Stranger Things is the latest in a long line of originals from Netflix, a stable that is growing to the point where any one series is no longer really all that pivotal to their brand identity. Netflix doesn’t really put a significant promotional pitch behind a show like Stranger Things: they do some light marketing, some press (if critics/reporters are interested), and then season one becomes a litmus test. If it’s a “hit,” it goes into the list of shows that Netflix will push harder for a second season. If it’s not, it becomes like Marco Polo, which received almost no fanfare when its second season debuted earlier this month.
Stranger Things does pretty well in this litmus test. Critics embraced the show—although it received a slightly lower metacritic aggregate score than Narcos, it also had eleven more reviews in total, suggesting a wider interest in the series from the press. If I had to pinpoint a reason for this, it’s because Stranger Things feels different. Netflix’s series have at times slotted comfortably into existing genres: Narcos into the Breaking Bad anti-hero mold, Marco Polo trying to be a historical action epic, etc. And while Stranger Things‘ cinematic points of inspiration are none-too-subtle, it has less precedent in television, and thus feels novel even though one of Netflix’s first original series (Hemlock Grove) was a spin on the horror genre. The 80s period, Spielbergian, Stephen King-esque take on the material stands out amidst what I once dubbed the “psychosexual horror arms race” ongoing elsewhere in the genre, and the show overcomes some shoddy procedure—more on that after the jump—to construct a compelling milieu, fun characters, and a mythology that draws you in without getting overly complicated.
But there is another litmus test in Stranger Things that I want to focus on, which is this: what kind of television show is this in our era of limited series and seasonal anthologies? At only eight episodes, Stranger Things sits in a decidedly liminal position in an evolving TV industry, and the way the first season ends tells me that even those making the series aren’t entirely convinced where they want this show to fit. It’s a fascinating decision that creates an entirely new “postmortem” conversation about a season of TV: What, indeed, do we want a second season of Stranger Things—all but guaranteed given Netflix has never canceled anything, and certainly wouldn’t cancel something with reviews like this—to look like?
And, perhaps more importantly, do the show’s creators and Netflix feel the same way?
[Spoilers for “season one” of Stranger Things to follow.]
The choice to only make eight episodes does not keep Stranger Things from achieving some effective storytelling, but the seams show at times. There are leaps in character logic and motivation that don’t really make much sense except for their need to move the story alone: everything that Hopper does, for example, ends up getting retroactively reframed as a desperate and grieving father trying not to lose another child like he lost his own, but he still jumps to some extreme conclusions about Will’s fake corpse, and risks his life going into the lab with the “gate” just so that he knows it’s there later. The reason he does these things is never really explained, but can be extra-diegetically explained by the short order: if he doesn’t do these things, the story can’t move along, and so he does them, because eight episodes.
There are similar leaps in other stories: the actual “mythology” of the show mostly holds up, but the human choices along the way don’t always track. The show wants to hit certain beats, and it’s going to hit them even if they don’t also stop to explain how we got from A to C—the B is missing at times, to the point where you wonder if something got cut in editing that would have better explained things. For example, I totally understand why Nancy and Jonathan enter into a weird sort of romantic vibe early on, but the show never actually explains their pre-existing relationship—their brothers are friends, but the show never explores what that means, or works to understand what history they might have before she randomly approaches him as he’s hanging up flyers. It’s a weird omission given how casual their connection becomes instantaneously, and I think the show would’ve been better served with more time to set up the world and its character before diving into Will’s disappearance, but the priority for the Duffer Brothers was clearly to get things moving immediately.
But where are they moving toward? The season’s main storyline concludes fairly definitively at first: “Eleven” sacrifices herself to save Mike and his friends, and Joyce and Hopper rescue Will from the Upside Down. But in the epilogue, things become more complicated, and we’re reminded that lots of things were unresolved. Some of these things are small, like Nancy’s love triangle with Steve and Jonathan, but two are more substantial. The first is Hopper, ushered into a government car following Will’s rescue, delivering food to the woods to what we presume is “Eleven,” perhaps now having become part of the Upside Down herself. The second is Will, washing up before Christmas Dinner, and revealing that he has become a flea instead of an acrobat, coughing up slugs and seeing glimpses of the Upside Down.
If there were questions amidst the season’s resolution about what a season two of the show could look like, the epilogue seems to exist to answer them. Although not exactly a cliffhanger, it creates the potential to explore the aftermath of Will’s abduction and Eleven’s sacrifice, and the way the town of Hawkins lives in the wake of such a tragedy. Will is a miracle, risen from the dead, but can he go back to living a normal life with the Atari under his Christmas tree? Eleven is no longer the girl she was, but she still has a taste for Eggos, and Mike has no idea she’s out in the forest in some form or another—how would he react if he knew? And while Steve’s last-minute, frankly too abrupt face turn has him cuddled up with Nancy on Christmas Eve, do her feelings for Jonathan extend beyond the life-and-death? And did everyone just forget about what happened to poor Barb?! (Rest in peace, Barb. You were too smart for this world.)
But here’s the thing: I don’t really have much specific interest in this second season of Stranger Things. I think it could logically work, sure, but I don’t know if the show would be well-served repeating the same aesthetic patterns as the season before. The cribbing of Amblin/King works for telling a single story, but replicating it strikes me as a mistake—I liked the milieu of the show a lot, but there is a difference between the type of conflict the epilogue suggests and what is typically used to drive a horror engine like the one in this season. Yes, you could tell a story about the town of Hawkins two or three years later—the kids will have aged by the time they put another season into production, the gap gives them some room to work with—but that would likely require a resetting of conflict that I don’t know if this epilogue really leaves room for without becoming repetitive.
And the fact is that Stranger Things is not obligated to follow up on this epilogue. There is nothing stopping the show from reframing this epilogue as the complicating of a clean ending for Hawkins, acknowledging that there would be an aftermath to this attack without following up on what specifically that aftermath might be. Instead, Stranger Things could tell an entirely different story, set in a different period or a different location, dealing with similar themes (and maybe even the same idea of government research gone wrong and alternate dimensions) but with the ability to derive inspiration from different filmmaking aesthetics. Stranger Things is titled like—and to my mind build like—a seasonal anthology series, and this ending is most interesting if it is actually the end of this story.
I don’t necessarily believe this will happen. I think the show wants to hold onto Winona Ryder, who brings a level of name recognition to the project that was a huge part of early press for the series; they could always go the seasonal anthology route and have her play a new part in a new story, but I don’t know if the show would want to so actively ape American Horror Story and American Crime by following this “repertory” model. Moreover, though, I do think Netflix is thinking long-term in terms of their original series, which will ultimately each become—should they run for a long period—a multi-season archive that anyone can watch at any time. And I don’t think it serves Netflix if someone watches this finale two years from now and starts the next season to find their questions completely unanswered: it may be the more compelling storytelling choice, but it’s an unconventional one, and risks disrupting the flow of users’ experience with the show as it continues.
Stranger Things will continue (I hear, similar to other Netflix projects, that a writer’s room is already at work on a likely second season), and it’s most likely that it will continue as a traditional ongoing television serial, picking up a few years down the road as Will grapples with his new condition (which, how did the hospital medical scans not pick on this? And wouldn’t the government want to run their own tests on him, even if they aren’t actively acknowledging their role in this conflict?) and Eleven’s new existence is explored. But given that the show’s strengths were not necessarily in character development or plotting, instead found more in atmosphere and moments, I don’t know if I would call this the best path forward for Stranger Things, and the way the finale resists creating an outright cliffhanger leaves the door open for them to do something more interesting. While it may be a more disruptive option, the contemporary moment has left the door open to plot a different type of path forward for the series, and I’ll be curious to see how the Duffer Brothers navigate the road ahead.
- I legitimately enjoyed this show and will gladly watch future seasons, but this is going to become a laundry list of things that bugged me, because lots of things bugged me.
- I know why Mike and Eleven are eventually pushed in a romantic direction, but it did not work for me—the romance stuff in general felt like it was there as an homage and never developed significantly enough to earn its place otherwise, but I didn’t see why it was necessary for the younger kids in particular.
- High school science teachers in the 80s sure knew a lot about alternate dimensions and sensory deprivation tanks, huh? (I would have been fine with one or the other, but they overdid it here, a peril of being an ongoing series as opposed to a film.)
- Does Mike and Nancy’s mother just, like, never go into her basement? Doesn’t she clean down there? How did she never discover that Eleven was living down there? Cara Buono never gets a lot to do here, but she does at least eventually go into her basement, which I applauded like she’d just saved the day.
- If the government has technology in the 1980s to create a lifelike dead body like that, surely they’d fill it with something other than cotton batting, right? Right?
- Another issue with eight episode seasons is that mid-season arcs like Will and Jonathan’s father returning get no room to play out: Lonnie is introduced briefly, shows up, and is then pushed away as an opportunist, all without any clear motivation beyond briefly forcing Joyce into accepting Will’s death long enough for there to be a funeral. It’s just a way to stall for time and create a turning point, and never finds a moment to register beyond this.
- My single biggest hangup with the show is its use of flashbacks—I ultimately don’t think the show is better for having them dispersed throughout the series. The Will ones stop abruptly, the early Eleven ones make the later, more significant ones feel less significant, and the Hopper ones in the finale lack proper development and play as overly intrusive to the drama at hand (especially the flashes during the discovery of Will in the Upside Down—we get it, the snake thing is like the tube, your daughter also had to have CPR, stop cutting between them). They felt like a shorthand form of storytelling to try to force character arcs onto a shorter episode order that makes those more challenging, but I don’t think the shorthand got the job done in this case.
- Barb deserved a presence in the epilogue, dammit.