12 November 2017

Exploring Underacknowledged References in Stranger Things

I don't much review television here at Norwegian Morning Wood, even though I watch quite a bit of it. Actually, truth be told, in reality I actually don't get around to all that much. You can check for yourself. It's mostly cartoons. Simpsons. The occasional shitty Flash episode. I don't get in a ton of the prestige television, mostly because I just don't have time nor the capacity for emotional investment. Or access. I'm a cheap bastard.

Whaddap playa
But I've devoured both seasons of Stranger Things. I'm not one to call the show brilliant or anything. It rides nostalgia and overacting over any good, layered ironic writing or truly original ideas, but the characters are endearing and iconic, which is simply rare in these times. More than anything, though, Stranger Things is addictive. Watching it is a compulsion. Each episode climaxes with such a hook that you need to let the next one unfold, which it can do so easily by the nature of Netflix's binge-friendly streaming platform.

So this is all to say that I think Stranger Things is okay. It's not really terrible, but it's not the kind of show I obsess and drool over. For Season 2 I did watch an episode every night for nine straight nights, which was a nice way to let it settle and really think about what was going on. Let's just say SPOILERS here because I want to ramble unencumbered. I generally enjoyed Season 2 more than the first, but I want to mostly give praise for how different it was.

Season 1 set up this central mystery of "What Happened to Will Byers?" which developed and ran its course to include shady psychic child-napping government institutions, spooky monster dimensions, and nerd killing. It's all compelling stuff. It also constantly pays homage to classic 80s genre fare. There are references a plenty to Star Wars, The Thing (1982), Dungeons & Dragons, The Evil Dead (1981), a slew of Stephen King adaptations, but mostly a lot of story elements from E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial (1982). There are so many more.

Season 2 does a lot of this same stuff, but I'll give it credit for slamming through a whole new crop of pop culture references. Ghostbusters (1984) is perhaps the most prominent, but a lot of the first half of the season feels like Gremlins (1984). However, I was most struck by how Empire Strikes Back-y (1980) this season was. Now, there was nothing crazy revealed like the Demogorgon is Will's father or anything, but a lot of the story structure seemed to ape this very famous sequel. There were also definite Aliens (1986) vibes, from Eleven's new Ripley 'do to the inflation of dangerous protagonists. That tunnel scene with the army dudes hunting Demodogs was totally just...Aliens.

But back to Empire. I was struck by the famous Bryan Singer quote describing X2: X-Men United (2003), which he supposedly modeled on Empire. Season 1 was driven on this strength of this core group of friends, even if one of them was missing. Eleven was absorbed into that group and they made their stand together, solving the central mystery, and all the psychic monster dimension junk that came with it. Season 2 sees everyone fractured, doing their own things and exploring the ramifications of that in their relationships. It spins different characters off with each other in unexpected ways. Lucas and new girl Max. Dustin and Steve, which is the most legendary team-up ever. Eleven and Hopper. Nancy and Jonathan, who were kind of a thing in Season 1, but totally go for it here. Mike, ostensibly the lead in Season 1 gets much less to do, and if anything, is more paired and connected to Will, a connection that grows stronger the more Will recedes and the Shadow Monster takes over.

In Empire, we saw this, too. Luke and R2 go and do their own thing on Dagobah while Han, Leia, Chewie, and C-3PO fight Mynocks and Space Slugs, then head to holla at Lando on Bespin. We even see a bit of that. Lando was a smoother, cooler Han Solo. Here, Billy is a tougher, cooler, more asshole-version of Steve. A...Supersteve, if you will. The big thing is, though, that the group splinters and the most powerful character doesn't interact with anyone else for most of the series.

"Chapter Seven: The Lost Sister" (S2;E7) really hammered this home for me. For an episode so late in the season, when so many pieces are coming together it was a bold move to feature only Eleven in a largely stand-alone story. Some critics have said that it interrupts the momentum and flow of an otherwise tight story, but quite the opposite, the episode is integral to her character. It's her Dagobah. She finds an older master with a background and abilities similar to her, trains and hones those abilities, then is pulled away because she senses her friends in danger. This is exactly Luke's journey in Empire.

Now, it's important to remember that Luke doesn't actually do shit in Empire. The great irony is that he abandons his training and rushes back to save his friends, but it's all a ruse by Vader. Luke's presence doesn't affect anything with them. Han is still frozen in Carbonite and sent off with Boba Fett. It's Lando and Lobot that save the day and are about to escape when they have to turn around to save LUKE's ass as he dangles from a weather vane. Eleven's presence is admittedly cooler, she's not the Hawkins, Indiana big gun, she's their ONLY gun. It's breathtaking and insane that it takes nine episodes for Eleven to reunite with the party, but that delay makes the reunion all the sweeter.

There is a lot more to Stranger Things 2, from its amazing Lovecraftian elements to its great expansion of world development, and Steve being dreamy and awesome, but using two of the greatest sequels of all time as its plot points is a solid move. This show hinges around the 80s, and although that can be a little played out (where is my early 2000s TRL-infused nostalgia), using some of the greatest movies of that era as its direct inspiration serves the purpose of the show well. Any Back to the Future (1985) references coming up next? C'mon, the Upside-Down is definitely capable of time travel. #BarbLives. And where is Lucas' love of Conan the Destroyer (1984)? There are endless possibilities.

By the way, speaking of Lucas, one of the weirder bits about Season 2 was how it clearly had something to say about race, but always seemed to afraid to say it. From Mike's insistence that Lucas be Winston Zeddemore when they play Ghostbusters to Billy's subtle racism (there's no other explicit reason he forbids his sister from hanging out with Lucas), there's a little undercurrent of social justice here, but always seems to afraid to point it out in words. Afraid to alienate its younger base, perhaps? It's hard to say, but comes off feeling half-baked and awkward.

Smashy smashy!
And for the record, because I like doing this, Dustin is totally Ray Stantz, as the show makes clear, Will is definitely Egon Spengler, although he lacks Egon's confidence, he maintains his role as the most socially awkward and holds technical knowledge simply from his connection the Upside-Down. Dustin is probably the Spengler in terms of knowing random shit, but he's also the most lovable and hopeful, which is a stronger Ray trait. Mike and Lucas definitely fight for Venkman. Mike had him in the first Season, scoring the love interest and wit while Lucas was more a man of action, very contrary to the slacker Venkman. In Season 2 Lucas' character is developed much more and has the bigger love story along with more time to shine making wry comments. That leaves Winston as the odd man out. Lucas was definitely the Zeddemore of Season 1, but there's not a great analogy in Season 2. The blue collar audience surrogate is Hopper more than anybody else.

What did you think of Stranger Things 2? Did it do it for ya? Are you on the Empire bandwagon? Do you think that Stranger Things 3 will add a bunch of Demoteddy Bears and a Slave Eleven? That's super disturbing. Better go with Slave Hopper.

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