From its opening sequence in the corridors under Hawkins National Laboratory, Stranger Things is dark, and not just visually. The most obvious influence on the Duffer brothers’ ’80s-inspired series is E.T.: The Extraterrestrial, but under that layer of comfortable fun lurk more ominous allusions, from Tolkien to King to Carpenter. The institute’s elevator, marked with that single up indicator, is eloquent: This dim, dangerous basement is as low as it goes. And the something wicked coming this way is no cuddly extraterrestrial who’ll be satisfied with Reese’s pieces.
Ten hours into their Dungeons & Dragons campaign, Dungeon Master Mike (Finn Wolfhard) warns Will (Noah Schnapp), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), and Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), “It is almost here.” “What is it?” asks Will. Stranger Things knows the question is more potent than the answer. Like Jaws, “Chapter One: The Vanishing Of Will Byers” withholds the big reveal, giving only hints of its creature’s appearance, origin, and effect. Instead, it relies on atmosphere, pacing, and dire details to create tension. When the Department Of Energy’s Dr. Brenner (Matthew Modine) leads an investigative team into the lab’s deadly lower levels, hazmat suits aren’t enough; they silently duct-tape shut every point of entry to their protective gear. Inside the containment area, they find not the monster, but “where it came from,” a pulsing mass as reminiscent of the tentacled beast of Possession as it is of anything Cronenberg ever dreamed up.
When Will leaves his friends and rides into the night, we don’t quite see the slithering horror he encounters. Instead, we hear its grotesque liquid chittering, we watch its shadow darken the door after he reaches the supposed safety of home, and we see his hands shake as he loads a neglected shotgun. The camera doesn’t show what becomes of him, just the single light bulb that witnesses his disappearance.
“Ninety-nine out of a hundred times, a kid goes missing, the kid is with a parent or relative,” Chief Hopper (David Harbour) tries to reassure Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder), Will’s mother. “This is Hawkins,” he reminds her. Bad things don’t happen here–or they didn’t—and it shows in his approach to the case. The police chief is savvy enough to realize Will must have been badly scared to leave his bike behind and to figure out the boy reached home before he vanished. But he’s not punctilious about preserving the roadside site or investigating the suspicious scene in the Byers’ shed.
Joyce Byers doesn’t appreciate empty reassurances. “What about the other time?” she asks, and she’s righter than she knows. This isn’t one case in a hundred, or even one in a million. Ryder does her best with this underwritten character, eking as much tension out of a crackling telephone line as the pilot of Twin Peaks does, and playing her single scene with Will with affection that almost overcomes the obviousness of its ploy. Her visit to Will’s forest fort (password Radagast) is a flashback designed to make Castle Byers’ emptiness a gut-punch. The scene is corny, and so is the shot of Joyce and her older son Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) crying out Will’s name to the empty forest… but it’s also effective.
Stranger Things’ reliance on familiar images and story beats could get tiresome. As Joshua Alston points out, “The line between lively homage and limp imitation is razor-thin,” and “Chapter One” has its limp moments and pedestrian passages. When volunteers search the woods for Will, it’s an opportunity for exposition and not much more. A secret flirtation between straitlaced Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer) and a popular boy is no doubt laying groundwork for future plot developments, but here it feels like filler. Even the sequences introducing the mysterious lab escapee known only as Eleven (Intruders’ outstanding Millie Bobby Brown) drag a little.
But the first episode has a knack for making even foregone conclusions suspenseful. The diner owner’s a goner from the moment he calls Social Services about Eleven. Between his confusion at the social worker’s early arrival and a scene of agents monitoring the area (a hat-tip to E.T.’s eavesdropping van), it’s easy to guess she’s actually an operative informed of his call, sent to recover the test subject. But that anticipation didn’t stop me from getting goosebumps at the chilly violence of the scene or the carefully elided moment of Eleven’s escape.
In a show conspicuously structured on archetypes and tropes, it’s not surprising for central characters to be blandly distinct types. But where the men and boys expand from types to characters in “Chapter One,” the women and girls don’t. Gruff Chief Hopper, who drinks himself to sleep and washes down his morning meds with flat beer, also gets to be insightful and coolly competent. Mike Wheeler fleshes out the broad outline of a DMing dork, divining Will’s real-life choices (and his own duty to his friend) from his D&D character. Dustin mixes courage with comical common sense when he hesitates before wandering into the woods. (“Did you ever think Will went missing because he ran into something bad? And we’re going to the exact same spot where he was last seen?” he asks his friends, earning my nomination for shrewdest character in the whole episode.) By the end of the first episode, of the female characters, Joyce Byers has the closest thing to an established character, and even that is simple escalation from frazzled single mother to frantic single mother. The good girl, the nagging mom, and even the waif with strange powers are still just the types they began as, nothing more.
The wooded areas around Hawkins are central to Stranger Things, both as the stomping ground where Will and his friends are free from adult supervision and as an eerily empty landscape. Even indoors, the forest is still a presence. In their different ways, both the Byers’ and the Wheelers’ homes feel crowded and dim, their busy patterns of wallpaper and lampshades and wood tones creating a period-accurate clutter that’s both reminiscent of the woods and as oppressive as an overstuffed Victorian parlor.
Hopper’s house is even more hectic. Center-frame in the interior establishing shot is a child’s drawing of a now conspicuously absent family. The camera plays over a litter of beer cans, half-eaten food, books, and a prescription bottle. And keys. There are keys everywhere in “Chapter One”: a key-shaped key rack in that establishing shot, Hopper’s keyring set off from the confused mess on the table, a plaque of police-station keys squarely in the background between Hopper and Joyce Byers as they talk about her missing son. Joyce, too, is introduced searching for her keys, and the show carefully delineates the moment Hopper’s indolence drops away and he becomes a real cop again: when he asks her, “He had a key to the house, right?”
Keys are the key to “Chapter One,” and maybe to all of Stranger Things’ nostalgia-laden mixture of freedom and danger. Will—who needs a key because he often comes home to an empty house—and his friends are unfettered in a way few children like them are today. They play in forested wastes, they ride their bikes into the night down lonely roads, they have walkie-talkies instead of cell phones. But keys don’t just promise freedom for fun. They mean safety, or they mean danger. Like the lab’s series of supposedly secure entrances—now exits for something too horrible to show just yet—a locked door can be breached. (“Keys” is also the only name given to the Peter Coyote character in E.T., of whom Modine’s Dr. Brenner is a menacing reflection.) Keys can open the door to darkness. And at least in its first episode, Stranger Things is embracing the darkness.
- The full season of Stranger Things is available on Netflix, but (as I did with Lady Dynamite) I’ll be doling them out to myself an episode at a time. Look for reviews every other day!
- If your comment on a given review includes plot developments for future episodes, please do your fellow readers—and me!—the courtesy of adding a spoiler warning.
- “Chapter One: The Vanishing Of Will Byers” has single-handedly vindicated my youthful horror of being waylaid by a slithering beast on my way home from playing D&D. (Did you know we review Dungeons & Dragons handbooks? I didn’t.)
- Karen Wheeler is played by Cara Buono, who immerses herself so thoroughly in character and costume that it always takes me a beat to recognize her despite her distinctive voice and features.
- From its Stephen King font to Mike’s The Thing poster, Stranger Things is larded through with loving nods to horror and sci-fi stories, shows, and movies, many impossible to narrow down. For example, the name of Hawkins National Laboratory could allude to anything from Dracula to Predator to Cloverfield. I’ll point out the most significant examples, but there promise to be too many to catalog in any one review, so have at it in the comments.