We’re the sort of unpleasant people who assume that because everyone else likes something, we probably won’t. (We sound charming, don’t we?) Anyhow, it it took us a little while to try out Stranger Things.
At first I fell in love with the aesthetic, but we were surprised that it just didn’t seem very original. The cop battling his inner demons, the nerdy middle schooler outcasts, the good girl dating the bad boy. Is this it? In fact, it seemed so unoriginal that it had to be on purpose. And it is.
Stranger Things is going for nostalgia. Remember when you saw E.T. for the first time? That’s how it feels. But there’s much more going on than the delightful winks and nods to other films in the genre. It’s a reminder that a good story will always have elements of the classics. Nothing is new under the sun, but a good story is always on trend because it speaks to the things that really matter. It “always tells the truth,” like a good friend, as Eleven learns from Mike.
So many SPOILERS ahead! If you haven’t finished the series and this post ruins the ending for you YE HAVE BEEN WARNED.
Every story draws on a tradition of storytelling, a collective memory of what matters to people. These are just a few of the “unoriginal” elements that came together to make a story that’s something to write home about.
The Upside Down
The dark otherworld that Will and Barb are lost in one of the most terrifying devices in the show. Danger isn’t at the end of a journey or in a trip to space. “The Upside Down” is all around you. In this shadow world everything looks like a dark reflection of our own world.
This isn’t a new idea, the Sidhe, or fairy mounds, in old Irish legends is a very similar idea. Entrances to the world of the fairyfolk (as in terrifying fairies, not Tinkerbells) might be right next to you, but once you’re inside the sidhe or in the Upside Down, you may never return.
The Salvific Love of a Mother
Joyce (Winona Ryder) is the mother whose love is so deep that she refuses to give up when all hope is lost. She knows her son is out there. The fact that everyone else thinks she’s insane can’t deter her from looking for him. She would walk into the mouth of Hell to find her son (and that’s almost what she ends up doing). A mother’s love is fierce and goes beyond reason. Ryder is fantastic in the role.
The Unwinnable Battle
There’s no way a handful of kids, a drunk cop, and an unstable single mom can win in a fight against a high security government operation with weapons, technology, and resources beyond this misfit crew’s wildest imagination. Right? Can the powerless defeat a powerful evil? It’s foolishness to think so. But the hobbits do defeat Sauron. A teenage wizard conquers the most powerful dark wizard. And the four Pevensie chidden (with the help of Aslan, of course) dethrone the White Witch.
Good looks like it has no chance of prevailing against the monsters, but it ALWAYS does. And every time we realize that we didn’t understand how the odds were stacked. Friendship, self-sacrifice, and a mother’s love will always be the most powerful weapons. It’s the foolish hope that we cling to as Christians: that love is more powerful than anything else.
The Beauty of Friendship
Dustin is clearly the most delightful part of Stranger Things. I mean, really. I can’t even stand it. But the whole little club of misfit nerds is so endearing. When Eleven joins their little group she learns about friendship after a life of isolation. Each member of the group is so devoted to the others. She shows that she has clearly understood the meaning of friendship from Mike, Lucas, and Dustin when she literally lays down her life for her friends in the final episode.
Love Transforms Us
Police Chief Hopper is a great character. The junkie cop or detective is a common type, maybe even a tired trope. True Detective, Luther, and every other cop show features the troubled lawman. But there’s a reason for that. We need to remember that you don’t have to be a saint to be a hero. That conquering your internal demons can be as terrifying as fighting flesh and blood monsters.
Hop is so loveable. He’s a grumpy drunk in a small town where nothing happens. From flashbacks it’s clear that things were different before his daughter died from cancer and that her death wounded him in ways that he has never been able to deal with. It sounds very much like Rust from True Detective and the similarities continue when Hop’s love for his daughter are what fuels his fight to bring back Will to Joyce. He understands what it feels like to lose a child and he will stop at nothing to help her.
In the climactic scene when Joyce and Hop finally find Will and struggle to get him breathing through CPR, Hop has a flashback of his daughter’s final moments while Joyce pleads with Will to wake up. It is powerful. I was a mess. It’s such a great scene and my mascara was all over my face. At the end of True Detective, Rust talks about feeling his daughter’s love when he finally faces the monster of that series. In the moments that matter, it’s love. It’s always love. And that love transforms us and makes us brave.
The Terror of “Progress”
It’s in almost every sci-fi and dystopian story: the dangers of seeking “progress” with no moral compass or philosophy that honors the dignity of human beings. While this is a common theme, examining this question is one of the strengths of the genre. Sure, we might have weapons to protect us from the Russians, but what kind of society do we protect? Ones that sacrifice children at the altar of scientific progress?
Juxtapose the scene with Dr. Brenner sending Eleven into the sensory bath of darkness while she screams in terror and the scene when Joyce comforts Eleven by telling her that she will not be left alone, Joyce will be right there, and that if it gets too scary, she shouldn’t continue. While Joyce has everything on the line (finding her son), she doesn’t see Eleven as a mere means to an end, she sees her as a frightened little girl in need of protection and comfort. She never loses sight of Eleven’s humanity, something that Brenner has never honored in his vile experiments.
There’s nothing really new in Stranger Things. In a way it’s all a rehash of what’s been done before. But that’s why it’s so wonderful. It’s a reminder of what we all know, but may have forgotten: real friendship can defeat evil, the sinner can be redeemed by love and become a hero, scientific advancement that denies the dignity of human beings will be a terror, a mother’s love is more powerful than any monster, and the foolishness of hope can conquer the seemingly unbeatable foe.
When we draw from stories full of truth, beauty, and goodness, something incredible emerges. That’s what good storytelling creates: a reflection of the True Story, the story of God’s love. Stranger Things in it’s brilliant unoriginality tells a story worth falling in love with.