Stranger Things as an Exemplar for Cyclical Fiction

Happy 4th of July, everyone! As a gift to the American public, the Duffer Brothers and Netflix have presented us with one of the best limited series on the platform so far: Stranger Things 3.

Unlike weeks past, I won’t beat around the bush. This conversation will contain MASSIVE spoilers for all of Stranger Things, especially so for the third season. If you have the time to invest, this series will not disappoint. That being said, you have been sufficiently warned, and advertised!

First, let’s start with a little bit of opinion. Personally, I think Stranger Things 3 is the best season in the franchise so far, with 1 coming in second, and 2 coming in third. The primary theme this time around is one that I quite like to explore in my fiction: change. Both ingrained in its plot, and in its subtext and preamble, ST3 deals with change in all of the following ways:

  • Who deals with change best?
  • Who is ready to accept change easily, and who struggles to find their place in it?
  • Why are some people more resistant to change than others?
  • Can forced change ever be healthy?
  • When a character sacrifices themselves, is it a refusal to change with the rest of the world, or acceptance that the world should change now that they are absent?

So, let’s look at the obvious facts. Change is most associated with bildungsroman, the classic coming-of-age story format, traditionally seen with child or teenage protagonists. Cue the alarms in your head.

Stranger Things has always been about its children. The gang of kids – which has grown in Season 3 to include Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), Will (Noah Schnapp), El (Millie Bobby Brown), and Max (Sadie Sink) – is always at the center of the action, whether they are all together or in small clumps doing separate, but related things to advance the plot.

These characters all react to change differently throughout the season, but all in very different ways. Going in order:

  • Mike longs for change more than anyone, becoming obsessed with his relationship with El, and fiercely rejected Will, who we’ll get to.
  • Lucas has seemingly gone through his change already, becoming quite confident in pivotal moments, as well as attempting to spread advice to others, primarily Mike.
  • Dustin returns from a month of summer camp to find that his friends have all moved on, and instead of changing with them, he elects to bond to another group, staying separate from the other kids after Episode 1 until Episode 7.
  • Will is held back by the supernatural events of the past two seasons, and now that he is not the center of attention, he wants to go back to the days of their childhood, urging the “over it” Mike and Lucas to play Dungeons and Dragons with him, as well as fully admitting to Mike that he truly did believe they could stay in Mike’s basement forever.
  • El, after getting together with, breaking up with, and getting together again with Mike, goes through a monumental amount of change, as she also gains confidence in the friend she’s made in Max, and has to grapple with rebelling against her surrogate-father before he tragically dies.
  • Max acts as the fire under El and Lucas, encouraging them to change periodically. This comes from her stark individualism in the wake of her living alone with her stepbrother, Billy, whom she has conflicting feelings about. Max must face her indecision about Billy’s goodness when he is able to thwart the Mind Flayer’s control over him (plot stuff), and sacrifices himself to save the town.

The kids aren’t the only ones who change, Steve (Joe Keery)’s arc in this season might actually be my favorite of them all, only rivaled with Jim Hopper (David Harbour), who faces very real depictions of single-fatherhood in a world of the vividly imagined.

But you may be asking, “Well, people change in every story. What’s the big deal?” I can’t exactly fault you for that question, as any good story needs round characters (those who change) and flat ones (those who don’t). The first thing that sets Stranger Things apart is that it doesn’t focus on the changes themselves, rather how established characters deal with said change.

Let’s take Jim Hopper, the Police Chief and biggest badass in Hawkins, Indiana. We can see Jim’s arc in the story as an attempt to become a family man, taking on strict rules with his adoptive daughter El – especially as they pertain to boyfriends and the “keep the door open three inches” rule, which nearly everyone can relate to – and his failed attempts to get with Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder), whom he admires as a mother and as a woman in general.

Hopper’s actions are consistently over-the-top this season, a change from the more laid-back persona of previous installments. He shows a growing frustration towards Mike, going so far as to threaten him into not seeing El anymore. As for Joyce, while his attempts in the past were small, limited by her relationship status or overriding concern for her son Will, Hopper now pursues her fervently, and gets quite upset when she stands him up. He even goes to the point of calling into question every other male that Joyce spends time with this season, despite recognizing that he doesn’t have ownership over her. In fact, Hopper seems to be throwing tantrums and yelling at people more often than not in this season, which can be both stressful and exciting for the viewer.

So, as a result of all of the things seemingly going wrong in his life throughout the season, Hopper is frequently a whistling kettle. His anger seems to be genuine, coming from an understandable contrast in how he wants the world around him to change in certain ways, while rejecting some of the ways in which the world responds. Hopper’s fatherhood of El exemplifies this, as he wants to change to become a true father for her, but refuses that El has the capability to change into a grown woman herself.

After he dies, sacrificing himself to save the world, Joyce eventually shares a speech he had written with El. The speech was supposed to have been read to her before, but never happened. In the section of it he wrote without Joyce, Hopper goes on to admit that he has faults, especially pertaining to how much he cares for El. Posthumously, Hopper tells his daughter to go through life feeling pain, making mistakes, and changing to become the best woman she can be. In his chilling words, “the hurt is how you know you aren’t stuck in the cave”, a cave which he admits that he is fearful of living in. It is this admission, that he has problems facing emotional pain, that lets us know what Hopper is going through in this story.

So, let’s get back to the title of this post: How is Stranger Things cyclical, and why is this a good thing? For that, we will analyze the second, more important way that it deals with change. Through the viewer.

In a world where seemingly half of the popular TV shows and movies are remakes, adaptations, or sequels, consumers are generally Nostalgic. It is a natural state of being for us, and while it is frequently criticized, this aspect is not something to be afraid of.

The Duffer Brothers, co-creators and show runners of Stranger Things, have created a world in which we may not only experience our nostalgic state, but reflect on it. The 80s are a prime candidate for this time of reflection, as the Differ Brothers themselves grew up in that decade, and the modern consumer of the Binge Series frequently did as well, or is passingly familiar with its tropes. Back to the Future, Rubik’s Cubes, and ridiculous hair, all of these are symbols of a decade we all clearly know so well. A time when, supposedly, things were so much simpler. “Goodness, if we could only go back to the 80s,” right?

We really do hear it all the time. But why? Well, I posit that it is all about change, and eventually, circles. But we’ll tackle change again first.

Using Stranger Things as an exemplar (cue the alarm), the 80s were a time of simplistic consumerism in rural America, combined with massive change. Supposedly, things are all good, man, but under the surface of the 80s, we see the middle ground of where our current population grew up – ergo, went through the highest collective amount of change.

We all look back to the days of campy horror, fun coming-of-age stories, and Back to the freaking Future, and think “Well what a swell time.” ST has always encouraged this, through its hyper-80s spectacle, enhanced with post-modern cinematography and possibility. Now, in ST3, we finally discuss something just as nostalgic, but a little less simplistic.

Unlike past seasons, where the kids’ group was just kids, and the teenagers all got together and partied, and the grownups were their own entity, Stranger Things 3 shows us a period of Hawkins where people are growing up, changing, and these lines are getting blurred. The kids are all getting boyfriends and girlfriends and moving on from Dungeons and Dragons, and Dustin doesn’t hang out with those kids anymore, instead opting for a couple of the teens. Meanwhile, all of the teens that we know and love are out of high school, and trying to make their way in the real, adult world. And the adults have it the worst, having to constantly adjust themselves in a world where their children are now making decisions, and affecting their previous superiors.

Clearly, we are presented with a sort of turmoil that is refreshing, and harshly realistic in ST3. Our characters are changing, and as they do, they cannot be so easily defined as they were before.

This reflection of how we – the viewers – have changed overtime lends itself to the core idea of this blog: we are naturally encouraged and built to love circles.

Now, stay with me for this, I know it sounds weird. When I refer to a circle, there are many aspects to which circles affect storytelling in positive ways, but here, I am not referring to the literal shape, only to the idea of circling back to things. Referencing, if you will.

If you recall my discussion of Hot Fuzz, which you may read or reread here, I established a branch of literary technique which I call The Reference. As a brief synopsis, it is a sort of combination of repetition, allusion, symbolism, and motif. There are Internal and External references, the former having to do with repeating aspects of plot points or symbols in a single work, the latter having to do with how different works reference each other, and use each other to create familiarity in viewers. There are also Anchors, which are the aspects which serve as the reference points.

So, as a result of Stranger Things 3, I would like to make an addendum to The Reference, and how we should view it going forward. Insomuch as there are two types of Reference, Internal and External, I would like to further illustrate that there are two types of External Reference, which I will dub Objective-External Reference and Personal-External Reference.

Objective Reference is what we already understand the External Reference to be. We take a plot point or other Anchor from a story which can be seen replicated in another, thereby connecting the two stories.

Personal Reference will work the same way, outside of an initial work, however instead of affecting another object or story, the Anchors in this category will be attaching themselves to traits of a viewer’s knowledge and/or experiences.

Think about how Stranger Things works in nostalgia, to gain our attention just because we were once children going through changes like the kids. In watching this story unfold, the idea of your first girlfriend / boyfriend / friend-friend becomes the Reference. Maybe you played Dungeons and Dragons in the height of the Satanic Panic, and one day you decided you were too old to play: the idea of that is now Reference. Or, your first falling out with a friend: Reference, simply because the story related itself to you.

In these cases, it is the idea behind a plot point or story moment that becomes the Anchor to a Personal Reference. The beautiful thing about this branch is that the Anchors can be as detailed or nonspecific as you want. Because the individual viewer is the one making the Reference and finding the Anchor, you get to choose at what intensity you want it to affect you.

The Personal Reference can also be seen as the catalyst for a trait we talked about last week. If you remember the post on the American Novel (which may or may not be up yet, oops), you will remember that we discussed how some of the most famous novels we study in school are simplistic plots on historical backdrops that we are familiar with, or can learn more about. So, take To Kill a Mockingbird. How the novel deals with post-Civil War consequence may act as the Anchor to a Reference regarding what we already know about the era. Because we are all aware of the tragedies and pitfalls of justice systems in the south during the era, reading TKaM today can either reaffirm what we knew, or change our minds on the subject’s complexity. This is due to The Personal Reference.

So, if we see The Reference in all of its forms as creating a bunch of little connections in our minds from a story to itself, to another story, or to ourselves, we can recognize its potential for creating a fully-realized web of understanding and knowledge. Like a private eye who has been on the case of a murderer for decades, coming up with countless connections and ideas that reflect on others, our mental cork board becomes so convoluted overtime that we can’t help but relate things to other things, no matter how different they may seem.

If you know me personally, which you probably do, you know I think this is a good thing. An incredible thing. I think we, as humans, are naturally mired in community, and in making connections. I believe that our knowledge-acquisition systems are tailor-made for us to make connections. And why do I believe that?

Well, to put it simply, I am a philosopher, so naturally, I have vested interest in absolute, objective truths. While I often contemplate whether objective truth is possible, it is always without doubt in my own mind that in order to find the closest things to objective truths, we must know as much as we can. How better to get that knowledge than with a sturdy net?

And like I said, I believe that all people are like this. Connections make sense. If we know what happened to one thing, and see the signs of it somewhere else, we can make predictions. In uncertain worlds, predictions are what keep us alive.

So, bringing it back to Stranger Things one last time, I posit that the story’s brilliance comes in the form of its intense involvement in every form of The Reference. Also, the final fight in Starcourt with the Mind Flayer is f***ing awesome. (This little D&D nerd is very happy with this pop culture illithid.)

But that’s all for today. I have more thoughts on other Binge Series which come along similar lines to these in regards to cyclical story structure, which I may or may not post online somewhere before my paper. I’ll keep you posted on that! (pun so much intended, I always intend my puns don’t @ me)

Next week, we’ll be discussing Modern Musicals! What has Broadway presented us with in the past five or ten years, and is the Broadway crowd changing forever? I’ll be finding out first hand, when I go to see my first ever on-Broadway musical! I would suggest listening to the soundtracks for Hamilton, Dear Evan Hansen, The Book of Mormon, and Waitress if you can find time.

Until then, happy watching and listening! And remember: every ending is open to discussion.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *