger antagonists, older bullies of which one El previously made pee himself publicly in the school gym. The bullies have returned for retribution. Akin to Kiefer Sutherland and company in Stand By Me (1986), the escalation gets way too serious when one pulls a knife on Dustin. Threatening his life, they force Mike to walk toward the cliff's edge. I'm not entirely certain as to Mike’s motive (other than sacrificial love for Dustin?), but he calmly walks off the side of the mountain…only to stop mid-air in levitation.

As predicted (and surprisingly repetitious since this isn’t the first time) El shows up with the Drew Barrymore in Firestarter/Danny Lloyd in The Shining Kubrickian stare. Her telekinetic focus drifts Mike to safety, but she's not done yet. In a shocking bit of vengeful gore, she whooshes one bully across the ground and breaks the arm of the one holding the knife. Dustin taunts them in victory as they retreat in fear, but the whole situation conjures El's psychic memories of a creature encounter in the deprivation tank. The prior event reinforces a traumatic recurrence of child endangerment. The psychic resonance of her creature encounter also reveal El's fearful sonic scream busted the deprivation tank while breaking open the underground hellmouth portal.

Nostalgia Theory, Chapter Six

When ABC's Lost received peek praise among critics and TV scholars, many pointed to the drama’s use of genre mixing as a key component to its overall success. Lost bridged the castaway island narrative with postmodern paranoia, heavy serialization running against episodic stand-alone episodes with copious flashbacks serving up methodical character development. Later seasons tacked on hyperrealism, science fiction, time travel, and immortality into a convoluted mythology. Despite the aftereffects of audience disdain with the final season, as well as revelations among writers that they often made things up as they went along, the peak years worked because the experimental admixture nature of the show was sexy and exciting. The series came to signify unpredictability, for better and worse.

So far, this seems to be a strong point of divergence for Stranger Things. The Netflix model for tight storytelling and binge-worthiness provides anchors that Lost struggled with given the broadcast network standard of 22 to 24 episodes per season. Indeed, so many shows have benefitted not only from Lost's populous nature -- turning the phrase "genre show" into a positive for mainstream viewers -- but the drama also gifted future TV creators a window into the do's and don'ts by which many shows now operate. Such issue areas include smaller contained seasons, shorter predetermined life spans for series, and forward-thinking creative conscience toward viral marketing and the power of social media and Internet culture, or what Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford, and Joshua Green call the “spreadability” versus "stickiness" of a text (Spreadable Media, 2013, NYU Press).

Following a broad introductory understanding of the spreadability model, Stranger Things indeed benefitted from a minimalist marketing campaign. The series offered audiences little more than a vintage-inspired pastiche poster. The true campaign then grew substantially from grassroots responses to the overcooked '80s meta-messages and intertextuality. In a summer so barren with unique or fully realized summer blockbusters, Stranger Things provided the perfect summer movie supplement, a pastime formula presented as remedy prescription.

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