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Weirder Stuff: Stranger Things and Good Storytelling

July 20, 2018

 
I know what you’re thinking, that’s a really lame parody name for Stranger Things, to which I’ll concede. You’re also probably wondering why I’m tackling this now since Season 2 came out in October, and Season 3 doesn’t come out until next year. Well for starters, I always wanted to talk about Stranger Things. Second, I just finished showing it to my dad and it’s still fresh in my mind. Third, season 3 is filming right now, and some crew members even dropped a couple of hints about what we can expect. Fourth, Netflix released a small teaser while I was actually in the middle of writing this, so now seems like a good time to talk about it, why is it so good, what do we think is going to happen in season 3, and when the hell is it coming out? I look forward to answering two of those questions. I think it should go without saying, but HEAVY spoilers follow. So if you haven’t seen it, what’s wrong with you? Go watch it right now. For everyone else, fire up the Delorean, we’re going back to the 80s, again. That’s going to be happening a lot.

 

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Once again, if you’re still reading at this point, my conscience is clear. And again, this article is written with the assumption that the reader has watched both seasons.

 

So let’s begin with why stranger Things is so good, because let’s be honest, story wise it’s nothing we haven’t seen before. I don’t mean that as a criticism, simply an observation, and the show’s creators have been pretty open about their many inspirations.

Government conspiracies, other dimensions, alien type beings, psychokinesis, these are all fairly standard science fiction conventions, particularly in 1980s movies. The 1980s are also known for a slew of teen comedies/dramas about friendship, first love, growing up, etc… A lot of the high school melodrama, and to a lesser extent the bonds between the “main party,” all feels very John Hughes-ish. One could argue, and some have, that the show only runs on nostalgia. However if that were truly the case, I don’t think the show would be anywhere to close to as popular as it is. Homage and rip-off can a blurry line, but Stranger Things manages to keep on the homage side without falling into plagiarism or rehash. This is part of why the new Star Wars movies are so contentious, in keeping with the older things fans loved from the originals, some think the new films have crossed the line from homage into flat out recycling, but I digress. Stranger Things manages to stand head and shoulders above other throwbacks is because its creators understand good storytelling. What makes for good storytelling? Ask different people and you’ll probably get different answers. For me personally, I don’t think it’s any one thing as much as a combination of several things, all of which Stranger Things gets right.
 

  1. What drives the story? Most, if not all, plots have been done before, so what makes your plot unique? For example, let’s say you want to write a revenge story. What makes it different from The Count of Monte Cristo? Or the Punisher? Or Kill Bill? Stranger Things season 1’s general plot is fairly similar to E.T. Kid hides new friend with psychic abilities from Government, hijinks ensue. Stranger Things even follows several of the same story beats; a chase on bicycles, putting psychic character in a disguise with a yellow wig, etc... But while the initial plot is fairly similar, it breaks off in key areas to become its own thing, and the Eleven storyline is only one of three storylines that eventually converge at the end.

  2. Characters. A good story has to have interesting characters. They don’t need to be good (in a moral sense), they just need to be interesting. This means they aren’t all the same, there isn’t one who’s perfect in every way, and they have more than one “quirk” that differentiates them from everyone else. All of the main characters in Stranger Things are interesting and three dimensional, leaving the audience wanting to know more about them. There’s also a lot of chemistry between the actors, which makes the interactions feel more real. The four boys all feel like close friends, and Mike and Eleven’s burgeoning feelings for each other (which builds as they get to know each other better) feels organic and lets the audience see how it grows and changes them throughout the series. Interesting characters are important because it allows the audience to form an emotional attachment with the characters, and thus have real reactions when something, good or bad, happens to them. It’s what makes Mike and Eleven’s separation at the end of season 1 so heartbreaking, and their reunion at the end of season 2 so satisfying. Because we care about Mike and Eleven, there’s an emotional payoff to their reunion. Without characters that you care about, it’s harder to get invested in a story. For me personally, a good example is Star Wars: Rogue One. I liked the movie, I thought it had a good plot, and I liked the dark tone, but I can’t remember the name of a single character in the entire film. Other than Donnie Yen’s blind force martial artist, who was awesome, no one was really that interesting, which made it hard to care when they all died. The audience needs an emotional connection to the characters, and Stranger Things provides that in spades.

  3. This is really more 2A then 3, but character development. The characters in Stranger Things do not stay static, they change and react to their circumstances, and the changes in characterization make logical sense. Steve Harrington arguably gets the best character development in the entire show, going from jerk at the start of Season 1, to less of a jerk, and arguably becomes a good person by the end of Season 1, even befriending Jonathan, whom he’d bullied earlier. In Season 2 he goes from redeemable character, to the MVP of the season, as well as 2017’s Dad of the Year. Almost no one liked Steve in season 1, and now he’s one of the show’s most popular characters. But the change didn’t just come on suddenly, it came as a natural growth from his heroics at the end of season 1, showing us that he’s deeper than just the stock 1980s jock asshole from every teen movie ever. Unlike his friends, he actually has a conscience, and when they go to far he breaks off with them, A bit more subtle, but just as important change, is the growth we see from Mike and Eleven. Throughout Season 1, Eleven learns what it means to be human from the party, going from nearly mute government experiment, to a girl who wants to be part of the world, in roughly a weeks time. In season 2 she continues to grow, becoming more assertive, and flat out disobeying the male authority figure in her life. Mike does grow as a character, but he has a personality shift in season 2. However the shift makes sense in-story. In season 1 Mike is a relatively happy kid, who is kind of the default leader of the party. He has a few emotional outbursts, as pre-teens do, but he’s a generally happy character. At the start of Season 2, he’s not in a good place. His parents mention changes in his behavior (lashing out, stealing, skipping school), he’s got a sour demeanor and he has no interest in befriending Max. In fact, he’s outright hostile to her. Eleven’s disappearance has obviously taken its toll on Mike, and he’s obviously struggling with depression and heartbreak. He barely smiles throughout most of the season, even when he’s with his friends, and the first time he actually comes across as happy is when he reunites with Eleven. It’s a subtle bit of acting on Finn Wolfhard’s part because while it’s an obvious change in Mike’s demeanor, it doesn’t call attention to itself, it doesn’t distract from the main story, and it’s done in a way that doesn’t make it feel out of character.

  4. A cohesive narrative. What I mean by this is the the story holds together in a way that makes logical sense. There’s a set of consistent rules that the story follows, and plot holes are either absent (which should always be the goal) or so small as to be virtually non-existent, and it all fits together in a way that makes sense. Almost everything that happens after the initial kick off should be a reaction to something earlier in the story. A (what kicks off the plot) should lead to B, should lead to C, should lead to D, etc… If this is missing, a story suffers for it. When a story ends up going “A kicks off the plot, and then B happens, and then C happens,” it becomes a mess. C needs to happen because of whatever B was. Now a cohesive narrative doesn’t necessarily mean the story has to be linear, Quentin Tarantino is a master at this. His films always take place in anachronistic order, jumping around between scenes, but it always eventually makes a consistent sequence of events. Stranger Things follows a linear narrative, but everything leads to something else. The story starts out with three separate storylines, the search for Will, The boys and Eleven, Jon and Nancy hunting the demogorgon, which eventually all converge at the end. Even better, we find out that a single event (Eleven opening the gate) is what actually sets off all three storylines, tying everything together neatly. Furthermore, Stranger Things follows its own established rules. Audiences will accept fantastic rules, so long as the story follows them. For example, Eleven has psychokinetic powers, something which doesn’t exist in real life, but it has limits in the show. She can move things with her mind, make you pee yourself, and scramble peoples brains, but doing so tires her out. Eleven can’t just do whatever, like flying (she can float a bit) or warp time, or do magic. Whatever incredible feats she pulls off always falls within the limits of her abilities. Her power grows in the second season, but its done naturally, treated as both part of her getting older, as well as learning more control. Consistency is what allows the fantastic to become believable in fiction.

  5. A satisfying conclusion. An ending that doesn’t satisfy the audience can end up derailing a work that is all but flawless in every other way (I’m looking at you Mass Effect 3), and Stranger Things has had two satisfying season finales. Season One managed to wrap up the biggest plot point, the search for Will, while still leaving a couple of cliffhangers. Season Two ended with a major payoff (Mike and Eleven’s reunion) and a nice conclusion to the main story, closing the gate and defeating the Mindflayer, for now at least. It even gives us an epilogue showing the closing of Hawkins Lab, the Snowball, and Mike and Eleven finally getting that dance, with the tease that the Mindflayer is still around and now knows about Eleven. Honestly, the conclusion was so well done that if that had been the end of the story and there wasn’t going to be any future seasons, I’d have been satisfied with it. Luckily for us, that’s not the case and we still have two (maybe three) seasons left.

  6. The look. Okay, this one isn’t exactly a necessity, as it only works for visual mediums, and not say, for books. Stranger Things has done a meticulous job of recreating the 80s, with everything. The music, the look, the fashion, the trends, etc… There are other works that have been set in the 80s, but none have recreated it as well as Stranger Things. Because it doesn’t just feel like a show set in the 80s, it feels like a show (okay, long movie) MADE in the 80s, and that’s part of the charm that allows it to rise above generic nostalgia. Even a show like Freaks and Geeks, which did a pretty good job of capturing the look, still had most of the cast wearing 2000s-era haircuts. Whereas the cast of Stranger Things actually have hair cuts that match the era. I realize that seems like a small thing, but tiny details like that make it stand out during the wave of 80s nostalgia we’re currently experiencing in pop culture.

 

So, the big question, what can we expect from Season 3? Honestly, I have no idea, at least not when it comes to the main story. At best I have a couple of educated guesses at certain plot elements based on hints we’ve gotten, or some dangling threads that haven’t been followed up on yet. Here’s what we know for sure:

  • Season 3 will be set during the Summer of 1985, Back to the Future will play a similar role to Ghostbusters in Season 2.

  • According to Shawn Levy, season 3 will explore Mike and Eleven’s relationship. That sound you just heard was every shipper on the internet fainting. I’m sure there will be some stuff with Max and Lucas as well. I hope they stay together if only because having a couple get together in a season finale and then break up next season is beyond cliche’ at the point.

  • Eleven will continue learning about being a normal girl, which will more than likely play a part with the above mentioned relationship.

  • Supposedly this season will be the “darkest yet,” but also “more intimate.”

  • Chief Hopper is now rocking a stache!

  • Despite the negative reception of Season 2, Episode 7, Stranger Things will continue to take risks.

  • Lucas’ sister, Erica, will have a bigger role this season, having her own series of adventures. I realize I’m in the minority here, but I didn’t like Erica, at all. Most people found her sass funny, I found it obnoxious. I’ve never really liked bratty characters, and I’m afraid of her subplot stealing time from the main cast. We’ll see I guess.

  • Hawkins is getting a new mall! A teaser, in the form of a retro commercial, dropped for Stranger Things earlier this week. The advertisement was for Starcourt Mall, coming to Hawkins next summer, and it featured Steve working at an ice cream parlor, along with new character Robin (played by Maya Hawke).

  • Cary Elwes, THE Cary Elwes, has joined the cast as Hawkins sleazy Mayor, that should be fun. Full disclosure, I LOVE Cary Elwes. He’s one of my favorite actors and I’ve always thought he should be more popular than he is, and I’m always happy to see him in anything.

  • David Harbour said Season 3 is inspired by epic movies from 1985, which leads to several possibilities. I went through the list of every movie that came out that year, and the following are what seemed most likely to have connections to the show (to me at least), but this is pure conjecture: Back to the Future (confirmed), The Black Cauldron, Brazil, The Breakfast Club, Cocoon, The Goonies, He-Man and She-Ra: The Secret of the Sword, Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, Rambo: First Blood Part II, Real Genius, Re-Animator, Weird Science. Again, pure conjecture, but with that list there’s a ton of directions they could go in.
     

Educated Guesses. This is where I think things could potentially go based on the above information.

  • The Mall is going to be a major location this season. Seeing as its the main feature in the teaser released this week, it seems like a safebet it’s going to play an important role this season. Maybe there’s some type of evil lurking in the mall? Or maybe the corporation that runs owns it is insidious? Cyberpunk was going full swing by 1985, and stories involving evil corporations are a staple of 80’s Science Fiction. So it would definitely fit both the era and the tone of the show.

  • Release? The teaser ended by saying that Starcourt Mall would be coming next summer. While that could simply mean nothing other than that’s when the show is taking place, some media outlets have suggested it means season 3 will come out next summer. I won’t lie, that seems like a clever hint, and I’m inclined to agree with that.

  • We’ll finally see Mr. Clark brought into the fold. I won’t lie, this is more of a wish than a guess, but setting the season in the summer instead of during the school year would give a reasonable excuse for the kids to still interact with Mr. Clark since they’ll be entering high school in the fall. Mr. Clark is one of the handful of adults in the show who isn’t useless, and if anyone deserves to be let in on the full story, it’s him. As long as it doesn’t end up with him dying.

  • I don’t think we’ll see the Mind Flayer or the Demogorgon this season. The Duffer Brothers said this season would be more intimate as opposed to bigger, Seeing as the Mindflayer is a potential world ending threat, bringing it back would necessitate a bigger story. Instead I’m guessing they’ll be dealing with a more “local evil,” for lack of a better term. I think the Mindflayer will come back in the final season, whether that’s 4 or 5, more powerful than before. But we’ll probably still see some hints about what’s going on in the Upside Down. At least that’s what I’d do if I was writing for this show.
     

Unanswered Questions. Plot threads that we could potentially see some follow up on.

  • Is Dr. Brenner really alive? It looked like the Demogorgon killed him in season 1, jumping on him with its mouth open, but then again, we never saw a body. And the rule is if there’s no body, they aren’t dead. According to the Duffer brothers, he’s still alive. Assuming that’s true, and not a massive bit of trolling, it’s all but guaranteed we’ll see him again. Maybe not this season, but he’ll be back.

  • Will Kali come back, and are we going to see more kids? There’s at least 8 more, all of which are potentially psychic in some way. I’ll be honest, I hope the answer to both of these is no. I didn’t hate the episode “The Lost Sister” the way a lot of people did, but I definitely thought it was the weakest episode of the series. I’m good if we don’t see Kali again, although that seems unlikely. I don’t need to see any more of the experiment-kids. For one, adding too many characters always ends up hindering a show by giving established characters that we care about less screen time. And furthermore, the more kids with psychic powers, the less unique Eleven becomes. I call this the Wolverine Problem. Wolverine, the X-Men character, is a mutant with regenerative abilities and adamantium claws, he didn’t really have a power set like anybody else. His evil counterpart, Sabertooth, was introduced with the same power set, and it was alright for awhile because there’s almost always a hero’s evil equivalent in comic books. But because of his popularity, Marvel eventually gave Wolverine a son, and an opposite sex clone (basically a daughter) both of whom have healing powers and claws. This has been repeated with numerous other characters, and I feel like it’s usually a sign that a writer is out of ideas. It always hurts a character by taking away what makes them unique. So I honestly hope we don’t see any more of the kids from Hawkins Lab, giving Elevon one counterpart was more than enough.

  • Mike and Lucas both have girlfriends now, are Will and Dustin going to catch up soon? There’s at least two girls with a crush on Will, the one who asks him to dance, and the one who cries at his funeral.

  • Lucas’ Dad and Chief Hopper both served in Vietnam, is that going to come into play? This isn’t actually stated specifically, but in season 1 the items Lucas’ brings are “from ‘Nam.” Given this includes a bayonet, the implication is his father is a veteran. Hopper never mentions any military service, but he mentions knowing guys who suffer from PTSD, and there’s a box marked Vietnam in his cabin. A more subtle clue is the rifle he uses at the end of the season. For starters he knows how to use it correctly. The rifle itself looks like either an M16 or an M16 variant. The M16 was used by U.S. troops throughout the Vietnam war and were notoriously unreliable, prone to jamming at the worst moments. Hopper keeps the rife in semi-automatic the whole time, most likely because he knows from firsthand experience. And I know that because I minored in history.

  • Marital troubles for the Wheelers? Ted is hilariously clueless to the point of arguably being the most useless adult in the whole show. Nancy says her parents marriage is one of convenience, and there are definitely hints of this, particularly in season 2. Karen is almost always drinking in every scene, possibly hinting at an unfulfilling marriage. And that’s not even including the shameless flirting with Billy. You know, a highschooler. Is Karen going to go full Mrs. Robinson on us? It’s certainly in the realm of possibilities.  

  • Chief Hopper sold out Eleven. At the end of Season 1, Hopper gives Brenner the location of Eleven, and the kids, as part of a deal to let him and Joyce get Will. Joyce doesn’t know this, no one does. Hopper put four kids lives in danger, giving people whom he KNEW were killers, their location. Thats a major deal, and it wasn’t brought up at all in Season 2, probably because no one else knows. But if Brenner is alive, HE knows, and that could easily be used to drive a wedge between Hopper and Eleven. Not only that, it would almost certainly shatter the trust the other characters have in him. Mike already doesn’t like Hopper after learning he lied about Eleven for a year, what would learning about that betrayal do? Again, this is something I’d follow up on if I was writing this, especially if I wanted to make things darker.
     

That’s what I’ve got for Stranger Things Season 3, what do you guys think? Is Brenner alive? Is the mall actually the home of an elder god? Will Ted ever realize what’s going on? And most importantly, when is Season 3 coming out? Not soon enough.

 

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