Review: Stranger Things – Season 1, Episode 2

Producer(s): Karl Gajdusek, Cindy Holland, Brian Wright, Matt Thunell, Shawn Levy, Dan Cohen, Matt Duffer, Ross Duffer, Iain Paterson, Shannon Tsang
Director(s): Matt Duffer, Ross Duffer
Writer(s): Matt Duffer, Ross Duffer
Starring: Winona Ryder, David Harbour, Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobby Brown, Gaten Matarazzo, Caleb McLaughlin, Natalia Dyer, Charlie Heaton, Noah Schnapp, Joe Keery, Matthew Modine
Distributer: Netflix
Genre: Science Fiction, Horror, Supernatural
Rating: TV14+
After having pitched their show to most of the major cable networks and being rejected by all of them, the Duffer brothers started to doubt their future in television. It wasn’t until executive producer Shawn Levy came across the pitch script of the first episode in early 2015 that things started moving, and quickly. After purchasing the rights to the show, yet still keeping the Duffer Brothers in charge of writing, the team met with Netflix, who had just come off of a wave of hit original series (House of Cards, Orange is the New Black). It didn’t take long for Netflix to order the first season and production began with a 2016 target. The show is now heading into its third season and has become a cultural phenomenon.

Content Guide

Spiritual Content: None.
Violence: Telekinetic powers are used to force a door shut. A staged suicide scene is shown.
Language/Crude humor: There are a couple of crude jokes in the episode. The words s**t, d*mn, a**hole, and a** are used.
Sexual Content: One of the main characters is shown in her bra multiple times. Implied sexual conduct.
Drug/Alcohol Use: Underage drinking is shown.
Other Negative Themes: One character in particular shows a massive disregard for those who are grieving. Caving to peer pressure towards alcohol.
Positive Content: The Byers’ family had a strong episode, showing how far families will go for one another.

Recap

The episode begins with Mike, Dustin, and Lucas’ clumsy attempt to work out what to do with their newest party member. It’s the DM, Mike, who ultimately comes up with the plan to keep Eleven hidden in his family’s basement overnight, and then have her come to the front door in the morning acting as a lost child for his mother to find her and figure out what to do. The other players hesitantly agree – only doing so to protect their ability to search for Will – and leave fearful, believing Eleven to be crazy and dangerous. If this is the case, then Mike seems to have found his type because he is warmer towards Eleven than he has been towards anyone else so far. After Eleven learns several new words, the show shifts its focus to the Byers.
Things are not well in the Byers’ home, and it is up to Jonathan to keep the panicked and scrambling Joyce from completely falling apart. Hopper arrives, six hours late, to inform the mother that an all night search has come up empty. Joyce describes the call she received from Will that destroyed her phone to Hopper, who believes it to be a prank call and storm surge combo. Hopper then leaves to find Will’s father, but not before telling Jonathan not to do the same.
Back at the impromptu sleepover, the Wheeler household enjoys a breakfast full of quips and secrets just before Mike’s plan is rejected by Eleven. Finally learning there is usually danger involved when bringing strangers you met in the woods in for a sleepover, Mike thinks on his feet to keep Eleven hidden from his parents, while also deciding to take a sick day from school. While this happens, it is revealed the Byers’ have piqued the interest of those in the secret government lab.
At the high school, one Steve Harrington shares that his parents will be out of town, and so naturally a party is happening. While the party planning committee starts their work, the downer arrives in the form of Jonathan putting up signs for his missing brother. Nancy gives a decent attempt at comforting Jonathan by telling him the situation sucks. Jonathan agrees, it does suck, and the list of those skipping school grows by one. Shifting from one type of school to another, Mike proudly begins the house tour for El by playing whiplash on the lazyfath-I mean-boy, and bragging about how he has the biggest television in the group (obviously the reason he’s the DM).
It’s here we get our first glimpse into Jonathan and Will’s relationship in the form of a flashback. The brothers’ father has canceled plans with Will again, and Jonathan fills the void as best he can while the two bond over music. It’s a heartwarming scene that transitions nicely with the contrasting tone of present day Joyce panicking in the general store (in which she works) as she buys a new phone and works out an advance on her pay. The government lab takes this opportunity while the Byers are away to search the family’s property, and become rather excited when they discover a conveniently timed goop drop in the shed.
Back at the Wheeler’s, Eleven starts to consider if it may be better to get caught if it will keep her from hearing about another one of Mike’s toys that she couldn’t be less interested in. This is until she notices a picture of Will among Mike’s things and, somehow, recognizes him. Before Mike can gather an explanation for this, his mother comes home. After an awkward attempt to get downstairs (and nearly ripping Eleven’s arm off on the way back up…seriously, go look), he hides his stowaway in the closet. Being stuck in the small space brings back some traumatic memories of being thrown into solitary confinement at the lab, but El pushes through by clinging on to Mike’s promise he would return; a promise being a concept Mike teaches her just seconds earlier. After convincing his mother everything is alright, Mike returns to a tearful El.
We then get an update on Hopper’s day as his search for Will is interrupted by the staged suicide of the restaurant owner from the previous episode. After a deputy comments on the series of incidents being like a big city, Hopper states that in the big city the victims aren’t usually your friends. While this investigation is beginning, a rogue agent is starting another of his own. Jonathan meets up with his father, which quickly turns into an unpleasant affair. It becomes clear right away that not only does the boy’s father know nothing about his sons, he also doesn’t seem to care at all that one of them is missing, and instead uses this opportunity to throw jabs at Joyce. Once Jonathan is satisfied that Will isn’t around, he leaves, refusing to give his father any more time.
Back at the Wheeler’s, the remaining members of the D&D troupe have reunited, and two of the three are not too pleased that Eleven is still around and the situation may be more dangerous than it first appeared. Before they could take any hasty actions, El makes an executive decision to stop any plan involving them telling an adult from going forward by revealing her powers for the first time to the boys. The troupe, convinced they should listen after El slams a door shut with her mind a couple times, start to get their first clues as to where their fourth party member has gone.
The boys aren’t the only ones seemingly making progress. Hopper has finally found his first lead, though it’s not what he expects. While interviewing one of the last people to see the restaurant owner alive, he learns El, who has been mistaken as a boy due to her shaved head, was seen taking food. This gives the search party somewhere to focus their efforts, and this points them to the lab. While this is happening, Nancy gives her excuse over dinner as to why she needs to be out that night. She decides to choose the smoothest and not at all insensitive excuse. Being surrounded by Will’s friends, she uses a ceremony for Will as her reason. Not cool Nancy.
Surprisingly, no one calls Nancy out, and she catches a ride to Steve’s house from her friend Barb. Despite Barb’s insistence that Nancy is making some really poor choices lately and should consider slowing down before she does something more extreme, Nancy promises she won’t go too far with Steve as she prepares herself to go too far with Steve. Speaking of going too far, Hopper somehow found time to make a new friend and have a sleepover at his place. This new, and now very close, friend attempts to comfort him, but it does not help the struggling cop, and Sandra (whose name I only learned because subtitles were on) fades into obscurity, never to be seen again. A moment of silence.
Jonathan, returning empty handed from his trip, drives to the woods where Will’s bike was found and begins to take photos of the scene. He is interrupted by a loud scream, and running towards it with camera in hand, he discovers a party in progress. Steve’s party. Many cringeworthy teenage antics take place, all of which Jonathan decides to catalog by taking photos from the bushes like any totally normal, not at all creepy person in his situation would do after turning the flash off. After Steve and Nancy peer-pressure Barb into shotgunning a beer, Barb cuts her finger as the knife slips from the can. While she runs to the bathroom to tend to her wound, the remaining party-goers get into the pool, willing or not, all while Jonathan racks up glamour shots for the yearbook.
While her oldest son risks charges, Joyce’s youngest son calls a second time, with the same end result. The communication doesn’t end with the phone call though, as lights start turning on in the house, leading Joyce to Will’s room, and culminating in the cassette player turning on. While Joyce tries to process what is happening, a creature attempts to force its way through her wall, though this event looks more akin to someone trying to fight through a plastic bag. Joyce runs to her car and prepares to leave, but stops when the cassette player turns on again. Determined to discover what is happening with her son, Joyce reenters the house.
Jonathan, meanwhile, is facing a different kind of battle, possibly legal, when the party goers leave the pool. Nancy tries to ditch Barb, telling her to leave the party while confirming all of Barb’s fears. Upstairs, Nancy and Steve become too close, and do so too close to a window, where Jonathan snaps a photo before he realizes what is actually happening. When he does, he decides to instead take a picture of Barb, who, while Jonathan is distracted with rewinding his camera, is taken by an unseen creature just before the credits roll.

 

Review

Despite learning very little in terms of plot, this episode does move forward in many significant ways, especially in regards to character development. This does not mean there aren’t also a few unfortunate backward steps mixed in. Getting the bad out of the way first, Nancy comes across as the villain of the episode. It’s hard to ignore the fact she used the assembly for Will as her excuse without having the thought even cross her mind that maybe she shouldn’t be mentioning this in front of Will’s best friends, particularly with her motives. Nancy’s disregard for her best friend Barb only added to her problems, as she was clearly planning on rejecting Barb’s advice as Barb was giving it. Even Barb noticed this. Barb’s line “This isn’t you” didn’t do much in terms of impact, since the audience has never seen Nancy any other way. There are several instances of other characters mentioning how Nancy used to be, but it’s difficult to create that likability without showing the viewers how the change occurred in the first place. It’s obvious that character development is coming, (development Barb may never see) but I do think they may have gone too far with Nancy too quickly, with no point of reference.
Can we also mention Jonathan’s creepathon, please? In my notes I actually wrote “creeper Jonathan is worst Jonathan.” This unfortunate event comes right on the heels of some fairly strong character moments for the older brother until the poolside photo shoot. I am willing to give a bit of leeway at the start, but once everyone had gone inside to dry off from their pool party, there’s an unspecified period of time that passes before Nancy appears by the window again, and Jonathan is still there. Waiting. Why? For plot? Please, Jonathan, don’t be like this. Overlooking the shameful pictures, Jonathan actually had a strong episode. His protectiveness and compassion is showcased rather well in his flashback scene with Will. His interaction with his father also was a standout moment, proving Jonathan does indeed have a backbone when he needs to. It will be interesting to see how that may play out later on.
My final complaint comes in the form of poor Sandra. Don’t know who that is? No one does, and no one will hear about her again. Hopper’s random sleepover friend is used to show his struggle to understand the sudden troubles the town is facing, but I found this method to be awkward and counter-intuitive. David Harbour has already shown he has a gift for portraying fights with inner demons, so this moment felt not only unrealistic (when did he have time with all of his searching to set up this hookup?), but outside of the general tone the show was taking as well. His deputies have not added much in terms of tone either. They could have fewer lines and it wouldn’t bother me at all.
On to the good! Winona Ryder continues to prove she deserves all the credit she can get. The mannerisms and twitches help the audience feel Joyce’s anxiety and scattered thoughts. Small touches such as her trouble finding the phones in the store where she has worked for ten years also contributes to the believability of someone who is experiencing the loss and helplessness of her situation. Joyce’s drive towards the end of the episode when she believes Will is calling her back into the house was the breakout moment for her character in my opinion. That creature is going to regret going for round two.
Eleven and Mike’s tour of the house was also entertaining. Although Mike almost took El out while dragging her up the stairs, it was nice to see El learning about life and relationships from those her age, as well as five new words. There was an innocent sweetness to some of the interactions the two had, as well as crushing reality when El showed no interest whatsoever in Mike’s dinosaur toy. The reveal of her knowledge of Will was odd, and I’m hopeful that will be explained later on. The music playing while El attempted to explain where Will was and what was after him couldn’t have been better. Just needed to point that out. There were some awkward moments, one in particular due to editing, between the younger actors, but nothing that hurt the episode. It is also worth noting Gaten Matarazzo might have a strong future in comedy when this series is over, as he is showing a natural sense of timing during his humorous scenes.
The strong writing and character moments carried the episode with deliberate pacing and worthwhile payoff. Though there were a couple odd choices and hiccups, these were not enough to hurt the episode too badly. The amount of set ups crammed into this episode is impressive, each thread adding another reason to watch. Be careful when starting this one, because you might wonder where the day went when all is done.

The Bottom Line

It could be said this was a slow episode, and in many ways it was, but I think a better word would be deliberate. There were some strong and needed character moments, and they all felt as though they were building towards something greater. There were some misses, *cough* Nancy *cough*, but overall the foundation being laid should make the payoff more than worth it.

 

8.1

Isaiah Kaufman

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