Things Strange: The Dungeon Master of ‘Stranger Things’

Stranger Things crafts something wholly individual out of the chrysalis of the past, turning the comfort of nostalgia against itself.

The zeitgeist is a funny thing. It speeds along so swiftly. What one moment is a cult delight, shared like a conspiratorial whisper, the next becomes a full blown sensation, awash with critical recommendations and twitter trending and unchecked, enthusiastic praise. And then, as predictable as it is petulant, comes the counterattack.

This has become particularly virulent in the age of the internet. Once one of these entertainment convergences appears it gathers speed so fast that it seems but a moment before a saturation point is reached, and people suddenly feel compelled to deride what was once considered great. They clamour to tear it apart in nit-picking autopsies that attempt to explain away the initial magic that others (not them, certainly) felt, and drag its makers low for their hubris, as if the whole experience was just a con job on us poor, rube viewers.

Like I said, it’s strange. It’s a strange thing.

It’s Stranger Things.

Because in the three months since it was released into the wild with almost no fanfare (15 July), Stranger Things already seems to have lived out this absurd pop culture mayfly life cycle. From surprise critical darling, to over-rated hack job. But what this lightning-in-a-bottle series shows — arguably more acutely than any other — is that these kinds of analytical roller coasters often reveal more about audiences than they ever do about the text under scrutiny.

Stranger Things didn’t start strong and fade away like LOST. It didn’t get snarled up in its out increasingly dim-witted mythology like X-Files. The entire thing was released and disseminated in one day. It went from bewilderment, to behemoth, to backlash, without altering a single frame. It was the voices in the audience surrounding it that changed.

For my part, I loved it.

For once — for the only time in history — I was in on the ground floor. I happened to be in the United States when Stranger Things was released (fittingly, I was actually in Indiana), and was able to enjoy an unbiased experience of the show. Before the memes and spoilers and think pieces started rolling out. Before people began quoting things in their Facebook feeds, ‘Where’s Barb?’ became a catch-cry, and fan theories mapped out the shared universe theory with Parks and Recreation.

It popped up on the Netflix feed as a peculiar looking genre throwback. Some forgotten film from the ’80s I might have watched at a drive-in theatre that appeared to have been randomly exhumed from the streaming library’s algorithm. I read the description, only half taking it in, and pressed “play”. Five minutes later I would have followed that show wherever it led.

It was sumptuous and lean and wry. It’s characters were layered and fully fleshed. It was psychologically horrifying, poised and menacing without resorting to empty jump scares or gratuitous gore. It deftly collided at least three separate genres into one, juggling its point of view so as to never sacrifice one for the sake of the others.

On one level it was a boy’s own adventure romp, part ET part Famous Five, in which the investigation of their friend’s disappearance leads a handful of friends to meet a young girl with impossible powers. It was a tale about being on the precipice of young adulthood; riding bikes through the neighbourhood; growing out of the innocence of childhood; tasting the burgeoning freedom of a relative autonomy, only to discover that adults can be dangerous liars with malicious agendas.

On the level of the teenage characters, it was a monster flick. Part Nightmare on Elm Street, part IT, it was about confronting the terrors of adolescence: peer pressure, marginalisation, sexual shaming, and being treated like a figurative (and literal) piece of meat. For the adults, it was a conspiracy tale about fighting against the inexorability of loss and despair; where children die, and relationships erode, and you have to struggle to retain your sense of self against the dispassionate forces of mortality and corporate conspiracy.

For eight episodes these three plotlines hummed along until they collided in a communal effort to reclaim the young boy who had been sacrificed to the conventions of genre in the season’s opener, whose disappearance had set all of these narratives in motion. I thought it was splendid. Drawing upon a rich history of familiar influences, but presenting something audacious and unique.

Little did I realise that I was in the minority. To some, the show was bad and my nostalgia had been exploited.

Critics like Film Crit Hulk declared Stranger Things was riddled with “nonsensical creative decisions”. Like lingering on the moment when the townspeople think they’ve discovered the missing boy’s body and grieve his death. Film Crit Hulk made sure to point out how silly the show was for doing that because, as viewers, we already suspect that he might not actually have died. Even though what was actually being depicting there is the characters feeling this despair, rather than some gauche effort to spoon feed a viewer response through the screen.

Actually, at this point we don’t really know what is going on with the boy — he might well be a dead, disembodied spirit. But never mind all that, because didn’t we also know that a young woman seeing something mysterious, then crawling into, it instead of scurrying away in fright, is totally unrealistic? Even though her progression from meek, objectified beauty, to fearless pursuer of truth is central to her character arc. Never mind that either, because surely it doesn’t make sense for a young boy to risk endangering himself because his friend’s life is being threatened. Even though he has repeatedly been established as having an overly-empathetic nature, even to his own detriment. Nope. Despite all of these things arguably making sense, none of them make sense apparently. To some.

The show trades in nostalgia, he complains. It asks you to accept the characters’ logic about alternate dimensions and psychic links without always holding your hand through the justification of such leaps. It invites you to run with some plot points and ignore others. On occasion it leans into spectacle as narrative shorthand. Somehow, all of this is outrageous to some viewers, as if it has never happened in cinema before. Except for all of the countless times it happens in the many films and books to which the series lovingly pays homage.

After all, why doesn’t ET fly up to his spaceship at the beginning of the film when he can easily float several bicycles and himself later on? Why isn’t the body in Stand By Me more decomposed after lying in the woods for so long? If the house in Poltergeist is built on a burial ground, how did none of those thousands of bodies turn up when they dug out that in-ground pool? Wait, they hid Luke from his father by having him live with his uncle and not change his name? And hey, while we’re at it, who heard Citizen Kane say ‘Rosebud’? Wasn’t he alone when he died?

That, to me, is exactly the point of Stranger Things, and why such criticism rings so hollow.

I should clarify: despite what I’m saying, I don’t mean to attack Film Crit Hulk specifically. His is by no means the only negative review of Stranger Things. His scathing reaction against the validity of the show just strikes me as particularly representative of the critical double standards to which the series is now being subjected. Because while Film Crit Hulk has many skills as a critic, his strength has never seemingly been in separating out his personal bias from the interpretation of a film (or show).

Nor, I should add, should it be.

Criticism is an act of intimate engagement — an interplay between audience and art work. Just like every viewer sitting down to watch a summer blockbuster, or curling up on the couch with a favourite Austen novel, or firing up a beloved videogame in which the controller already hums with anticipation, one’s own predilections and preoccupations are an unavoidable factor in the audience experience. It’s that very intimacy that many creators can utilise in their craft. It’s certainly such a familiarity that the Duffer Brothers — creators, writers and directors of Stranger Things — employ to simultaneously welcome and unsettle their viewers.

Despite what its detractors claim, the ’80s aesthetic and storytelling that Stranger Things repurposes do not merely operate as window dressing. It doesn’t use its period setting as a crutch to avoid dealing with the narrative complications of cell phones and internet coverage, nor as a cloying wistful wallpaper to cover holes in its plot. The show is an earnest throwback to an earlier time, both stylistically and narratively, and this period specificity is key to its meaning. It’s a bower bird, meticulously fashioning a nest from the scraps of the past, operating as a near perfect union of theme and text.

To begin with, there’s the lovely superficially irony in the way that Stranger Things — a show you can view alone on a streaming service without leaving your house — evokes the bygone experience of going to a video store and scrounging through the aisles for some under-loved cinematic curio. It calls to mind that communal experience of personally sharing physical media, of pressing a VHS copy of Ridley Scott’s Alien or John Carpenter’s The Thing (taped off television and labelled with black marker), into your friends hand and making them promise, just promise, to watch it. Just so someone you know can go on that journey, too.

More significantly, though, there’s the way in which the series actively subverts expectation by playfully reconstituting the familiar. Because oddly, what many of the critics of the show miss (or perhaps dismiss) is the abiding meta-narrative analogy that Stranger Things repeatedly invokes in its storytelling.

The entire show communicates itself through the lens of a game of Dungeons & Dragons. The first scene of the series presents four boys sitting around a card table playing a campaign; the final scenes of the concluding episode returns to those same boys, now reunited, completing their quest. Meanwhile, in between these bookends, the parallel universe into which people are being sucked is spoken of in the language of the Dungeons & Dragons shadow realm; the monster vomited up from the darkness is named after a creature from their fantasy journey, the Demogorgon; Will’s actions (‘He cast protection’), and the remaining boy’s friendships, are all rationalised, though the rules of teamwork that govern the game. The creators of the show even poke fun at their own unresolved story beats in the final scenes when the boys all chastise Dungeon Master Mike for leaving strands of his plot unexplained (‘What about the lost knight?’ / ‘And the proud princess?’ / ‘And those weird flowers in the cave?’) despite having ten hours to wrap up his campaign (two hours longer than the show itself).

As the show exhibits, the correlation is apt. Dungeons & Dragons is about taking familiar conventions and characters and situations — treasures, wizards, monsters, mysteries, magic powers, quests, etc. — and fluctuating them in unique ways, creating new situations in which to inhabit, and by doing so, exposing aspects of those disparate elements that were either never previously perceived, or never present. By inviting an active, participating audience into a remade fiction, riffing on the familiar, the whole campaign becomes something new. Done well, the process of upending these conventions creates an experience more than the sum of its parts.

That is precisely what Stranger Things presents. By touching the conventions of the old but remaking them new, the series itself operates as a televisual Dungeons & Dragons game. The hysterical, possibly unhinged single mother of conventional genre narratives, here becomes an unflappable badass; the lazy county sheriff is revealed to be a dogged investigator willing to embrace surreality; the hackneyed jerk boyfriend trope rebels against his cowardly, dickish nature; the iconic outcast boys on their Goonies bent are now hunted by killers, see necks snapped and brains crushed in front of their eyes, and learn that every moment of their lives, perpetually and for the rest of their days, exists on the precipice of a world of pitiless darkness that can swallow them whole in an instant. You know. Good, old-fashioned fun.

In perhaps the best rebellion of type, the attractive young bookworm brushes up against her sexual awakening, but isn’t punished and killed for it; rather she goes all monster-hunter, assembles an apocalyptic arsenal, and tells her parents, the cops, her boyfriend, and even the cute-but-sullen outcast she is befriending to all go screw off when they try to demean her or dictate her life. Even in her final scene, when narrative convention would suggest that she should have hooked up with the weirdo with the heart of gold, she zigs again to remain with the conventionally ‘bad’ boyfriend Steve, who has traded the Kevin Bacon in Footloose ensemble for a goofy Christmas sweater.

All these things — these rote, familiar things — are appropriated and made strange. The show crafts something wholly individual out of the chrysalis of the past, turning the comfort of nostalgia against itself. In a way, the ‘upside down’ is the wellspring of genre that the Duffer Brothers have touched, and from which this show, misshapen inexplicable creature that it is, emerges. Stranger Things subsequently defies convention and allows characters traditionally marginalised in popular culture to assert themselves beyond the stereotypes of ‘crazy single mother’ and ‘un-virginal slasher film bait’. It reveals the past to be a dangerous place, shows youth to be more dangerous and psychologically devastating than it appears in Spielberg’s nostalgic Amblin glow. It doesn’t mean that you cannot enjoy the show if you haven’t been steeped in the texts it evokes, but it does mean that if you have, it can potentially speak on multiple levels at once.

But above and beyond all that, on every level, the series is about letting your freak flag fly. About not apologising for what you love, as hokey or rough at the edges as it might be. Stranger Things is a show that encourages you to identify with the self-possessed teen who no longer hesitates from asserting herself — in either the world or the narrative. With the mother who loves her kid enough to not give a good goddamn if the rest of the town thinks she’s nuts. The detective who doesn’t back down when he decides to give a crap. The lonely weirdo, more afraid and more powerful than people know, who just wants to find a place in the world. With the outcast boys young enough in spirit to still believe in the magic of collaborative imagination.

Consequentially, the fact that there are critics who look at Stranger Things and declare its period setting meaningless surprises me; but the thought that anyone could point at its invocation of overplayed tropes and not see the way in which they were being necessarily subverted, rewriting tired conventions, astounds. But that’s just the thing: not everything is meant for everyone.

That’s what makes the zeitgeist such a funny thing. Sometimes you’re against it. It speaks to and for you. Other times the things you love are maligned and dismissed an ignored. That’s the beauty and the penalty of subjectivity. Critics like Film Crit Hulk clearly do not see what I see in Stranger Things. That’s fine. Dungeons & Dragons is not a game the whole world can experience and appreciate. Each round is uniquely tailored by its Dungeon Master to a specific audience. As the audience, you have to know the rules and be prepared to test them.

Most of all, however, you have to be willing to play.