Howdy fans! Welcome to the first installment of the Stranger Things watchalong! This new sci-fi show from the creators of Wayward Pines premiered yesterday on Netflix, and we want you to watch along with us. Over the next four weeks, we’re going to run recaps and reactions to all eight episodes in the show’s first season. If you haven’t yet started watching, read this article at your own risk. SPOILERS will occur!
1. “The Vanishing of Will Byers”
November 6, 1983. Hawkins, Indiana. We get a look at the Hawkins National Laboratory, which we learn is run by the U.S. Department of Energy. Inside, a lone scientist runs scared into a freight elevator, only to hear an inhuman growl above him. As the elevator doors close, we hear his violent death.
That alone would make a pretty decent cold open for an X-Files episode. But the cold open in this episode of Stranger Things lasts for seven more minutes, for some reason. We’re introduced to our main quartet of boys. They are Michael (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) and Will (Noah Schnapp). Michael is the de facto leader of this middle school A/V nerd troupe.
Michael’s parents show up but aren’t terribly important yet. Michael’s older sister, Nancy, is the boilerplate high school sister who’s always twirling the telephone cord around her finger. She’s dating Steve Harrington, the high school douchebag. After the main quartet split up for the night, Will rides home on his bicycle and is stalked by a humanoid monster. Will races home to an empty house, but the monster has followed him. A chilling stalking sequence plays out, and we see that the monster has some level of telekinetic ability. Will tries to hide in the shed, but the monster is waiting for him. They vanish into thin air. That’s the end of the cold open, and we get the show’s great credits sequence.
Then we meet Hopper, the chief of police (David Harbour). He’s a mess. He downs a prescription pill and a beer or two before heading into work. Then we meet Will’s mom Joyce (Winona Ryder) and Will’s older brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton). Joyce calls Michael’s mom to discuss Will’s absence, but they speculate that he just left early for school.
After seeing Michael, Lucas, Dustin, and Nancy at school, the show shotguns us with Jaws homages. Chief Hopper is given a silly small town request (missing garden gnomes) and is then left to deal with a Mrs. Kintner type: Joyce. There’s a very familiar extreme close-up of the typewriter as Hopper fills out the paperwork for Will’s case. Hopper thinks Lonnie, Will’s estranged dad, is to blame for the disappearance.
Back at the laboratory, we meet Matthew Modine‘s character, Dr. Brenner. He’s some spooky scientist type who’ll probably end up in a hazmat suit a whole bunch throughout the season, so I want to call him Hazmatt Modine. I’ll refrain for your sake. Anyway, the laboratory has been locked down for investigation. There’s a huge, slimy hole on the wall of a concrete chamber that reminds me of the hive entrance from Aliens. Some government stooge mentions “the girl.”
The girl (Millie Bobby Brown) is clearly an escaped experiment, and we come to know her as Eleven. She’s got a “011” tattoo on her wrist, a buzzcut, and is dressed only in a hospital gown. Eleven sneaks into a diner kitchen and steals some french fries. Benny, the owner, catches her. He takes pity on the hungry young girl and gives her a clean outfit to wear. She seems to have a very limited vocabulary. While Benny’s back is turned, we see that Eleven has some telekinetic abilities like the monster. Benny calls Social Services to retrieve her.
Back with our main boys, their school day comes to an end. Their science teacher, Mr. Clark, shows the kids his HAM radio. Hopper shows up to interview them about Will’s disappearance. Night falls, and Mr. Clark volunteers to help Hopper and his team search the woods for Will. They find his bike. Along the way, we learn that Hopper’s young daughter died several years ago. Back at Benny’s diner, Social Services arrives, but it’s a trap! Federal agents raid the diner in search of Eleven and kill Benny. Eleven manages to escape, but not before killing a few goons with her telekinetic powers.
Joyce and Jonathan are at home, still very distraught over Will’s disappearance. The phone rings, and Joyce answers to hear some breathing and growling. An electrical anomaly passes through the house, and the phone dies in her hands. Joyce swears that the breathing she heard on the phone was Will. Our main boys sneak out to look for Will, but find someone they weren’t expecting: Eleven.
Joyce’s flashback with Will in his backyard fort is the standout scene of the episode. It’s the one scene Winona Ryder gets to play an emotion other than full-tilt chain-smoking anxiety.
It’s impossible to judge the quality of a show based on the first episode, but Stranger Things is not off to a strong start. Most of the characters and their dynamics seem standard issue. They interact with each other in exactly the way you think they will because the characters are mostly archetypes. There are no surprises in them. It’s middle school dweeb, high school bully, stressed-out single mom, troubled cop, and more characters you know from countless stories. However, an archetype can be a solid base upon which to build an interesting character. The series has a lot of room to grow from here, and it has a lot of work to do so to populate its world with interesting people.
On the positive side, the ’80s aesthetic is lovingly recreated. I found myself instantly reminded of E.T. and Ti West‘s The House of the Devil. Even if the characters and story of Stranger Things end up being a bust, at least we’ll have eight hours of beautiful ’80s sci-fi pastiche. The synth score, while nothing special, compliments the visual style of the show pretty well.