The Duffer Brothers have streamed their way into becoming somewhat of a household name over the last three years. With the creation of Stranger Things, they have added to the recent 1980s revival that has swept across the US and the nostalgia that has come along with it. It has leavened the nerdy subculture of the past thirty years, to which I whole-heartedly ascribe. Though I am a 90s kid, I grew up with older siblings who are 80s kids, and by association I assimilated 80s pop culture. Due to my upbringing, I find this show, in many respects, entertaining, thrilling, witty in its references, and overall a very binge-worthy show that caters to older and younger generations alike. The Duffer Brothers have most definitely created a cultural and historical phenomenon that will likely entertain viewers long after streaming services become obsolete and everything from movies and television shows to music, books, and the news is projected directly into our brains. Though this show does deserve high praise in many regards, I find certain aspects of it hard to reconcile with. The biggest issue I have with the series as a whole has to do with one word: expendability. Through looking at the series and how it deals with death and mortality, we can understand whether expendability is a good thing for the series or a sign of weak writing.
Death is, whether we like it or not, a huge part of horror, thriller, and even sci-fi films (genres where Stranger Things falls into). So, in order to properly evaluate this aspect of the series, there are two methods of addressing violence and death that need to be discussed.
The Rambo Effect
I grew up watching classic parody films from Airplane (1980) to Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993). One movie that I remember watching scores of times on a taped VHS (with commercials included), was the 1993 Hot Shots: Part Deux. In it, Charlie Sheen plays Topper Harley, a hyperbolized and parodied version of Sylvester Stallone’s John Rambo. Only instead of fighting police officers in a small town, soviets, and Afghan rebel forces, Topper is up against Saddam Hussein and his cronies. During a scene in which Topper is helping POWs escape a POW camp, he goes all out and starts killing every single enemy soldier in droves. With his first kill a kill count is started and multiplies at a ridiculous rate with arcade noises playing in the background. He hits milestones like “Equal to: Robo Cop,” “Equal to: Total Recall,” and finally the screen flashes with “Bloodiest Movie Ever.” The scene is full of hilarious kills like a man having a bulls-eye painted on his chest and his backside as well as a part where Topper runs out of bullets in his machine gun and just decides to throw a handful of bullets at approaching enemy soldiers successfully taking them out. Each of the enemy soldiers that are killed are tallied and counted and nothing else is said about them. They are faceless, numberless, and in the end absolutely expendable. This scene depicts death, and excessive and gratuitous violence in a flippant way to bring viewer’s attention to the ridiculous nature of the violence in movies like Rambo. When death tolls reach astronomical levels, the value of individual life decreases because it takes too much time and effort to recognize and place lasting value on people. They become expendable.
Along with the shoot-em-up type films like those in the Rambo franchise, it is important to consider how mortality is displayed when huge monsters are involved. Stranger Things is no stranger to monsters that are gigantic in size and have a knack for mass destruction. However, before dissecting the Demogorgon and flaying the Mind Flayer, let’s look first at everybody’s favorite radioactive lizard, Godzilla and what are known as the kaiju.
Godzilla and the kaiju (including Mothra, Rodan, King Ghidorah, and Gamera) are monsters that gained notoriety during the post-WWII years in Japan. They were born from Japanese folklore and brought to the spotlight in film originally as a metaphor for the devastation of nuclear war. In Japanese monster films, and especially in the many American adaptations of the Godzilla films, the populous in the wake of these monsters and their battles are disregarded and are not the focus of the film. Most monster films rely heavily on the fights between Godzilla and Mothra or any of the other kaiju. Because of the minuscule nature of humans compared to the massiveness of the kaiju, a whole city and its inhabitants can be utterly wasted, and no one will really bat an eye because the battle between the monsters is a lot more intriguing than the individual plights of the humans on the ground.
To further this method and its glazing over of individual deaths, let’s look at the American 2014 adaptation of Godzilla. After an incredible five-season run with Breaking Bad, Bryan Cranston went from dorky, loser Hal in Malcom in the Middle, to Heisenberg: Methamphetamine King-Pin. When my brothers and I saw that Bryan Cranston would be in the new Godzilla movie, we were more than a little excited. Cranston was shown in the trailer as playing a big part in the film. We were ready to see what Walter White would do against the King of the Monsters. Our expectations were immediately crushed when Cranston’s character bites the dust in the first fifteen minutes of the film. A younger, lesser-known actor ended up being the lead for the movie. Though he was the protagonist, the focus was not as much on him as it was on the final fight scene where Godzilla thrashes the MUTO and vomits a torrent of flames down its throat. I still loved the battles, but I left the theater wondering whether it was even necessary to have humans in the film at all.
So, what do Godzilla and Rambo have to do with Stranger Things?
Simply, it’s monsters, violence, destruction, expendable mortality, and the macabre.
Not so simply, it’s what Edgar Allan Poe defines as “the single effect.”
In his 1842 review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales, titled “The Importance of the Single Effect in a Prose Tale,” Poe expresses that “in almost all classes of composition, the unity of effect or impression is a point of the greatest importance.” When Poe speaks of this “singular effect” he means that rather than worrying about a plot in a story it is more important first to make sure that the story is unified in the impression and feeling it leaves on its reader/viewer. For Rambo movies, the singular effect is a feeling of grittiness that leaves you with dirt and mud smeared on your face with the taste of blood in your mouth. With Godzilla movies, the feeling is that of awe and captivation at how huge the monsters are and how awesome the fights are. Sometimes, especially in the case of Godzilla films, this singularity of effect is done at the expense of character development and viewer-character connection. This isn’t always the case, and it isn’t always a bad thing. In relation to Stranger Things, Poe suggests that the most powerful stories, the ones that leave “an intense or enduring impression,” are those that can be enjoyed in one sitting. In his own words, he states that “this unity cannot be thoroughly preserved in productions whose perusal cannot be completed in one sitting.” Many Stranger Things fans will agree to this point, and some people might be unwilling to admit it: you probably binged Stranger Things (seasons 1-3) in one sitting. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It proves Poe’s point: a good story is one that is enjoyed in one sitting and one that presents and maintains that singular effect. The Duffer Brothers establish this effect through implementing the Rambo and Kaiju methods of mortal expendability. There’s blood, violence, destruction, monsters, and death; and the people who are mortally affected by these elements are sidelined so that the real singular effect can be presented: nostalgia for the 80s and the horror film genre.
Justice for Barb/Bob/Alexei/Billy/Hopper/Random Citizens of Hawkins, Indiana
Considering this idea, Stranger Things has been criticized for its lack of closure and “justice” for certain deceased or supposedly deceased characters. Though the deaths in Stranger Things aren’t on a massive scale, this principle can still apply considering the gravity of the events taking place in the Hawkins. Season 1 rocked viewers with the death of Nancy’s best friend, Barb, who was just trying to keep Nancy safe. Chapter 2 of season 1 ends with Barb disappearing. Chapter 3 begins with showing her being dragged into the swimming pool by what we believe to be the Demogorgon. It isn’t until the end of the season that we find Barb dead in the Upside Down. Despite the search for Will being the focus of the season, many viewers, myself included, found everyone’s disregard to Barb’s death disturbing and unjust. Shannon Purser, the actress that plays Barb remarked in a tweet that “Barb wasn’t supposed to be a big deal.” Regardless of whether Barb was a big deal or not, many people believed that because Barb didn’t deserve to die, that she needed to be redeemed somehow. Barb blew up on the internet, and a hashtag of #JusticeforBarb and #ImwithBarb became trending to the point that the Duffer Brothers paid this injustice a quick visit in the beginning of the second season. Even with this second-long candlelight vigil, Barb’s death is disregarded, and she remains a plot device, an expendable character. Her character isn’t developed as much, signaling that she is non-essential. Using characters as plot devices, or just a means to further the plot, isn’t anything uncommon in fiction or film, but when these plot devices are brutally murdered without any repercussions viewers get upset and feel that “justice” has not been served. In the case of Barb, it was her character, not the actress, that was dealt with unjustly. Shannon Purser is not an A-list, bigshot actress. When this is the case, even though the death is viewed as not resolved, the stakes are lower because both her character and the actress are just another face in the crowd.
Barb isn’t alone in being dished an undue demise. What happens when you bring someone on the other end of the acting spectrum? What if you enlist an 80s icon? In Season 2, we are introduced to Bob Newby, played by none other than Sean Astin: Samwise Gamgee, Rudy, Mikey Walsh. He’s the happy high school friend of Joyce turned love interest and ultimately turned tragic casualty in the fight against the Mind Flayer. Compared to Barb, Bob’s character is more developed, has more screen time, and serves a higher purpose than Barb did. Where Barb’s character was solely a plot device to show viewers what would happen if someone was not saved from the Upside Down, Bob is the happy, easy-peasy pseudo-father figure for Will Byers who ends up sacrificing his life to save Joyce and the others from the demodogs. Viewers are given more time to connect with Bob. He is basically the Rudy of Stranger Things.
The Duffer Brothers didn’t completely forget the deaths of characters like Bob and Barb. They do pay service to them in small ways (missing photos of Barb in season 2 and the “Super Bob” drawing on Joyce’s fridge and the minor flashbacks she has in season 3), but they are short-lived. It seems as though the surviving characters either don’t care or are so overwhelmed with the new monster from the Upside Down that they don’t have time to mourn.
With season 3, we see the deaths of minor and major characters alike. Two members of The Hawkins Post are taken over by the Mind Flayer, are both brutally destroyed by Jonathan and Nancy, and subsequently melt into a living blob of human organs and flesh and join to the massive flesh creature terrorizing Hawkins. We meat Alexei, a Russian scientist who is captured by Hop, Joyce, and Murray, who helps them crack the code to stop a laser from opening the portal to the Upside Down. We get to know him as the smiley, cherry-Slurpee-loving, soft-hearted scientist. He serves his purpose and is shot dead during episode 7 by the Russian T-1000 thug who eventually meets his maker at the hands of Hop. We see several random members of the Hawkins community be taken over by the Mind Flayer and melt into human soup and congeal together with the poisoned rat population to make the bigger flesh beast the kids encounter during the last couple of episodes of the season. Billy, the bad boy and mom seducer, who becomes the host for the Mind Flayer, is killed in a last second act of self-sacrifice to save the whole group after being convinced by Eleven that he isn’t a bad person after all. And, finally, Hopper who, after defeating the Russian Terminator is supposedly vaporized during the explosion following the shutting down of the Russian laser pointed at the gate to the Upside Down.
So, what are we to do with a show that kills off minor and major characters at the drop of a hat? What does that say about the Duffer Brothers’ concept of expendable mortality?
The Death of Nostalgia
Before we get into this, Stranger Things isn’t the only show that has unexpected and tragically unjust deaths for major and minor characters. As an example, Breaking Bad, one of my personal favorites, kills off minor characters like Jesse’s friend Combo, Jesse’s two girlfriends, drug dealers, Gale Boetticher, and a couple of junkies (to name a few), and major characters like Mike Ehrmantraut, Gus Fring, Hank Schrader, and supposedly Walter White himself. Each of these characters, minor or major, was killed unexpectedly. Even the deaths of people like the junkie that Jesse kills with an ATM seem to serve a greater purpose than just furthering the plot. In this case, Jesse gains notoriety and people are more willing to pay him for the meth. The deaths serve a two-fold purpose: 1) further the plot, 2) aid in character development. The difference between these deaths and the deaths in Stranger Things is that the deaths in Stranger Things fail to address the issue of character development.
There aren’t any apparent lasting repercussions for Barb’s death, Bob’s death is only grieved for a second in season three, and who’s to say what will happen in season 4 as a result of Hops death and Billy’s death, not to mention the deaths of the dozen or so random “flayed” townspeople. Now, I could say that Stranger Things fails at presenting what might really happen if a town were to be invaded by Demogorgons, and therefore it is a failed show. Maybe the Duffer Brothers don’t care. Maybe they are heartless people who want to pull the mortal rug out from under your favorite characters. I could say that the Duffer Brothers are mediocre at best in developing characters or at least overdeveloping characters that are only going to end up being killed right after we are introduced to them. But, there’s no such place as Hawkins, Indiana, the Upside Down most likely doesn’t exist, and since it’s a work of fiction the Duffer Brothers can do whatever they want. It’s their show. If they don’t want the people of Hawkins to hold a massive candlelight vigil for Barb, Bob, Hop, and the poor flayed citizens, then that’s their choice. I could be angry about this, but after a lot of thought (maybe more thought than I probably needed to invest in this show), I’m fairly certain that there’s a reason why human mortality in Hawkins is treated in a Ramobian and Godzillian way.
Like Edgar Allan Poe states, Stranger Things seemingly has the aim of instilling in viewers a “singular effect” of nostalgia for a bygone childhood (either experienced or not experienced by its viewers) and a longing to go back to that time. With the deaths of both major and minor characters, the Duffer Brothers seem to be toying with the idea of connecting not only with the past (and in this case a mostly imagined past), but with characters in this imagined past. By eliminating characters with no remorse and diminishing the value of individual characters, the Duffer Brothers suggest that whether we like it or not, we can’t feel completely comfortable in a time and place that we feel nostalgic over. They combine the feeling of nostalgia with feelings of dread and terror by mixing 80s pop culture references and an undying fear of the Russians with grotesque and terrifying creatures from a twisted, mirrored reality that reflects back cracked and distorted. These two “singular effects” oppose each other and project the viewer’s perception of 80s pop culture into a Dutch angle. Everything is just a bit off kilter. The feeling presented through Stranger Things might be like mixing water and oil, but the fusion of these two effects allows for the Duffer Brothers to question the extent to which nostalgia serves as a positive influence in our lives, especially when we live in an age when no matter what decade you are born in, you have access to centuries of information and the annals of history can be read, researched, and assimilated into your life in seconds.
In regard to nostalgia, what Stranger Things does right is exactly this: it blends good memories with bad memories. The 80s weren’t all Dungeons and Dragons, arcades, and New Coke. They were also the Berlin Wall, Nancy Reagan, the Iran Hostage Crisis, Carl Sagan and his nuclear winter theory, and the Challenger Explosion. Maybe what the Duffer Brothers are trying to say is that our memories of the past shouldn’t be painted by just the good. They might even be a bit flayed at times. Maybe our memories, individually and collectively, are a conglomeration of the good things, the bad things, and the stranger things.