Magazine | August 29, 2016, Issue

Familiar Things

Caleb McLaughlin, Gaten Matarazzo, Finn Wolfhard, and Millie Bobby Brown in Stranger Things (Netflix)
The TV series Stranger Things portrays family breakdown yesterday and today

In The Fractured Republic, my colleague Yuval Levin argues that conservatives suffer from a paralyzing nostalgia for the 1980s, in which they detected an echo of the moral certainty and economic dynamism of the 1950s. But some remember the 1980s rather differently: The U.S. divorce rate peaked in 1980, and children in elementary school in the Reagan years were the first generation in which the question “Are your parents still married?” was both common and of intense interest. (“Were your parents married . . .” with the implicit “. . . at all?” came later.) The maudlin term “latch-key kids” became commonplace; “day orphans,” from the 1984 documentary on the subject, never quite caught on. The murder rate in 1980 was exactly double what it had been in 1960. The great cultural holdover from the Eisenhower years was that schoolchildren were still being taught to cower under their desks in the event of a nuclear attack. It was, in reality, a terrifying time to be a child.

Stranger Things, the immensely popular new Netflix series that has just concluded its first season, is an exercise in 1980s nostalgia done right: From the frazzled, feckless, chain-smoking single mother played by Winona Ryder (in case your Eighties buttons weren’t being pushed hard enough) to the beat-up 1964 Ford Galaxie 500 driven by her older son, Stranger Things is set in the 1980s as they actually existed — which is to say, it is set in the wreckage of the 1960s.

The curatorial eye of writer-producers Matt Duffer and Ross Duffer, d.b.a. the Duffer Brothers, lacks the dollhouse preciousness of Wes Anderson or the hothouse-flower aesthetic of Whit Stillman’s world. But it is comprehensive: From the typography of the opening credits (a distillate of old Stephen King paperback covers) to the heavily trod-upon shag carpets, the look and feel of Stranger Things could hardly be more correct. It is in the 1980s but not of the 1980s, which makes sense in that the midwestern, small-town, and mostly lower-middle-class characters at its center would have been surrounded by things that were old and worn out. The actual interiors of houses built and decorated in the 1980s were of course nothing like this but instead embraced a princely style (remember all that horrible royal-blue carpeting and cream-colored brick?) that expressed the economic confidence of the era, along with its reassertion of informal social hierarchy. None of that has yet reached the fictional town of Hawkins, Ind., where the world outside consists of only the briefest glimpse of Ronald Reagan on the television.

With its fatherless (and effectively fatherless) families and its adolescent boys on bicycles fleeing menacing government officials in dark suits and haz-mat gear while sheltering a secret friend from another world, Stranger Things goes deep and hard into Steven Spielberg territory. What happens is this: The Byers family — mother Joyce (Winona Ryder), older son Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) — are mad with panic and grief at the disappearance and presumable death of younger son Will (Noah Schnapp), who after a long night of playing Dungeons & Dragons has disappeared into a terrifying parallel universe after being attacked by a faceless humanoid creature somehow birthed into our world by a nearby coven of federal spooks led by Dr. Martin Brenner (played by another visitor from the 1980s, Matthew Modine). At the same time, an adolescent girl without a name (Millie Bobby Brown) has escaped from that facility: Project MKUltra, in case you’re wondering, is the conspiracy-theory favorite at the story’s center, LSD mind-control experiments and all. The two prongs of the plot converge when she is discovered by Will’s young gang of Dungeons & Dragons nerds, who set out to find their lost friend with her assistance.

The girl acquires a name, Eleven, from the tattoo on her arm. We learn that she has been a research subject, the prize pig, really, at the forbidden federal facility, that she has psychokinetic powers, and that she not only has the power to roam between the story’s parallel dimensions but is probably indirectly responsible for the rift between them.

Millie Bobby Brown, who is twelve years old, is astounding. Her shaved head (to facilitate the electrodes) makes her appear vulnerable and fierce by turns, and because her character has extremely limited social experience and a very small vocabulary, most of Brown’s acting is purely physical. The Duffer Brothers make intelligent use of her: For example, when she wanders into the room of another girl her age and sees all the evidence of a happy, full life therein — the pictures on the walls, the parties and friends — she looks wistful only for a second and then scowls, visibly angry at having been denied a childhood of her own and conscious of what that irrecoverable loss means.

Brown is in fact so good that she makes part of the series difficult to watch. Her story is told in flashbacks, and those flashbacks consist mainly of — not to put too fine a point on it — torture. The torture is more psychological than physical, though the line between the two is sometimes blurred (using her powers takes a serious physical toll on Eleven, and she bleeds from her nose and ears from the stress of it), and it is hard to watch a little girl being tortured.

Because the series is skillfully made, it is impossible to say whether it was designed in such a way as to intentionally highlight the differences between a 1980s childhood and a contemporary one, but if you happened to have been a child in the 1980s and to have children of your own now, you’ll find much to appreciate. Those who have followed the debate between free-range kids and helicopter parenting will watch with some wonder as our little party of adventurers ranges over the suburban Indiana landscape (which is in fact a Georgia landscape, economic realities being what they are), through wooded areas after dark, while unguarded minors chug beers and have sex and commit petty crimes on downtown streets. The story’s hero, Mike (a scrawny kid played by an actor with the preposterously macho name Finn Wolfhard), comes from the relatively prosperous and still-married Wheeler family, where Mom is very accommodating and concerned and Dad is, in the sit-com style, useless. Mike manages to keep Eleven stashed in the family home undetected by his parents, in an astonishing reminder that children were, within living memory, accorded a degree of privacy. But we are also reminded that children could walk into a sporting-goods store and buy a few boxes of ammunition.

Strange what we worry about when it comes to our children. A great deal of the culture-war politics of the 1980s consisted of theatrical wailing about threats to our children that were either entirely made up or wildly exaggerated: The boys in Stranger Things love to play Dungeons & Dragons, and, in a rare oversight, the series does not even touch on the minor cultural panic surrounding that game in places such as small-town Indiana, where D&D’s supernatural elements sparked terrified tales of occult experimentation. It’s not for nothing that this came around the same time as the Salem-style mass hysteria over “Satanic ritual abuse” at the nation’s child-care centers, with fanciful worries about Luciferian cults obscuring the more straightforward anxiety associated with abandoning one’s children to child-care facilities. Yesterday’s Satanic cultists and Alar are today’s online predators and brain-scrambling vaccinations.

The Duffer Brothers are fairly cynical about the relations between children and parents: When the missing Will is presumed dead, his oleaginous alcoholic absentee father shows up, looking for someone to sue. But given the trajectory of American parenting since then — the frequency of child abuse, in all categories, continued to increase after 1980, according to the Heritage Foundation — one wonders whether they are cynical enough.

Nostalgia remains a powerful force. Watching Stranger Things, you may remember that banana-seated Free Spirit bicycle and the adventures you had on it. But Stranger Things isn’t about nostalgia, in the end: It’s about terror, the particular terror of childhood vulnerability in homes undefended by fathers. In that sense, Stranger Things isn’t only about the Eighties.

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