By the time the mysterious, shaven-head girl, Eleven, emerges from the woods and meets our three intrepid boy wonders, we have completed the first episode of The Duffer Brothers’ new Netflix series, Stranger Things, and been plunged into a 80s-tinged world of government experiments and dark shadows creeping through the everyday lives of the town of Hawkins, Indiana. A boy, Will, has gone missing and his mother, Joyce—played by Winona Ryder—and brother, Jonathan, set off the town-wide search for him with the help of Jim Hopper (David Harbour), the sheriff, and his department. Will’s friends—Mike, Dustin, and Lucas—join in the search endeavor as well against the express wishes of Mike’s parents. As searches usually go, what is found is often different than expectations and by the end of the episode the audience concludes that that ancient wisdom still speaks vitally in the world of this show.
Running parallel to the search for Will Byers is the appearance of Eleven, named that because of the numeral tattooed on the inside of her arm. She has powers that allow her to control things with her mind and, as she escapes the clutches of the government agents coming after her, we see that her powers can be quite dangerous. She is not a tame girl. The government agents, led by Dr. Martin Brenner—played by a significantly older Matthew Modine, a blast from the 80s past himself—will stop at nothing to track Eleven down even at the cost of innocent human life. However, there is an even darker figure haunting the town of Hawkins, something that came out of the Department of Energy building on the outskirts of town. This thing, this being, is what took Will. We don’t know what it is, where it came from or where it took him, but the only person who might be able, and willing, to lead the people of Hawkins to answers is Eleven. So when Mike, Dustin, and Lucas run across Eleven on a rainy night in the woods, the audience already has a sense for the immensity of what is about to take place in the seven remaining episodes. Safety is anything, but guaranteed.
There are two elements that delighted me in this introduction to this world. First, I love how Dungeons and Dragons (D&D), the fantasy, tabletop role-playing game that Mike, Will, Lucas, and Dustin are playing at the beginning of the show is being set up as an analogical surrogate for the events that are beginning to take place in Hawkins. The boys, in the final moments of a ten-hour campaign, come up against a Demogorgon, a powerful demon lord, which looks to be a fine descriptor for the unknown threat that stalks in the night.
For anyone who has some background with playing D&D—and I am not one, unfortunately—there is probably already a sense of what may take place in the remaining episodes. For simpletons, like me, I simply enjoyed the parallels between Will being “gotten” by the Demogorgon in the campaign and his subsequent disappearance. Will this become a dark, fascinating piece of foreshadowing or not? We don’t know. However, we do get a sense of the level of danger that Will is in and the threat of the death of a kid in a TV show, which has always been a bit of a no-no, is very palpable.
The second aspect that was introduced in the first episode was the music and the pulpy show opening that featured the 80s synth sounds of S U R V I V E and lettering straight out of 80s film and television. The incidental synth music for the show is punctuated with classic tracks from the 80s. If the look and feel of the cinematography, set design and fashion doesn’t bring in the nostalgia in, full-force, then the soundtrack and the opening credits will. I am a sucker for 80’s film and music, so I could not have been more giddy—and I am not exaggerating, GIDDY—when I heard the synth leading into the opening credits. This is pure candy for a guy who worships the John Carpenter soundtracks and the work of Disasterpeace on last year’s It Follows. The show unashamedly wears its 80s hat proudly and I couldn’t be happier.
The nostalgic factor has been the central critique of the show I’ve heard from most outlets. While Stranger Things does exclusively trade in on the memories of those of us who grew up in the 80s, I find that critique to fall short of describing how the show operates. Sure, it uses culture, references, music and styles of the 80s in order to create a nostalgic feeling and it does wear its Spielbergian/Kingian/Carpenterian influences on its sleeves, but to maintain that there is nothing substantial or original behind the trappings is to be highly cynical—and, trust me, I am one of the most cynical. Even in the first episode, there is a transcendent moment where I stopped watching the show to find all the callbacks and started watching the show because I did not want to leave the town of Hawkins. I began to care for the characters, for the peril they are in, and I nearly wept at the death of a character that was only on the screen for 5 minutes of the show. So when Eleven and the boys meet for the first time, The Duffer Brothers had me in their clutches.
This is not Spielberg’s 80s output where there is peril, but one is never concerned the main characters may not make it out alive. Nor is it J.J. Abrams’ Super 8, because The Duffer Brothers are not aiming for a glossy aesthetic with ample lens flares. The first episode immerses the audience in a world saturated by influences of the past, yet finds its own unique voice, easily, within the first episode. If you don’t fall in love with these characters and their plight and the town of Hawkins, watch again. You missed something. And you probably missed that dark shadowy creature right behind you as well…