“Dude! You did it! You won a fight!”
Stranger Things is one of those programmes I put off watching. It was nothing personal; we just tend to avoid anything that’s really popular, largely because when it’s hyped to death it seldom lives up to the press coverage. We avoided Lost, Prison Break and Game of Thrones largely for the same reason. (And yes, I recognise that avoiding press coverage isn’t exactly rocket science, but when you’re in my line of work, you have to keep your feet in the water.)
Then – following a Saturday evening viewing of Super 8 – Emily and I decided to give it a go, and found ourselves suitably enthralled. After a slowish beginning (the first series is all about buildup, and the unfolding of a delicate, exquisitely teased mystery before everything explodes) the programme abruptly kicks into gear, as the Duffer brothers dole out epic scaled battles and small moments of domestic dysfunction with the expertise of master craftsmen. We binged the first three series in just over a month, which is something that never happens in our house. If you’ve seen it, you can understand why. This really is good TV: self-aware without being snide; nostalgic without being vacuous.
I could write more. But I think we’ll do that as we go. I don’t pretend this list is exhaustive, or definitive – it’s just the bits I liked. If I missed your favourite, tell me in the comments.
Spoilers follow. If you’ve not watched the thing, I’d advise against reading any further.
1. Should I Stay Or Should I Go?
No eighties period drama is complete without the iconic soundtrack, right? For most of us, at least people my age, the Clash’s anthem is most synonymous with a jeans advert it accompanied when it was rereleased: in the show it’s used early on as a bonding exercise between the missing Will Byers and his older brother Jonathan. Distraught and distressed but not yet broken, mother Joyce (Winona Ryder, in a career highlight) wanders through their ramshackle home to find the song blasting from Will’s cassette player, right before the lights go haywire and something starts to come out of the wall. This is probably the first time the show was decently scary, but what makes it is the moment the terrified Joyce runs out to her Ford Pinto, sits her with hands clutching the wheel…right before her face sets into a determined grimace, and she leaves the car and walks back into the house.
2. Barb’s Death
Horror movie sex is usually a death sentence – only on this occasion, the death happens to someone else, literally a world away. As Barb runs through the Upside Down, stalked by a largely unseen Demogorgon, Nancy is back in Steve’s expensive house, and the two of them are getting it on to Foreigner. This is all about symbolic juxtaposition – Nancy’s approaching orgasm mirrored with Barb’s helpless scream, as her hands reach out for Steve’s while her soon-to-be-dead best friend is holding on for dear life.
3. The Body
Yes, yes. If you’ve seen the rest of the series you’ll be aware that Will survives his ordeal in the Upside Down and lives to become a host for a parasite. Still, there was a point early on where it really looked like he was done for, as the police fish a body from the lake, the dismayed Hopper looking on as Peter Gabriel’s sombre cover of ‘Heroes’ plays over the closing montage. This whole scene smacks of convoluted scheming that serves no purpose other than to provide a narrative feint – why on earth would you go to these lengths to produce a fake body when it would be much easier to char a corpse and mock up dental records? – but still, it packs a heck of an emotional punch.
4. The Undoing of Troy
For the most part, there isn’t a single wasted character in the entire show. We might make an exception for Troy – a contemptible bully with no apparent redeeming features whatsoever, whose sole purpose is to abuse and belittle the Party. Having already been humiliated a couple of episodes back, he’s now out for blood – but what’s astonishing about this scene is the depth of friendship that exists between these children: Mike couldn’t have known that he’d be spared, and seems genuinely prepared to dive from a cliff in order to save his friend. As it turns out he doesn’t have to, as Eleven shows up in the nick of time in order to levitate Mike away from certain death, right before breaking Troy’s arm. Eat your heart out, E.T.
5. Drunk Nancy
There’s nothing particularly important about this scene. Nothing world-shattering. It’s just two people having an argument at a party. But it features some of the best acting in the series. Natalie Dyer slurs and rants as the camera dips and dives, reflecting both her inebriation and fragile mental state. It’s an astonishing moment, and despite being great in everything that followed, I don’t think Nancy was ever quite so compelling, or so watchable, as she was here.
6. Splitting Hairs
If there’s one curveball in particular the Duffer Brothers threw from their mitt, it’s the development of Steve Harrington. Initially the preppy dickhead who smashed Jonathan’s camera, he escaped the axe (Steve is one of those characters who was supposedly not going to survive the show’s first season) only to become altogether kinder, funnier and more responsible. There’s a certain growth borne out of humiliation – by season 3 Steve has failed to get into college and is reduced to working in an ice cream parlour while he rethinks his future – but key to his success as a fan favourite is the decision to pair him up with Dustin, and any scenes the two have together usually serve as comedic highlights. This first encounter, in which they discuss hair products while on the way to bait a carnivorous monster, set the tone for much of what follows.
Poor Sean Astin. Having successfully paid off his family’s mortgage in The Goonies, and carried Frodo to the top of Mount Doom some eighteen years down the line, his more recent career seems to consist mostly of a series of memorable deaths. Not content with having choked on poison gas in 24, he finally gets to play the hero in Stranger Things’ second season, only to meet a violent end at the hands of a rampaging demogorgon. What’s clever about this is that it doesn’t quite unfold the way you think it will: the moment (just before this clip) where the camera swoops onto the forgotten pistol is, we’re convinced, something that Bob will come to regret later on, but as it turns out he never stood a chance. The rest of it unfolds in a series of slow motion cliches, and there is a lot of screaming and stretching, but it works, and it gives Joyce something to do, and that final shot of creatures feasting on Astin’s lifeless corpse is worthy of Romero himself.
8. The Snowball
Proposal: the final episode of Stranger Things‘ second series is one of the finest hours of television ever made. That’s largely because it finishes early and leaves plenty of time for the wind-down: a blissful, ten-minute sequence that takes place near Christmas, with Mike finally getting to fulfil the promise he made a year ago. If Eleven’s return at the end of episode seven was akin to the reunion in Casablanca, this is the Bogart and Bergman scene we never got to see, which makes it all the more satisfying. As the camera pans around the hall, Will learns that being a misfit has its advantages, Max and Lucas share a first kiss – oh, and Dustin is dancing with Nancy. Even before that mesmerising final (and quite literal) twist, this is absolutely glorious work.
9. Hopper vs the Russian
It’s all a bit silly, is this, but that’s not a bad thing. Having gone full-on Magnum P.I. the moment he threw on that floral shirt (prompting waves of applause from anyone old enough to remember it and waves of confusion in just about everybody else), we get, in this scene, a full-on fistfight. The jump cutting veers into Quantum of Solace territory at times, but this is both funny and frightening, the seemingly indestructible Russian making the most of the pistol Joyce accidentally throws at him, before the two heroes and the programmer they’ve abducted flee from a volley of machine gun fire in an unreliable car, barely escaping with their lives.
10. Back to the Future
We bloody love Robin. Played to quirky perfection by Maya Hawke, she is the model of open-minded serenity, adapting to new scenarios and life-threatening situations like a backpacker switching trains. Her coming out to Steve is artfully rendered, taking place in adjacent bathroom stalls, but it’s this scene that sticks in my memory – as the two weary fugitives, blood-soaked and under the influence of drugs, debate the finer points of Back To The Future before giggling at the ceiling. Marvellous.
11. The Sauna Test
I’ll be honest. There are moments, early on in Stranger Things 3, when you wonder if the show’s lost its way a bit. Then the third episode ends with a bang (I’m not getting into it here; I’ll just say “Don McLean”), and you spend much of ‘The Sauna Test’ wondering how on earth they’re going to top that. And then this happens. I dearly wish I could show you the whole thing, but this oft-reconstructed sequence – the subject of a thousand Reaction videos – is absolutely sensational work. The way the kids are grouped, Eleven standing in front with her arms outstretched in defiant protection. The incredible makeup job on Peggy Miley’s face. The lighting and the sensible camera work and the sweat. The scream that emenates from Mille Bobby Brown’s throat the moment she finally throws Billy through the wall. It’s an astounding scene, and nothing Doctor Who has done in the past five years has come even close.
12. Dustin and Suzie sing
For most of season three, Dustin’s girlfriend Suzie languishes in a quantum state – real and not real, existing or not existing depending on who’s handling the observation – and her eventual reveal is a classic plant-and-payoff. That said reveal takes the form of a song, delivered over radio waves between Salt Lake City and Indiana, is a stroke of genius, Gaten Matarazzo and Gabriella Pizzolo belting out the Limahl classic as if the universe depended on it – which, of course, it does. In a dark, frightening and unremittingly sombre episode, this is a moment of sheer unbridled joy.