Stranger Things Chapter One: The Vanishing of Will Byers
Full disclosure: I couldn’t help myself and I binged through the entirety of Stranger Things over the weekend.
It’s not my fault really. The series is a combination of Stephen King, Steven Spielberg, and John Carpenter with a sprinkling of Guillermo Del Toro and J.J. Abrams. In other words the whole series was basically a heat-seeking missile aimed directly at my entire being.
But what I’m planning to do here is review, recap, and discuss the individual episodes of the series and talk a bit about what works, what doesn’t, and any influences that stand out. It’ll also give me a good excuse to immediately dive back in and watch the episodes over again.
My plan is to keep these as spoiler-free as possible about upcoming episodes and skew towards my first reaction when watching. Since it’s so fresh it should be pretty easy to replicate. I am, however, going to spoil the hell out of this episode, so read with caution.
I’m also just gonna throw some bullet points at the end to mention some things I didn’t get to.
The series opens with a terrified scientist fleeing through a corridor and getting (presumably) eaten by an unseen monster. Which, you know, really sets the stage. A title card tells us it’s 1983, after that we’re introduced to four kids playing Dungeons & Dragons, a big nod to E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial. The children are Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), and Will (Noah Schnapp), and the show easily doles out little bits of character as they freak out over a Demogorgon attack in their campaign. Mike is the DM and is smart and authoritative. Dustin is excitable and good-hearted and Lucas is brave but hard-headed. Will is honest and kind and a total goner.
When the game breaks up the boys bike home — there will be tons of children biking in this series, evoking E.T. again either accidentally or otherwise — and Will encounters some horrifying creature. The whole sequence leading up to the titular vanishing is very Stephen King and the creature is well-shot. It’s only seen out-of-focus, distorted, or in quick shots. It effectively conveys the horror and confusion Will would be feeling.
The rest of the episode basically introduces us to our main cast and starts the story lines rolling. Winona Ryder is introduced as Will’s mother, Joyce. She’s already a frazzled bundle of nerves (before she even knows Will is missing) just interacting with her older son, played by Charlie Heaton. Joyce is slightly one-note in this episode, which is understandable, and we get a flashback that shows a different side of her. So hopefully we’ll see some more shades as the story progresses.
David Harbour is an insanely reliable character actor who gets me unreasonably excited when he pops up in movies, so it’s nice to see him in a lead role here. We first see Chief Jim Hopper waking up on his couch, surrounded by empty beer cans, before he showers, brushes his teeth, smokes a cigarette, and heads into work. The scene between Ryder and Harbour at the police station is the best non-kid focused scene in the entire episode. It’s humourous, well-written and shows off the decidedly different energies the two actors are using. They have an easy, lived-in chemistry and bounce off each other well.
We also get to know Mike’s older sister, Nancy. She’s basically stranded in her own separate John Hughes movie which seems to share sets with this John Carpenter film. She’s worried about upcoming school tests and having made out with one of the popular kids, Steve. Steve looks like Ben Schwartz playing the villain in an ‘80s Slobs vs Snobs movie. Nancy also confides in her friend, Barbara, whose actress deserves hazard pay for the jeans she has to wear in the scene. So we get mostly some teen angst from her story line, but Nancy is played winningly by Natalia Dyer, so it’s not entirely unwelcome.
Matthew Modine also appears in the episode as a malicious counterpoint to Peter Coyote’s “Keys” character from E.T., only with David Cronenberg’s hair. Modine doesn’t get much to do except act like a menacing government agent, which he does and does well. He and a team also lead us down the hallway the guy in the opening scene was running from and we see some Carpenter-esque, living vine kind of growth all over the wall. We also find out a girl is missing.
That girl, who shows up in a dirty, tattered hospital gown, sneaks into a diner, and steals some food. Luckily she’s found by the diner’s owner, Benny. Benny is played by Chris Sullivan who did fantastic work in The Knick. Benny is also the kind of side character ripped almost entirely from the pages of a Stephen King book. The kind-hearted, burly cook who helps a mysterious orphan and, sadly, pays dearly for it. Losing him was shocking and unfortunate, but very effective. The few scenes he share with the girl, Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) are well-done and both actors knock it out of the park. Eleven displays powers, using some kind of telekinesis to stop an annoying fan and knock out or kill some government agents who try to recapture her. Brown is great in this episode. She barely speaks at all, but her big, expressive eyes are enough to carry a whole scene.
Her powers aren’t the only supernatural events seen later in the episode. While Joyce and Jonathan are at home making missing posters for Will the phone rings. On the other end Joyce here’s garbled static and odd breathing. She’s certain it’s Will… until some kind of electric force wrecks the phone.
The episode ends with the Chief running a search party — and us getting some clunky exposition about his dead daughter — while Mike, Dustin, and Lucas decide they can’t just sit around while their friend is missing. They don’t find him while they’re walking through the woods, but they do find a terrified Eleven, soaked from the rain and on the run. So the mysteries have started ramping up and most of our players are in on the action, it’s extremely hard to not just let Netflix play that second episode.
Overall it’s an extremely effective first episode. It arrives with such an assured hand behind-the-scenes, courtesy of The Duffer Brothers, and sprinkles enough characterization throughout to keep us interested in these people. Not to mention to intriguing mysteries that are just getting started.
The Strangest Things:
- I like that once Chief Hopper takes Will’s disappearance seriously he’s actually a pretty good cop. When he looks around the house and the shed he basically solves the damn thing, minus the weird monster part.
- Mike and Nancy’s Dad is the Daddest Dad that ever Dadded. His biggest contributions to the episode are saying “Language!” twice, hitting a TV to make it work, and getting scolded for enjoying his chicken. I like him.
- As fantastic as the actors are, the production on this show can’t be undersold. From the fantastic title sequence to the beautiful synth score by Kyle Dixon & Michael Stein it’s high quality from top down.
- Chief Hopper needs to make t-shirts that say “Mornings are for coffee and contemplation”. Presumably the stale Schlitz is implied.
- Under the Influence: besides the general setup and atmosphere being a Spielberg/King melange there was also a poster in Mike’s basement for John Carpenter’s The Thing, a reference to the Spielberg-produced movie Poltergeist, and the opening title’s font is the same one you’d see on any Stephen King paperback at a used bookstore.
- “They make fun of his clothes.” “His clothes? What’s wrong with his clothes?” “Does that matter?!” “Maybe.”