I’d have to say that my favorite single character scene in the series involves the boy’s science teacher, Mr. Clarke. As boys are bombarding him with questions concerning parallel universes (it all makes sense in the end), they throw out an obscure Dungeons & Dragons reference and he knows exactly what they’re talking about. It’s little moments like this one where Stranger Things feels authentic — where the nerdy references and pop culture homages become more than the sum of their parts because of the delightful, sympathetic characters making them.
Jason Morehead nails the appeal of Stranger Things pretty generally in his review, but that paragraph clinches it. If you haven’t already binged on it, Netflix’s latest nerd-friendly show is possibly the best Stephen King adaptation never made. Without spoiling anything, it’s about a kid vanishing under mysterious circumstances and the encounters those searching for him have with weird things involved in his disappearance. Beyond the main title font and a few explicit nods to King’s work (like the guard reading Cujo in the morgue), Matt and Ross Duffer’s story takes advantage of the Netflix format to indulge a sprawling story peopled with a fairly large cast of small-town characters. Like Derry, ME, Hawkins, IN, is a fully-realized community. Unless you’re talking about Tolkein or perhaps Austin T. Wright, fiction is rarely able to give you a firm sense of topography; texture comes primarily through characterization or other tools of world-building: the accumulation of details often overlooked in real life, but which make all the difference in grounding audiences in other worlds. Detail is especially key to historical fiction, and critics have already spilled plenty of ink (physical and digital) over Stranger Things’s recreation of the early 1980s. But it’s really the characters that make it feel real, because they arise from real historical possibility, as Georg Lukacs might have put it.
While I’m not Stephen King’s biggest fan (to put it mildly), the standout trait of all his work that I’ve read is the amount of time he lavishes on his characters. His worlds feel real because of the often complicated (or overwrought; perhaps overdetermined or unnecessary) networks of characters that comprise his stories. King’s work often doesn’t focus on a single central protagonist. His heroes are often groups: motley assemblages of stereotypes tweaked by his eye for psychological detail into three-dimensionality. Obviously, this is not always the case, but even in stories focusing on a scant few individuals, they are always rooted in relationships with others, perhaps even people you never meet within the pages of the story proper. This is King’s greatest asset as a storyteller, even as his predilection for overstuffing his stories with subplots—sometimes stemming from an overabundance of characters—is also one of his greatest weaknesses.
At a relatively trim eight episodes, Stranger Things doesn’t tend to fall prey to King’s excesses in this regard. Joyce’s relationship with her no-good ex, Lonnie, for instance, might seem to go nowhere. He’s not a fully-realized character by any stretch, but the framework is there for him to become one. More importantly, Joyce’s hysterical personality comes into focus a bit when you finally meet him. A lot of folks haven’t dug Winona Ryder’s performance; I did. You get the distinct impression, seeing how Lonnie interacts with Joyce and Jonathan, that this guy is a master of playing his loved ones’ insecurities off each other. It’s easy to see how Joyce might have been “high strung” in her youth and how Lonnie pushed her relentlessly into something short of a basket case. Then, of course, there’s Barb, bookish and loyal to a fault. Her relationship to Nancy makes total sense, as does Nancy’s increasingly thoughtless behavior toward her friend. To put it bluntly, supporting characters are props. They need to be plausible; they need to have some dimension. But they are, in some ways, terrain, and the protagonists are the ones who traverse it. The role of the terrain is to give better shape, definition, and psychological dimension to the heroes; in turn, if the protagonists are well-crafted, the terrain itself becomes more real, better-defined. A world apart. We love supporting characters like we love gravity and breathable air. They’re necessary for life.
Which brings me back to Mr. Clarke. He’s pretty much the greatest teacher ever. He’s also very much of his time and place. Lots of middle school teachers, I’m sure, go above and beyond to help their students. But in 2016, teachers have to wary of boundaries. Mr. Clarke is both teacher and buddy (sort of) to the boys in Stranger Things. He’s a mentor in an era when institutional structures didn’t make the kind of relationship he has with the boys totally weird. One of the other great scenes in the film is when the boys phone him at home while he’s on a date with questions on how to build a sensory-deprivation tank. Randall P. Havens is pretty great throughout, but if the scene where he explains string theory with D&D references is the most charming, this one offers the greatest insight into how far away 1983 really is. Not only do the boys interrupt his date by calling him at home on the weekend, but Havens plays Mr. Clarke as savvy enough to know that the boys are Up To Something, yet, because they’re so invested in scientific geekery, he can’t help but give them the information they need to really get in trouble. In 2016, when your adolescent students call you at home to ask you how to build a DIY sensory-deprivation tank, you hang up and send an email to someone in the administration. In Stranger Things, Mr. Clarke’s bond with and trust in his students is what helps them save their friend.
He’s a minor character, of course. Someone that my friend, Scott, calls “Mr. Plot,” a supporting cast member whose main function is to deliver exposition. Yet he feels real because his function in the story makes the main characters more grounded. He adds to the world. Another great minor character is Chris Sullivan’s short order cook. Because Stranger Things sets up a world in which a sprawling cast of characters can be supported, his scenes early in the series with Millie Bobby Brown are both tense and heartfelt, suggesting layers in his own personality and the potential of their own developing relationship. He functions mainly to give you a sense of the kind of town Hawkins is and the stakes of Eleven’s plight, but Stranger Things can spend time on his scenes with Eleven that a feature film would condense quite a bit more.
Netflix originals have been criticized in the past for not really understanding how to make the most of their medium. Jessica Jones, for instance, was critiqued for its pacing, as have other Netflix series. Making shows for a binging audience is a new thing. It’ll take time to crack that code on a consistent basis. I think the Duffers have taken us a good deal further toward that goal. Whereas time spent on supporting characters in a superhero show might feel like “filler” (though I’m not sure I totally agree with that assessment), for a show like Stranger Things, the little scenes spent with tertiary characters are utterly necessary to the show’s raison d’être. This is world-building, not padding. Even if those scenes don’t have a payoff in terms of plot mechanics, I can’t think of a scene from Stranger Things, off the top of my head, that isn’t in some way necessary to capturing the messy, sprawling reality of interpersonal relationships in a small town. Sometimes resolution is itself a bit of a cheat. Unlike a lot of the adaptations of Stephen King’s actual work, few of the “dead end” subplots in Stranger Things subtract from the overall experience. If there is to be a second season set in Hawkins, these things are utterly necessary for establishing a solid foundation for future chapters. Even if the first season of Stranger Things were to stand alone (and I think it certainly does), there’s almost nothing about it that feels totally wasted—if you consider replicating King’s dense texturing of community to be a paramount aesthetic goal.
Especially when you consider how important redemption is to the thematic arcs of so many characters, this becomes more important. It’s often easy to think of personal redemption in terms of individual achievement. Even when presented as something sought within a particular context, or something achieved with the help of others, stories of redemption often have a very individualist ethos to them. King’s stories often emphasize that doing the right thing is made more challenging by those in your own corner; those you love and rely on don’t make your life easier. They’re not supposed to, even when you’re doing all in your power to save yourself and them. Adversity creates fault lines as often as it cleaves people more strongly together, and even as a series like Stranger Things builds toward the main characters finally (finally!) pooling their knowledge and resources, it has to set the stage for fallout. No good deed goes unpunished, as they say, and no action provokes anything less than an equal and opposite reaction. You don’t just get scars from fighting monsters; you get them from friends and family, too. The best of us impose our flaws on the undeserving. That’s human nature. Without a capacious cast of characters and the little moments of grace and light that comes with them—like the boys’ interactions with Mr. Clarke—the dark lattice of shadows all people cast would not stand out so starkly in relief. Like all good tales of terror, Stranger Things knows that we are all made of light and shadow. Meaningful sacrifices aren’t made for one person, but for a world. Without a world of people—all fallen, all too human—you’ve come to know and care about, what difference would even one sacrifice make?☕