Happy Thanksgiving to all you here in the United States! I hope your turkey was succulent and your day off a blessing. As always one thing I’m thankful for is all of you who turn up to read this on a regular basis.
Now we’re done being sappy and self-reflective. Let’s talk about Stranger Things some more.
Sometimes you meet a person and you don’t like them. Then they do things you never would have thought they would, grow in ways that surprise you and wind up being truly admirable people. Such a man is Steve Harrington, wielder of the Bat, hero of Stranger Things.
Okay, Stranger Things doesn’t really have a hero. But characters like Steve are one of the greatest things about it, giving the show some real gravitas from time to time. Steve is one of the best of these characters, but far from the only one. Steve Harrington, Joyce Byers and Sherriff Hopper are each, in their own way, deep, interesting and tragic characters who’s needs and plights keep us coming back episode after episode to see how things will work out for them.
But let me start by getting one thing out of the way. I’m not overly attached to any of the kids in the series. Mike was the most assertive in the first season but his “romance” with Eleven seemed really forced and didn’t bring much to the table in either season. As his peers got bigger parts in season two he received almost no development and just kind of maintained the status quo until Eleven got back, as if he couldn’t progress as a character without her around. That could be worked on.
Will needs to stop being the MacGuffin. His entirely reactive role in the first season is understandable but doesn’t make for good characterization and he got stuck in almost the exact same role in season two. Going forward I’d like to see him step up and do something.
Lucas and Dustin fought over a girl and Lucas won. Go him, I guess. Dustin is probably the most interesting character in season two, with his learning love and loss. But his early bits with Dart went on a bit too long and didn’t really do much to build his character or the tension.
Max’s story is probably supposed to be about prejudice and abuse but none of that comes through clearly, with the writers thankfully avoiding those overexplored avenues and keeping the focus on her introduction to the wider world of the Upside Down. That does make her “empowerment” story arc feel incredibly rushed at the end. And Eleven…
Well, taking Episode Seven out of the mix she’s not really important to the story except as a way to explore the past of the Hawkins Lab experiments and as a way to solve the monster problem at the end. Again, she needs more character growth and to be explored in contexts other than mad science and the Upside Down. The bits between her and Hopper in the first half of the second series are good, but painfully absent in the second half.
There’s nothing wrong with the kids as characters and I don’t dislike them. I’m just not very attached to them either. Maybe things will change. Stranger things have happened.
Puns, ladies and gentlemen!
As the closest character to the kids in the whole show you would think Joyce Byers would be almost as bland but she’s actually quite deep. From her going slowly unhinged in the first season to the steadier, grimly determined mothering she shows Will in season two, Joyce is proving herself an all-star mother in what has to be the worst adolescence of all time. Will might be an uninteresting character by himself but he brings out many facets of his mother, from the cleverness that shows through the nerves when she’s improvising Christmas lights into a communication device to the woman who nearly bakes her son alive to save his life, we see Joyce at her very worst and struggling to her very best.
Her many mistakes are just as believable. She’s a little too accommodating of Will’s demands for cold, for example. No father would simply acquiesce to the demands of a cranky, demon possessed child. But a mother would, especially a caring and scared one like Joyce.
Sherriff Hopper isn’t nearly as likely a parental figure. Season one established that he was suffering a lot of regret after losing his own daughter so his overprotective streak towards Eleven makes sense. But he lives alone and he’s not exactly a warm, caring man. Still, there seems to be some kind of connection between him and Eleven as the two manage to mix all the awkwardness typical of a father with an adolescent daughter with the added problems of that kid having superpowers. Somehow the two make it work in a believable way.
There’s more to Hopper than his parental role, though. He’s also a very convincing protector in both seasons, ranging far and wide to find answers to his questions so he can defend Hawkins from the threats it faces. At the same time he shows a profoundly practical streak, working in conjunction with the Feds when he can and not rejecting them out of some silly sense of territorial rights or locals know best. When he’s out of his depth he relies on experts, at least as far as he trusts them. And he never loses trust in them without reason. Hopper’s one weakness as a character is probably the fact that he doesn’t truly grow in the first two seasons. Yes, he forgives Eleven for breaking his ground rules but there’s little indication that he’s actually confronted the trauma that prompts his overprotective nature so we’re likely to see this kind of conflict continue in new forms as time goes on.
In terms of character growth the series standout is Steve Harrington.
As mentioned earlier, Steve starts off the series feeling a lot like a typical jerk jock. He’s good looking, athletic and dates the most desirable woman in the show. Then Will Byers goes missing and Steve still has the gall to smash Jonathan Byer’s camera. Jonathan was taking pictures of Steve’s girlfriend, Nancy, to be sure. And Steve is tangentially related to the disappearance of Nancy’s friend Barb, taken into the Upside Down by the Demogorgon and killed(?). But as Nancy drifts away from Steve and starts trying to help Jonathan find his brother, in the hopes they’ll find Barb too, something interesting happens to Steve.
Steve starts to realize how much he cares about Nancy. He becomes a worse person without her. So when he learns Nancy and Jonathan are risking their lives to try and trap the Demogorgon Steve sets aside his own feelings, drives some nails into a bat and steps up to help them. It is at this exact moment that Steve stops being a villain and takes the first tortuous steps towards being a bonafide hero.
In season two his condition worsens. While he’s still trying to guard his social standing at school and he and Nancy finally have an official – and quite ugly – break up he still comes through when it counts. Steve goes through the first half of both seasons blissfully unaware of what’s going on around him but when he’s filled in he pulls through so it’s no surprise that Dustin immediately asks him for help with his developing Dart situation. It is surprising that Steve comes through for him almost immediately, with no hemming or hawing. Of course, he’s seen the kids go up against corrupt government officials and otherworldly evils before, so maybe it’s not that big a surprise.
Regardless, Steve’s caring mentorship of Dustin, his willingness to walk into danger with people who aren’t even really his friends and his ultimate ascension to the rank of Babysitter with a Bat mark the end of a fascinating transformation. In S1E1 of Stranger Things I wouldn’t have trusted Steve with anyone’s kids, let alone my own, but by S2E9 it’s 100% believable that the kids are safe with Steve as they run a crazy, half-baked plan to distract the Mind Flayer while the portal is closed. Steve’s reluctance to go on the mission is natural and understandable but once he’s there he’s committed. The fact that he gets all the kids up and out of the tunnels even though he’s staring down a pack of charging Demodogs speaks to how far his character has come. And who knows? In the future he might even get to fight his very own Army of the Upside Down and join Ash Williams as a hero of the Eighties.
Side characters like Bob Newby and Dr. Owens show that the writers have a good grasp on human nature as well. While there are plenty of complex characters with conflicting motives and a sinister side, like Dr. Brenner, Dr. Owens and Bob Newby show how normal, well-meaning people can interact with the unknown in dangerous ways. Both provide advice to Will that makes him more susceptible to the Mind Flayer even though in most situations that advice would have been sound. But both go to great lengths to do right by Will and, in Bob’s case, do so at great personal cost. In the case of Dr. Owens in particular this shows that the government program in charge of Hawkins lab is not a malevolent entity, just an organization that lacked sufficient oversight to properly monitor bad actors like Dr. Brenner. That’s good, solid, meaningful character writing that lets characters have personalities beyond their circumstances and affiliations.
Of course there’s also a master class on pacing a series in Stranger Things. Unlike many of the Neflix shows I’ve watched I don’t feel like the seasons need to be shorter and tighter paced. Well, season two doesn’t need episode seven but most people know that instinctively. But that is probably an examination best left for another time.
It will be a little while before we get to that. There’s a couple of other interesting case studies in media done right I’d like to get to. However, with the holidays coming up I’ve decided to take a little vacation before diving into those things. We’ll return the Friday after Christmas to tackle how to pivot a franchise correctly. And until then may your time with family be a plentiful blessing!