11. Stranger Things

11. Stranger Things

Stranger Things and the Absence of Danger in a Scary World


I’m not jumping on the “What about Barb?!” bandwagon when I say that specific character’s death was one of the most significant in popular television this year. No, not because she was a beloved, long-time member of the cast or because her demise was particularly tragic, gruesome though it was. Moreso, Barb’s death is worth mentioning because it’s just about the only time in Stranger Things when the show delivers on the danger posed by the Monster, otherwise known as the Demogorgon.

The Demogorgon, doing it’s best. (Netflix)

To be sure, Barb isn’t the only person to die in the show. There’s the final episode, where Eleven pretty much gives a hallway full of military personnel a collective brain aneurysm, not to mention the flashback detailing the death of Jim Hopper’s young daughter, a device that would seem cheap and maudlin were it not for David Harbour’s performance and the show’s sensitive portrayal of grieving parents. But Barb is the only person actually killed by the horrifying creature that inhabits the Upside Down, truly Stranger Things’ most obvious Big Bad and, therefore, the most natural way you would expect the show to go about raising the stakes for its young heroes.

I have to say, honestly, I never bought that these kids were really in any danger. I enjoyed the synth-heavy, John Carpenter-style soundtrack, loved playing spot the ‘80s movie reference with each new episode (even though the whole thing is largely just a riff on E.T.) and appreciated the stellar acting, most especially from Winona Ryder and Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven, the most intriguing cipher of the year. The Demogorgon, on the other hand, never seemed as big of a threat as it was made out to be, even after the disappearance of Will Byers. The final confrontation between Jonathan, Nancy, Steve and the Demogorgon was pretty bad-arse but, once again, it’s not like it was ever going to go any differently. For one so scary, this creature was notably inefficient at killing people, no matter how many chances it was given. For Christ’s sake, Will survives weeks living in the same realm as the thing and dude’s not exactly Rambo.

Lucas, Mike, Eleven and Dustin, keeping it G. (Netflix)

Is it fair to say that, because the Demogorgon didn’t brutally murder or at least significantly harm more people (especially Mike and his adorable ragtag team of misfits), the show didn’t succeed? No, that’s fucking ridiculous. Low stakes in a television show, especially one with such a solid tone and sense of place as Stranger Things, can even be a benefit. The less tension caused by the plot, the more we get to enjoy the details that make up the world the show exists in. I could spend hours watching Mike awkwardly interpret the world of an ‘80s teenager for a bemused Eleven. Listening to Dustin analyse the twists and turns of the sci-fi story they’ve found themselves in the middle of (“Lando Calrissian!”) was one of the great joys of television this year. And the fact that Hawkins, Indiana pulsates with the unnerving, suburban mystery of every fictional Stephen King town adds a devilish flavour to the strange events unfolding. I mean, even the title sequence: seriously, how about that fucking ITC Benguiat font, though?

Gripes aside, what’s most worth mentioning when it comes to Stranger Things is that if you factor the Demogorgon out of the equation, everything on display is still pretty damn unsettling. Remember being a kid and knowing on a primal level that something terribly wrong was going down that seemed imperceptible to the adults around you? Remember being threatened by a cooler and, probably, much tougher kid because he didn’t like the way you looked at his girlfriend? Then there’s the grown-up side of things, where the most frightening of implications lie. Consider the true horror of the situation Joyce finds herself in, reckoning with everyone’s impression of her as a deranged, grief-stricken mother who has been overwhelmed by delusions of communicating Christmas lights and creatures warping her living room walls.

Chief Jim Hopper and Joyce, on Netflix’s policy for Season 2. (Netflix)

Always, though, what I find myself coming back to is Chief Hopper and his immeasurable sadness, the loss he suffered that required no such supernatural force to accommodate. Even with all the strange shit out there that Mike, Eleven and the others have to face, there comes with it a sense of wonder that renders it almost harmless, a notion that whatever it is can’t be quite as scary as what the real world has to offer.


Stranger Things is available to stream on Netflix.

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