Forget everything you know about Stranger Things.
Forget the monster and the girl who can move things with her mind and the government conspiracy. Rewind yourself back to the evening of November 6, 1983, to your living room on Maple Street in Hawkins, Indiana. Maybe you’re concerned about an upcoming science test, or you’re trying to beat your older brother at Boggle, or you’re watching the evening news before putting the children to bed. Maybe you want the neighbor kids to stop yelling about X-Men comics outside after 8pm.
Whatever you’re doing, tomorrow afternoon you’re going to learn that a little boy named Will Byers has gone missing.
We’re lucky to see inside the lives of Joyce Byers, Mike and Nancy, and Eleven, but for their neighbors, the week Will spends in the Upside Down isn’t marked by fantasy sci-fi adventure, but by everyday tragedy. A little boy goes missing, then turns up dead in the quarry. They have a funeral for him. And, did you hear? A young woman went missing, too. Can you believe it? In our quiet, little town?
If you were at Benny’s Burgers on November 7, maybe you spotted the androgynous child stealing fries from the kitchen. If you were a regular, you’d be shocked to find out that Benny shot himself that night. Yet another tragedy to slap Hawkins in the face after years of calm. Last week the biggest headline in the local paper was about fundraising to save the historical clock in the town square, and now there’s been a two missing children and a suicide.
If you were concerned enough, maybe you helped out by searching for Will in the woods after you got off work until it got too dark even for the flashlights to make much difference. Maybe you crossed your fingers and fretted that he’d be found safe. Maybe you went to the candlelight vigil for him at the school. Maybe your heart shattered when you heard they found his body at the bottom of the quarry. Why aren’t there more signs warning people to stay out of that place?
If you were in the main square the next morning, you overheard Joyce and her older, creepier son Jonathan arguing for all the world to hear. Joyce was screaming about the body not being Will. She’s totally lost it. She’s hysterical. But can you blame her? Parents aren’t supposed to bury their children. Still, you hope she’ll come to her senses and see reason, if only for her living son’s sake. That family has always been a mess.
Maybe you decided to go down the block to the Wheeler’s house after the funeral, not because you knew Will or Joyce, but to support your neighbor’s son who just lost a friend. You brought tator tot casserole and watched confused as Mr. Clarke, the science teacher, drew stick figures on a paper plate in front of the boys before shoving a pencil through it.
If you were in the main square a few days later, you probably gawked at The Hawk’s marquee, boasting All The Right Moves which, according to red spray paint, stars “Nancy ‘The Slut’ Wheeler.” That poor girl. You shake your head. She’s been seeing Steve Harrington, and there’s nothing redeemable about that garbage boy and his friends. That night, while you’re relaxing at home with an episode of Magnum P.I., forgetting all about the dead boy tragedy across town, you’ll hear that Nancy and Steve got into a huge fight in the movie theater’s alleyway, Jonathan Byers beat the hell out of Steve and then assaulted a cop. The dumb one with glasses. What’s happening to this town?
Then again, tensions are running high. That boy’s death has everyone on edge. Emotions heightened. Mortality is on a lot of people’s minds, creeping in between second helpings of meatloaf and commercials for The Day After.
Yesterday, in attempt to keep your head in your own business, you did some shopping at the Big Buy only to see a dirt-smudged, bloody-nosed girl in a pink dress and blue jacket steal a bunch of Eggos and bust the glass on the sliding doors on her way out. She called the manager there a mouth-breather! The sudden rise in crime is as terrifying as turkey being 88 cents a pound, but at least this dumb town isn’t so boring anymore.
Today you hear that a Hawkins Power and Light van crashed a few streets over. Marcia says it was completely upside down. Can you believe it? She says a whole fleet of them were careening around the neighborhoods. Don’t they know children live here? She also says a bunch of black sedans showed up in front of the Wheeler’s house because maybe they’re secret Communists. Can you imagine? Government agents eating your tator tot casserole from the Wheeler’s freezer.
Tomorrow, you’ll find out that they found the little dead boy alive.
These are all of the major events of Stranger Things that have played out with a public audience in Hawkins, leaving them to wonder what’s going on in the houses down the street. For the average citizen, the story about Will Byers has been an unthinkable, yet terribly imaginable family tragedy happening to someone else as the normal (and some abnormal) nuisances of small town life swirl around the main square, shopping centers, and neighborhoods. You can imagine–like with Mike’s dad–these events not bothering a lot of people all that much.
Yet it’s this rooted drama that shows how powerful the series can be. Strip away the monster and the science fiction, and you still have an enthralling story about a middle schooler who dies too young, and the mental anguish his family and friends experience. It’s so aberrant that it drives the pill-popping local sheriff into conspiracy theories. It’s so overwhelming that the boy’s friends have to imagine themselves fighting a near-invincible force from another realm. It’s so consuming that the boy’s mother strings up lights and pretends she can still talk to her little angel even though he’s already crossed over to the other side.
Stranger Things is as much a show about death and our response to it as it is a show about acrobats and fleas and parallel dimensions.
But because it’s also a show where we know the truth about the big bad government and the monster they’ve unleashed, the reality of the everyday citizen of Hawkins is one that has to be challenged in Stranger Things 2. In clumsily providing a fake body for a fake funeral, the government has ensured that Will’s unlikely return to the land of the living has to be reckoned with. Hawkins collectively mourned for one of its youngest, and now that child is back. After explaining away the crazy girl at the Big Buy grocery and the flipped van near Maple street, you can’t explain away that.
Or can you? We’ll wait and see how Stranger Things 2 does it. Not much more of a wait, though.