Mere hours before “Strangers Things” season 3 gets released, Chris and Dan sat down to talk about the first two seasons of the series.
Chris: One of the first things that comes to mind, when talking about “Stranger Things” is the 80s nostalgia and how it was used to create the whole storyline. You can see a lot of it: from Spielberg influences (“ET” and “Goonies” especially come to mind), through some John Hughes teen films (especially in Nancy’s storyline) and classic horror films to various bits and pieces like “Dungeon and Dragons” references or even music. For me, as a more of a 90s kid, though, it wasn’t the main thing that hooked me on to the series. I recognised these elements and liked them, but didn’t feel as connected to them as probably some older viewers. How was it for you?
Dan: The series timeline begins in 1983 and you can see that the show creators, The Duffer Brothers, are really fond of the 80s, and the show is heavily inspired by their own interests of this decade: movies, TV series, comics, music, cars and even fashion (look at Barb rocking ’em glasses). For me, as a kid born in 1989 and still in the dull Soviet Union (1 year before it fell apart), most of the stuff feels like unfamiliar territory. Well, except for one thing: music. It really packs up some great 80s tunes. I also love old movies from the 80s and 90s. I think it’s a bonus that the whole Netflix series is set in the 80s instead of being set in contemporary times. It definitely gives it a more original and unique approach. The show is filmed in a way reminding me most of the 80s movies and TV series (camera angles, colour palette), which really takes you back to those times. The biggest selling point of this show for me was a very strong cast, an interesting storyline and the genre, which I love. And I really can relate to the “underdog” theme going on throughout the series.
Chris: Definitely, the nostalgia bits are a great bonus and make “Stranger Things” feel unique when compared to other series. But, as you said, the main part the hooked me and you on is the storyline and various themes which are woven into the plot. Which brings me to the next thing I’d like to discuss with you: what were your favourite parts of the storyline?
Dan: In the first season, the most interesting plot for me was the disappearance of Will and how it led to his mother, Joyce’s storyline and her struggles. They were really interesting and heartbreaking to watch. Joyce is played by an extremely talented, gorgeous and rad woman — Winona Ryder (even her full name sounds cool, like a motorcycle brand name). She plays this kind of neurotic and very anxious mother and she gives so much heart and realness to the character that you forget you’re actually watching a TV series. I can’t think of anyone else who could have portrayed Joyce as she did!
I also loved how Eleven’s origin story was told through numerous flashbacks (it reminded me of another TV series, “LOST”, which used this storytelling technique quite heavily). I enjoyed the dynamic between the four friends, Lucas, Dustin, Will and Mike, and their very different approaches to dealing with things and yet (most of the time) the ability to reach a compromise and find a good solution. They were all both very different (with their problem-solving ideas) and similar (interests, being outcasts) at the same time, but yet they’re all great friends, who are going on the same journey together.
I also loved Jim Hopper’s personality and how it was constantly deconstructed throughout the series. In each episode, we slowly got to know more and more about him and learned of the reasons why he acted kind of distant and cold so often. Still, from the very first episode, you can see he has got a big heart, but due to past events, he sometimes behaved in a lukewarm way. But when he was first approached by Joyce and her concerns about Will, we could slowly see him opening up and seeing that, beneath the “I don’t care” attitude, hides a really caring man.
I also have very strong feelings about season one’s main antagonist. He’s such a demonic presence that I wouldn’t even call him a monster, but something much worse. The creepy as hell old dude with grey hair, named Martin Brenner, was played by a fantastic great actor (Matthew Modine) because he made me hate that character so much.
Chris: I also liked the whole plot with Will’s disappearance, as this was a great way to connect all the storylines and bring a lot of emotions. For me, however, there were two selling points.
Firstly, I am a big sucker for mythology stuff, so all the things connected with the Upside Down and Eleven’s powers got me really fascinated. I loved the whole concept with this parallel dimension and how cleverly all was connected. Even when the creators diverged from the main story and tried to expand the universe (as they did in the infamous season 2’s episode 7), it didn’t bother me because it was a great opportunity to learn more about the world.
Secondly, I always tried to look for some underlying themes as I believe pop culture as a whole is a marvellous medium to tell something meaningful about the contemporary world. There was a lot to unpack in this series, either in the story of Joyce’s, which dealt with the difficulties of being a single mother, or Hopper’s, which told about his loss and grief. I also noticed how the series constantly challenged the toxic masculinity trope, showing that being kind and sensitive does not make you lesser of a man. Many characters showed these qualities, be it the main four boys, Steve or Bob (fantastic Sean Astin).
That being said, were there any bits and pieces you didn’t like?
Dan: Hm, I can’t think of anything. My mom didn’t like the aesthetic of Eleven’s nosebleeds (laughs).
But, to be serious, I guess, I found the love triangles the least interesting part of the series. This “card” is already overplayed in so many movies and TV series that most of the times it annoys me.
Chris: That’s true, and while I loved what they did with it in season one when it comes to the evolution of Steve, I was kind of discouraged with how that storyline evolved in season two, almost reverting to the established trope instead of continuing to subvert it. Anything else?
Dan: The one scene I found cringy was when Eleven finally met Mad Max and how she was jealous of her resulting in her not shaking her hand. I thought to myself: “Come on, just shake her hand, she won’t steal your PRECIOUS Mike”.
Chris: Ha, I guess it just shows we’re more emotionally-developed than Eleven. I guess, in our teens, we would have had the exact same reaction. How about season 2’s episode 7 that I have mentioned?
Dan: I’ve heard that some people didn’t like it, seeing it as unneeded. While I agree it was indeed kind of a “filler”, I must say I feel it was needed. I personally didn’t have any second thoughts while watching, although I really didn’t like Eleven’s newly found sister’s perception of the world. She wanted Eleven to go down a very questionable road, where hatred spreads hatred. I was relieved when I saw Eleven not taking that path when she was asked to kill the person, who hurt her in her childhood years. Instead, she spared him and even didn’t let her sister kill him.
Chris: That was a really emotional scene, which dealt with so difficult moral decisions. Some would probably say that these themes felt unoriginal, but they really helped to develop Eleven’s character. And, as I have said, the episode served as a great expansion of “Stranger Things” universe and mythology.
Coming to the things that bothered me a bit, I was kind of tired with Will’s storyline in season 2. Why is it that he always got in trouble?
Dan: Hmm, I don’t know, I guess I’m fine with Will being always in trouble. It doesn’t bother me, although I wish he would get his well-deserved peace. But, since this is a series about mysterious monsters, it’s probably unlikely to happen. Anyway, I guess he just has got a bit of misfortune luck. And it’s kind of logical for him to use him as this proxy for the Upside Down demons to develop the plot.
Chris: In a way, yes, but as you have said: he deserves peace. For me, it was a little bit of lazy writing in a way that, in season 2, the creators followed a very similar plot construction that they did in season 1.
Continuing with the least favourite things, any characters that you particularly hated?
Dan: I personally have a hard time thinking about the characters who are my least favourite (in a sense that they’re not important for the show’s storyline). The creators have made a good job of building strong characters. I guess my least favourite characters are from Season 2 Episode 7 – the Suicide Squad wannabees. I personally think they were too one-dimensional and since they properly appeared in only one episode, they were very forgettable too.
Chris: Interesting! From that point of view, I didn’t like Max’s brother. I felt like he was this stereotypical abusive, psychopathic kind of man, who at times felt like a parody. I also wished the parents characters, beside Joyce and Hopper, were more fleshed out and developed — when compared to the other people in the show, they weren’t as balanced as they could be.
Dan: But other than that, it is very rare to see such a balanced mix of adults, kids and teens in a TV series. Most of them have got pretty much equal screen time.
Chris: I agree. OK, we dealt with the least favourite characters, now let’s move on to your favourites. Mine is probably Dustin — he’s such a sweetheart!
Dan: Mine are Joyce, Hopper and Eleven. And maybe even Steve. This guy probably “grew up” the most throughout the series. From a brat he became quite cool and likeable dude. Sometimes the people who surround you can really influence you to be a better man. I also enjoyed all the kids characters: Lucas, Will, Mike and Dustin. I like them all for different reasons. From an acting perspective, I think Noah Schnapp did the best job at portraying his character Will Byers.
Chris: Oh, the kids were so wonderfully cast and had such fantastic chemistry with one another! And yeah, Steve’s storyline was definitely one of the most interesting to watch as he really developed from this douchebag kind of a guy to the best babysitter on the planet (laughs). I also agree that Joyce is a wonderful character, probably thanks to Winona Ryder’s acting, which was the highlight of the series.
And, talking about Hopper and Eleven, how did you like their relationship? Pretty intense, huh?
Dan: And really interesting to watch. They have this unique chemistry, which makes it even more special. They both need each other: Hopper lost his daughter and Eleven had never had a real father or even a family. It allows to create this unique and dynamic, where they learn a lot from each other. One scene was particularly powerful for me, the one where Eleven and Hopper got into fight and Eleven had a tantrum. But since she has psychic powers it was ultra special. And interestingly enough, Hopper always treats her as a regular child so once she uses her mojo, he’s completely lost and doesn’t know how to react. I also enjoyed that storyline in the last episode of Season 2. It was really special when Hopper and Eleven had closure while they were both driving in the car. And when Eleven took Hopper’s hand while descending in a lift to kill the monster was truly special. I believe they will be a lot more close and respectful of each other in Season 3.
Chris: One of the things I really liked about this relationship is how it allowed us to see into both Eleven and Hopper. The screenwriters showed sort of deconstructed them and showed what they were really about and then allowed them to rebuild and develop emotionally. Some of the scenes were really intense and I loved how it all played out in the end. This plot thread also kind of redefined the fathership theme and showed it from a really interesting perspective.
Talking about perspective, let’s change it a little bit and look at the show’s genre. As far as I’m concerned it is quite difficult to define it as it connects many different elements. We’ve talked a little about the teen drama stuff and love triangles. Let’s focus on the horror elements now. As a fan of scary films, I really liked how the atmosphere was built and how some of the story bits were inspired by Spielberg films. It wasn’t particularly “hide under your pillow” stuff, but thrilling enough to make you entertained, don’t you think?
Dan: Plus, this Series probably involves the biggest number screams I’ve ever seen on a TV show. They scream when they’re scared, they scream when they’re mad. Even monsters scream at those who scream at them (laughs).
In the first season, I feel the biggest horror element is the unknown factor and the mystery. It is a lot more grounded and isolated. We barely see any real monsters. And when we do – those monster sightings are brief and short. Season 2 takes the scale way up, incorporating multiple threats and one way bigger than in Season 1. Though, for some reason, I still find Season 1 to be a more intense one.
Chris: It’s the fear of the unknown which probably messes up with our imagination the most, so that may be why. Once you know the threat, you get used to it. How about the comedy bits?
Dan: What comedy? This show is all about bitchin’ (laughs). Just kidding. Comedic elements are quite subtle and not forced like in some TV series and movies. To be honest, I really had to think a lot before I remembered some funnier moments. The first one that came into my mind was when all three boys were questioned by Hopper after their friend Will disappeared. They kept talking over each other while testing Hopper patience limits. Oh, and most of the time the dynamics between the boys and between Dustin and Hopper are quite funny.
Chris: Dustin is probably the funniest of the characters, always bringing levity to the series. And you’re right: I’m really tired with some films that try to be funny just for the sake of being funny. Some writers and directors seem to forget nowadays that if comedy isn’t done carefully, it can mess up the tone of their work. I’m really happy this is not the case with “Stranger Things”.
We briefly mentioned some actors, so let’s come back to that. Like you, I was really impressed with Winona Ryder. As I’ve said before, I also loved the main four boys, with Gaten Matarazzo being my favourite. Other than that, David Harbour was pretty solid as Hopper, Sean Astin was sweet as Bob and, of course, Millie Bobby Brown did a fantastic job as Eleven. How about you?
Dan: Everyone does their job really well, but some really stand out. The ones who really awed me were Winona Ryder, David Harbour, Millie Bobby Brown and Noah Schnapp. And I truly believe the four boys are truly unique. I haven’t seen anything similar in any other show.
Chris: A few years back, TV series had significantly lower budgets than big blockbuster films and you could see it in the visuals. With “Stranger Things”, this is certainly not the case, as the production values are really great. From the cinematography to special effects: it all looks fantastic, don’t you agree?
Dan: The visuals are amazing, and they remind me of the style in which the 80s movies and TV series were shot. Special effects are kept to a minimum in Season 1 but when they’re there, they’re really effective. Then, Season 2’s, the scale went way up with a whole lot of CGI models. You can tell that they were done with love and craft… and a generous amount of budget given by Netflix.
Chris: Ok, so to wrap up: what are your expectations for season 3, which premieres in a few hours?
I want to see the origins of the monster. Maybe this time in flashbacks from a scientist who worked in the lab’s perspective, particularly from the new “good” guy who was cleaning the mess of the old guy (Eleven’s “Papa”).
I’m almost sure that the threat in season 3 will be even bigger and, with it, Eleven’s powers will continue to grow and yet, be more controlled. I also believe she will get along with Hopper a lot better and will continue to help each other grow mentally and emotionally – healing each other’s inflicted mental wounds done by unfortunate past events.
I also think we will finally see that Russian guy who Eleven was ordered to follow. And maybe we will see what agenda they have.
To sum up: more monsters, more screaming, more mysteries uncovered. And Russians.
Chris: I expect more #JusticeForBarb! (laughs). I really would like to see the universe get expanded, so I expect more Upside Down, more Eleven and her “siblings” and more monsters. Just save the poor Will the troubles, he has had enough!
Also, I want the series to continue challenging the established story tropes and to cleverly use the 80s nostalgia. And, just as you said, to develop the key relationships, Hopper and Eleven’s being probably the most important. Thanks for the talk!