1) When Stranger Things is a scary mystery, it’s GREAT.
When it’s a horror-action movie, it’s fun.
When it’s a mid-1980s character study, it’s shaky but compelling.
When it’s a superhero story, it’s *terrible*.
2) Every detail about the show that really works or really doesn’t work is encapsulated in the character “Eleven”. Why are her good scenes so good, and her bad scenes so lame?
In part it’s because she’s the show’s wild card: we haven’t seen a character like her before, so we have no expectations. She’s the part that can’t be phoned in.
And that’s why it’s so awful when they phone it in. The “Lost Sister” episode was terrible – precisely because it treated Eleven as a conventional superhero character, developing her unusual skills, like Rocky doing pushups.
The basic idea of the episode is pretty great: mysterious victim finds a mentor and learns to focus, transforming into mysterious avenger – but Eleven plays an odd role in the series. She’s both a living character and a representative of the show’s central mystery: a combination of childhood isolation, government conspiracy, and (pretty standard) open portal into hell. The less mysterious her powers become, the less of the story she can represent. The mystery must then expand beyond her, and that’s where it fell flat.
3) Sherlock Holmes stories work like this: the characters are plunged into an obviously supernatural mystery, which has a delicious, consciousness-expanding effect on the reader. The world’s greatest detective unravels the trick, and we’re left back on the island of rational thought – which feels safe, and correct, and profoundly unsatisfying. We hunger to escape rational thought again – we recognize something from our own lives there – but we don’t want to spend the night beyond its safe limits, so we open another Sherlock Holmes book for another round-trip guided tour through the seemingly impossible. Win-win!
Something similar happened in the original Star Wars: Ben Kenobi introduced “The Force” – and then every ten minutes we learned something new it could do. For the length of the movie, life’s possibilities seemed to extend beyond all limitations – but living within that expanded world demanded another movie ticket.
We embrace stories that make life feel bigger. Even when the mysteries are frightening, we want to be reminded of the many possibilities, real or imagined, we’ve learned not to see.
And that’s the problem with Eleven becoming a superhero. It’s great that she’s powerful, and troubled, and human, and learning to master her skills – but her mastery of her skills confines the story more than it opens it up. Instead of a tension between story details that do or don’t fit within the limits of reality, we get a more conventional battle between demon dogs and Eleven’s hand-waving magic – and we mostly know who will win that battle, and we don’t really need to know why.
4) I’m not prone to reading reviews of TV episodes, but I indulged with “Lost Sister”. Much of the discussion was about how incongruous the episode was with the rest of the series, but that wasn’t the problem.
First: Criminal refugees desperate to evade discovery don’t wear big full-fan mohawks. A troubled youth might have awesome fashion sense, but “acting out” and “hiding out” are opposite things.
That’s just one detail, but it’s a marker: “How lazy is the storytelling in this one?” “The career criminal who lives in hiding has a standing orange 12-inch-fan mohawk.” “Ugh. Too bad.”
Second, it was great to see more racial diversity in the cast, but the Saturday morning cartoon gang of colorful misfits had the dramatic heft of a violent cereal commercial.
Third, “Superhero learns to use their power” scenes are great when the audience already knows what the character is just beginning to learn. Such scenes introduce not the powers, but the character encumbered by them – and we see where a seemingly invincible character is vulnerable. When the character’s powers are themselves the mysterious detail we want to understand, gaining mastery over them makes the story less interesting.
Fourth, exploring the blurry line between “good guys” and “bad guys” can make for powerful drama – but only when it’s done with nuance and complexity. Broad, simple characters who commit violent crime and murder while dressed like art students and mentoring our troubled heroine make the whole series look cruel and tone-deaf.
5) The violence in the last several episodes was disappointing: given how compelling the first season was, the bloody mayhem seemed unnecessary. But there were many things I liked – such as the complex way Will behaved when possessed by the creature.
Two characters bugged me: Dustin blithely nursing a baby demon when he knows his friends are struggling to escape the grip of the underworld, and Billy, the over-the-top bully.
Characters are more interesting when they have strong motivations, but strong motivations demand strong logic. Billy is represented by many sadistic bullies in the real world, but I didn’t buy his backstory scene, where his father brutally demands that he show respect to his mother and sister. The idea was poignant, but it seemed pat and clunky. Brutal treatment from his father seemed very appropriate for the character, but a code of respect for women absolutely did not.
6) Every dramatic conflict demands a balance between our heroes’ chances of winning and their chances of losing. The most exciting stories provide enough details so the conclusion is logical, but not predictable.
Sloppy stories often make the hero appealing by making them invincible – but then it’s unsurprising when they win, and it makes no sense when they lose.
This is the problem with playing Eleven as a superhero. She raises her hand, her nostril bleeds – and whatever needs to happen happens. It’s great to have a strong female character, but her strength is not what is interesting about her. The story – and most importantly, the conclusion – is ultimately about something else.