Hope Is a Stranger Thing
The Netflix-original, Stranger Things, created by Ross and Matt Duffer, has been, to put it mildly, electrifying. Granted, not everyone found the 8-chapter-long drama to be completely magical (this is what I mean), but on the whole, it’s captured us. It captured me. But why? What’s all the buzz about (literally, Buzzfeed has had more Stranger listicles than I can count)? Why did my Twitter feed consist of approximately 98 percent #StrangerThings tags? Why is this period-thriller, set in the 1980’s, so undeniably compelling?
A lot of websites cite nostalgia. Variety recently published the article “Stranger Things Tests Limits of Nostalgia Strategy.” Business Insider describes the show as a “supernatural sci-fi thriller that draws heavily from '80s movies and TV. It's a nostalgia play, done to perfection.”
No doubt, nostalgia is a strong component of what makes this show so pleasurable. It hearkens the viewer back to a time remembered -- romanticized -- when E.T. might land in the backyard or our bikes might take us on the next wild, summer escapade. It takes us to a time of innocence and youth, full of family, friends, and a heaping dose of intrigue. But while the nostalgia gets us to click play and enjoy the vibes, it’s not what gets us to “binge watch.” Something deeper is at play--something upside down, if you will.
At the heart of most engaging narratives are motifs and themes. The underlying presence of these big ideas creates a subtle framework for the “why” of a piece. Take Harper Lee’s classic, To Kill A Mockingbird, for example. On a surface level, Lee’s story is about a young girl nicknamed Scout. She’s energetic and curious, living in a segregated south, viewing her father through a child’s eyes. But, underneath, on a thematic level, Lee is crafting a story about perseverance, friendship, beauty, courage and hope (to name but a few ideas).
It’s these deeper influencers that tug at our souls. They ask our mind and emotions to come along for the ride, to engage with the complexities of a narrative. It’s this reality that causes us to bookworm the weekend away, listen to an entire album over and over again, or binge watch the first season of Stranger Things. Because, yes, nostalgic vibes and well-crafted narratives create a necessary attraction, but the injected weight of motif and theme provide the gravity.
What were the Duffer brothers trying to say, then? What was underneath their narrative-- infused within it? What kept us grounded? Like Harper Lee, the director-brother duo had something big to say (and from a child’s point of view, too). Consider: light.
As a motif, the imagery of light is present throughout the entire season of Stranger Things. It smacks you across the face, actually. Just watch Will’s mom, Joyce, cling desperately to her strings of Christmas lighting. See the directorial decision of shrouding both the monster and its dimension for most of the season. The flickering light bulbs indicative of so frightening a scene to come for Nancy, Steve, and Jonathan. It’s masterful.
Through the intrinsic connotations common to “light,” the Duffer brothers draw out these deeper ideas: truth, hope, love, loyalty, and salvation. They build that thematic framework so necessary for an engaging narrative. They riddle their tale with even more than just excellent 80’s pop-culture references. They season it with the real and the human, a thing even more considerable for a sci-fi thriller involving psychedelic mind powers and frightening, faceless creatures.
This framework gives way to a fertile ground of rich storytelling. Through it, we meet four young boys, contagiously optimistic and ravenously loyal. We stumble into the angsty-yet-honest relationships swirling around small-town teens and feel the obsessive hope of a mother who will not give up. We go on duty with the local sheriff and search for answers in more ways than one. And maybe most of all, we’re able to meet light made manifest in the character of Eleven.
It’s in Eleven that we see something truly lavish with potential. A tiny little spark, flickering like an ember, walking the line between two possibilities--a flame snuffed out or a flame ignited. A life lost or a life found. In Elle’s development, we see this aching light nurtured by the lovingkindness of those around her--moments like Mike’s fascination turned crush, Dustin’s boyish care, or Lucas’ eventual acceptance. With each intentional, decisive action towards goodness, we see the light in Elle grow brighter. We watch Eleven taste gladness in more than an Eggo. She learns freedom and experiences what life can be like when filled with hope. She learns a better dimension. And we get to feel all of that. To view it. We’re allowed the tremendous privilege of glimpsing something quite wonderful: light trampling the dark.
It’s this potent theme that is just bursting from the Duffer Brother’s story. Even from the start, when Mike defines a “friend,” renames “Eleven” to “Elle,” and talks about “promises,” we see a dynamite string of hope. And, it only ever evolves into an explosive message of good over evil. A message our hearts needs to hear. We live in a starving time, hungry for love and, at the least, just an inkling of hope.
Stranger Things feeds us. It reminds us of what we know to be true. In a time of national and global unrest and confusion, it is so good to have Elle as a friend, to find her in the woods. To show us a glimpse of what we can so often forget: the light will not die out, and there is hope.