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Stranger Things’ encounters with the unknown get closer

A clumsy beginning, a sharp ending, and an emerging pattern

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Stranger Things

"Holly, Jolly"

Season 1 , Episode 3

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Toward the end of “Chapter One: The Vanishing Of Will Byers,” Joyce tells Jonathan his missing brother is close: “I know it. I feel it in my heart.” Will is more than close. As he spells out on his mother’s makeshift spirit board, he’s right here. So is Barb. So is an entire world, like their own but eerily desolate. And so is something horrific that stalks this world from that one, bursting through the fabric of reality to capture its prey right here.

(Shannon Purser) (Photo: Netflix)

“Chapter Three: Holly, Jolly” opens on Barb choking up blood, and she ends the pre-credit sequence screaming as the creature wrenches her into its grip. Her quick dispatch makes Barb a throw-away character, but it’s a smart way to establish exactly what’s become of Will—and to raise the stakes for viewers by showing how deadly serious his predicament is. The sequence intercutting from Barb’s attack to Nancy and Steve’s embrace is a little clumsy, but no more so than many teenaged fumblings. In that way, its very clumsiness is almost fitting.

That can be said of a lot of Stranger Things. The show is occasionally clunky or trite, but its failings are weirdly appropriate, even endearing. It’s hard to distinguish between flaws that arise from Stranger Things’ writing (“Chapter Two” is written by Jessica Mecklenburg, directed by Shawn Levy) and those inherent in its source material—the pulpy, sometimes hackneyed genre films, novels, and shows it so deftly recombines. As Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff puts it, “The series isn’t made up of lived experiences—it’s made up of other stories.” (Full disclosure: as many of you know, Todd was a longtime A.V. Club writer and editor, and I had the pleasure of working with him. Even fuller disclosure: Because I’m watching Stranger Things an episode at a time as I review it, I haven’t read the conclusion of the linked article, which details events later in the season.)

It’s not that Stranger Things gets a pass because it evokes nostalgia. Sure, the show is anchored by its devotion to (and note-perfect rendition of) horror tropes, and by its rich recreation of a time gone by. Its set design uses elements from the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s to craft a believable, lived-in world. It’s not just an assortment of period-appropriate trinkets and decor, but a whole landscape of distinctly different interiors and exteriors. Some are a little beat-up, like the dark sameness of the Byers’ house. Some are a little precious, like Nancy’s peaches-and-cream bedroom. And they all feel personal, even idiosyncratic, as well as period-accurate.

The set design doesn’t just recreate the past. It also hints at abstract ideas and deeper themes. Throughout these episodes, there’s a recurring motif of grid patterns on walls, windows, and backgrounds of all kinds. Steve’s wallpaper and matching curtains transform his bedroom into a gridded cell. As the camera peers down the corridors of Hawkins Lab, foreshortening makes the rectangular tile of the walls look as square as the floor tiles, the windows, the double door. Once you notice this pattern—admittedly a popular graphic design in the ’80s—you’ll see it everywhere in Stranger Things. That repeated imagery conjures up both the holodeck and the realms of D&D plotted out on graph paper. Combining the limitlessness of those fantasy worlds with the unknown objectives and mind-boggling technological reach of Hawkins Lab, the possibilities get ominous indeed.

Careful direction means there’s always something fascinating to look at, even in the story’s weakest moments, and it makes the strong moments stronger. Look at the dreadfully affecting scene (following an ungainly transition—but traumatic recall often is awkward, uncomfortable, ungainly) in which El relives an experience at Hawkins Lab. Dragged back to her cell for refusing to hurt a caged cat, she lashes out at her guards, and Brenner rewards her with the scrap of affection she’s been pleading for. Scooping her into his arms, he carries her past their corpses and away from her cell. As he walks, Millie Bobby Brown’s reflection appears in the mirror carefully positioned in the hallway: Even as Brenner carries her into the light, part of her remains in darkness.

The performances are precise, and so is the casting. Everyone, from adults to children, starts out playing a type. Some get fleshed out in the first episode or two. Others lag behind. But by “Chapter Three,” almost everyone manages to transcend type. Hopper’s gruff-but-savvy cop is deepened both by the writing (he’s the most developed character in the show) and by David Harbour’s naturalistic performance. Charlie Heaton’s hunched posture and haunted eyes make Jonathan believable both as a doggedly conscientious son and as a voyeur more comfortable skulking around the edges of teenage social life than trying to connect. Nancy and Steve have the blandest plot and characters so far, but Natalia Dyer and Joe Keery give them some badly needed dimension.

The child actors at the center of the show are outstanding. As El, Millie Bobby Brown conveys more with silence than most actors, young or old, can do with a string of sentences. She’s by turns somber, terrified, earnest, or funny. As El’s vocabulary—or just her volubility—increases, I’m almost sorry to see Brown resort to speaking when she’s so powerful working with quiet expression. Her level gaze as Dustin tries (and fails, and tries again) to coax her into levitating Mike’s Millennium Falcon is as loaded with sardonic wit as anything any character has said aloud.

The three boys are resolving into distinct archetypes. Mike (Finn Wolfhard) is the mystic, an emotionally open, almost otherworldly sage. Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) is the skeptic, keeping the group grounded in the plausible and the pragmatic. Dustin, who keeps breaking up their conflicts by drawing their attention to what’s going on around them, is the observer. He’s also the earthiest of the children, often led by his appetites, whether that’s for Pringles and Nilla Wafers or the half-alluring, half-alarming presence of a girl.

(Caleb McLaughlin, Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobby Brown, Gaten Matarazzo) (Photo: Netflix)

But Mike isn’t all gentleness. There’s an early sign of his temper when his mother calls him for school and he roars back at her. Later, the kids spy on the scene of a corpse being retrieved from the water—a corpse Hopper and the kids independently identify as Will—and he strikes out at El, shouting, “What’s wrong with you? What is wrong with you?” As potent as his words and his slap are his furious eyes and the implicit threat in his raised brow. Even Lucas, who refuses to call El anything but “the weirdo,” is taken aback by Mike’s hostility. His anger, his fierce sense of loss, feels raw and real. Almost everything about these kids feels real, because even emerging archetypes can’t obscure their individuality.

Like Jack Torrance in Kubrick’s The Shining, Joyce Byers starts at such a high pitch, she doesn’t have much range of expression at first. Because Joyce is introduced already under strain, Will’s disappearance doesn’t disrupt any sense of peace or comfort. Instead, it further fractures her already tenuous hold, driving her from unease to panic to obsession.

(Winona Ryder) (Photo: Netflix)

Joyce’s ferocious intensity as she tries to communicate with her son—her unshakable certainty, her single-mindedness, her frantic hammering and painting—is reminiscent of Roy Neary’s obsession in Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. Even the mad tangle of Christmas lights she hangs recalls the lights of Close Encounters’ mothership, and its music. All those lights, some white, some multicolored, blink away in an unintelligible pattern that Joyce has to decode if she ever hopes to find Will. And like Neary—or like Close Encounters’ Jillian, who’s also searching for her son–Joyce knows how deranged she must seem. But she doesn’t care. And when a monstrous creature breaks into her communion with Will, Winona Ryder gets an unexpected chance to stretch Joyce’s emotional range. Her smoldering obsession gives way first to outright terror, then quiet determination.

The episode’s opening is more than a cruel juxtaposition of Nancy’s pleasure and Barb’s horror, more than an efficient way to show the audience the dreadful world Barb and Will are trapped in, more than a simple raising of stakes. That intercutting is repeated at episode’s end. The final scene of “Chapter Three” cuts between Mike, who knows about the body in the quarry, and Joyce, who doesn’t. Mike sobs in his mother’s arms, and Joyce sobs in her son’s as sirens race down the road toward them. The opening is blunt, even crude, maybe intentionally so. The ending, backed with Peter Gabriel’s towering orchestral version of “Heroes,” is so sharp it cuts.

Stray observations

  • Holly’s striped turtleneck and overalls are a nod to Gertie in E.T., but her expression is more like Barry’s in Close Encounters Of The Third Kind.
  • I expected that flooded quarry to show up again, but not so quickly. Suitably enough for a series immediately available for bingeing, a lot of Stranger Things plays out less like traditional episodic television and more like an extended movie. In their individual episodes, some passages feel plodding (like “Chapter Two’s” party at Steve’s) or jarring (like this episode’s flashbacks to El’s imprisonment and training), but in the larger context, they fit more gracefully.
  • 1980s anachronism alert: “This is called stalking.” No, it isn’t, Steve, not for a few more years. But every period piece uses the occasional anachronistic phrase to convey something clearly to the audience, and this does the job.
  • 1980s autobiographical detail: Like Nancy, I had Blondie’s Autoamerican poster hanging in my room. It’s one of the few Blondie albums that didn’t survive my collection’s transition from vinyl to CD, but thanks to streaming, I wrote this review to the strains of it.