Is Karen Wheeler a bad parent for trusting her children?
This is the question that plagued me rewatching the second episode of Stranger Things, “The Weirdo on Maple Street,” because at first it seemed like she fit into the classic trope of the Invisible Parent. The kind that belongs on a “Peanuts” comic strip or on any given episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Because the show is so focused on the extraordinary thing happening to Mike’s gang and the familiar thing happening in Nancy’s teenage love life, it has to leave their mother out of it.
Yet Mrs. Wheeler (played with brash endearment by Cara Buono) isn’t some forgotten figurehead just outside the frame. She’s an active part of Mike and Nancy’s lives in this episode, both as provider at the breakfast table and as a stern-yet-persuadable authority figure at dinner time. She isn’t Steve’s mom and dad, who are away on a business trip together and will never exist on the cast list. She isn’t a stand-in for parenting represented by a voice forever shouting “Just be home for dinner!” from another room. She’s ready to be there for her children at a crucial moment in their lives, and they’ve both chosen to pull away from her.
For Nancy (Natalia Dyer), it’s a familiar story. Steve (Joe Keery) is cool. Steve likes her. Steve wants her to come to his house. To do so, the otherwise bookish, trustworthy Nancy has to deceive her mom in what may be the first major paradigm shift of her young life. She’s trading that trust with her mom for a new bra and the look of awe on Steve’s face when she shows it to him. That she drags her dear, dorky friend Barb (Shannon Purser) into the mess is something else altogether.
Of course the crazier story is the Sinéad O’Connor-styled telekinetic girl crashing in Mike’s parent’s basement. “El, short for Eleven,” spends the night, eats some Eggos, and learns about suburban life as she (Millie Bobbie Brown) and Mike (Finn Wolfhard) play hooky. She also warns him of the stakes of the game by pantomiming a gun to her head and his, but she gets to try out a La-Z-Boy, so things even out pretty nicely.
The problem is, like with Nancy, Mike lies his ass off to his mother the entire episode in order to keep his new friend safe. His mother even confronts him about it when she catches him at home during school hours, but she isn’t mad. “I never want you to feel like you have to hide something from me,” she offers, dramatic irony oozing down the screen like syrup on a toaster-perfect waffle.
As that trust erodes, his trust with El grows. That will be crucial because, as she explains using the gang’s D&D map, getting Will back (Noah Schnapp) back is going to be insane.
By their nature, coming-of-age movies and TV shows take place in the gaps of adolescent life where parents are largely absent. Sitcoms like Family Matters and Growing Pains tended to weave the parents into the narratives like safety nets that doled out nuggets of wisdom. Children would screw up or misbehave, and parents were there to take them under a knowing wing. But the 1980s (which is the biggest threat and biggest inspiration for Stranger Things) also loved seeing children alone in dire straits either because parents were missing in action or because they were outright villains.
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and The Goonies is a big piece of connective tissue here with its whip smart kids and all-important friendships, but the Stephen King connection might be even stronger. Movies like Stand By Me and its bullying, Carrie and its alienation and bullying, and the novel “IT” with its evil adults and *cough* bullying, shaped much of the pop culture version of what we thought of as childhood now echoed in the ’80s-aping Stranger Things. In it rests the true catalyst that sends us over the bridge between adolescence and adulthood: there’s a problem so big that we can’t take it to our parents to solve. It doesn’t matter if we’re afraid of them, afraid they can’t solve it, or afraid they won’t see it as a problem. We’ve got to leave them out of it and do it ourselves.
The ’80s were obviously also a time that cemented the slasher genre, which is so firmly established that we don’t think about how crazy it really is. From Halloween in the late 1970s through today, there are thousands of movies about young people in various states of rebellion against parental figures facing monsters by themselves in the dark Sleepaway Camp. Friday the 13th. April Fool’s Day. An entire subgenre dedicated to getting teenagers alone so a large, often adult figure could systematically murder them in horrendous ways. I don’t know what was going on in the zeitgeist, but babysitters and camp counselors should have been getting hazard pay.
(Meanwhile, by the slasher rules, Barb should have survived by avoiding sex and booze, but this is Stranger Things, where no adult can be trusted, and Barb is basically an adult.)
The other clear connection to classic coming-of-age stories is the treatment of sex, innocence, and nudity. We’re reminded that Mike, Lucas, and Dustin (Caleb McLaughlin and Gaten Matarazzo) are 12-year-old boys when they hand El dry clothes, she unselfconsciously begins to undress, and they panic. They spin around, leap to stop her, and cry out, but Dustin still wonders later if she might have slept naked. Revulsion, interest, and propriety in equal measures. El is an alien presence in their lives not only because she can slam a door shut with her mind, but also because she’s a girl. Meanwhile, Barb points out that Steve’s party pals have been having sex since 7th grade, which is the grade Mike and his friends are in. A girl has joined their quest just as their curiosity stands ajar.
Mike also mocks Nancy by referring to her make out session with Steve as studying for a “human anatomy” quiz (which poor Mrs. Wheeler does not pick up on), and Nancy’s adventure is pulling away from a parent as you’re pulling away from your own childhood. She’s out to prove that she’s not a cliche, that she’s independent, and that she’s ready for sex.
Already in the second episode, the grownups and kids are on two different teams, with the Wheeler children’s defection from their well-meaning mom sealing the roster. We’ll never meet Steve’s parents, or his friends’ parents, and we haven’t yet met Barb’s mom, or Dustin’s or Lucas’s parents. Sheriff Hopper (David Harbour) is essentially in his own story. His daughter having died years earlier, he’s even further separated from the world of children. The only reason we get to meet deadbeat loser Lonnie Byers (Ross Partridge) is because his older son Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) searches his place for Will and stands up to his crappy old man thanks to audio courage from The Clash.
All the people trying to recapture El, all the people who cruelly experimented on her are all older people. It’s no wonder El demands “No adults,” after slamming the door shut on Lucas. They all disappoint. Every child is pulling away.
Except for one. Will, who is trying so hard to connect with his frantic mother Joyce (Winona Ryder) that he’s burning through her landline phones like kindling. How incredibly powerful, how heart-crushingly tense, that in a town of children striving to push away from adults, the one boy who’s actually lost in the dark is simply trying to get back home to his mother.
Mrs. Wheeler, who never had any reason to mistrust her responsible Mike and Nancy, and Mrs. Byers, who was forced to leave her two sons to fend for themselves as she worked extra shifts, both find themselves with distance between them and their children. But the thing about growing up is that it doesn’t just affect the kids.
Images: Netflix, Paramount Pictures